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High street minister Jake Berry yesterday launched yet another review with yet another panel of experts hoping to unlock the secret of saving the beleaguered high street

Anybody familiar with the plight of the British high street will know what happens next.

Bill Grimsey smashes his alarm clock and kidnaps that wretched groundhog… oh no, perhaps I’m getting muddled with another Bill and another script in which history repeats itself, rather than the farcical one unveiled by the government yesterday.

Indeed, if it were not that the problems facing the high street were so serious, resulting in the loss of what most experts believe is well over 20,000 jobs this year so far, the announcements from the latest high street minister, Jake Berry, would have been comedy gold.

Berry, on behalf of the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (or should that be the Ministry of Silly Ideas?), yesterday launched yet another review with yet another panel of experts hoping to unlock the secret of saving the beleaguered high street. They would diagnose “issues that currently affect the health of our high streets and advise on the best practical measures to help them thrive now and in the future”, he claimed.

The panel is chaired by Timpson chairman Sir John Timpson, the down to earth boss of the retail service chain. And it includes some interesting members:

  • ex-BRC director general Stephen Robertson
  • Emma Mackenzie from property investment firm NewRiver
  • Eric Reynolds, the legendary regeneration expert
  • Graham Galpin, who works at the Ashford local council
  • Gi Fernando, a social impact entrepreneur who specialises in workforce technology and transformation
  • Vidhya Alakeson, CEO of Power to Change, an independent trust that supports community businesses
  • Sophia de Sousa, CEO of The Glass-House, a national collaboration charity

Some interesting and bright people no doubt. And with a mandate to “focus on what consumers and local communities want from their high streets”. The review would “look at the current challenges and work out options to ensure our town centres remain vibrant”.

But has the government completely forgotten that it has already been down this road? And does it expect everyone else to have forgotten too, so it can dress this up as something new?

It is only five years since the government launched its Future High Streets Forum. This group was led first by Mark Prisk, then Brandon Lewis and most recently by a certain Jake Berry. It was quietly wound up after businesses lost faith and ministers ran out of ideas.

The forum was set up to “provide joint business and government leadership to better enable our high streets and town centres to adapt and compete in the face of changing consumer and social trends” and to “advise the government in the formation and delivery of policies to support high streets and town centres, in the short and longer term”. Does this sound at all familiar?

The main result, however, despite the best efforts of the businesses on board, was the launch of a government competition to find the best ‘Great British High Street’.

The last winner of this contest, which ran three years in a row until 2016, was Blackburn, which got a none-too-whopping £10,000 prize for its pains. Then communities secretary Sajid Javid announced at the time: “Our high streets are going from strength to strength as this year’s Great British High Street competition shows.”

Things were obviously so hunky dory the government didn’t even bother running a competition last year. But what did we have yesterday? As well as the new identikit plan for a group of experts, the government announced Great British High Street Week and the launch of the Great British High Street Awards 2018.

Those whose high street jobs are on the line can only hope that the new panel can come up with more concrete plans. Later this summer it will put out a call for evidence, seeking what “members of the public and young people in particular want from the high streets of the future”. Sadly, it’s a fair bet that by then a good many businesses will have shut up shop, with several of those young people looking for new jobs as a result.

The launch of yet another review will be met with a terrible sense of déjà vu and expectations set at an all-time low.

Read more: High street ‘facing annihilation’, Labour warns

The Future High Streets Forum, of course, was not the only epic fail when it has come to government initiatives. There were also the failed Portas Pilot experiments. These saw ministers pour tens of thousands of pounds into well-meaning projects across the country which, sadly, tinkered around the edges of the problems facing towns and high streets, while the government dodged the big issues, the biggest of all business rates.

In recent weeks and months, a series of leading retail chiefs, including Dave Lewis of Tesco, Malcolm Walker of Iceland and Mike Coupe of Sainsbury’s, have called for urgent action to tackle the crippling burden of rates on retail businesses.

Ex-Iceland boss Grimsey earlier this month published his second review on the crisis, calling, among other things, for the scrapping of the rates system and a ban on out-of-town shopping centres.

Meanwhile, the first industry-led Retail Sector Council, which launched in March, led by retail minister Andrew Griffiths and true retail heavyweight Richard Pennycook, was set up to “discuss the challenges the sector faces”.

It will “review how best retailers could adapt to changing consumer behaviour, the business environment and opportunities such as the development of new technologies to improve customer service”.

Griffiths told the Commons just last month that this would include the council having its say on what to do about rates, and the burning platform surrounding what to do about levelling the playing field between online companies and bricks and mortar operators.

Yet despite all the good intent, and all the expertise on board, all these reviews are in danger of becoming a long-running joke. Ministers must be prepared to actually do something substantial rather than trying to kid us with these comedy sideshows and ‘celebratory’ initiatives. Because quite frankly, they are not funny any more.