Does anyone remember the Portas Review? Mary Portas was a keynote speaker at ITT’s conference in Malta in 2014. Three years earlier she had published a review of Britain’s high streets.
A High Street Innovation Fund was announced in 2012, a Future High Streets Forum in 2013 and a Great British High Street Competition in 2014 – but nothing seems to have reversed the decline in high street shopping.
The Confederation of British Industry says high street sales are falling at their fastest rate since the height of the recession in 2009. The big question is: are the days of high street shopping numbered?
The Christmas results of many retailers were dire, with thousands of shops facing difficulties. Mothercare and Moss Bros issued profit warnings, Carpetright shares fell by 40%, Maplin and Toys R Us have gone into administration and Marks and Spencer is to close 30 stores. Thomas Cook is also closing dozens of branches.
On a recent Saturday, walking around Chester I noticed the Grosvenor shopping centre was almost deserted and I counted more than 20 empty shop units in the city. But Chester is just one of many small cities and market towns in the UK where the high street seems in its death throes.
It’s not only travel agencies and clothes shops that are disappearing – banks, building societies, the list goes on. Higher business rates have exacerbated this and The Times has reported that since 1981 Britain’s towns and villages have lost more than a million people aged under 25.
If they are to survive, town centres must become communal experiences with food and literary festivals, fairs, cafes, skating, bowling and music rather than strip-lit shopping malls. Councils should offer incentives to retailers to change their unused upper floor space, for example.
Sadly, councils don’t seem to get it, and keep borrowing for more mini-Westfields. Rather than talk of building new towns, we should be reinvigorating the old ones first, for the benefit of all industries.
Steven Freudmann is chairman of ITT