Will the government’s 2020 high street rescue work?

High street
Huyton is set to be a pilot town

Not all high streets are created equal. The government has just announced the first 14 high streets to receive financial support as part of a pilot called the “High Streets Task Force”, which will be rolled out across the country over 2020. Each will receive up to £25million worth of “training, face-to-face support and access to research” from industry experts who will team up with local leaders.

In July the £3.6 billion “Towns Fund” was announced by the government, including this £1 billion High Streets Fund to “help high streets adapt and evolve while remaining vibrant places for their community”.

“This government is investing £3.6 billion in our great towns, including £1 billion to help our high streets to adapt and evolve while remaining vibrant and safe places at the heart of our communities,” said Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick said last week.

“Having announced the first 101 high streets that can benefit from £25 million each back in the summer, I am announcing support from our new High Streets Task Force for a further 20 places and naming 14 of these today,” he said.

So, the government has a “Future High Streets Fund” and a “High Streets Task Force” each giving high streets £25 million to boost their local economies. This is fantastic, but, is this spreading the money too thin? While any money is welcome, wouldn’t the government be better targeting fewer towns with more money to really have a lasting and deeper effect to stem the bleed from our high streets?

Many of these high streets are lost and are never going to thrive while there are many that are simply declining, can be saved and just need an injection of cash and energy.

On the recently announced list of 14 high streets is Thornton Heath in Croydon in South London. Apart from being the home of Stormzy, the majority of people would have never have heard of it. Thornton Heath hasn’t had a thriving high street since the 1950s. Apart from a 1970s Tesco there really is nothing there and never will be. Being a realist, the area doesn’t have much money and is far down on the list of being gentrified.

The local council recently spent money on paving and planting so it has had some grass roots investment to boost its appearance. Supporting businesses which don’t have the customers to pass the baton onto is pointless. Thornton Heath is more a local parade of shops than a high street. The government would be better off targeting the larger and more connected Croydon high street nearby which is in desperate need of investment especially with the wobbling of the proposed Westfield shopping centre project.

High street
Thorton Heath has had some investment including new paving and planting

Looking at the announced list some look like tertiary high streets such as Swinton Town centre in Salford, Stirchley in Birmingham and Huyton Town Centre in Knowsley. And while it’s great to give these areas a refresh, the future of high streets is fewer but better. The places announced will benefit from bespoke support and guidance from the new “High Streets Task Force”, announced by the government in response to recommendations of an expert panel on the high street chaired by Sir John Timpson. The High Streets Task Force will give “face-to-face support, access to cutting-edge research, new online training, and local footfall data to give businesses that vital edge and transform local town centres”. The government says it wants to “level” up towns and regions, “ensuring prosperity and opportunity are available to everyone”.

But, can “up to £25 million” be anything more than cosmetic? 

Minister for the Northern Powerhouse, Rt Hon Jake Berry, said: “Every place has its own unique strengths and challenges but all our town centres and high streets have one thing in common – they are the lifeblood of communities.

“The tailored support from our new High Streets Task Force and up to £25 million each from the Towns Fund for 100 places gives communities the money and support they need to unleash the potential of their towns.

“This people’s government is backing people across the Northern Powerhouse and every part of the UK to succeed no matter where they live,” he said.

The high-street “Task Force” is run by the “Institute for Place Management” on behalf of the government, and is holding an open recruitment for a Board Chair to provide expert leadership to this programme. The Task Force brings together a range of expert groups on reinventing and restructuring places, including the Royal Town Planning Institute and The Design Council.

The government is also seeking views on whether an online register of commercial properties would make it easier to bring empty shops back into use. It wants to understand people’s experiences of leasing commercial property – with a view to making ownership of high street properties more transparent, making it easier for businesses and community groups to find space and supporting investment in local areas.

This recent announcement builds on ongoing government action to support high streets, including cutting small retailers’ business rates bills by 50% from April, following more than £13 billion of business rates support since 2016.

The recent 2019 Conservative manifesto promised: “we will cut the burden of tax on business by reducing business rates. This will be done via a fundamental review of the system.” They pledged to increase the business rates discount available to businesses with a rateable value below £51,000 from 33% to 50% in 2020-21. They also plan to extend the discount to “grassroots music venues, small cinemas and pubs”. The changes to business rates would only apply to England as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set their own business rate regimes. The discount is set to last for just one financial year.

Public money should always be a catalyst for private investment. The government investing money into local high streets is a welcome initiative, but spreading it too thin and wasting money on high streets which look like they will never grow or thrive is a wasted opportunity. While new pavements and a cosmetic tart up does change perceptions, it will be small businesses and start-ups that will really change these areas together with private landlords. This is where a reassessment of business rates will be needed. The new money will be a boost, but will it be enough in the right places? Ideally it needs to ripple out into the local economy and help high streets to survive the threat of online and reduced footfalls long after it has gone.

Poole
Poole High Street is in fast decline

So, where should the government be putting its money? AskTraders, a company providing detailed information about share trading and brokers, conducted an analysis of the UK’s high streets, looking at ATM, bank branches, retail store closures and ONS % growth of the retail sector over the course of 2019. It found the “most declining” high streets were to be Poole, Blackpool – Blackpool is on the government list of 101 high streets announced in the summer – Warrington, Manchester and Swindon. Poole High Street has seen overall retail growth fall by 4% in 2019. Stopping the decline is just as important as providing a boost and maybe these larger centres would be a better investment to stop the rot. 

Local councils can change parking restrictions and charges, or work with transport providers to make it easier for people to visit the shops. Local people will be glad to see investment on their high streets, but it will be profitable and sustainable businesses with customers spending money which will leave the lasting legacy.