Save our high streets | ANALYSIS


ack in August, we aired an episode of The kbbreview Podcast called: “Can we save

the high street?”. We tweeted about the episode, and one Twitter user came back with a simple, straight to the point, response: “No”. So, is this what our industry really thinks of the UK high street? Is it beyond saving, or could a bit of investment really build our high streets and town centres back better? The Government certainly believes that the UK high street can be salvaged, and in mid-July this year, it released the ‘Build Back Better High Streets’ paper. It is a promise that after decades of decline, the Government is now committed to saving the high street.

The average UK high street is peppered with empty shops, and the statistics speak for themselves. According to data from commercial property experts, the CoStar Group, since the collapse of BHS in 2016, the UK has lost 83% of its department stores. In fact, there are now only 79 of them left in the country, and 237 vacant department stores with no plans for replacements, creating thousands of square feet of empty retail space. Reports from PricewaterhouseCoopers

(PwC) reveal that there has been a steady increase in high street store closures since 2015. Unsurprisingly – thanks to pressures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the enforced lockdowns – there was a 30% increase in chain store closures and a slowdown in openings in 2020. Last year alone, more than 17,500 chain

stores closed their doors. In addition, an average of 48 venues – across all shops,

restaurants and leisure – closed permanently every day in England, Scotland and Wales, in comparison to just 21 new store openings. However, it may not all be doom and gloom. Despite a number of shops laying empty and many high streets looking like ghost towns, as reported in the Build Back Better High Streets paper, in 2020, 72% of all retail sales took place in physical stores, a surprising – and positive – result after so many non-essential shops were forced to close for much of the year.

Perfect storm The aforementioned kbbreview Podcast episode focussing on the plight of UK high streets, centred round a discussion with retail consultant Ian Scott, who broke down the current situation. He described the it using the old cliché that we are in the ‘perfect storm’, as Scott believes the situation has now got so bad that everyone involved has been forced to want to do something about it.

“It is a unique situation that the

Government are losing business rates, the landlords are losing rents, and the retailers are losing revenue,” Scott explained on The kbbreview Podcast. “So, what we have is a situation where all three key stakeholders are suffering, so everyone wants to improve it.” The Build Back Better High

Rather than attempting to force the toothpaste back into the tube, we’re accepting that the world has changed and giving our high streets the freedom they need to

change with it Boris Johnson, Prime Minister

The Build Back Better campaign in figures

It’s about reviving the high street in a

different mode. It’s not a retail destination that we’ve got to concentrate on – it’s a community

hub concept Bill Grimsey, author of the Grimsey Report

Streets paper begins with the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, saying: ‘you cannot force toothpaste back in the tube’ and that the Government, local councils and businesses will have to accept change and move to a new way of the high street. The paper includes several new policy details, ranging from litter picking to outdoor dining. Niche retailers - like those in the KBB industry – may not be affected directly; however, the Government’s aim to rejuvenate the high street will indirectly help everyone by making local areas more attractive to businesses and consumers. One word that crops up again and again in the report is flexibility. The Government promises to remove a lot of red tape and asks local councils to be more flexible in dealing with requests by businesses. A practical example of this is allowing companies to change the use of a building without planning permission, which opens up the possibility for you, and any other retailer, to open a new showroom with greater ease. Availability of parking on – or near – local high streets has long been a source of contention as it seems no local council has ever quite got the formula right. The good news is that this report promises to start a specific technical consultation about parking charges to create a fairer system

October 2021 · in funding for

high streets and town centres

72% £352bn

of all retail

sales in 2020 took place in store

on covid business

support throughout the pandemic

and make high streets more accessible to consumers. This change, in particular, could be great news for high street KBB retailers. As you are well aware, design consultations can last hours, and customers watching the clock to make sure their pay-and- display parking doesn’t run out, does not make for an enjoyable or productive appointment. It may not be a bold reform, like the complete removal of paid parking like most people would have liked, but it is a start.


Community driven Rents and rates are another concern for all parties. Since March 2020, the Government has paid £352 billion in a Covid support package with £16 billion specifically going towards business rates support for eligible retail, hospitality and leisure properties, not forgetting Small Business Rates Relief where 750,000 properties in England, which included many one-store KBB retailers, were entitled to 100% relief during the most challenging periods of the pandemic. The report is also community- driven and focuses, not only on businesses, but on the people too. A point that Bill Grimsey, former boss of Wickes and Iceland and author of the ‘Grimsey Report’ – a deep dive into the health of the UK high street published in 2013 and revised in 2018 – will,

undoubtedly, be pleased to hear. Back in 2018, in an exclusive interview, Grimsey told kbbreview that the key to saving our high streets was engaging with local people. “It’s about reviving the high street in a different mode,” he said. “It’s not a retail destination that we’ve got to concentrate on – it’s a community hub concept with health, education, entertainment, leisure, pedestrianisation, lots of good activities, events and festivals, and housing, particularly for older people.” Grimsey was clearly ahead of his

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