Just after the General Election, a member of Boris Johnson’s team was quoted in The Sun setting the following challenge:
“If Darlington high street isn’t visibly better in four years’ time, we’ll be in trouble.”
It is an important test. A report from the Royal Society for Public Health went so far as to suggest that if the high street dies then the local inhabitants do too – life expectancy being two and half years lower:
“Its architecture and design affects how we use our high streets, whether they are places we enjoy being or areas we avoid; whether they foster community and social interactions or encourage us to walk away quickly, eyes down until we reach our destination. Levels of traffic, how accessible it is for pedestrians and how safe we feel, determine whether we choose to visit our high street or prefer to sit at home making purchases over the internet instead.”
Unfortunately, the high street challenge will be a tricky one to meet. That is because, as Margaret Thatcher famously reminded Nigel Lawson in a different context:
“You can’t buck the market.”
A year ago I wrote that we had twice as many shops as we needed. It is no surprise that since then the trend has continued. The vacancy rate for shops is up. Footfall is down. Online spending continues to grow.
The decline is not evenly spread. High Streets in Darlington and Sunderland are struggling far more than those in York or Harrogate. It follows that for the high street to flourish the rest of the town needs to be doing well. The suggestion that HS2 might be ditched would allow substantial funding for smaller alternative projects. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, has backed reversing the Beeching axe, in places where this would be viable. We also learn today that “towns across England will be able to compete in a new Town of the Year competition.” It will “celebrate towns’ achievements, including in areas such as entrepreneurship, technology, community, enterprise, and integration.”
Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary will visit all of the 100 areas receiving funding under the £3.6 billion Towns Fund to set out the government’s ambition “to restore the fabric of our towns and cities and give local people far more control in how they are invested in.”
Jake Berry, Northern Powerhouse Minister, promises:
“Our plan to unleash the North’s potential will deliver real, visible change in local communities.”
Even to halt, let alone reverse, the decline will sound to many an impossible ambition. We have already had various initiatives which have failed to do the trick. Some may question why the attempt is even made. What business is it of politicians to tells us how we should do our shopping? Or complain if we wish to switch from drinking beer in pubs to drinking wine at home?
Apart from the obvious electoral calculation, there are two reasons why the battle is worth fighting. First of all, there are social as well as economic considerations. Walking past boarded up shops is depressing. Secondly, there are some forms of state intervention which are currently distorting the market in a way that makes matters worse.
Business Rates is an obvious one. The Conservative Manifesto said:
“We will cut the burden of tax on business by reducing business rates. This will be done via a fundamental review of the system. As a first step, we will further reduce business rates for retail businesses, as well as extending the discount to grassroots music venues, small cinemas and pubs. That means protecting your high street and community from excessive tax hikes and keeping town centres vibrant.”
That is welcome so far as it goes. But how much will Business Rates be cut? So far we have Small Business Rate Relief, worth £1.2 billion, which is cutting bills by half. A sensible start would be to make it 100 per cent. It should also be applied for all small premises – including those that are part of chains. Brexit will mean that the restrictions on state aid would not apply. That means that if the Government wanted to adjust the tax system to help the high street, the scope to do so will be there.
The other key change would be to have greater flexibility in the planning system. We have too many shops and a housing shortage. Thus people walk along a decayed high street to their overcrowded home. It should be much easier to obtain a change of use to turn shops into homes.
It’s not all gloom. Aristotle spotted that “man is by nature a social animal.” There are 25,000 coffee shops in the country – twice as many as a decade ago. So our high streets do still serve an important need. The Government should seek ways to help them that work with the grain of human nature.