An update on the Government’s latest recommendations for saving the High Street

8 January 2019

The winners and (mostly) losers of the high street in 2018 will be announced this week, as 20 major retail brands, such as Debenhams, Marks & Spencer and Tesco, report their sales figures for the festive period. Following last week’s trading updates from Next and John Lewis, as well as high street performance plummeting to all-time-lows in November 2018, the national media is not expecting much in the way of positive news. Aldi certainly provided some welcome cheer for the retail sector, reporting record sales of almost £1 billion for the month of December.

The Government has spent most of the past decade struggling to respond to the decline of the UK High Street. Serious attempts to get to grips with the crisis started back in 2011, when the Portas Review led by independent retail expert Mary Portas provided recommendations on how to encourage mass involvement and better operational management through the creation of strategic ‘Town Teams’, greater transparency and deregulation.

However, seven years later, few lasting positive changes are evident, with 14 retail units having to close down each day (The Telegraph, 2018) and 23.6% of stores predicted to vanish by 2022 (Institute of Place Management, 2018).

Following the announcement of £675 million for high street regeneration in the 2018 Autumn Budget, MHCLG published its “High Street Report” on 20 December. Prepared by Sir John Timpson, the owner of the shoe repair chain Timpson, the document summarises the findings and recommendations of the High Streets Expert Panel, the body formed in July 2018 to identify and address the key challenges the sector is currently facing.

Although the report repeatedly highlights that no singular, one-size-fits-all solution prevails, it calls for a general bottom-up approach, aiming to empower local authorities, retailers and community groups to take the lead in high street regeneration with governmental support in the form of two new bodies - the Town Centre Task Force and the Future High Street Fund.

The Town Centre Task Force, set to launch early this year, would offer hands-on cross-sector and peer-to-peer support for local areas, encourage collaborative work and networking between various stakeholders, whilst simultaneously functioning as an information bank to help retailers share their experiences, challenges and solutions.

The Future High Street Fund opened on 26 December 2018 and enables local councils to bid for a part of the previously announced £675 million funding to finance local projects, including high street transport links, space management or the refurbishment of historic buildings, with a deadline of 22 March 2019.

Abandoning the phenomena of “shops” and “shopping” and making the high street and the town centre a “community hub” that offers a wide range of services including residential and leisure facilities and allows for “face to face contact in the digital age” is similarly crucial, the report argues. To do so, a number of shorter-term measures were also announced, such as the introduction of the “Open Doors” scheme that would collate and maintain a register of empty local properties and potentially make them available for community groups, and the ”National High Street Perfect Day” which will promote high street retailers, ensuring their premises look as attractive as possible.

The full report can be read here.