High Street has ‘double the number of shops needed’
Written by Hannah McGrath
UK High Streets have double the number of shops needed to keep up with demand, according to the author of a government report on the future of retail.
John Timpson, who founded the Timpson family’s key-cutting and shoe repair chain, said that the revival of Britain’s High Street revival should be a “bottom up” job, involving funding and support for local councils to take the lead in turning town centres into communities and meeting places.
"It's about communities and creating a hub for entertainment, medical facilities, housing. We probably have about twice as many shops as we need, but we are short of housing,” he explained in an interview with the BBC.
In his introduction to the report, compiled by an expert panel of retailers and business leaders, Timpson wrote: “A combination of internet shopping, the convenience of out of town retailing and an exceptional number of well-established retail formats reaching the end of their commercial life cycle, has led to a marked increase in empty shops and a decline in footfall.”
However, despite the apparently bleak outlook for the future of the High Street as a shopping hub, he said the study had left him with “more hope for the future of our town centres than when we first started gathering evidence”.
Communities that had bucked the trend and managed to “put a buzz back into their town centre” were those that had reduced the number of empty shops and made their town centres attractive places to be, the report explained.
However, whilst he acknowledged the government’s efforts to revive High Street retailers, exemplified by a £675 million Future High Street Fund announced in the chancellor’s Budget speech, he recommended that efforts should be led by the communities and local councils themselves.
“Reimagining our town centres should not be seen as a central programme dictated by government,” stated Timpson. “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 also encouraged local communities to think innovatively about how empty properties are used and said that his own experience in retail had taught him 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”.
The report concluded that it was “obvious” that empty retail estate should be converted into residential properties in areas where there was a housing shortage. Planning rules should also be relaxed to enable communities to repurpose retail units, the expert panel found.
The panel, commissioned by High Streets minister Jake Berry, was asked to come up with a report diagnosing the issues facing Britain’s high streets and town centres and propose solutions on the practical measures government can take to help.
Last month, a report from PwC found that there were around 14 shop closures every day, with unprecedented pressures leading to the collapse of a number of major retailers, such as House of Fraser, and dozens of stores earmarked for closure by High Street stalwarts like Marks and Spencer and Debenhams.
Tom Ironside, director of business and regulation at the British Retail Consortium, welcomed the report’s findings as well as the government’s £675 million High Street fund.
“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,” he continued. “Most importantly, wholesale reform of business rates is needed for our towns and high streets in order to thrive.”