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Focus on Retail – William Grimsey: Why we need a plan for the British High Street

As part of our focus on Retail, we invited William Grimsey, the Ex-CEO of Wickes, Big Food Group, Focus DIY and Park n Shop Hong Kong, to discuss his thoughts concerning British retail and the UK High Street:

As the season of political conferences is upon us it’s that time of year when buzzwords and slogans are everywhere. ‘Britain deserves better than this’ has been the most memorable slogan for me so far, because that’s exactly how I feel about our high streets.

With 45,000 empty shops across the country no one can say we can’t do better. The British high street is a great national institution that’s launched some of the most innovative UK companies, created strong local identities, generated heaps of civic pride and made communities strong for nearly 150 years.

But right now it’s at a crossroads. Changing consumer behaviour in the form of online shopping and the shift to an out of town mega mall culture combined with an increasingly onerous cost base in high business rates have made the high street a far less competitive place. Put simply, it’s been overtaken by a new shopping model and what’s left is going through a painful transformation.

Big chains are consolidating their portfolios and moving out of traditional high street settings and the growth area on the high street is distinctly non-retail. Food, leisure, pay day loans and charity shops are the ventures filling empty units where shops once stood. So the choice facing the high street is to adapt or die. Plan for a new post-retail culture or continue a steady decline that results in towns being hollowed out and lacking any real strong identity.

When I pulled together a team of experts earlier this year to embark on an alternative review of the high street, I did so with the belief that our towns and shopping areas can have a much brighter future. But they can’t carry on as they are and we should be under no illusion that the high street has permanently changed and there’s no going back. To re-design our high streets we need to start focusing on community needs, not just commercial ones.

But as a starting point, we need a plan. Over 50 per cent of local authorities that responded to our Freedom of Information requests had no town centre plan whatsoever. This is why we’re in a mess. We need town centre commissions overseeing 20-year plans that the public are updated on regularly through progress reports and public meetings. We also need to repopulate our town centres by turning some empty shops into housing and encouraging people to live there. Education, leisure, entertainment, health and culture will play a bigger role if we’re to re-design high streets as community hubs, not just temples of commerce.

Local communities can help re-shape their town centres to break away from years of decline to once again become thriving, diverse places. They just need to be given the chance – and there has to be a will to accept that high streets need our support.
In order to support shops on the high street today, we need to help build a stronger community around them where people want to live, socialise and work.

Since we published our review, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the reaction. We’ve been backed by organisations large and small and our message, particularly on the need for fairer business rates to give small businesses a fighting chance, has made politicians take notice.

Getting to grips with the problems facing our high street is not going to be easy. But as long as there’s political will we can re-populate desolate town centres, re-design high streets to meet community needs and support shops with fairer taxes. Our team is continuing to campaign for change and looking to set up the first pilot in the coming months. With common sense and a tremendous passion to put the UK back on top by revitalising and re-structuring the micro economies that are our towns and high streets we can make that the better Britain we all deserve is made manifest on our high streets.

What are your thought’s on the future of the UK High Street?

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