High streets need more than Portas

 
Allister Heath
IF you want to see how capitalism has transformed people’s living standards, look no further than supermarkets and most recently their digital offerings. Their online shopping services have improved the lives of millions, especially the elderly, those with mobility difficulties, people with young children and the time-poor. For a modest fee – and sometimes for nothing – shopping is delivered to homes, within a very narrow time slot; those with smartphones can even order on the road. A personalised service that once only the very rich could afford has been democratised in a spectacular fashion. Large stores have hugely improved poor people’s quality of life by providing an ever-greater variety of products at low prices, which is why I have no time for those who bash supermarkets.

Of course, many high streets are in a tragic state of decline, especially those in poorer areas (though the arrival of thousands of small, local branches from the big supermarkets has enhanced, rather than hurt, them). In some cases this decline has reached catastrophic levels. But it ought to be possible to rejuvenate them without penalising those who enjoy shopping in large supermarkets.

Some of the ideas presented by Mary Portas, the TV celebrity, in her government-commissioned report on high streets yesterday are spot on; others are faulty. She bashes landlords while failing to appreciate that the real problem with high streets is that they are run by local councils, many of which are useless. Business rates are going up by 5.6 per cent next year, which will destroy more businesses. Her idea that a minister should “sign off” all future mall and out of town planning applications is entirely wrong. People want such malls – and they should be able to get them. One can boost high streets without bucking cultural and economic trends.

The good news is that she decided to ditch her initial proposals to tax out of town car parking spaces. This would have merely seen supermarkets pass the cost onto consumers. Her suggestion that councils should prioritise free parking makes sense, and she is right that it is daft to wage wars on motorists. Portas is also right that high streets need to be turned into “multi-functional social as well as shopping areas”. Rather than trying to buck profound social and economic trends, councils should make it much easier for bankrupt shops to be turned into cafes, restaurants or even – as Portas suggests – gyms.

My own view is that market forces should be allowed to work properly: consumers should be offered the services they want where they want them, not presented with an artificial, council-imposed mix of unviable boutiques.

There has been far too much social engineering on the high street, which has helped push people towards out of town destinations. But malls and shopping centres – and the likes of Canary Wharf or More London – have shown how privatised areas are much better at planning that most councils; there are lessons to be learnt there. Crucially, however, it should become much easier to turn vacant or underused shops into homes. Why would it be so bad if high streets became more residential?

There is a desperate need for more homes in the UK, and an increase in local residents would be the best way of rejuvenating town centres. High streets should provide for today’s needs – not those of the early twentieth century. allister.heath@cityam.com

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