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A bookshop in Stockton-on-Tees, a town regarded as a regeneration success story. Photograph: Drake

High streets must stop relying on retail, says expert review

WT24 Desk

The crisis on UK high streets could leave 100,000 shops empty within a decade, according to an independent review that argues struggling retailers should no longer be relied upon to prop up ailing town centers, The Guardian reports.

The Grimsey Review 2 makes a series of recommendations including an overhaul of the business rates system and a ban on out-of-town developments. It predicts nearly 70,000 high street jobs will disappear this year.

“There is no point clinging to a sentimental vision of the past,” said Bill Grimsey, the former Wickes and Iceland chief executive who first looked at ways to revive the high street in an influential 2013 review.

“We have to accept that there is already too much retail space in the UK and that bricks and mortar retailing can no longer be the anchor for thriving high streets and town centres,” he said. “Town centres need to be repopulated as community hubs.”

The report estimates that 28,000 retail jobs have disappeared in 2018 and a further 40,000 are predicted to go by the end of the year. But it says it is possible to turn things around and cites Stockton-on-Tees as a regeneration success story after stakeholders worked together to reinvigorate the north-east town.

The highest rate of retail failures and store closures since the financial crisis was recorded in the first six months of 2018 and there is no sign of a let up as consumers rein in spending on clothing and household goods and, when they do spend, increasingly shop online.

The struggling House of Fraser department store chain said last month it was closing more than half its UK stores with the loss of 6,000 jobs. The list of high street casualties also includes discount chain PoundworldMaplin and Toys R Us, which have all ceased trading.

The carnage has spurred worried MPs on the housing, communities and local government committee to launch an inquiry that is considering what high streets and town centres could look like by 2030.

Grimsey’s original study was closely followed in Westminster. A copy was despatched to then prime minister David Cameron who, two years earlier, had asked television retail guru Mary Portas to carry out a similar exerciseafter being faced with record numbers of empty shops.

There are 50,000 empty shops in the UK out of a total of 500,000, according to Matthew Hopkinson, a property analyst who co-authored the report with Grimsey and other experts drawn from fields including finance and regeneration. “That could rise to 100,000 within a decade if current trends continue,” he said.

The Grimsey Review 2, which is being launched at Wednesday’s Local Government Association annual conference in Birmingham, sets out a blueprint for change that includes setting up local town centre commissions with each one tasked with drawing up a 20-year plan. The creation of a new national body – similar to the Scottish Towns Partnership – is also among the 25 recommendations in the review.

Other suggestions include creating a landlord register; giving local authorities the power to fine owners whose properties are left empty for more than six months; and passing legislation enabling shops to be converted more readily into homes or community facilities such as libraries or arts venues.

The report says business rates have contributed to the high street decline with last year’s revaluation adding to the pain felt by half a million shopkeepers, pubs and restaurants. “There is no confidence in business rates,” said Grimsey. “It is accelerating shop closures in many towns and is an outdated and unfair tax.

“It is no exaggeration to say that unless drastic action is taken, things are going to get worse. There has been too much timid tinkering in the margins by Westminster and local government.”

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