To innovate is not to reform” said Edmund Burke, a distinction that would-be saviours of the Great British high street usually overlook. With the Portas plan and its 28 recommendations now thoroughly discredited, the stage is set for alternative performers. Enter Bill Grimsey with his own plan, outshining Mary with 31 tips for policymakers.
“Grimsey’s proposal for a one-off levy on the big chains is a non-starter”
Is there a chance any of them will come to fruition? Judging by Eric Pickles’ reaction, probably not. Bill’s proposal for a one-off levy on Tesco and the other big chains is an obvious non-starter. On business rates, he says little that hasn’t already been said, and rates are only a minor factor in the long-term abandonment of many town centres.
Most attempts at reversing the decline of high street retailing share certain characteristics. First, nostalgia for a golden age that grows more beguiling the further it recedes into the past. It centres on the 10% of retail sales generated by independent shops. The reality is that consumers abandoned town centre retailing in favour of more convenient alternatives because the latter met their changing needs better. Second, a belief that more regulation to protect and promote town centres will induce consumers to stop voting with their feet - it plainly isn’t working now and, as remote shopping becomes ever-more popular, it won’t work in the future. It has also held back gains in productivity that would have arisen if the mults had been operating in a less regulated market.
A recent contribution from think tank Policy Exchange is a welcome dose of realism. It points out that the internet is transforming retail and that physical shopping “will flourish where it is a pleasant experience the web cannot replicate”. The key elements, according to a YouGov poll, are the right mix of shops, parking and good toilet facilities.
The same poll found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, out-of-town shopping is a more social activity than the high street equivalent. We don’t need to create new structures for those high streets that can still be rejuvenated. As Policy Exchange argues, business improvement districts could do the job if they were given the same powers as their US counterparts. Now that would be a real reform.