14th Aug 2019

High street vacancy and the plight of our town centres

Once again we hear the cries of high street retailers, bemoaning a “broken” business rates system, which in part is the cause of increasing vacancy rates in UK town centres. The heads of more than 50 major retailers have this week written to the new Chancellor, Sajid Javid, with a plea to reform business rates, but this will not be the only call for financial help in Mr Javid’s in-tray and it is questionable, therefore, how high up on the Chancellor’s to-do list this plea will find itself.

There is no doubt that the business rates system is outdated and arguably unfit for modern purpose, but this is just symptomatic of a far larger problem with our high streets.  Modern retailing is not just about bricks and mortar.  Those stores, small and large, which have failed to move with the times and adapt to the challenges of online retailing are suffering the consequences.

Add to that the additional issue for property owners and occupiers that they have to bear business rates on empty properties (although some small reliefs are available) and it is an increasingly worrying time for the high street.

Looking for solutions

In a world where online shopping is fast becoming the default means of buying for many customers, in order for the high street to survive, those parties who have a vested interest – the retailers, local authorities, property owners, developers and business support organisations such as BIDs (business improvement districts) – need to work together to make the high street a more attractive and pleasant place to be.  Footfall is king.  This means thinking a little more creatively about how and when to make our town centres more appealing.  My home town – Harrogate – possesses assets which other towns would kill for, but it is not immune to the challenges and has its own typical problems – empty shop units, anti-social behaviour and streets which, other than clusters of (some very good) bars and restaurants, for the most part close down after 5.30pm.

Those parties who have a vested interest need to work together to make the high street a more attractive and pleasant place to be.

Street festivals, events and markets all help to draw in the crowds, but these need to be a little more creative by being positioned in such a way that they complement, rather than compete with existing shops.  If such events are held in the early evening, after 5.30pm, perhaps shops should be encouraged to stay open to try and draw on the footfall from office workers before they go home or the families with their children after school who might come into the town centre and make an evening of it.

Finally, empty units need to be brought back to life. If rent paying tenants can’t be found for the empty units, property owners need to be persuaded to make (or allow others to make) their shop fronts more attractive or even to offer their premises (if they genuinely are un-lettable) so as to allow groups of small incubator/starter businesses to have space rent-free (or at concessionary rents) for short periods to try and grow their businesses. 

Inevitably there are no easy answers, but we should not hold our breath and expect the new Chancellor to wave his magic wand and even, if he does, that of itself will not be sufficient to save the high street.

Richard Wheeldon is a Senior Consultant in Berwins' industry ranked Commercial Property team and a Director of Harrogate BID Limited. 

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