On December 12, the Telegraph alerted the nation to a report by Mary Portas which contains 28 recommendations for our high streets.
James Hall, the Telegraph‘s Consumer Affairs Editor, wrote (emphases mine):
Years of “erosion, neglect and mismanagement” have left many town centres and market towns on the brink of extinction, the television presenter and retail expert says in a wide-ranging review into the UK’s troubled high streets.
Ms Portas warns that unless “urgent action” is taken, “much of Britain will lose, irretrievably, something that is fundamental to our society”.
Vacancy rates in market towns have doubled in the last two years as stores have closed down due to the economic downturn. This year alone an estimated 20 shops have closed every day across the country. One in seven shops on UK high streets currently stand[s] empty, although in some towns as many as four in ten shops are vacant.
“Many [high streets] are sickly, others are on the critical list and some are now dead,” Ms Portas says in her long-awaited review into the future of Britain’s high streets, which was commissioned by David Cameron, the Prime Minister, in May.
The comments following the article are excellent, and most of the older comments put forward constructive ideas, many of which concerned rates and rent, which most thought were too high and out of the reach of smaller shopkeepers. Other complaints concerned the cost of parking, with which I also agree.
Only larger national or international chains seem to be able to afford trading on the high street. Consequently, everything looks the same. I’ve also noticed this in other European cities from Cannes to Barcelona.
As one Telegraph commenter, wolfmeister (12/13/2011 11:55 AM), put it (edited for punctuation):
Corporates use their position to price out the high street and establish their stores in subsidised form as an advertisement for the brand.
For example we have now some 7 or 8 mobile phone shops on the once rather cool Kings Road in Chelsea (which now looks no different to any other high street). None of them ever have any customers in, they are 100% no way covering their rents from their earnings/revenue. They are subsidised by the corporate head offices for T-Mobile, Orange, O2, Dixons Group, Carphone Warehouse … etc.
It’s the same with Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Domino’s Pizza, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Burger King, etc., etc. Our local cafe is now a Starbucks, our other local cafe is now a mobile phone shop, etc., etc.
Gradually bit by bit it happens, and I believe Portobello Rd is next to be “corporatized” …
Not all of Portas’s recommendations are bad. (I’m not a fan, by the way.) However, many rely on Government intervention, either nationally or locally. How much more money would go to waste on her proposed schemes?
She wants to make high streets into community-oriented places, but that cannot happen if there are too many establishments of one type (hairdressers, estate agents, mobile phone shops, takeaways). We somehow need to recapture the variety of what we had before, with butchers, bakers and the modern equivalent of candlestick makers.
With Britons travelling increasingly to the United States either on business or for pleasure, they are beginning to see more of the country, warts and all. My family and I have personally witnessed the sad transformation of a number of medium-sized American conurbations — as well as larger ones, such as Detroit — which have lost their city centres within a matter of years. Along with that has been a loss of the heart of community. Some have pedestrianised high streets. Those have done nothing to further a local identity and belonging. With no shops or very few, what is the point in going there? Sad though it is, people naturally gravitate to malls on the outskirts of town. At least one can buy clothes, baked goods and household items there in a reasonably secure atmosphere. Furthermore, a supermarket is never far away from a mall. Yes, unfortunately, most of these shops are national chains.
Now, all that used to be in the mom-and-pop American high street. But no more — or rarely. And it doesn’t matter how many young people try their hand at trading for a day (Portas recommendation No. 4); if they cannot afford the rates and rent, they’ll go nowhere fast. In fact, they won’t even get a look in, much less a foot in the door.
Judging from what I have seen in the US, it takes less than a decade for a high street to die. Sometimes it only takes as little as five years. Watch the main department store close and see how many other shops go bust in quick succession after that.
Our UK rates are high. So are rents. Personally, I lay the blame at the feet of landlords and estate agents who have driven many small shopkeepers out of business. I can name several shops on my own high street which had to close because of a drastic increase in rent. Their successors have fared no better.
I think that we should put pressure on these people, particularly estate agents dealing in commercial property. I do not think that Government should get involved, only citizens equipped with reliable knowledge that they put forward on blogs (perhaps OoL) or fora. This would drive people to write letters of protest to local newspapers, to the local council or to the estate agents themselves.
That’s the best answer I can come up with for now during a busy Christmas season. Have you any others to offer? It could be something to follow up on in the New Year.