Government fails to rebalance scales

Mary Kelly Foy on fighting for a better high street for communities, businesses and workers

We are gathered here today to remember the high street. As any number of articles published with alarming regularity loudly report, town centres and the businesses which occupy them are dead on arrival. Cause of death: the pandemic, online shopping, and a dose of corporate mismanagement. Those which remain open are caricatured as the walking dead, struggling on but ultimately doomed to their fate. But these reports are neither realistic nor helpful.

I’m not denying the serious challenges high street businesses face. But rather than resigning ourselves to organising the wake for bricks & mortar businesses, politicians should be championing success stories, listening to the concerns of local business, communities and workers, amplifying their voices at Westminster, and enacting reforms to remake the high street.

In Durham, the historic centre has witnessed transformative change. The shift to out-of-town retail and online shopping saw major retailers such as M&S leave the city, while the pandemic has seen other stalwarts, such as Topshop, boarded up.

But where traditional chain stores have failed, a raft of independents have begun to emerge to complement those which already contributed to Durham’s unique character. Shops like Elvet & Bailey, stocking a myriad of products from local micro producers, or Discovering Durham, which sells food and drink from across the county, represent the kind of business that is shaping Durham into a unique destination – and sets a blueprint for what the future of the high street could look like.

As an MP, I regularly meet small independents working tirelessly to blossom. These conversations make clear that the challenges they face are not unique to Durham, nor insurmountable, but are the consequences of a broken economy which is stacked against them.

But Government isn’t powerless to rebalance the scales and allow local economies and places to thrive. The antiquated business rates system comes down on fledgling independents like a sledgehammer, with online retailers (you know who they are) able to avoid these costs and undercut. During the past 12 years, the Conservatives have continually ignored that those on the high street are not operating on a level playing field, yet there has been no action to scrap and replace business rates with a fairer local business tax based on profits to ensure those with the broadest shoulders pay their fair share. This, in combination with clamping down on the creative tax arrangements of online giants, are vital to restore balance.

Secondly, unrealistic commercial rents act as a barrier to filling empty units. Local businesses are simply unable to pay, and local councils are often powerless to force landlords to reduce rents, leaving important central real estate to lay empty. The UK’s opaque property ownership laws also mean units can be owned by offshore investors with little accountability to communities who suffer from their lack of interest beyond a balance sheet asset. Improving the transparency of ownership and allowing local authorities to purchase serially vacant commercial property would rebalance the relationship between local communities, tenants and landlords.

Finally, pre-pandemic, four million people were employed on our high streets, but sectors such as retail were often characterised by the insecurity of zero-hours contracts, with pay rarely above minimum wage. The shop workers union, USDAW, have rightly made improving pay, pensions and working conditions central to their Save Our Shops campaign. Any effort to remake the high street will also require action to strengthen workers’ rights.

So, what is a high street, and why should we care about their health? Simply, they are more than a row of shops and restaurants. High streets are the heartbeat of a community. They should be social spaces, sources of civic pride. At their best, they reflect the local area and people as well as provide services, entertainment and good employment locally.

The high street economy of the 21st century needs to be rebalanced in order to be revitalised, to level the playing field between bricks and mortar business and transnational online giants, to rebalance the relationship between commercial landlords and tenants, and between workers and shareholders. All we need is a government willing to tip the economic scales back towards communities, local business and workers.

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