Experts blame politicians for High Street woes

A panel of retail experts took aim at the national and local government as they debated strategies to tackle the challenges faced by the UK’s High Streets.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of British Retail Consortium, was asked about how Brexit has distracted politicians from fixing the tax system that impacts retailers. She responded: “Brexit is sucking the life out of the machine of government – in the time I’ve been lobbying ministers, the quality of engagement and interaction has steadily decreased.”

She called bricks and mortar retailers’ struggle with rent and rates “a bitter pill to swallow”, but suggested that the relationship between landlord and tenant is beginning to shift, with shorter leases and more flexibility for things like pop-up shops becoming more common.

Nick Johnson, co-founder of Market Operations and an experienced regeneration developer, commented that overheads and costs are getting in the way of rebuilding the country’s High Streets.

“Just look at the number of blue chip retailers going for CVAs [Company Voluntary Agreements] as a demonstration of the extent of this problem,” he said, adding that there are competing pressures on local councils to help retailers while staying solvent and spending on more critical things.

James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, agreed that councils are “not being bold enough with structural change”, improving access via public transport and free parking for instance.

“When rates are based on valuations, it penalises innovation, as any improvements that increase the value of your store, increase the rates you pay,” he pointed out.

Johnson argued that the larger cities will probably be fine, but smaller town centres will need different solutions to survive, suggesting that it “becomes more about servicing the neighbourhood and local people” than trying to be a shopping destination people drive to.

Dickinson added that the High Street will increasingly be re-imagined in the future, with more experiential shops beside community spaces, residential units and spaces for leisure activities.

Lowman agreed with the idea of experience being more important than product to bring people back in-store, rather than online, noting the recent emergence of escape rooms as an example.

Dickinson concluded that she would like to dispel the retail Armageddon myth, but in reality “we’re in the midst of a perfect storm of technology fundamentally changing the way we shop, slugging consumer demand and rising business rates”.

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