Timpson is a retail chain with over 2,000 shops. Therefore Sir John Timpson, the firm’s Chairman, was a good choice by the Government to investigate the challenges facing our high streets. The Town Centres Expert Panel, led by Sir John, has published its report and recommendations. The Government had already agreed to spend £675 million on a Future High Streets Fund and Town Centre Taskforce.
The panel can have any amount of expertise. But it does not consist of magicians. Sir John acknowledges the realities:
“Across the country, we have seen the changes facing our high streets and town centres due to the changing nature of retail. Town centres are evolving and retail will not return to the high streets that existed 10 or 20 years ago. A combination of internet shopping, the convenience of out of town retailing and an exceptional number of well-established retail formats reaching the end of their commercial life cycle, has led to a marked increase in empty shops and a decline in footfall.”
Sir John told the BBC that we have “about twice as many shops as we need.” Furthermore, demand is still falling. The only shred of encouragement from the Springboard reports is that the rate at which it is falling might have slowed. Rather than footfall being down three per cent a quarter, it’s now declining by 1.5 per cent a quarter. But if the shopkeepers are already struggling to make a profit then it is not much encouragement to say that their number of customers is going down by six per cent a year, rather than 12 per cent.
But before we all get too gloomy there is a most welcome opportunity in us having too many shops. Turn some of the shops into homes. Even the experts have spotted it:
“We have more shops than we need and are short of housing in many parts of the country. It seems to us obvious that part of the retail estate should be converted into residential property where there is housing shortage.”
A huge barrier to achieving this is the planning process. Increasing the housing supply is not just about new buildings. Change of use to housing should be actively encouraged, rather than prohibited. The Government is consulting on making some changes. The report makes the following mild comments:
“Planning provides key tools to enable local communities to shape and deliver their high streets agenda which when used wisely can bring great benefit. The Task Force should encourage action that can make planning decisions simpler, quicker and more aligned to local strategies. We welcome the announcements at Budget of two consultations in respect of planning for town centres. However, we think there is more to do which is why we recommend that the Task Force plays a role in boosting local authority capacity to enable planning to support local areas and stakeholders to design effective and innovative high street and town centre strategies.”
Making it easier to have flats above shops – which I wrote about a year ago – would also help.
So far as the Future High Streets Fund is concerned, the report calls for a “localist” approach to how it is spent:
“There should not be a ‘one size fits all’ list of characteristics in places to fund, as each town has an individual requirement. The types of things that the fund should fund encompasses a number of factors. These could include helping places to improve space management and transport links. Adapting for the future also includes engaging with communities and giving local people, groups and businesses the agency to play an active role in shaping their local places. This can help ensure proposals meet their future needs and changing uses to ensure appropriate local balances between different uses to meet these needs.”
It also adds that the ability to attract co-funding from commercial sources would be a good indicator that value for money has been achieved.
Parking is one routine difficulty for many customers. Perhaps some of the funds could go on reviewing such arrangements – to see if restrictions could be eased and additional parking spaces be provided.
My hunch is that if the Government has a spare £675 million sloshing around, it should be used to cut Business Rates on small shops, cafes and pubs.
With regard to empty shops it says:
“Empty shops can be depressing eyesores that drag down shopping areas. It can be hard for local stakeholders to know who owns these properties, and we would like to see further detail on the announcement at Budget 2018 to pilot a register of empty properties in selected local authorities. Local authorities should use their initiative to encourage landlords and tenants to think innovatively about how to use empty properties. If a deal can’t be struck at the market rent, special terms should be offered to community businesses or other traders with social purpose. The announcement to pilot an “Open Doors” brokerage approach matching landlords of empty properties with community groups looking for space was welcome, and we would like to see this go further across the country and sustained over time. The Task Force could disseminate best practice and learning from the pilot.”
That is reasonable so far as it goes. There will be practical reasons why residential use will not always be viable however much the planning rules are liberalised. But, of course, the real answer is for the market to function properly.
Christmas Eve is a wonderful time for the high street. It’s much too late to rely on the internet for all those last minute presents. Yet during the rest of the year the tills are falling silent for much of the time. Sir John, and his fellow experts, have been honest about the astonishing scale of the mismatch in how our buildings are being used. However, I fear they have been too diplomatic in challenging the Government to make a bold response on an equivalent scale.