Byron Davies is a Welsh Conservative Assembly Member for South Wales West, and the Shadow Minister for Transport, Regeneration and European Affairs. Follow Byron on Twitter.
The state of the Welsh high street is a useful barometer in assessing the health of the Welsh economy. Unfortunately, this test rings true as the woes of the high street reflect the structural challenges facing our economy.
In Wales the shop vacancy rate is 4% higher than the UK average, while footfall in our town centres has fallen by a fifth in the past five years. The most recent figures for business births show Wales has the second lowest rate of all the UK nations and regions. Vacant and dilapidated shop fronts are becoming an increasingly common sight blighting our high streets, which can deter shoppers and even attract low-level crime.
Our high streets have been in gradual decline for over a decade, arguably due to the rise of internet shopping and the development of out-of-town shopping centres. Yet, even in these days of eBay, Amazon and supermarkets the size of department stores, there is a promising and viable future for the high street. The truth is that our high streets have been neglected for too long by lazy Labour. Welsh Conservatives want to see a return to bustling high streets full of thriving small local businesses, but to achieve this we need effective management, strategy and direction from the Welsh Government.
Welsh Conservatives would launch a consultation on business rates with a view to creating a level playing field for small businesses. Right now, Wales has the lowest business rates in the UK for large supermarkets (those with a rateable value of millions of pounds), yet our business rates for small businesses (rateable values of £12,000 or less) are the highest in the UK. So business rates set by the Welsh Government are more competitive for massive out of town warehouses than small independent run businesses, which are the lifeblood of the Welsh economy and represent the majority of all private sector activity. Of course larger stores have an important role to play in our retail industry and are responsible for thousands of jobs, but every business has to start somewhere. It seems anti-entrepreneurial to have such draconian business rates for small businesses.
We would develop a High Street Charter, which would set out clear principles to support the involvement of community groups, businesses and local authorities in regenerating the high street. This would encompass effective engagement with the wider community, promote greater accessibility, respect sustainability and harness the potential of the internet in shopping habits.
Creating a level playing field for small businesses on the high street also means improving accessibility so it is as easy to visit the high street as a large out of town centre with a large free car park. While we all want to reduce dependence on the car and promote sustainable transport, it is an undeniable fact that free, close and plentiful parking is a major advantage to any consumer venue, particularly for older people or those with young children. Free parking, park and ride schemes and improved public transport could all contribute to making the local high street a more viable and enjoyable destination. The Welsh Government should be working closely with local authorities to promote the economic dividend that can be reaped by investing in free parking trials. It can drive up the number of shoppers and visitors to the local area, who would be likely to spend more time and more money in the local economy.
Local authorities have a key role to play in providing strategic direction to advance the regeneration of high streets in their community. 14 of the 22 local authorities in Wales already provide town centre managers to act as a point of contact and help organise marketing and branding to help the high street compete. They could also support the development of a night time strategy to ensure that the high street remains a vibrant and safe place during the evening, particularly with the development of a café culture.
Years of neglect, a tough economic climate and a lack of will from a lazy Labour Welsh Government has sent our high streets on a spiral of decline. Despite the gloom, our high streets have so much potential to deliver jobs, prosperity as well as safe and vibrant centres of community activity. We need a clear joined-up strategy to support the high street, which engages with businesses, local authorities and communities themselves, but which needs ambition, action and achievement from the Welsh Government.
With a level playing field, incentives to start up small businesses, effective management and strategic direction and co-operation at all levels, the Welsh high street can once again thrive and be a bustling economy for the 21st century shopper.