Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Last Thursday, there was finally some good news for the beleaguered high street as figures from the British Retail Consortium revealed that sales in May 2012 were 3.4 per cent higher as compared to a year earlier.

On the same day, 4,500 jobs were saved in 397 stores, including a number in Wales, when Clinton Cards were bought by the US retailer American Greetings. That is not to say that there are still major challenges facing the retail sector. For example, the number of businesses in the UK retail sector going into administration increased by 15 per cent in the first quarter of this year.

These have included household names such as Peacocks, Blacks Leisure, La Senza and Game. Fortunately, as with Clinton Cards, a number of these businesses have been bought out of receivership and, as consequence, jobs have been saved.

Nevertheless, it is estimated that employment in the retail sector has decreased by around 100,000 in the last year and this decline is set to continue unless radical action is taken. That is why the UK Government asked the retail marketing consultant Mary Portas to identify what politicians at national and local level, along with businesses and other stakeholders, could do together to promote the development of new models of prosperous and diverse high streets.

Reporting last December, it made a series of recommendations, including creating a visionary, strategic and strong operational management team for high streets, establishing a new “National Market Day” where budding shopkeepers can try their hand at operating a low-cost retail business and considering whether business rates can better support small independent retailers.

Other suggestions included free controlled parking schemes for town centres, restricting out of town developments, and disincentivising landlords from leaving units vacant. However, to ensure that the report did not merely remain gathering dust on a shelf in Whitehall, Portas suggested that a number of high street pilots should be run to test some of these ideas.

And rather than having civil servants choose which high streets were to benefit from the government’s largesse, towns were invited to put forward their own proposals as to how they would implement their ideas to regenerate their retail sector.

As a result, around 370 high streets submitted applications and last week it was announced that twelve high streets would benefit to the tune of support worth approximately £100,000 each. Some cynical commentators have said that this funding is derisory and the whole scheme was a publicity gimmick at a time when there are far greater economic problems facing retailers. Others have noted that the competition itself has generated real local interest and, regardless of the fact that only around one in thirty applicants were successful, it has enabled communities to come together and plan for their economic futures.

Indeed, you only have to view the hundreds of videos that have been posted on YouTube in support of bids to see local businesspeople demonstrating their passion and conviction for their town centres. The two featured below are from Bedford, one of the winning bids and Burnham on Sea, which didn't win but is already preparing a second bid.

As a result, the failure to win a cash prize will, in itself, probably not stop many of the towns from pursuing their plans, having created a group of stakeholders who have a real interest in the future of their high streets and, more importantly, a strategy for the future.

Unfortunately, as with the start-up initiatives discussed in this column last week, the Portas Review only applied in England and, given the state of many of our town centres, it is a shame that Wales did not participate in such a scheme.

Certainly, given the work already undertaken by Mary Portas, there would be scope to examine this further in the context of Welsh High Streets. Indeed, speaking to a sold-out audience at the world famous Hay Festival last week, the 'Queen of Shops'  said that there was still hope for many town centres in Wales, despite the threat of out of town developments and internet shopping.

And we could start by developing a similar programme to that envisaged for English towns that would enable those with enthusiasm for regenerating our high streets to come together to start a renaissance in the fortunes of many local economies at a time when it is sorely needed.