Retail veteran Bill Grimsey has told a group of cross-party MPs that the “tipping point has arrived” in an evidence session as part of a government inquiry into the future of high streets and town centres.
The housing, communities and local government committee is examining the future role of high streets and town centres, how they might respond to the challenges posed by demographic and technological changes and local government’s role in supporting this.
“We have kicked off the year with the worst performance in many years of many high street retailers,” Grimsey said. “August had the worst performance for three years. A week doesn’t go by without another retailer trying to address their balance sheet. It is clear that we are faced with biggest challenge we have ever had with our town centres.”
He maintained that business rates is a huge issue for retailers: “It is broken and will be responsible for small businesses on the high street in particular to fail,” he said. “These are often small businesses when people have their house on the line – it is an outdated tax but it is easy to fix.”
He suggested that to replace the £8bn revenue that the government receives from the retail sector in business rates, the chancellor could introduce a flat 2% sales tax at the point of sale which would generate the same amount.
“This would solve it tomorrow and would also eliminate the ridiculous argument of online vs offline retail,” he said. “It would level the playing field straight away. It is nothing to do with the avoidance of corporation tax, which is a separate issue.”
The evidence sessions also heard that parking continues to be an issue but Grimsey argued that town centres need to move away from their reliance on retail to become activity-based community hubs that serve local needs instead.
”There is no silver bullet, it is very complex and there is no single set of guidelines that will work for all towns or even clusters of towns,” he said. ”The solutions are local. Heritage is very important for each of these places.”
Grimsey suggested that strong local leadership will be the catalyst for change in these towns to ensure they thrive as places people want to live, work and play.
Future sessions are likely to focus on issues including trends in the retail and service sectors, business rates, rents and different strategies and initiatives to improve town centres.