Booksellers’ Association (BA) research published last week added further fuel to the fire that UK town centre shopping is in rapid decline, but one industry lobbyist argues that the high street is far from going up in smoke.
Deputy CEO of the British Independent Retailers Association (BIRA) Michael Weedon told Retail Gazette that, although “things aren’t great” right now, industry commentators are often guilty of a glass-half empty viewpoint when it comes to UK retail.
Earlier this year, the government gave the impression that urgent and radical action was needed when it commissioned TV celebrity and businesswoman Mary Portas to conduct a report on the problems facing the high street, but the BIRA boss is confident that with a number of tweaks to planning regulations and a change in attitude there is a rosy future for the retail sector.
“Looking at Local Data Company (LCD) figures, which helped kick off the whole Portas review, one in seven shops (14 per cent) across the country are vacant,” Weedon explained.
“Is the glass 14 per cent empty or 86 per cent full? I think vacancy levels need to be a lot more severe than this to be classed as dead.”
There is no denying that retail has struggled in the aftermath of the most recent recession, with a spate of administrations confirmed this year and companies, from baby and mother products specialist Mothercare to entertainment retailer HMV, issuing profit warnings.
Meanwhile, last Monday’s report from the BA showed that there has been a 26 per cent reduction in its membership base over the last five years, prompting the group to urge the government to address a number of factors holding back growth.
In a recent survey of the association’s members the top three issues to tackle in order to improve trading conditions were said to be business rates (29 per cent), parking (28 per cent) and planning (13 per cent) – all subjects at the heart of BIRA’s lobbying.
Weedon said: “We need to level the difference between out-of-town parking, which is free, and in-town parking which is expensive. Currently there is a £1 billion disincentive to go into town.
“Business rates must be reduced for suffering town centres and, as Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government Eric Pickles said at the recent British Retail Consortium dinner, it is in the power of local councils to reduce them.
“It is also important to consult furiously on the national planning policy framework – the consultation period ends on October 17th 2011.”
By the very nature of his job, which sees him lobby the government and campaign on behalf of independent retailers across the UK, Weedon must remain optimistic about the future of the high street but it is mainly because there appears to be so much at stake.
“Everyone must read the 58-page planning document because the consultation closes in one week’s time and it’s going to set the theme for at least the next decade of planning. It needs to be right and it needs to be now.”
Despite his sense of urgency, Weedon is confident that the journey of the British high street will be one defined more by gradual evolution rather than rapid demise, and he expects it to serve different functions as the years go by.
Service-led businesses have become increasingly ubiquitous on the UK high street in the last 18 months and there are signs that this will continue.
“People are often sniffy about this but LDC shows there are an increasing number of tattoo parlours and pawnbrokers, for example,” Weedon commented.
“They add to the life of the town and these services are also difficult to deliver via the internet so why not have them?”
Many observers are predicting a greater percentage of residential space will be designated to urban areas, and this could be one way to guarantee footfall in town centres, according to the BIRA boss.
“It puts people back into town centres, allowing them to walk into town, keeping local centre and shops alive,” he acknowledged.
“Changing shops into flats is less common than office blocks into flats, but we’ll definitely see a bit more of the former over the next couple of years.”
So while uncertainty remains about the direction the UK high street is taking, Weedon is adamant about one thing; “it is certainly not dead”.