13 Dec 2011

Can markets save Britain’s high streets?

With a huge increase in empty high street shops, retail expert Mary Portas has produced a government-backed review into how get town centres thriving again.

TV shopping expert Mary Portas has unveiled proposals to revitalise Britain’s dying high streets, after she was asked by the government to look at how to stem the tide of shop closures.

Ms Portas, presenter of the BBC’s Mary Queen of Shops, says regulations on high street trading should be lifted, including restrictions on night-time deliveries that are in place to minimise noise disruption.

She decided against backing a moratorium on out-of-town retail developments, even though local shop campaigners believe they are a huge threat to town centre shops and markets.

The review was ordered in May, when the prime minister cited a doubling in town centre shop vacancies as a major problem.

The recommendations include –

– Setting up new “town teams” to manage high streets at local level
– Encouraging new street markets
– Making room for more affordable town centre parking
– Giving local communities the opportunity to use empty high street spaces in innovative ways
– A national market day

Launching the review, Mary Portas said: “Our high streets are a really important part of pulling people together in a way that a supermarket or shopping mall, however convenient, however entertaining and however slick, just never can.

“Our high streets can be a lively, dynamic, exciting and social places that give a sense of belonging and trust to a community. Those who see high streets purely in commercial terms need a reality check, because, without the engagement and collaboration of local people many high streets will die and retailers, landlords and local authorities alike will see their investment wasted.”

Internet shopping – the big challenge?

The report is published with new research showing that one-third of high streets are degenerating. By 2014 less than 40 per cent of retail spending will be on the high street and that over the last decade out of town retail floorspace has risen by 30 per cent while in town has shrunk by 14 per cent.

One factor that is reducing high street spending is the move to shopping online. The latest Office of National Statistics figures show a rise in internet sales, year on year.

In October 2011, retail sales were worth £561m, which was approximately 9.5 per cent of total retail sales, compared with October 2010 which was £468m, which adds up to only 8.2 per cent of total sales.

Where the high street is a destination and offers something unique then those places can really fly. Jamie Veitch, Action for Market Towns

Action for Market Towns (AMT) were one of the groups that contributed to the review. Spokesman Jamie Veitch told Channel 4 News that while there are challenges, local traders can overcome them if they are innovative.

“Out of town retailers are a huge threat and put a lot of pressure on the traditional high street,” he said. But where the high street is a destination and offers something unique then those places can really fly.

“The internet is here to stay and it’s becoming easier for small shops to exist online and to collaborate with each other to set up an online portal.”

AMT wants to see the national planning policy framework reworded to stress the presumption in favour of town centre developments as well as making it tougher for new out of town developmpents. They say this should require all large new developments to have an “affordable shops” quota.

Offering something unique

Mr Veitch also stressed the possibility of non-retail spaces within successful town centre developments, giving the example of a Middlesborough project that saw a former car showroom turned into a gallery, cafe and business centre for creative workers.

He told Channel 4 News: “People enjoy going to high streets and they offer something unique to a town. We support imaginative community use of empty properties through the community right to buy and we support community planning, where communities can take control of planning powers to implement their own visions for their own high streets.”

A report in September from Local Data reported that Stockport was the large town with the highest shop vacancy – with nearly a third of shops empty. Also on the list of most empty centres was Blackpool, Grimsby and even a large city like Birmingham.

Doing well at the other end, Exeter only had a vacancy rate of 11 per cent, with Edinburgh, Cambridge and Taunton also hovering around the 10 per cent vacancy mark.

The Prime Minister David Cameron said: “I am delighted that Mary Portas has produced such a clear vision on how we can create vibrant and diverse town centres and breathe life back into our high streets.”