Why you should feel hopeful about the high street

Thousands of shops on the high street are closing every year. Beyond the boarded-up windows is a real fear that we are losing the very heart of communities. So what’s the word on the high street about how we can start reviving our town centres?

Over the last year, many of the most famous names on the high street  – Debenhams, Clintons, Mothercare, Jessops, Thomas Cook – either slipped into administration or had to close multiple stores. Boots has said it plans to shut 200 outlets. Marks & Spencer has jettisoned 48 shops and is expected to lose over 100 more.

In 2019, 44 stores across the UK closed every day – a total of 16,073 shutting up shop for good. Over 150,000 jobs were lost, a massive blow to the workforce.

The prime minister recently announced a £1bn fund to improve infrastructure and pay for planning applications. But this is a small step towards tackling an enormous, endemic problem which has far-reaching and disastrous effects on communities.

From the retailers’ perspective the biggest problem – or at least one that government and local authorities can do something about – is “unsustainably high” business rates. Earlier this month the British Retail Consortium (BRC) along with 52 retail companies wrote to the chancellor calling on him to make good on the government’s pledge to review rates. However, it was posted on the day Boris Johnson had his reshuffle, so who knows if the message was redirected.

Tom Holder, spokesperson for the BRC, points out that their monthly retail sales monitor showed growth of 0.4 per cent in January versus 2.2 per cent last year. “The 12-month figure for average growth is now the lowest on record, declining at 0.2 per cent,” he says. 

“Retail is paying a disproportionately large part of the tax burden that needs to be levelled more fairly across the entire economy. To give you an indication of how disproportionate business rates have become, the retail sector accounts for five per cent of the economy and yet retailers pay 10 per cent of all business taxes overall and 25 per cent of business rates.”

Something called “transitional relief” – which slows the pace of change when a business has its rates re-evaluated so as to avoid sudden shock – is another part of the problem, protecting those whose rates are about to shoot up but also delaying relief for those who need it. Additionally, says Holden, people who are slowed upwards are funded by the people who are slowed downwards. 

“But there’s a geographic effect. London is a big winner because its rates are not going up as fast as they should be, funded by those whose rates should be going down much faster than they are (such as businesses in the north of England). Retail has lost about £550 million over the last three years on that basis.” This is why the BRC is calling for the transitional relief system to be fixed. But in itself, revamping the business rate system will not save our high streets.

Another complication, inevitably, is Brexit. With ‘No Deal’ remaining a real threat, trade uncertainty has prevented businesses investing to transform and modernise themselves – upskilling employees and improving the shopping experience for consumers – which has to happen for retailers to survive.

Holder continues: “We accept that retail may be smaller at the end [of this process] but what we need to do is make sure that if it’s going to be smaller that it’s fitter and stronger.”

A lot of people’s hopes and dreams are at stake

Few people have their finger on the pulse of the nation’s high streets quite like Big Issue sellers do. Our vendors have always been beacons of hope at the heart of communities.

Chris Falchi-Stead, The Big Issue’s director of sales and operations, says that like the best entrepreneurs, vendors are making the most of town centres, and are actively fostering a sense of community, notably in places such as Leith in Edinburgh and Uckfield in East Sussex, where local people are rallying around them. 

And lately we see that for an increasing number of people, selling the magazine has become a lifeline if they have lost their jobs and have no means of income to keep body and soul together until benefits kick in. Mass-scale redundancy such as we have seen over the last 12 months in the retail sector, where jobs may be part-time or low-paid, leads to more people struggling to get by – and so consumer confidence is low, high street footfall declines, and a vicious cycle grows worse. But in many parts of the UK communities themselves are seizing initiative and fighting back against the gloom.

“The death of the high street has been the narrative for a long time, and in a way that can create a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Alex Schlagman, a founding partner of savethehighstreet.org, a movement launched in 2016 to promote a new vision for town centres. “We need to make sure the high street is the place that consumers want to spend their time and money, and recognise that if you don’t use it you lose it.

DID YOU KNOW…

Vendors buy magazines for £1.25 and sell them for £2.50. They are working and need your custom.

“If we pull out the high street rug from underneath the local economy, there is a really detrimental knock-on impact. It’s the engine room that drives local economic growth. There are half a million outlets around the UK but 300,000 of those are independently owned. A lot of people’s hopes and dreams are at stake. If we’re just buying from large corporates with out-of-town warehouses, companies that often have very clever tax accountants, we’re losing a lot of money from the local economy. 

“We risk an alternative future we’re not willing to accept, where everybody lives behind their screens at homes with things coming to them.”

What, then, needs to change to save the high street?

“The businesses themselves all need to go through their own mini-transformation programme,” says Schlagman. “For successful high street businesses in the past, present and future, you expect to see great customer service and experience.

“There are about 5,000 high-street communities around the UK and each one of those needs to operate like its own mini-business in its own right. We need to be much more agile in terms of legislation, to quickly change from one class to another [for example from commercial to residential] and we need to move to a place where it doesn’t require such a commitment to set up on the high street.”

In Scotland Edinburgh Printmakers is leading the charge, with a network of 13 sites in Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, Paisley, Falkirk and Grangemouth being offered as temporary locations to be transformed by communities into creative spaces, such as studios, rehearsal, exhibition and event rooms and teaching rooms, for a low monthly fee. It is intended to allow communities to decide what they need, and encourage them to make it happen themselves in a central location. So far they have seen 30,000 people pass through the doors, and in 2020 there are plans to expand in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee.

Short-term, dynamic, temporary use of space like this is invigorating and stimulating, and can encourage ambition and optimism in communities – which is often lacking in council-led initiatives. 

“It’s commonly accepted that you have to make like a five-year-plus commitment,” notes Schlagman. “It should be the same as setting up an online business in a few minutes. Test an idea out. See if it works. Doesn’t work? Move on. Does work Double down, expand.

“Once the BHS network goes it doesn’t get replaced by BHS again. It is independent businesses that are going to plug this gap in the future. There’s a real acceptance and a desire for a whole new generation of entrepreneurs to come on to the high street, bringing their passions to life.”

Independent businesses offer a glimpse of green shoots. In 2019, large retailers with 10 or more outlets closed 5,901 shops – an increase of 79 per cent on the previous year. But independent store closures reduced from 11,280 to 10,172 in 2019. While that is still a lot of shops going out of business, small retailers are actively reversing this haemorrhaging on the high street.

THE FIGHTBACK HAS BEGUN

This week, towns from Addingham to Worcester are in the midst of FiverFest, where retailers band together to promote themselves and each other. It is a campaign pioneered by Chris Sands and his organisation Totally Locally. “If you’ve got a little shop and you put on a special offer, I’m not really going to come in. But if 50 shops in your town all work together, that’s worth a visit,” Sands says.

Based in Hebden Bridge, Sands is a branding and marketing expert. Ten years ago Calderdale Council commissioned him to mastermind a shop local campaign. “I think they were just expecting a ‘shop local’ sticker,” he says. “I’ve worked with some big corporates in the past. I know the strategy they use to get people away from the small guys so I just applied that to small businesses.”

Totally Locally had an immediate impact and Sands was inundated by so many requests from other towns he made his Totally Locally kits downloadable for free. “It’s a marketing strategy and campaign about independents working together,” Sands explains. “[There are] designs and posters but it is also about how to work together, how to arrange meetings. Instead of a town hall, you’ve got to meet in the pub and have a few pints. That’s when things get done.”

While savethehighstreet.org calls for local champions to represent and take responsibility for their area, Sands doesn’t believe in self-appointed leaders. “Anybody who wants to be a chairman needs to be kicked out straight away,” he declares. “We’re basically breaking all the rules that have made these things fail before. It frustrates me that all the doom and gloom news is around big chain stores, never about small businesses that are growing,” Sands says, citing that last year saw the highest number of new bookshops opening in over a decade.

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

Over 50 towns across the UK are using Totally Locally’s campaign with around 100 taking part in FiverFest – although some, including Hebden Bridge, have postponed because of flooding. “Leek in Staffordshire, they used to call it Bleak Leek but, with our kit, shop vacancies went from 17 per cent to three per cent.”

Sands also came up with The Magic Tenner, which highlights the fact that £10 spent in a local shop is worth £50 to the local economy.

Totally Locally is a success, Sands believes, because it gives retailers the tools to help themselves. And they are best placed to do that because they care about making their business work.

“The average shop has got 16 local suppliers. There’s people in this area who’ve got 72 local suppliers. The economics of that is huge for a town where all these businesses are linked together. And if one starts to fall it affects everybody.”

When people rally around, ties are established that strengthen the whole area. That’s what was emphasised when The Big Issue convened the UK’s first social trading conference in Nottingham in 2018. Dubbed How to Create a Social Echo: Strengthening Communities Through Local Trading, it demonstrated how every organisation carries a social echo that reverberates around the area. Empowering community revival is the speciality of Power to Change. Using an endowment from the Big Lottery Fund, it works with community businesses to create change “driven from the bottom up” and trading for the benefit of the local area.

“We all instinctively want to connect with the places where we live. Parades of empty shops drain our towns of identity,” says Vidhya Alakeson, chief executive of Power to Change. Homebaked, a community bakery in Anfield, Liverpool, is reversing that. They stopped a street from being demolished by setting up there. Close to Anfield, Liverpool FC’s stadium, they do a roaring trade on matchday pies and also train local people, visit schools and offer a youth business scheme. They also recently won planning permission to reopen more buildings on the boarded-up terrace to create affordable homes.

In Plymouth, Union Street, once a thriving commercial centre, has been plagued by derelict shops for years. Nudge Community Builders took over a run-down pub, The Clipper, and now host regular markets in the backyard, creating a hub for start-up food stalls and other micro-businesses, with units starting at £7.50 per day.

Power to Change is involved in dozens of similar projects across the country and has seen many examples of community businesses stepping in when big business fails. Alakeson says: “When communities are given a bit of space, they create fantastic enterprises that respond directly to their own needs. That’s what we need to do everywhere.

“These aren’t such radical ideas. High streets have always been spaces for the local community to come together, do business and interact. With a bit of imagination, we can find a 21st-century way of making that happen again.”