Trade organisation the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) this week laid out its three-point plan to revive the UK’s flagging high streets – and giving communities more decision-making power is central to the group’s argument.
At the Heart of the Community conference in Westminster on Wednesday, the ACS called for local businesses to have more control over the types of shops they see in their towns and villages.
Research from the association, conducted by ComRes, suggests that 77 per cent of MPs support such a move, but it appears that red tape and hierarchical obstacles currently block the path of change.
ACS CEO James Lowman said: “Communities want to be able to encourage the right balance of businesses; large and small; discounters, specialists and national brands but they are currently frustrated by the limits of the planning powers available to them.
“This problem will not be addressed by the localism reforms enacted so far. That’s why we are calling for new powers that would allow communities to set out their vision for the retail mix they want to achieve in their area and once agreed councils could use planning powers to restrict local dominance of one type of business.”
Some parts of Britain are taking action already, with many market towns introducing local loyalty cards over the last few years in an attempt to maintain healthy footfall levels within their communities.
Crouch End in north London has taken this idea a few steps further though, with a project led by local businesswoman Clare Richmond having made a dramatic difference to the town in recent months. Independent shops have been able to prosper, while larger multiples have been kept to a minimum.
What started off as a small project, running late night shopping events and offering loyalty cards to customers in Crouch End, has now reportedly grown into a real asset for all of the town. Having gained support from the council after initially being funded by local businesses, it has established a blueprint which other boroughs of London are keen to follow.
“By definition every town centre is made up of a wide variety of personalities, experience, types of businesses and agendas, and whilst this is a strength, these first need to be united,” Richmond explained.
“A key to success is having a clear brand strategy and vision to work towards which inspires the businesses to want to be part of community platform.
“Through our work in Crouch End and other town centres we have now developed a fantastic toolkit including training, workshops, website and a local card loyalty scheme, that can be scaled to work in any size town centre, or rural community.”
But the north Londoner is keen to express that it is the business-led approach that is the most effective for achieving these goals.
“The whole point of our model is that it is through business investment that the whole community benefits - but it is led by business, and, very importantly, not the council or government.”
Other initiatives to aid smaller firms called for during this week’s ACS gathering in central London, included the prevention of the 5.6 per cent business rates hike planned for April 2012.
The rates hike is based on September’s retail prices index, but there is growing pressure from lobbyists to change the way this is measured in order to help small businesses in what is becoming an increasingly tough economic environment.
“The business rate increase planned for April 2012 is the highest for 20 years and will cost convenience stores alone more than £35 million,” Lowman remarked.
“A two per cent increase in line with government targets would give businesses an opportunity to invest in the future and drive the economic recovery at a time when jobs are at an absolute premium.”
Lowman also believes that toughening up the town-centre-first rules in draft National Planning Policy is an important move, especially since research shows that the proportion of new retail investment put into improving town centres has reduced by 20 per cent in the last five years.
“Government planning reforms present an opportunity for councils and local people to reassert control over the planning decisions that govern the shape of their high streets,” he explained.
“However there are still improvements needed to ensure national policy is as robust as it can be.”
Retail guru Mary Portas is soon to publish her government-commissioned review on the state of the UK high street, which will inevitably address some of the issues concerning groups like the ACS and those involved in the Crouch End Project.
But there is a danger that whatever the Portas report uncovers or advises will not be tailored to individual communities.
“Obviously we are still eagerly awaiting the outcome of the review,” Richmond commented.
“However, I would question the efficacy of a government-led scheme which is in danger of providing a one-size-fits-all-response, that doesn’t properly empower businesses or give them a structure that allows the individuality of a community to flourish.
“We know that parking rents and rates will remain a huge problem yet the impact of these can be diminished with the right approach and toolkit.”