By Andy Coote, Writer And Editor Of Bizwords

David Cameron has recently appointed Mary Portas, styled on TV as ‘Queen of Shops’, to take a look at our high streets and to recommend actions that can be taken to return the variety of shops to them and to entice shoppers back.

According to the Guardian report ('Queen of Shops' is brought in to help save UK high street - 17th May) — "Central to the review — ordered by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills — is the worrying level of sales in town centres, which have dramatically under-performed compared to other locations. Government figures show that between 2005 and 2010, town-centre sales grew by a paltry 1.5%, while those in out of town shopping centres grew 11.5% and non-store (mail order and internet) soared by 71.5%.”

Recent trading results are giving no encouragement that improvements will happen soon. I've written about HMV and the forced sale of Waterstone's which shareholders approved last week and Focus DIY which had to close most of the shops in liquidation after buyers proved wary of buying them up.

As I write this, Habitat is reported to be be selling the brand, its Interenet business and three stores to Home Retail Group and putting the rest into administration with their future uncertain. Both the Jane Norman fashion group and Thorntons also announced multiple shop closures recently.

So if that is the current trend for national retailers with their resources and expertise, how much more difficult must it be for many independent retailers — the very people we need to encourage if our high streets are to regain their popularity.

Last week, I received a letter from an organisation that is on my doorstep in Falmouth, Cornwall. The letter was addressed to the Prime Minister and mine was just one of the many copies sent to national and local politicians, local councils, influencers and the media. In the letter, Nigel Carpenter, Chairman of Falmouth Business Improvement District (BID) set out a five-point plan to create the conditions for High Streets to operate on a more level playing field. These were grouped around measures for removing inequalities between out-of-town and high-street shopping areas and providing the management, incentives and investment to help build back the mix of retail that will get people back and spending in High-Street shops.

The five points are;
- Easy, free or low-cost, flexible parking. In his letter, Carpenter says that car parking is often in the wrong place, with poor access, badly signposted and with punitive and inflexible charges. The car parks in Falmouth are generally owned by Cornwall Council and they primarily regard them as an income stream. The result is that shoppers are concerned that they may be ticketed or clamped and as a result stay away from town centres or spend less time in them.

- Co-ordinated, imaginative and well integrated local public transport which meets the needs of customers and potential customers. When I spoke to him, Mr Carpenter expressed a desire to see more public/private cooperation in order to provide transport where and when people needed it and at a price that they were prepared to pay.

- Well funded and professional town management which can produce proper retail strategies and plans for the development of a High-Street and the improvement of the shopping experience. The main requirement, Mr Carpenter told me, is to have joined up management that is capable of managing a town centre as if it were a shopping mall or a company — a sort of Falmouth plc - influencing the mix of shops and the provision of facilities and access. Currently, even where town centre management exists, the provision of the full range of services falls across several different bodies and departments within them and is not, in his words, ‘joined up’.

- Business rates need to be set locally and kept local with businesses having a real say in how business rates are spent. In addition, the recent massive rate increases need to be reviewed. Currently business rates are levied locally and then sent to Westminster with a proportion being returned, in the case of Cornwall, to the unitary authority for their allocation. Business rates are seen by many business people as being a tax on success, whereas there should be a payment for services received and managed accountably.

- A VAT reduction to 10% on retail, restaurant, hotel and tourism businesses. Mr Carpenter gave two justifications for this particular recommendation. The first is that money spent in the tourism and leisure industries has a disproportionate effect as a major economic driver and will provide income not just for shopkeepers but also for tradespeople and farmers. Tourism in particular is also an internationally competitive business. Recent changes in the VAT rates, in particular in France, Germany and Ireland make it more difficult for Cornwall (and the rest of the UK) to compete in international tourism.

Local press coverage has been positive and attempts are underway to engage nationally both with politicians and with the media. Local MP Sarah Newton and Cornwall Council are both in talks with Falmouth BID about the local situation.
However, one of the main points of the campaign is to get David Cameron and Mary Portas to visit Falmouth and to get the ideas debated at the highest level. To do this they need the support of the wider, national business community.

If you feel that this agenda has merit, please lobby your MP to raise the issue with the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and relevant ministers. This plan, or a variant of it, could be the basis for a revival of local shopping centres which is what David Cameron has appointed Mary Portas to review, presumably with a view to taking some action. That action could start sooner rather than later.

Andy Coote is a writer and editor who also runs a workshop, which provides writing services for businesses and individuals, which can be located at bizwords. He has edited the Virtual CEO Newsletter for over 4 years. As a former retail manager (at B&Q and Texas Homecare) he is an observer (and customer) of the UK retail market.

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