Retailers are calling for greater support from the government to revitalise the high street as footfall and sales continue to suffer amid rising business rates costs.
This week retail guru Bill Grimsey launched his second review of Britain’s high streets and town centres. The “retail tsar” is aiming to get the high street “back on the agenda” and vows to address Brexit, technology and the business rates revaluation among other issues when he reports in July.
Grimsey is working with six experts to revisit the topic after his first review in 2013.
He told Drapers: “With Brexit and [other] overwhelming changes – [retail] has taken a back seat, which is a bad thing, because there’s been significant pressure on the high street.
“High street players such as BHS have disappeared since our last review and left huge swathes of high street space that remain unoccupied. In terms of recent business failures, it seemed like the right time to do this.”
His review “won’t just focus on the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ this time”, to provide both local and central government with a “menu” of recommendations.
Jeremy Seigal, former CEO at White Stuff, welcomed the review as it “gives retail a voice”: “One of the main challenges for retail is that it is not as strategically important to government as other sectors and therefore it is not as well lobbied or supported politically as steelworks, for instance.”
Addressing the business rates “timebomb” will be key in the review. A total of 55,467 premises will face above-inflation increases in rates of 3% for the 2018/19 year, which starts in April, a survey by Altus Group showed this week.
In his Spring Statement this week chancellor Philip Hammond said the next three-yearly business rates revaluation will be brought forward to 2020/21. The government will also “lodge a call for evidence” on late payments.
Ben Barnett, CEO of TFG Brands (London), said rates needed to be addressed: “There has clearly been a seismic shift over the last decade in how consumers shop for fashion – almost 30% of sales have migrated online from the high street. The continued annual rise in the business rates levy clearly has not taken this into account, [resulting] in a position where high street retailers bear an increasing share of the £28bn-plus that this tax levies.
“[While] its scale ensures that it cannot be eliminated altogether, it does seem entirely logical that it should be fully reviewed to ensure that the burden is more evenly shouldered.”
Jonathan de Mello, head of retail consultancy at property agent Harper Dennis Hobbs, agreed: “We should be pushing for a more equitable field between online and physical retailers [in terms of business rates]. Both the government and Grimsey review should focus their time on this.”
The managing director of one footwear multiple echoed the need for a “level playing field” between retailers and etailers: “The government, society [and businesses] must work hand in hand to manage whatever the digital revolution throws at us. We need to give shoppers and retailers stability. If there is uncertainty about hidden taxes and interest rate rises, people cannot plan. Whatever happens the government needs to be clear and try to give a sense of timing and continuity.”
Retail veteran Andrew Jennings highlighted that rate breaks are “essential if high streets in the UK are to be successful”, adding that landlords need to be “realistic” about rents.
“There is no question in my mind that the UK high street will survive, but we have to have more innovative thinking from retailers. It is their responsibility to stay relevant, innovative and understand their customers.”
Joe Browns chairman Derek Lovelock said: “The government[‘s] long-term strategy must be to encourage people to move back to live in, near or on high streets and city centres. These centres need to become more pleasant places to live, shop and socialise.
“New innovative retail and leisure concepts will then flourish. Relaxing planning rules and punitive business rates are the key actions to make this happen.”