One notable absence in last week’s reshuffle was representation of our town centres - but the government must prioritise it, writes Catherine Neilan.
As Drapers’ editor Caroline Nodder has already noted, last week was back to work with a bang, and nowhere was this more obvious than at Number 10, where David Cameron carved up new lines of responsibility among the Coalition.
Some were unceremoniously given the heave-ho. Others, like former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, were given surprise promotions. Previous unknown Maria Miller has leapfrogged over Ed Vaizey from the Department of Work and Pensions, where she was minister for disabled people. to become his replacement.
Grant Schapps was also one to benefit, climbing from his under-secretary role as minister for housing and local government to co-chairman of the party. In his place is former business and enterprise minister Mark Prisk, a property specialist having worked at Knight Frank in the ‘80s. Included in his brief – though you wouldn’t know it from the title – is the high street.
The reshuffle gave Cameron and his advisers the opportunity to prove that they were offering more than just lip service when they talk about their commitment to the Great British town centre. But where is our minister for high streets?
Housing is a very different beast from retail, and quite how the high street fits into Prisk’s brief is a mystery. Under Schapps tenure, there was often confusion as to whether DCLG or Bis (or perhaps some other department altogether) was responsible because of a fundamental lack of clarity in the departmental briefs, and it seems nothing has been done to alter this.
Fortunately, having worked with small businesses in Bis for two years, Prisk may well be conscious of the issues affecting retailers – business rates and credit insurance top among them. Although he was one of the ministers to pass the buck when credit insurance began to implode and those looking for a minister to tackle the issue came looking for help, Prisk is possibly the best placed to help the high street.
But to do that he needs to prioritise it. Schapps oversaw the Portas Pilots – which no doubt will transfer to Prisk – but the brief is more important than just a somewhat limited exercise in neighbourly goodwill. The high street employs a huge part of the population – particularly 16-25 year olds – and gives a huge amount of money back to the tax man. It’s time that taxation equated to representation.
In the last week, several reports have been published that reveal just how close to the edge the British high street is. Trade body BSCS has urged the government to act. If we are going to kick start our town centres, we need someone who can take charge and start making decisions immediately.
The reshuffle was an opportunity for the government to create a portfolio of its own for this vital part of the retail puzzle – or at least one that features in the minister’s title. Cameron may have failed to seize it, but Prisk still can.