Can we save our high streets?

The Government has pledged its commitment to rejuvenate Britain’s ailing high streets after years of decline. Vicki Evans explores its policy paper Build Back Better High Streets and investigates what it might mean for KBB retailers… 

Back in August, we aired an episode of The kbbreview Podcast called: “Can we save the high street?”. We tweeted about the episode, and one Twitter user came back with a simple, straight to the point, response: “No”. So, is this what our industry really thinks of the UK high street? Is it beyond saving, or could a bit of investment really build our high streets and town centres back better? 

The Government certainly believes that the UK high street can be salvaged, and in mid-July this year, it released the ‘Build Back Better High Streets’ paper. It is a promise that after decades of decline, the Government is now committed to saving the high street.  

The average UK high street is peppered with empty shops, and the statistics speak for themselves. According to data from commercial property experts, the CoStar Group, since the collapse of BHS in 2016, the UK has lost 83% of its department stores. In fact, there are now only 79 of them left in the country, and 237 vacant department stores with no plans for replacements, creating thousands of square feet of empty retail space. 

Reports from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) reveal that there has been a steady increase in high street store closures since 2015. Unsurprisingly – thanks to pressures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the enforced lockdowns – there was a 30% increase in chain store closures and a slowdown in openings in 2020. 

Last year alone, more than 17,500 chain stores closed their doors. In addition, an average of 48 venues – across all shops, restaurants and leisure – closed permanently every day in England, Scotland and Wales, in comparison to just 21 new store openings. 

However, it may not all be doom and gloom. Despite a number of shops laying empty and many high streets looking like ghost towns, as reported in the Build Back Better High Streets paper, in 2020, 72% of all retail sales took place in physical stores, a surprising – and positive – result after so many non-essential shops were forced to close for much of the year.

Perfect storm

The aforementioned kbbreview Podcast episode focussing on the plight of UK high streets, centred round a discussion with retail consultant Ian Scott, who broke down the current situation. He described the it using the old cliché that we are in the ‘perfect storm’, as Scott believes the situation has now got so bad that everyone involved has been forced to want to do something about it.   

“It is a unique situation that the Government are losing business rates, the landlords are losing rents, and the retailers are losing revenue,” Scott explained on The kbbreview Podcast. “So, what we have is a situation where all three key stakeholders are suffering, so everyone wants to improve it.”

The Build Back Better High Streets paper begins with the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, saying: ‘you cannot force toothpaste back in the tube’ and that the Government, local councils and businesses will have to accept change and move to a new way of the high street.

The paper includes several new policy details, ranging from litter picking to outdoor dining. Niche retailers – like those in the KBB industry – may not be affected directly; however, the Government’s aim to rejuvenate the high street will indirectly help everyone by making local areas more attractive to businesses and consumers.

One word that crops up again and again in the report is flexibility. The Government promises to remove a lot of red tape and asks local councils to be more flexible in dealing with requests by businesses. A practical example of this is allowing companies to change the use of a building without planning permission, which opens up the possibility for you, and any other retailer, to open a new showroom with greater ease.

Availability of parking on – or near – local high streets has long been a source of contention as it seems no local council has ever quite got the formula right. The good news is that this report promises to start a specific technical consultation about parking charges to create a fairer system and make high streets more accessible to consumers. This change, in particular, could be great news for high street KBB retailers. As you are well aware, design consultations can last hours, and customers watching the clock to make sure their pay-and-display parking doesn’t run out, does not make for an enjoyable or productive appointment. 

It may not be a bold reform, like the complete removal of paid parking like most people would have liked, but it is a start.

Community driven

Rents and rates are another concern for all parties. Since March 2020, the Government has paid £352 billion in a Covid support package with £16 billion specifically going towards business rates support for eligible retail, hospitality and leisure properties, not forgetting Small Business Rates Relief where 750,000 properties in England, which included many one-store KBB retailers, were entitled
to 100% relief during the
most challenging periods of
the pandemic.

The report is also community-driven and focuses, not only on businesses, but on the people too. A point that Bill Grimsey, former boss of Wickes and Iceland and author of the ‘Grimsey Report’ – a deep dive into the health of the UK high street published in 2013 and revised in 2018 – will, undoubtedly, be pleased to hear.    

Back in 2018, in an exclusive interview, Grimsey told kbbreview that the key to saving our high streets was engaging with local people. “It’s about reviving the high street in a different mode,” he said. “It’s not a retail destination that we’ve got to concentrate on – it’s a community hub concept with health, education, entertainment, leisure, pedestrianisation, lots of good activities, events and festivals, and housing, particularly for older people.”

Grimsey was clearly ahead of his time as the Build Back Better report features several sections on community and redeveloping the high street to be a multiuse space, not only featuring shops but also leisure facilities and community areas. The intention of the report appears to be to move away from a traditional British high street and to something modern and never seen before.

What do the retailers think?

Some KBB retailers have already seen a change within their local area that reflects the Government’s aim, that the high street will become more about community, rather than just about shops. For example, Frazer Goodwillie, director of Billingham Kitchens, a showroom located on a small, local high street in the suburbs of Stockton on Tees, is already seeing this new high street format in his local area.

“Proper high streets for retail are in freefall, town and city centres are expensive for rents and rates, with parking and delivery challenges to face,” says Goodwillie. “I see most centres becoming more coffee shops, bars and restaurants with quick need retailers/services. Any sort of destination shopping, from department store to specialist retail-like KBB can be much better served with an out of town retail park.”

Rubina Hughes, owner of high street showroom Zara Kitchen Design in Berkshire, has also seen a definite change in her area, but it is making her question her decision to be on the high street at all. “Since we have been here, there has been re-development and change,” she explains.
“It’s not a shopping destination, more a place
for recreation.

“It is good to be in a high street location, but we have been considering whether we need to be there. Especially as a kitchen is a big purchase that most people have already researched before walking into a showroom. Also, most people make an appointment before they come in.”

Unfortunately, it does also seem like there is a bit of a postcode lottery at play with this system as retailers have little to no control of their surrounding areas as high streets can change both for the worse and the better without any consultation.

The location lottery also extends to local councils as the Build Back Better High Streets paper gives a mix of policy changes, but many are suggestions that councils may – or may not – take on board. So much of the high street is dictated by local councils, but it could be an opportunity for you – to work with your local council in making it bespoke for your customers and business.

  • Listen to the ‘Can we save the High Street?’ podcast now
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