Sunday, 10 February 2013

A forum run by a pushy celebrity won’t save the high street from oblivion.

Adapt or die is the stark message given to Britain’s high street retailers by the government following another round of high profile closures, including those of HMV, Comet and Jessops.

In response to growing concerns about the viability of the nation’s high streets the government is to set up a High Streets Forum, this will bring together leaders from government, business and local councils to build on the work done by retail ‘guru’ Mary Portas.

Local Growth minister Mark Prisk told Sky News on Thursday that reviving the high street depended on understanding the biggest threat to its survival, ‘we shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of online marketing represents,’ shopping online was, he said, ‘a growing part of our habits as consumers. We must make sure that high streets adapt.’

The forum will investigate ways of making the high street more attractive to investors such as improving parking, making it easier for landlords to change the use of a property from commercial to residential and giving high street projects priority when it comes to making planning decisions. There will also be more encouragement for ‘pop up’ stores, the trend of the moment; and the forum will also be able to make awards from a Future High Streets X Fund, the first of which will be announced in March.

When it comes to who killed the high street online shopping is only one of the suspects sitting nervously in the drawing room as the great detective explains how each one of them could have done it. Also culpable are councils that charge sky high business rates and impose ludicrous parking rules, supermarket chains that kill off small shops with their vast out of town stores and half a century of mass car ownership.

In reality all these things and more have done for the traditional high street with its friendly butchers, bakers and candlestick makers; I’m not sure that a ‘forum’, even one headed by the formidable Mary Portas will be able to turn things round.

In fact Portas herself may be a significant barrier to progress. She is undoubtedly a forceful character and has an excellent business brain. Unfortunately she is also a determined self promoter, her initial work with struggling high streets was part of a television programme and her abrasive approach rubbed many of the communities she worked with up the wrong way.

The other likely participants come with some pretty unwieldy baggage too. Retailers haven’t shown much in the way of strategic thinking when it comes to how, if at all, they operate on the high street. Most seem to be flapping around in a mad panic as they try desperately not to be the next Woolworths, amidst the resulting bellowing of wounded mastodons the voice of smaller retailers tends to get drowned out.

Local and national government has consistently backed the wrong horse when it comes to protecting town centres. In the sixties and seventies the big push was to build motorways, nobody thought about the business and communities that were left high and dry as a result. Later they showed the same blinkered enthusiasm for out of town retail parks; their conversion to defenders of the high street is late and unconvincing.

The one voice that won’t be heard in the deliberations of this new forum is perhaps the most important of all; that of local people. You might expect councils to play this role, but even the most limited involvement with local government soon teaches you that far too many councillors take their orders from the high command of their party rather than the people they represent.

As has happened so often before communities will have a solution imposed on them from above that in all probability will bear little relation to their needs and as a result will be doomed to fail. Despite what the bureaucrats might think our towns and cities aren’t created by planners with slide rules and pocket protectors, they’ve been shaped over centuries by the activities of their inhabitants.

Maybe that means that as it gets easier to shop from home over the internet fewer people will want to travel to physical stores in town; meaning the former high street will have to be reinvented. The only way of doing so in a sustainable way is through working with the people who will use it.

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