Matt Kilcoyne is Head Of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute.
Westminster is obsessed with the High Street. For many, they’re the embodiment of the soul of the community. Their faded glory, following the rise of out-of-town complexes and now online shopping, strikes a symbolic blow to their local community.
While it would be neither possible nor desirable to shut down the supermarkets or close off the internet, we can do something to return life to where we live.
Little-known red tape contained in the National Planning Policy Framework has prevented high streets, and retail more broadly, from adapting to the modern age. To fix the problem of shop closures and loss of community life in our town centres, we need to totally rethink town planning.
For years in my hometown of Wrexham – which thanks to the newly elected Sarah Atherton is a proud Conservative seat now – I would wander down the high street, witnessing shops shutting down. I watched as people no longer make the drive into town, and instead just nip into the supermarket complexes on the outskirts.
The Council acted as if they could create an atmosphere with public art and pot plants, but in reality there just weren’t the people there to sustain the shops down the old shopping streets. Truth is, the town centre just isn’t where people work anymore, and it’s been decades since they lived there.
Governments of all stripes have failed to grasp the problem. Think about heading to the high street for your average Brit: driving through traffic, finding a place to park, walking to the shop, looking for what you want, dealing with other customers and the weather, and sometimes getting cash out because they don’t accept card.
If you’re buying online, you don’t have to do any of those. It’s often cheaper too because of the economies of scale offered by online services, the lack of rent they have to pay without physical stores, and the fact they don’t have to send goods back and forth to their shops before getting them to you.
Time after time, politicians of all stripes at all levels have thrown good money after bad at pet projects at local levels promising to boost footfall. This has been coupled with renewed demands for business rate reform, which would largely benefit landlords rather than retailers. There have also been calls to tax online businesses, forgetting that this is just increasing people’s cost of living.
Central government demands grand plans from the local level that have to last decades. While companies and shops react in real time to millions of purchases by customers, councils react to diktat from above and electoral cycles that don’t easily match up. Plans are based on evidence gathered around a year or two before publication, and local authorities are in constant political flux with a third of the council being reelected on three out of every four years.
A ten-year plan is liable to be at odds with the policy direction of a new administration within a year or two of its adoption, or sometimes even before its adoption. That’s before you even think about the impact of national elections – and you have to, because we have a one-size-fits-all national planning framework that actually ends up suiting next to no-one.
A lack of central control can actually be a good thing when it comes to local planning. I know, that seems utterly counter-intuitive and I know it’ll irk a few councillor readers – but I’m sorry, it is true and we’ve done the research.
The Adam Smith Institute’s latest paper, ‘High Street Heist’, authored by town planner Thomas Walker, looks at best practice at home and abroad. In the UK, Walker analyses high street planning in Milton Keynes, Stone, and Aylesbury. All three are Conservative seats but only one, Aylesbury, has got it right. To keep the other two long-term, Tories will need to learn the lessons from the latter.
Aylesbury has been creative with the definition of a town centre after its local plan for 2013-2033 was rejected in 2014 (it remains un-adopted).
What has followed is the adoption of a strategy to maximise the space available for commercial development. Shops are allowed throughout the town, rather than being arbitrarily restricted to a single high street. It has also meant that shops, cafes, recreational spaces, and community hubs can all set up around houses as they spring up, so organic communities are again being created where people live and work. Retail is supported not through subsidy, but because it’s what consumers want and where they want it.
Make it easier to have people living above and on our streets, to change commercial buildings to office space and back again too, and we’ll have a vibrant economy that meets the demands we place on it as consumers and citizens.
If this model was rolled out across the country we could break the yolk of big landlords and make ourselves a nation of cafe owners and shopkeepers, running businesses that people actually want to visit.
“Whose streets?”, the socialists ask on their unending marches. “Our streets” should be the reply. Owned by the many millions of us. Vibrant and alive, rather than left to decay. It’s time to remove the red tape that’s strangling Britain’s high streets and hand them back to this nation of shopkeepers.