In the last two issues, I’ve touched on some of the challenges facing our high streets, and whether these are a consequence of uncertain economic conditions, changing times and technology or simple mismanagement of traffic . So what we do now? Do we accept that our high streets as we known them won’t exist in a decade’s time, or is there a chance that with some creative thinking and collective will we can save our shopping areas from becoming parades of medical practices, charity shops and even residential accommodation?
As I discussed last month, Mary Portas and Bill Grimsey have issued reports giving their take on how we can revive our high streets, or least manage the changes wrought by protracted recession and the tide of history. In other news, there’s recently been a policy announcement by Ed Miliband whereby small businesses would be assisted under a future Labour government by an exemption from business rates for small businesses in premises with a rateable value of less than £50,000. How the latter would work in practice I don’t quite know but it’s keeping the high street debate on the public agenda.
You may also have seen Edward de Mesquita’s somewhat naïve and ill-informed piece in the Ham & High a few weeks back, advocating greater local authority influence on how, and to whom, landlords can let their premises.
One thing I’m a long way from convinced about is that “national”, legislation-backed, one-size-fits-all solutions are the answer – there’s a huge difference in culture, catchment area and purpose between the likes of Muswell Hill, Crouch End and Highgate, each with relatively affluent demographics and a mainly local custom base, and town centres such as Wood Green (to use a nearby example). Further out of London you have town and city centres that fulfil a somewhat different set of needs, catering as they do for a geographically large area with varying demographics .
What I’m advocating are solutions based on local knowledge, local requirements and local cooperation, unencumbered by huge rafts of “national” legislation and free from the vagaries of Government policy changes. Both Portas and Grimsey propose the setting up of Town Teams or Commissions, and in fact this, with a few tweaks, is one recommendation I did like.
So how might things work in our area? Here’s a way I think we could take matters forward.
I’m not, by the way, proposing to go into the financial side of things in terms of support for small businesses such as grants, Business Rate reform etc. – that warrants a whole article in itself!
From my own observation of social media, anecdotal evidence gleaned from local conversations, and the insight afforded by 27 years’ residence in the area, it’s evident that people’s boxes in our part of North London are ticked by having a substantial element of retail and leisure services provided by locally-based independent businesses, with a wide selection of good-quality, and again independent, cafes plus an “evening economy” including bars and restaurants plus music and comedy venues; there isn’t, however, any apparent demand for “national chain” clothes shops. We have also the evidence of successful local events to demonstrate that residents in our area have a strong sense of community.
In my opinion, we should develop mutual understanding and a co-operative relationship between the four interest groups critical to maintaining and enhancing the well-being of our high streets – local landlords, local retailers, the Local Authority, and a representative cross-section of the local customer base : this can be greatly assisted, I believe, by the creation of an effective “Town Team” to use Mary’s nomenclature – a high street strategy group, if you like – where all four elements can work together to ensure that residents’ demand for services is catered for. Retailers could operate and succeed in a market to which their offer is demonstrably suited, and landlords can be both helped to avoid the drain on resources of empty properties and what I call “desperation lettings” to charity shops and short-term tenants. Landlords could, potentially, achieve lettings to tenants for whose services there is an identifiable local demand (the latter to the benefit of both “lessor” and “lessee”).
I’m not however, advocating an overly formal structure as is favoured by others so much as a forum for exchange of ideas, promoting mutual interest and understanding, and the provision of research data and advice that could assist all interested parties.
Such a forum could also be instrumental in providing succeeding generations of businesses, especially new ventures starting up on the back of changing shopping habits, with help and advice to open their doors, survive the difficult early years, flourish and expand. There could even be a “new business” group to provide advice, counselling and research on markets and demand, plus help to put together business plans sufficiently robust to convince landlords to take a chance on them rather than go down the “desperation letting” route, with perhaps a database to keep landlords aware of businesses that may be suitable for their available premises.
The forum could also provide focus and support for dealing with matters of common concern to the retail community such as the current debate (both local and national) about parking problems and contentious local property developments.
My belief is that such a structure should grow organically, as the benefits of its existence become apparent, so there’s less chance of rule by committee and bureaucracy stifling creativity and a commercial approach.
The above may sound a bit Utopian (Quixotic, even…), and there are any number of practical issues to addressed in setting up such a group – remit, composition and how people would be appointed – but I believe it would ultimately be to the benefit of everyone to take part, as it could go a long way towards achieving a healthy local retail community providing the offers and facilities local people want, would help deal with changing times and fluctuating economic conditions, and could create an environment where existing businesses have a better chance of surviving, and new ventures could keep things fresh whilst having a decent opportunity to establish themselves.