High Streets

I was recently taken on a tour of Petworth's shops by the town's excellent Business Association.  It was very encouraging to see new shops and restaurants opening up. 

When I visited shops in other Downland towns and villages such as Hurstpierpoint and Steyning before the election, there was a similar positive outlook from traders.

But of course the economic climate for retailers has got tougher.  New Government-commissioned research finds that a third of Britain's high streets are "degenerating or failing".

Online shopping has taken its toll.  In just three years' time, less than 40 per cent of retail spending is expected to be on the high street.

Where we do still buy our goods in person, the focus has moved from town centres to large, out of town retail parks.  Over the last decade, out of town retail floor space has risen by 30 per cent while space in town centres has shrunk by 14 per cent.

This new research coincides with the publication this week of a review of our high streets by the retail guru Mary Portas, commissioned by the Government in response to concerns about retail vacancy rates. 

Obviously, the recession caused the closure of many businesses, including big high street chains like Woolworths.  But Mary Portas was asked to address other contributing factors and suggest new ways to breathe life back into our town centres.

She recommends strengthening the management of high streets through new ‘town teams', combining individuals from business and local Government.

And she suggests a strong town-centre-first approach to planning, encouraging large retailers to show their support for high streets rather than retail parks.

There's currently a fierce debate in Storrington about whether its Waitrose should be allowed to expand.  Local councils will have to weigh up the arguments.  But at least this is a business in a village, not outside it.

The Government will publish a full response to Mary's review in the spring, but things are already being done to help, including extending small business rate relief and cutting National Insurance for employers.

Government has a role to play, but positive and concerted local action by traders and councils can help our South Downs villages and small market towns to preserve the high streets which are so important to local communities.

Christopher N Howarth