john timpson credit scott wishart

The new panel of experts will be chaired by Sir John Timpson

Photo credit: Scott Wishart

The government has set up a new panel of experts to try to rescue the high street, less than five years after a virtually identical scheme launched in the wake of the Portas review.

High streets minister Jake Berry MP said the panel, to be chaired by Sir John Timpson, chairman of Timpson, the multiple service retailer, would focus on “what consumers and local communities want from their high streets”.

It would “look at the current challenges and work out options to ensure our town centres remain vibrant”.

Previously Berry sat with retail leaders on the government’s Future High Streets Forum, which was set up in 2013, after the government faced criticism from businesses about the lack of progress from its so-called Portas Pilots, which were set up following self-styled ‘Queen of Shops’ Mary Portas’ 2011 review.

A string of different minsters have presided over attempts to tackle issues surrounding the high street, while being accused by retail leaders of dodging the big issue of business rates and the lack of a level playing field between online and bricks and mortar companies.

Retail leaders including Tesco boss Dave Lewis and Sainsbury’s chief Mike Coupe have been among those demanding an overhaul of the rates system. This month former Iceland boss Bill Grimsey warned in his second review on the subject that the crisis on high streets could leave 100,000 shops empty within a decade, making recommendations including an overhaul of the business rates system and a ban on out of town developments.

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Meanwhile the government also launched the first Retail Sector Council in March, under former Co-op boss Richard Pennycook, which is also looking at ideas to salvage the high street.

Berry said later this summer the latest expert panel, in conjunction with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), would 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”.

The government also announced The Great British High Street Week, to promote The Great British High Street Awards 2018, which have been brought back after being axed last year.

Berry said the new panel of experts, which also includes former BRC director general Stephen Robertson; CEO of The Glass-House Sophia de Sousa; Power to Change CEO Vidhya Alakeson; Gi Fernando MBE, founder of Freeformers; Emma Mackenzie, director of NewRiver and Eric Reynolds, director of Urban Space Management, had a wealth of experience from the retail, property and design sectors.

“High streets and small businesses are the backbone of our economy and we want to see them thrive now and in the future,” he said.

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“People care about their local high streets because they are the centres of their community. But our high streets are changing, and the government is committed to helping communities adapt.

“High streets of the future will still be commercial centres but consumers now look for a wider range of experiences, from leisure to health services. Our future high streets may well feature more homes, childcare centres and gyms to bring people back and ensure that they keep returning.”

Timpson said: “Throughout my career, high streets and city centres have continually changed to fulfil the needs of society, but the recent shift towards more out of town and online shopping threatens the future of many high streets.

“The panel cannot offer a quick-fix solution but we hope to identify practical and common sense decisions that will help government provide the support that local communities and businesses need, in order to provide the leisure and shopping facilities people will want 25 years from now.”

However, one retail source was less than impressed with the idea of the new panel.

He said: “Seven years ago we had the Mary Portas review, then we had the Future High Streets Forum, now we have the Timpson review and the Retail Council. What is the point of going through the motions all over again when everybody knows that the big issue facing the high street is business rates?”