John Macdonald is the Head of Government Affairs at the Adam Smith Institute.
Robert Jenrick is right. We should not give up on the high street. But when formerly hegemonic brands like Arcadia, Debenhams, and Topshop are collapsing, it is clear that the vision of it as an expanding retail hub is no longer viable. Even before the pandemic, high streets were in decline, with falling rents and in many cases, excessive retail capacity. The trend towards online sales and automated delivery has whittled away its appeal. This is likely to accelerate given the entire population of the UK has had to shift shopping habits further online.
We should be under no illusions as to the scale of the crisis at the heart of our towns. Another 18,000 high street units could be left vacant this year, nearly double last year’s figures. These are not likely to improve in the very near term, particularly as Government support schemes start winding down around March. It is in times like these that the impulse to do something, to make a grand intervention becomes strong. After all, the high street is part of Britain’s identity, and the Conservatives will not want to be seen letting it fall to ruin.
In the short term, relaxing rules around opening hours will be a welcome reprieve in inhospitable trading conditions. But a barrage of big interventions would be misjudged. As Jenrick says, the rules, for as long as they have existed, have become more complex, more burdensome, costly and complicated. They have held back high streets, forcing them to conform to the misguided idea that they can only exist as yesterday’s retail and entertainment destined to compete against the rapid rise of today’s online sales and streaming services. If the high street is to survive, it must be free to remould itself around our changing needs and wants.
Unfortunately, the National Planning Policy Framework, in its current form, stands in the way. In effect, its guidance encourages local plans to restrict ‘town centre uses’, to make them more competitive by preventing retail development outside the ‘primary shopping area’ of the high street. While retail still has its place, it cannot alone provide a strong offering to residents and visitors. Trying to maintain its presence on the high street through artificial advantage is clearly no longer viable; the collapse of Debenham’s alone will leave behind an empty 14 million square feet on the high street.
Rather than allowing town centres to become mausoleums of empty retail units, Permitted Development Rights should be extended, facilitating the rapid repurposing of commercial into residential real estate. Where this occurs, councils should be allowed to continue to charge business rates to prevent significant revenue losses, although there is certainly a case for lowering them once relief ends next year.
Coupled with fast tracking this, the removal of the requirement to designate primary shopping areas must be removed to allow mixed-use development. This would entail the end of Article 4 Directions, which in principle are for protecting the character of an area, but in practice have often been used (particularly in London boroughs) to strangle development. High streets will be free to develop in the way they need to remain viable. This could also have the added benefit of increasing safety and security in town centres. Given that retail dominated spaces are inactive at night, they can become hotspots for crime. With a greater residential presence comes more natural surveillance and a reduction in crime. The future of town centres could be a return to being lived-in spaces.
To conservatives, I understand altering the rules underpinning the fabric of a beloved part of our culture is bound to raise a few hairs. But it needn’t be that way. With the implementation of a design code, and the replacement of Article 4 Directions with simple, broad minimal requirements for external facade, noise and parking. This is also not to say the high street must completely and utterly transform itself to survive. For example, waiving the licence fee for a new pub that sets up on the site of a previous licence holding establishment could help preserve that vital staple.
Setting up a battle between the great British high street and large, multinational corporations could be politically expedient for the Tories, but it would miss the point. There is no need for a grand narrative of a struggle between the warm and familiar against the cold and new. As sentimental as we might be about the high street, trying to cling on to it with intervention and regulation will only see it slip further away. Liberalising laws, simplifying regulations, and removing outdated restrictions, will retain the essence of the high street while freeing it from the shackles of a bygone era. If this means a smaller retail presence and more residential space, so be it.