Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.
Across the length and breadth of Britain, the high street is changing and in many places the familiar sight of retailers like BHS are no more. This is one of the most visible and emotive examples of our changing economy. Even if people don’t see it, they at least read about it.
The truth of the matter is that the high street is changing because the public and their buying habits are changing. As sure as night follows day, innovation, new technologies and new more competitive businesses will emerge to take the mantel once held by another. That is not to say there is nothing that can be done, but big state intervention will not fix the problem. Only a free market solution can work and only a workable solution can yield any electoral rewards for the Conservatives.
Making workable policy is hard enough when both politicians and members of the public hold conflicting views within themselves.
People want Amazon to pay its ‘fair share’ of tax, but they don’t want the cost of online shopping to increase. People want to buy cheap goods online and at out of town retail parks, but they don’t want their local shops to close. Local councils want to get the maximum revenue from business rates, but they don’t want to hamper high street survival.
In each of these cases something has to give, and that means biting the bullet and making some unpopular decisions. An anti-market solution, such as an ‘Amazon Tax’, is an easy superficial choice but it won’t save the high street. Amazon won’t feel the pinch, its poorest consumers will. Subsidies for failing shops would be equally problematic, postponing failure rather than tackling the issue head on.
In the same way the politicians have to act if they want the high street to survive outside of our biggest cities, consumers have a choice to make too. If we want shops on our high street then we have to use them. But likewise, our high streets need to innovate and become attractive places to shop too. It’s hypocritical to lament the death of the high street while conveniently blaming Amazon, but still buy online.
As Conservatives it’s not our job to manage decline, that’s the Labour Party’s speciality. Nor is it our way to be nostalgic about a 1990s shopping experience that could be so much better.
The first and most obvious remedy is to make business rates fair. As business evolves and becomes more global, government’s relationship with business needs to change too. Companies pay far higher rates for retail premises than for warehouses, which effectively means the current rates system is putting shops at a disadvantage compared to online sellers. Yes, the Treasury and in some cases councils would lose out on revenue, but if rates damage stores to the point of closure they would also miss out on Corporation Tax, Income Tax, National Insurance, VAT and the benefit of those shops’ employees being active consumers.
Trying to reinvigorate our high streets without business rates reform would almost certainly hamper any other efforts to help them, but it’s far from the only measure needed. The Government, local authorities and business groups need to look at the towns and cities bucking the trend.
In the Tees Valley, Stockton’s high street is a great example of how towns in the North regions can turn their fortunes around. In 2016 it was named the ‘Rising Star’ of the Great British High Street of the Year Awards, and in 2017 is saw more shops open than close. While it does have its fair share of challenges, initiatives like free or discounted parking and a town centre beach have proved popular.
Likewise in the thriving market town of Yarm, you’ll be spoilt for choice with a wide selection of hostelries and independent retailers. There’s a reason the town has been endearingly dubbed the ‘Riviera of the North’, and it isn’t because of punitive parking charges, betting shops and takeaways.
From small market towns, to big industrial ones and even our cities, those that recognise that retail is more about added value and customer experience than shifting goods have better fortunes than places that just plod on.
Instead of trying to turn back the clock, our high streets – as well as Conservatives in government – should embrace change, instead of pandering to the high tax, anti-choice brigade who take us further away from our core values that for decades have provided jobs and prosperity for the people of Britain. As a start, Government could signal its support for good, common sense Conservative thinking by making rates a level playing field.