Retail experts have said a community-focused approach is needed to tackle the challenges plaguing high streets and town centres across the UK.
According to The High Street Report published today, the government was urged to empower local leaders and communities to reinvent town centres through an “Upside Down Government” approach.
This entails giving community figures the power to design and implement their plans for future town centres that recreate a “community hub”.
These community hubs would consist of leisure and social services sitting alongside retail and residential property.
The report was put together by a government-appointed panel of high street experts who were asked to advise on how ailing high streets could be saved. The panel was led by Sir John Timpson, the chairman of the eponymous shoe repair retailer.
Timpson said UK retail would not return to the high streets that existed 10 or 20 years ago, but the report made suggestions to help places overcome the “difficult structural issues and changes” they faced.
Some of these recommendations are immediate measures, such as a “National High Street Perfect Day”, whereby local communities come together for a day each year to tackle litter and graffiti so they can take ownership of ensuring their town centre looked as good as possible.
The report also re-iterated the £675 million already announced in the Budget for the Future High Streets Fund, which would go towards high street improvements at a local level to improve public spaces and transport links.
Timpson and his panel also encouraged local communities to think creatively about empty properties and welcomed the government’s Open Doors scheme which opens empty shops to community groups.
Finally, it recommended the creation of a Town Centre Task Force to support local leaders to act as a single voice in finding unique solutions for communities.
“Everyone can improve high street and town centre housekeeping through a determined campaign to eliminate litter and graffiti,” Timpson wrote in The High Street Report.
“Our suggestion is to have a ‘National High Street Perfect Day’ – one day in the year when every shopping street looks the best it possibly can.
“This should be a locally-led and funded initiative that draws on expertise from a range of partners.”
Timpson also wrote that the reports’ recommendations of re-imagining town centres should not be seen as a “central programme dictated by government”.
“It is a series of locally-inspired and led initiatives that are supported by a government that offers information and helps to clear obstacles out of the way,” he said.
“I think of it as ‘Upside Down Government’: providing help on a town by town basis, enabling local leaders to design future town centres that recreate a community hub.”
In a statement accompanying the report, Timspon added: “When the panel was formed, we knew high streets would never be the same again, but we were delighted to discover places where imaginative developments have increased footfall and reduced the number of empty shops.
“By helping our towns create their own individual community hub, I believe we will have vibrant town centres to provide a much-needed place for face to face contact in the digital age.
“I have learnt, from my own business, that the best way to get things done is to give people on the front line the freedom to get on with the job in the way they know best.
“We are applying the same ‘Upside Down Government’ principle to the development of our town centres, with our Town Centre Task Force there to mentor, encourage and clear any obstacles out of the way while giving the clear message to inspirational local leaders that they are free to turn their plans into reality.”
While the British Retail Consortium (BRC) welcomed the recommendations in The High Street Report, it highlighted the persistent issue of high business rates despite what was announced in the recent Budget.
“The creation of the £675 million high street fund, announced at the Budget, to support the transformation of high streets and town centres is a welcome recognition of the need to support our commercial areas as they work to ensure that they remain relevant and commercially vibrant in the future,” BRC business director Tom Ironside said.
“The final report contains strong advice on how to ensure that that funding is used to best effect, notably through the oversight of the High Streets Taskforce and practical measures for local leaders to implement in their local areas.
“At the same time, it is essential that the government takes additional robust steps to provide real support to struggling high streets.
“Most importantly, wholesale reform of business rates is needed for our towns and high streets in order to thrive.
“The issue remains that the business rates burden is simply too high and disproportionately impacts the retail industry.”
High streets minister Jake Berry said: “We have already taken action by announcing plans to set up a Future High Streets Fund and Task Force, alongside slashing business rates for up to a third of small retailers.
“We will carefully consider these recommendations.”