In the light of the major closures of high street names including HMV and Jessups, Alex Griffiths explores what action Kingston Council needs to take.
The British high street is facing an uncertain future; this is not open to dispute. With the still increasing tendency of the British consumer to shop online and the continuing improvements made by online retailers in price, selection and delivery times, it is not uncommon nowadays for commentators to remark simplistically that the high street is living on borrowed time.
For boroughs such as ours with a sizable retail sector such an attitude cannot be acceptable. We have to be mindful of what happened to Brixton, which in the 1920s and 30s styled itself as the top retail centre in London. Our retail sector not only provides much needed employment, often to those of us just starting out, working whilst we learn or fresh out of school, but it also offers other tangible benefits.
Our high street keeps our town centres and our shopping arcades busy, vibrant and safer; the big stores provide welcome opportunities for smaller businesses and start-ups to provide services for the bigger outlets and thus develop and prosper.
We need to keep the footfall in our shopping areas high if we are to keep enjoying these benefits whilst of course, making good use of the financial contributions these high streets make to the local public purse.
We cannot accept , much less can we afford, the departure of our local high streets in favour of some far off online business warehouse, often trading from an off-shore tax haven, thus under-cutting high streets whilst avoiding making any real contribution to the education and well-being of employees or contributing to the infrastructure that enables them to trade effectively.
The high street can compete with on-line retailers; they can provide choice; they can provide top quality customer service; and they could fight back and compete against on-line retailer price cutting if we let them.
Consumer habits have changed, but our attitudes to taxing our high streets are not moving at the same pace. Some retail spaces in Kingston are enduring Business Rate bills in excess of £500,000 a year; some are even looking at bills in excess of £2,500 for every square metre. At the same time this government is allowing some on-line retailers to pay little or no tax.
Local authorities like ours need to take the lead in arguing that we need to level the field; we need to stop treating high street stores like cash cows. Central government needs to cut their demands on the money asked of our local high street employers in Business Rates if we are to continue to enjoy the wider benefits. Of course, such a fight cannot be taken on by just a single authority. Kingston needs to take the argument to Britain; government needs to stop demanding as big a slice of the pie as previously. Our High Streets will compete if only we stop stifling them.
In their turn, local authorities like Kingston cannot simply rely on the retail sector. Kingston, for example, has failed to develop a notable tourist trade despite its advantageous position. It has also ignored the development of small businesses in emerging sectors. Look where business centres are – we have one sitting tooth by jowl with the re-cycling centre. What does that say? Tourism and business development should be key parts of Kingston Council’s policy imperative alongside the struggle for a new deal for retail.