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‘Act now’ to save high street

Retailers demand instant remedies for town centres’ ills following publication of Mary Portas review.

Further deterioration of the UK’s high streets must be halted with immediate measures such as speeding up business rates appeals while the Government response to the Portas Review is pending, leading fashion retail voices have said.

While a swathe of fashion retailers expressed general support for the cross-retail collaboration – in the form of ‘town teams’ and Business Improvement District teams –  recommended by Mary Portas’s report, others demanded more instant action such as speeding up the business rates appeals process and identifying towns before they fall into decline to help arrest more widespread deterioration of high streets. 

Their calls follow lingerie retailer La Senza this week calling in restructuring specialist KPMG, and in recent weeks outdoor retailer Blacks Leisure putting itself on the market, footwear retailer Barratts Priceless going into administration and value chain Peacocks mulling the closure of 200 stores.

Michael Weedon, deputy chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira), said towns with growing vacancy rates should take priority for any pilot high street reviews. “You don’t know which towns are struggling until the shops start shutting,” he added.

Paul Turner-Mitchell, owner of Rochdale indie 25 Ten Boutique, said the process for challenging revaluations of business rates is one of the most pressing issues. Among Greater Manchester councils, 13,100 businesses challenged their revaluations in 2010/11. Just 520 were processed, while 6,070 challenges are still outstanding from 2005.

He said: “Town centre businesses in Rochdale, for example, have had to stomach an average 25% rise. These revaluations do not reflect rates that are passing between tenants and landlords. That many are lodging challenges is hardly surprising. The Valuation Office Agency (VOA) is taking so long to process challenges that businesses are folding while waiting for the outcome.”

Among larger multiple retailers there is concern over the review’s recommendation that town centre sites be favoured over out-of-town developments.

Ken Bartle, chief executive of footwear retailer Jones Bootmaker, pointed out that for retailers with stores in both town centre and out-of-town sites, high street improvement would come at the expense of the latter, when it is out-of-town sites that are performing better.

Next chief executive Lord Wolfson said that to have every out-of-town development go to the secretary of state for approval would achieve “nothing other than a layer of red tape to a process that is already bureaucratic”. He added: “It will create a block in the system that will delay growth in the retail economy by six months to a year, depending on the scale of the project. It’s just insane.”

Case study

Brickbox helps regenerate Tooting Brickbox is a London-based community arts company that grew from a volunteer base. It aids regeneration through the arts by holding events from fashion shows, live music, performance art through to theatre productions and gallery exhibitions. It started operating in Tooting Market in April, having won a £115,000 grant from the Mayor’s Outer London Fund for a seven-month programme of events to transform the community space.

Artistic director and founder Eleanor Barre said: “We’ve been doing evening events such as a community fashion show, where professional models wore clothes sourced from the market. We’re open every evening with free events or live music. The evening trade has driven the rebirth of the market. The traders do well as they’re capturing an audience that wouldn’t normally be at home in the day.

“It’s about encouraging people to see the space differently. The smells from the market, as a backdrop to the arts, give it a theatrical feel. Tooting Market footfall was low and most of the 40 units were empty, but now they’re all full.”

Industry viewpoints

Julian Dunkerton, chief executive of young fashion business SuperGroup

“For the high street to survive it needs to be a pleasure to shop on, and that’s what councils need to work on. Individual landlords take any tenant they want and there is no thought as to how a town needs to look as a whole.”

Anupam Jhunjhunwala, chief executive of value chain QS

“[Market trading] could help drive footfall, but only if it’s done properly. You couldn’t have 50 market stalls crowding into a space that’s only suitable for 10. The consumer mindset, however, is the biggest hurdle for retailers at the moment and the perception of crisis within the eurozone isn’t helping consumers spend.”

Sue Day, owner of contemporary womenswear indie Modiste in Bramhall, Stockport

“A lot of [Portas’s report] reads quite well but it is now about putting it into action. I’ve found in the past people talk, but not much gets done. The only way it’s going to work is if local people use their local shops.”

Pennie Muir, co-owner of handbags and accessories indie Buckle & Hyde in Stratford upon Avon

“We must encourage people back to the town centre but there have to be retailers left to come to. I think free parking, even if it’s just for one day a week, would help.”

Vishal Moudgil, owner of kidswear indie Bang in Blackpool

“More involvement from retailers should be encouraged and I think large out-of-town shopping centres should be discouraged. A shopping centre planned for Preston, if built, will finish off Blackpool and Preston.”

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