River Wissey Lovell Fuller

The Village Soapbox

February 2012

The High Street

David Cameron engaged Mary Portas (Queen of Shops?) to advise on what might be done to help save town high streets from further decline. I found her recommendations disappointing;

One suggestion was to have a National Market Day - What was the point of that? I can’t see how, having the market day in Lynn, Swaffham and Downham on the same day can help in anyway. Currently there is the opportunity for market traders and market enthusiasts to attend all three, surely that must be to the advantage the three towns.

Another suggestion was to have a reduced business rate for start up businesses - possibly not a bad idea but it is certain to cause some resentment from any established business that is struggling to survive - when would the reduced rate stop? Would it not be preferable to have a business rate related to the business turnover/profit? Businesses could be put into ‘bands’ in the same way that residential properties are banded but reassessed at regular intervals.

A third proposal was to create disincentives to shop landlords having their shops empty by charging the full rate at all times. (I am not sure that this does not happen already in some towns). I would have thought that most landlords would need no incentives to let their empty shops.

She thought that the government should vet all further out-of-town developments with a view to curtailing further expansion, except for developments likely to complement town centre shops.

This idea has been around for 15years or more but there has been some reluctance to interfere with what has been an outstanding business success. In any case most of the planned out of town shops are probably built by now.

Mary’s suggestion that there should be a ‘town management team’ is fairly obvious, but isn’t that what a Town Council is? Many Town Councils try hard to stimulate their high street but they are often constrained by financial considerations that would constrain any management team in the same way.

I have no idea of the fee that was paid to Mary Portas, however much it was it was too much.

We have to accept that out-of-town supermarkets are part of our way of life. Most people want a supermarket with a large car park, preferably located where they can avoid the traffic congestion in the town. For the same reason they like other out-of-town stores. They want to be able to buy most of their regular needs in the one place at the one time in a warm environment, they do not want to struggle down a high street going from shop to shop in the cold and rain, trying to carry several heavy shopping bags. Of course the high streets have their appeal, it is nice to have a friendly family butcher, baker, fishmonger, greengrocer and deli, all able to give expert advice, and if one is fortunate enough to have such a high street it can be enjoyable on a nice day, but the prices are likely to be higher, although most people would like to see a thriving high street most will not want to give up the supermarkets to achieve it. I would wager that those people in Sheringham who were so opposed to a Tesco on the edge of town (with whom I had some sympathy), often went into Cromer to Tesco or Morrisons.

The fact is that the widely owned motor car, the freezer and the refrigerator have changed the nature of shopping and the role of most town centres. The future of the major towns remains assured for the time being. People like the big department stores and the markets, between them they provide adequate attraction for shoppers. The big towns are cultural and administrative centres as well as being nodal points in the transport network. Parking may be difficult but park-and-ride schemes ease the problem for drivers.

It is the high streets in many of the smaller towns that are suffering, not necessarily because of out-of-town shops on the fringe of their town but also because of the relative ease with which people can get to other supermarkets and to the bigger towns. Trying to restrict further out-of-town developments as a means of protecting town centres is swimming against the tide. We have to recognise that people use their cars for shopping, they need to be able to park. Towns have to accept the situation and find their own future, they have to accept that they cannot compete directly with the supermarkets and have to concentrate on their own strengths, they could do more to make the towns more attractive to visitors and more attractive to residents but they are restricted by falling revenue from their businesses. It does not seem unreasonable to me to expect the supermarkets on the edges of the towns that are taking the trade from the town centre and making big profits, to pay more towards the upkeep of the town than they do currently.

Ron Watts

Copyright remains with independent content providers where specified, including but not limited to Village Pump contributors. All rights reserved.