Bring back the shopping experience to fix high street decline
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Rates and rents are often blamed for killing the high street, but Iain Dale argues we need to make shopping on them more of an experience if they have any hope of surviving
Barely a week goes by without us hearing of a new major shop closure on our high streets. Some are no doubt due to bad business planning, but many can be put down to the rapacious appetite of commercial landlords for ever higher rents or the continually rising costs of business rates.
Our own changing shopping habits have a lot to answer for, too. I also think many retailers have no idea what the modern shopper wants. No longer do we just regard shopping as a mechanical, have-to-do chore. Many of us want an 'experience' if we're going to spend a few hours emptying our wallets or credit cards.
The food retail sector has risen to the challenge, and the range of eateries opening in our city and town centres are of a range and quality we haven't seen before. However, big stores haven't matched them. They invariably look tired, their displays can appear out of the ark and they are too samey.
I might exaggerate to make a point if I say that if you go to a shopping mall in Norwich, you could be forgiven for thinking you're in Ipswich or Colchester, but not by much. I suppose there's something in the fact that you know what you're going to get, but where's the variety? Where's the 'experience'? Body Shop, John Lewis, Vodafone, Boots, JD Sports. They will be in every shopping mall, but where are the small independent shops? Where are the retail surprises? They are invariably banished to the back streets because they simply can't afford the rents charged by the shopping mall landlords.
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More and more of us do much of our shopping online. Many people go into Waterstones, take a picture of the book they want to buy, then return home and order it from Amazon at a big discount. I never thought I'd see the day when I ordered shoes off the internet, but I do. I found a UK company called Coogan London, who produce wonderfully stylish shoes at a good price. I've never set foot in a shoe shop since.
So what can politicians do? First, look at the whole system of business rates. It's a racket at the moment, and in many ways totally arbitrary. One pub I know, the Three Hills at Bartlowon the Cambridgeshire/Essex border, faced a increase in their business rates from £14,000 a year to £52,000. I defy any business to cope with that kind of rise. Many shops close because their business rates bill has become higher than their rents. To be fair, the government has introduced measures to help smaller shops on business rates, but more needs to be done.
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Secondly, government needs to look at the taxes major online retailers pay – especially Amazon, which has become a giant behemoth and has too much of a commercial advantage over the high street, especially in the field of business rates.
Thirdly, commercial landlords need to be more realistic in the rents they charge. Who wants to see an empty shop in a high street? It's in no-one's interests.
Fourthly, relax the planning system so high streets become more varied. If a restaurant wants to open in a shop which only has retail use, planners should allow it unless there's a really good reason not to. At the moment, the default position is to refuse permission.
Lastly, and this may apply more to market towns than big city centre developments – learn from successes. Look at the way the city-centre half of Magdalen Street in Norwich has been revitalised in recent years and become a destination. Look at how Holt has thrived. Other market towns could learn a lot from Holt about how to attract shoppers from miles around.
In the end, though, it's no use us complaining to politicians about the decline of shopping centres. The answer lies in our own hands. But the retailers really do need to up their game.
In last week's column I wrongly listed Sir Henry Bellingham as having voted against the government in the meaningful vote on Brexit. Apologies for the error and to Sir Henry.
Email Iain at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on @iaindale