Tuesday 22 January 2019 8:03 am

The power of free markets can liberate Britain’s high streets

Change is sweeping across retail, affecting the way we all shop, spend, and interact in our town centres.

Most analysts agree that there is currently too much retail space, often in the wrong locations, and that, while our high streets of the future will remain commercial centres, they will look radically different to what we see now.

Future high streets are likely to feature fewer clothing stores, chicken shops and bookmakers, with more homes, libraries and GP surgeries, as well as footfall-drivers such as childcare centres and gyms to draw people back to our town centres.

This kind of mixed offering of retail, housing and services is what local people value. It’s what we see in our most successful high streets up and down the country, and it was backed-up by the recent High Street Report from an independent panel of retail experts headed up by Sir John Timpson.

Ensuring that towns have the flexibility and freedoms to respond to local needs will be crucial to their future success. And that’s why we must unleash the power of the free market to drive regeneration forward.

With this in mind, the government has consulted on proposals to simplify planning rules, freeing up local businesses to take forward their own plans to revive their town centres.

For too long, businesses have been unable to respond quickly to local demand for housing and services, and have seen their plans to change properties to different uses held up by councils.

Giving local businesses the keys to deliver the kind of mixed offering that consumers want is a core part of making our high streets fit for the future.

Organisations on the ground have a much better understanding of what their areas need. If there is more demand for office space or housing on a high street than betting shops or laundrettes, there should be processes in place to allow the conversion of unwanted units without undue delay.

This will inject our high streets with the kind of flexibility they need to thrive in a dynamic marketplace, reduce the number of empty shops, and provide more people with the housing that this country needs.

Many forward-thinking areas are already embracing this challenge to reimagine themselves as prosperous and lively community hubs of the future. I recently visited Ashford in Kent, where flexible tenancies, innovative events, and a reduction in parking fees have seen a surge in footfall on the high street.

And in Altrincham in Greater Manchester, town leaders took forward an ambitious plan to transform their historic market hall into a food and culture hub at the centre of the town.

This bold vision paid off, turning around a shop vacancy rate of 30 per cent, and last year the town scooped the prize for England’s best high street at the 2018 Great British High Street Awards.

These towns stand as shining examples of how urban centres can buck growing trends. But there is more that can be done to empower them.

Over Christmas, the government launched a £675m Future High Streets Fund, which it will use to co-fund innovative proposals around transport, housing and public services to help improve infrastructure and access to high streets, put historic buildings back to use, and make town centres fit for the future. 

In addition, we announced a new Town Centres Taskforce to provide expert advice not just for local leaders, but for anyone invested in the success of their local high street.

These measures represent a significant step forward, but we can’t afford to stop there. Ensuring that towns have the flexibility and freedom to respond to local needs will be crucial to their future success.

So let’s marshal the power of the free market to help our high streets thrive and drive our economy forward.


City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.