And such perceptions are borne out by the latest statistics on occupancy rates within retail centres, with the proportion of vacant shops across Welsh high streets now rising to 18.5 per cent, one of the worse vacancy rates in the UK along with the North West of England and the Midlands.
Whilst the growth of out of town shopping centres and the massive expansion in online retailing has helped to fuel such decline, it is also clear that politicians and policymakers at a national and local level have largely ignored the high street as a key driver of economic prosperity.
Given such challenges, it was timely that the Welsh Conservatives launched a new policy review last week which examined how the fortunes of town centres across Wales could be revived.
Entitled “A Vision for the Welsh High Street”, its aim is to focus attention on how town centres can provide a stimulus to local economies whilst acting as a catalyst for community engagement. Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies discusses the report below.
As far as I am aware, this is the first time that a political party in Wales has focused on developing specific policies in this area, although it does follow on from a recent report by the National Assembly’s Enterprise and Business Committee into the regeneration of town centres. Of course, there was also the highly publicised Portas Review in 2011 which provided a real wake up call to the UK Government but, unfortunately, its recommendations have only been applied in England.
As such, such a policy document is long overdue in ensuring that we have a proper debate on how the High Street in Wales should be developed in the future.
One of the more radical recommendations from the review is the proposal for splitting the business rates regime in Wales into one that targets small and large businesses separately.
Currently, the multiplier which is used to calculate business rates is the same for all firms, regardless of their size. This is in contrast to both Scotland and England where a higher multiplier exists for bigger companies with the difference being paid used to support lower rates for small firms.
As a result, Wales has the most competitive business rates in the UK for major superstores, but the least competitive rates in the UK for small businesses.
And whilst the supermarket lobby will, no doubt, resist such a move, it is an issue that will hopefully be considered carefully by the Welsh Government within its ongoing review of business rates.
Another key proposal is ensuring that town centres are at the heart of successful engagement with local communities. This will be done through the formation of high street teams involving local businesses, Councils and residents that will act as a focus for engagement and drive participation on the high street.
On a higher political level, the Welsh Conservatives have also called for the Welsh Government to have one Minister or Deputy Minister with ‘named’ responsibility for the high street so as to improve coordination across different departments.
One of the key recommendations of the Portas Review was that local areas should implement free controlled parking schemes so that they can compete directly with out-of-town developments.
Building on this, the report suggests that high streets need to have a “flexible, well communicated parking offer”, using the example of Newport Council which, for the last two years, has operated a two hours free parking scheme within the city centre.
It also reflects the views of the Federation of Small Businesses, which recently noted that small market towns and their outlying rural communities are hit particularly hard by the imposition of parking charges and that in such car dependent communities, free access to the town centre is essential not only for the purposes of shopping but also for social interaction.
Therefore, the debate has started on the future of the High Street in Wales and whilst partisan politics may prevent some of these ideas from being taken forward by the Welsh Government, I would hope the paper will at least get politicians and policymakers talking. Certainly, it is time that the regeneration of our town centres should be seen as one of the key catalysts in reviving local economies and a catalyst in reviving the high street as a focus for the community across Wales.