In 2018 Sir John Timpson was asked to come up with a plan to save the high street. His answer? Give power back to the people who live there

By the time Sir John Timpson was asked to lead new research into the future of British high streets, he had been working on them for nearly six decades. The change in that time? “Enormous,” he says. “But then that’s not surprising. The same will be true in another 60 years. We would never have been able to contemplate what would happen.”

In 1960s Manchester there were still signs of the Second World War, he remembers, and shopping spilled out on to feeder roads leading out of the city. The famous Arndale centres were only just being built while resale price maintenance required every branded item to be sold at its rsp, stymying the arrival of the supermarkets until it was lifted in 1963.

Town centres were populated with radio and TV rental shops, gas showrooms, tobacconists and Mac Fisheries. “We talk about the likes of BHS, Littlewoods or Woolworths disappearing. Well, there are loads that disappeared long before that.”

But though the look and feel of town centres has always evolved, never has it faced the kind of challenges it does now, he accepts. “Until now, where people shopped just changed location. The difference now is you’ve got around 20% of shopping that’s done nowhere, other than on the internet. That’s wiped out a lot. It’s also fair to say we’ve hit a period where a lot of retail formats are coming to the end of their natural cycle.” Department stores and product retailers, such as HMV, are among those.

It’s been a shift Timpson has watched take place through his own shop windows, of course. His eponymous chain still has around 1,300 units but now “sticks to things that can’t be done online” be it shoe repair, key cutting or dry cleaning. It also has a far larger presence in out-of-town retail parks, and concessions in all the major supermarkets. Most recently, a small trial is underway running barbershops in pods in supermarket car parks.

“What Amazon are doing has considerable dangers that go way beyond retailing”

Being on the frontline in this way meant Timpson’s initial inclination when he was approached in June 2018 to lead the latest government high street report was to say no. He changed his mind though, and says he’s finished the process more optimistic than when he started. When I ask whether that optimism is boosted when he sees Amazon moving into bricks and mortar though, it’s clear I couldn’t be further off the mark. “No, that’s a total negative. What Amazon are doing has considerable dangers that go way beyond retailing in that they attack new markets but don’t make any money out of them. That’s grabbing market share in a very irresponsible way and I think it should concern us all.”

But doesn’t it signal faith in the high street model at least? “Oh, sure. But it’s got a future for them only if they wipe out others. They’re not adding anything to the high street, all they’re trying to do is take business away from everyone that’s already there.”

Reasons to be optimistic

What does make Timpson feel optimistic though were his visits to towns such as Holmfirth and Altrincham during the course of his research. “You’ve got so many towns that could really thrive by doing their own personal thing and creating a hub for the community.”

The northern town of Altrincham – and its turnaround – was particularly pertinent for Timpson. “It’s where I first started work. Nine years ago it was 30% empty units there, but the people were a proud lot and ashamed of it. It got them thinking.”

A multimillion-pound transformation followed, including a brand new enclosed food market, new restaurants and more space for independent traders. Footfall is up 25% and retailers have flocked to fill empty units. “It’s a nice place to be again. Before, it was horrible. They’ve got to keep it going of course but they’ve shown by making it not like everywhere else, but like Altrincham, it makes a difference.”

And in many ways that approach formed the cornerstone of Timpson’s recommendations when his report was published in December.

What we need is an “upside down” approach, he believes, where government becomes an enabler, and local communities are given the freedom to create an identity unique to their town.

That same style of management was introduced by Timpson in his own business 20 years ago and remains one of his best decisions. “We decided to trust the people in our shops to do the job the way they wanted. We recognised that our money is made by the people that serve our customers so our job is to let them have the freedom to get on with it and look after them.”

To enact this same approach in struggling town centres, Timpson recommended additional funding for local councils, with a £675m high street fund announced in December. “That wouldn’t go a long way if you started to spend it on bricks and mortar but I think once the ideas are in place there’ll be plenty of property investment.” So, though up to £55m of the fund will be set aside to support the regeneration of heritage properties, Timpson imagines plenty more could be used on expert space planners or similar advisors.

“Part of the problem with the high street is it’s boring. There isn’t that excitement any more and I think that’ll come from independents.”

All this will have big implications for retail too. “The positive change in future retailing is that it will develop with towns reimagining themselves and having a proper hub and place to meet that isn’t all about retail. There’ll be a combination of shops, yes, but also people living there, medical services, entertainment. A town will become a brand. This is what we’re starting to see. It also means that the multiples are more likely to be at the sheds down the road while the independents will be attracted to an area with more character.”

It’s the only way to bring people back, he believes. “Part of the problem with the high street is it’s boring. There hasn’t been the likes of a [new] Next or Laura Ashley or Topshop, all of which were several years ago – there isn’t that excitement any more and I think that’ll come from independents.”

He’s adamant we do need to save our high streets and town centres though. “People don’t want to spend their lives sitting at home buying things on the internet. Shopping is a leisure activity and it should remain that way. People do need a place to go which is theirs.” Something as true now as it was 60 years ago.


Name: John Timpson

Age: 75

Family: Wife Alex died three years ago. The pair have five children, two of whom are adopted, as well as fostering 90 children. Son James is CEO of Timpson

Potted CV: Has worked for the family business Timpson since he was 17, alongside non-exec roles, writing several books and a regular column for The Telegraph.

Career high: “When the business went out of the family I bought it back.”

Career low: Selling its shoe shops in 1987. “It’s the hardest thing you have to do in business, to tell loyal colleagues [they’ll] inevitably be made redundant.”

Business ethos: “We always make sure we have cash in the bank, we don’t borrow money.”

Death row meal: Lobster thermidor.