Cash pledged to boost London’s high streets is “an expensive sticking plaster” and would be better spent improving policy such as that surrounding business rates, retail experts have said.
From October small businesses in the capital will be able to apply for a slice of the £9m funding from City Hall, as pledged by mayor Boris Johnson last week.
The amounts available to individual businesses, and whether the payments will be staggered, are yet to be decided. A prospectus outlining the funding options will be released in the autumn.
The shop vacancy rate across central London stands at 13.5% - which is the same as across the UK as a whole - and for Greater London it is 9.7%, according to research from The Local Data Company.
It is expected the cash will be used to smarten up shop fronts, improve public spaces or to hold mini-festivals, but experts said the funding failed to address the underlying issues behind declining high street footfall.
Former Iceland boss and high street campaigner Bill Grimsey told Drapers: “The £9m pledge is a drop in the ocean in London. If this money is going on improving shop fascias, that’s good, but it doesn’t get to the real nub of the issue - that high streets are under increasing pressure as consumers change their habits towards online and major shopping centres.”
British Independent Retail Association (Bira) deputy chief executive Michael Weedon said it was “an expensive sticking plaster” if directed at already-struggling businesses. “The policy behind it is piecemeal. I would rather see a radical restructuring of business rates than spending the money on individual retailers.”
Jane Bear, owner of Ealing Independent Stuff, said the funding “doesn’t impress me. Everything Boris is talking about is window dressing and doesn’t hit the spot. Every shopkeeper will say that the real issue is business rates.”
Melissa Wheeler, chairman of the Fashion Association of Britain (FAB), agreed business rates should be the focus: “I’d be wary that this is just a lot of bunting. We need to address the bread and butter issues. Business rates are still crippling.”
Matthew Hopkinson, director of the Local Data Company (LDC), claimed the funding allocation was too small for the task at hand, and warned City Hall must do its research on how best to spend the money. “If you look at a high street food chain like Nando’s, they’ll spend £500,000 on fitting out one store alone. In that regard, this isn’t a lot of money. They will need to be very ruthless. You don’t want to spend £9m supporting stores that are no longer relevant.”
Retail expert and high street campaigner Clare Rayner suggested high streets should look to Westfield and Bluewater to replicate their success. Investment in high streets should focus on “creating a cohesive shopping experience,” she said. “You need to make a town centre operate like a shopping centre. They need to look just as safe, welcoming and clean as newer retail parks to secure more footfall.”