Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
“Our local and national politicians need to be radical, ambitious, and embrace change,” says Luke Morris, Corporate Finance Partner at Scrutton Bland, one of the Eastern Region’s leading financial services firms. He is also proud to serve as Chairman of the Ipswich & Suffolk Business Club, “which provides a platform for exchanging ideas with key UK leaders and opinion formers in business and Government. Our members meet successful leaders at the forefront of their industries.”
During our debate about the High Street and how to revive it, he frequently quotes ‘radical and bold’ in relation to grasping opportunities, whilst suggesting that Government “backs off and not dictate policy”. He says. “The archaic system of business rates is an example of how Government tries to direct economic life, when solutions have to be targeted at their communities. Throughout history, industries and societies evolve, adapting to changing demand:
”Political leaders have to recognise and support evolution, which is exciting, adding a buzz to our towns and cities, rather than imposing their own policies and outdated legislation, which can be a stranglehold on the correct, tailored, development.”
He advocates, for example, rate free areas, and more flexible planning strategies, allowing complementary, non-retail, businesses, alongside more housing, in struggling High Streets. “Retail is a brutal business, with, as we’re seeing from the demise of some retail dinosaurs, survival of the fittest. Encouraging independent retailers, and entrepreneurs, brings creativity, in the knowledge that customers are discerning in their decision-making before parting with hard earned money.
Reminding us that five million SMEs (Small & Medium sized Enterprises) account for 99 per cent of UK businesses, and two-thirds of employment, he notes:
“They are the backbone of our economy, living and dying by levels of profit and loss! This focuses the mind.
“They don’t have the time, or money, to indulge in changing their operational systems to comply with new diktats from officials. Government and local authorities need to listen to business, to understand the potential impact, before imposing new policies.”
Successful High Streets rely on prioritising safety, cheap parking, clean public lavatories with baby-changing facilities, alongside a range of cafes and a mix of chain and independent stores. Organising seasonal activities can also be a winner. Together with his young family, Morris was a regular visitor to the temporary sand pit with deck chairs and play area in the heart of Bury St. Edmunds shopping centre this summer. “It attracted visitors from miles around, including tourists, benefiting the local economy, encouraging repeat business in the months and years to come as more people discover what else the town has to offer.”
Its success confirms the relevance of an eminent recent Business Club speaker’s advice. Lord Rose, a retired Executive Chairman of M&S, and Suffolk resident, “emphasised the importance of making places welcoming, giving people a good experience. It’s in our DNA to want to get together and trade, meeting friends and family in an appealing location, to visit a market, see a show, or gossip over a good cup of coffee or a meal. High Streets need to be destinations, not just about shopping.”
Local authorities should be more visionary and adventurous. Instead of pouring millions of borrowed pounds into commercial properties in remote towns and cities, building up frightening levels of debt to penalise the local taxpayer, they should use funds to invest in maximising the potential on their doorstep, including their cultural assets as an added draw.
Even in those locations which have survived retail decline, this is no time for complacency; eventually improvements will be needed to make a positive impact as the economic climate adapts, and this includes the environment: cleaner streets and more trees, as well as public seating areas (if well maintained and not abused).
There are other lessons to be learnt from the Continent, Morris says, “I recently noted an interesting Linkedin post entitled, ‘why are there no vacant shops in Berlin?’ ”
- It has virtually zero business rates for retail occupiers;
- There is no security of tenure, so when you’re out, you’re out;
- More small private ownership means individuality, with steady income more important than creating irrelevant big boom/bust developments;
- Germany has about 30 million sq.ft. less shopping centre space than the UK, and a fraction of the UK’s retail parks, keeping High Streets strong;
- There is significantly less E-commerce dependency (at present).
Mr. Morris is clear that, in the UK, a business rate review won’t fix everything, but, he quotes Adam Smith, “capital and labour flow into their most advantageous uses, and the state is spared any need to supervise and direct economic life”.
The problem, he asserts again, “is interference, and analogue interference in a digital age at that! How bold it would be not to reform the archaic business rates, but to throw them out and try something else completely, particularly for independent retailers and ‘pop-up’ shops? Just imagine how transformative it would be to have a vibrant network of varied shops if only Government did less, not more, and concentrated its energies on revolutionising public services, instead of on the private sector.”
With nearly 1,800 shops closing in the last year, we can’t reverse the trend towards more on-line trading, because it is easy and convenient, but we can, and should, embrace the change, by refocusing on what today’s customers want: somewhere to chill out and be tempted by something different – and enjoyable – as well as the best value for money deal. Don’t forget high standards of customer service: a welcoming smile is always appreciated and an offer of assistance.