Guest editor Stephen Robertson, director general of the British Retail Consortium, talks to Ian Quinn about the economic crisis, a government that has been all talk and a misfiring Fernando Torres

Q: You joined the BRC in 2008 and within a few months the recession hit. Is the situation today better or worse?
A: Sales went off a cliff post-Lehman. 2009-10 saw growth in food but according to the BRC’s figures, 2011 has seen zero growth year to date like-for-like and that’s after VAT and substantial food inflation. There are huge problems with the economy. The customer genuinely has less to spend and less confidence of the future while businesses are facing increasing costs and dramatically increased regulation.

Q: Do you ever fear the stream of bad news from the BRC will make things worse?
A: We’re not in the business of spin. These are the numbers and our audience is the government. When the numbers are good, we’ll say they are.

Q: Give us some good news.
A: The industry has been resilient in providing employment. The commitment to train and provide part-time jobs and flexible opportunities exists in no other environment, and this is a chance to take people out of long-term unemployment and provide work for younger people. Retail in the UK employs one million under-25s.

Q: How can you make a difference in such perilous times?
A: We shape the regulatory environment. We stopped the Scottish government bringing in a large retail levy and work to ensure unintended consequences of policy are made plain. The minimum wage is the biggest pound note impact and since it was introduced in 1998 we’ve fought against high increases and generally been successful, although this is again an issue we are taking up with the government to make sure it does not get out of control. It’s not always a popular case to argue, but it’s about convincing the government of the full impact of policies on retail businesses.

Q: Is the BRC too dominated by the major retailers?
I’m really proud that it’s big and small, it’s food and non-food, it’s in town and out of town. We have 30,000 independents and 100 multiples. Although it is true that the bigger players perhaps have more access to analyst and special knowledge, we have got good diversity. We have chief executives of smaller companies on our board and our policy groups are open to all.

I’m sure all our members would agree there’s been an increasing acknowledgement of SMEs, and we are interested as much in securing the long-term future of the high street as we are out-of-town developments.

Q: How do you assess the threat posed by the Community Infrastructure Levy?
A: It depends on how severe this is and what the money is used for. The point I’m making to MPs is we need retailers to breathe new life into the streets that can’t be done through artificial penalties. That would be madness.

Q: How much lasting damage to retailers was caused by the riots?
A: The trauma caused to retail staff was terrible. I now fear traders trying to get back up on their feet may come up against a brick wall of regulation, for example the issue of putting up shutters. The riots must also be a lesson for the police that shop crime is not a victimless crime and must not be treated as one. Prior to this the police dealt with it with penalty notices, half of which never got paid, and often didn’t bother to check up on the fact that the people committing these crimes had records as long as their arms.

Q: What needs to be done to tackle the crisis of retail vacancies?
A: We need leaders for every high street but we also need to address the misery of eyewatering rate rises and huge levels of regulation.

Q: How are the talks with Mary Portas about her high street review?
A: We have been having a healthy conversation and it’s not been at all adversarial. It’s been very direct and intense.

Q: You describe it as a “game of two halves”. How great is the divide between the fortunes of food and non-food retailers?
A: Many of the issues are common but the BRC is not here to mitigate the competition in the retail sector.

Q: Is there a split between high street retailers and big supermarkets?
A: No. I don’t think there is. There are issues of competition but never suggest that it’s homogenous within any sector of retail. Mainly and overwhelmingly the BRC is addressing the areas that affect us all.

Q: Your verdict on the coalition?
A: First and foremost there was a clear plan to reduce the deficit and without that things would have been worse. But the coalition is now a quarter of the way through its five years and what has it done to promote growth? Time and time again politicians say the right thing but nothing gets done. We desperately need bolder action.

Q: Has the government reduced regulation and bureaucracy?
A: Far from it. We have seen dramatically increased regulation that’s desperately unhelpful. The first thing they did was to say we’re going to bring in an adjudicator and this is going to cost £1m and add to running costs. Retailers understand there are no handouts but stopping the tsunami of ­regulation is free.

Q: What about regulation by the European Union?
A: Considering the economic crisis across Europe, Brussels should be applying the brake to new regulation, but it’s ploughing ahead, and the danger is the government is just goldplating it.

Q: What about your own regulation? Do the latest BRC Standards answer critics who say they are an unworkable layer of red tape?
A: If Ford comes out with a new, improved car you’d say it’s a better car, not attack the old one. We’ve been very transparent with version 6 about what we’re trying to do, just as we will be next time when we bring out V7. It’s an evolving process, and it’s really important that BRC Standards are fit for purpose but we need to be applauded for what we’ve done and the fact it is a standard used around the world.

Q: Has the launch of the BRC in Northern Ireland made any progress in preventing plans for a so-called Tesco tax?
A: We’ve had constructive meetings and let’s hope it goes exactly the same way as it did in Scotland, and Northern Ireland realises the damage this taxation will cause to job creation and ­employment.

Q: Andrew Lansley rejected the BRC’s proposals for a responsibility deal on fruit and veg. Has the relationship deteriorated?
A: We made a series of proposals to support fruit and vegetable and healthy food consumption. Why it was pulled I don’t know. What I do know is we’ve worked very hard with the secretary of state and we felt we had a good relationship. We want to make this new approach work, but retailers and food manufacturers don’t have endless resources for reformulation and increased communication to consumers. It’s not free and it will result in higher prices for consumers or cause businesses to suffer.

Q: What do you make of the Scottish government pressing ahead with plans for minimum pricing of alcohol?
A: There is a question over whether it is legally empowered to introduce it. Retailers have made great strides and taken the lead in measures to encourage responsible drinking. But it is far from clear that people who abuse alcohol will be affected by higher prices.

Q: The industry appeared to be massively under-whelmed by the government’s waste review and this week retailers are under attack from environmentalists about waste. Who’s to blame?
A: Retailers do not want to create waste. Waste equals cost. Retailers have halved the amount of waste they sent to landfill five years ago. We’ll be speaking at the party conferences to the coalition to make sure it is mindful of the role ­retailers have been playing in sorting out sustainability and waste.

Q: You expressed fears this week that the Olympics would cause huge logistics problems for retailers, despite being a massive opportunity to increase trade.
A: We need to know that roads will be clear between 12am and 6am and measures will be in place in the central secure area and also the distribution points around London. Boris is telling us, we’ll let you know in December. Too bloody late. We need to get to grips with it now.

Q: Are you worried the online revolution will wreak as much devastation on retailers as it has in other industries?
A: I’m sure some people see online as a fearsome competitor but there will always be a role for shops and they need to embrace online. It’s a huge opportunity.

Q: The battle between retailers appears dominated by price. As former chairman of the Marketing Society, does this worry you?
A: I don’t agree it’s all coming down to price. Price is important, but there are plenty of food retailers for whom price is not the primary message. We see masses of innovation from retailers and ­manufacturers.

Q: What is the key priority for the rest of 2011?
A: The number one requirement is to help the government aim its firepower at creating jobs and investment in the UK.

Q: Finally, as a die-hard Chelsea fan, do you agree the title is heading to Manchester again this season?
A: We have had more coaches than National Express and with Torres in the team recently it has been like playing with 10 men. As for the rest, to use a Defra term, we need to look at their use-by dates!