Our high streets need a bold vi­sion to kick off a post-pan­demic pickup

Straight-talk­ing, com­mon sense from the front line of man­age­ment

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business - SIR JOHN TIMP­SON Sir John Timp­son is chair­man of the high street ser­vices provider, Timp­son. Send him an email at askjohn@tele­graph.co.uk

QThe high street is clearly fac­ing ma­jor dif­fi­cul­ties – the coro­n­avirus crisis prob­a­bly con­tribut­ing fur­ther to its de­cline. What now needs to be done by the Gov­ern­ment, lo­cal gov­ern­ment, prop­erty own­ers and so on to solve these prob­lems and se­cure a sus­tain­able fu­ture for our town cen­tres?

AI vis­ited sev­eral town cen­tres in Sur­rey on the day af­ter nonessen­tial shops were al­lowed to open and de­tected a mas­sive change of mood.

High streets were meant to be open for busi­ness, but many shops were still shut. Some, such as Car­phone Ware­house and Oa­sis, were closed for good, while others were still get­ting ready to open. A few in­de­pen­dent re­tail­ers didn’t in­tend to open for an­other two weeks or more. I hope there will be a step change in ac­tiv­ity when the reg­u­la­tions change again on July 4.

Many char­ity shops were still shut, per­haps fear­ing an avalanche of items cleared out dur­ing lock­down that need sani­tis­ing be­fore putting on dis­play. Hair sa­lons, nail bars and pubs were not al­lowed to open, and some cafés, in­clud­ing Costa, re­mained closed.

There was a weird at­mos­phere: no buzz or fun – just a mas­ter­class in so­cial dis­tanc­ing, with sig­nage on shop win­dows, ar­rows on the pave­ment and miles of tape at two-me­tre in­ter­vals. It wasn’t clear whether I was wit­ness­ing the af­ter­math of a catas­tro­phe or de­tect­ing signs of a ma­jor disas­ter about to hap­pen.

So far, Timp­son sales fig­ures have been down on last year (-20pc), but bet­ter than ex­pected. Busi­ness will im­prove when pubs and bar­bers are al­lowed to open. Septem­ber should be even bet­ter when chil­dren re­sume their full-time school­ing.

But busi­ness won’t reach its “new nor­mal” un­til peo­ple are re­con­nected with their com­mon sense and start liv­ing nor­mal lives again: going to wed­dings, par­ties, foot­ball matches and fly­ing off on for­eign hol­i­days.

Some 18 months ago, I wrote a high street re­port that urged the Gov­ern­ment to sup­port lo­cal au­thor­i­ties that had re­al­is­tic plans to reimag­ine their town cen­tres by cre­at­ing com­mu­nity hubs that re­flect their lo­cal cul­ture. My rec­om­men­da­tions are much more ur­gent now than they were then.

Some com­men­ta­tors sug­gest the high street should be al­lowed to wither and die, but such ne­glect would be ir­re­spon­si­ble.

You can’t buy ev­ery­thing on the in­ter­net. We still need shops that cut keys and hair, and sell sand­wiches. But high streets aren’t just about shops; towns need com­mu­nity hubs with din­ing, leisure, cafés, med­i­cal cen­tres, arts, en­ter­tain­ment, of­fices and af­ford­able hous­ing.

Lock­down has demon­strated how much we need at­tach­ment to other peo­ple. So­cial dis­tanc­ing may help to com­bat coro­n­avirus, but so­cial con­tact is a vi­tal part of well-be­ing. For cen­turies, town cen­tres have pro­vided a meeting point as well as a mar­ket­place. We still need to meet each other.

This is an in­fra­struc­ture project that must be de­vel­oped lo­cally. Cen­tral gov­ern­ment sim­ply needs to pro­vide in­vest­ment and over­come plan­ning ob­sta­cles. The Min­istry for Hous­ing, Com­mu­ni­ties and Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment has a “High Street Task Force” to sup­port in­spi­ra­tional lo­cal teams with a vi­sion of their fu­ture town cen­tre.

This isn’t a quick fix, but this task force needs some quick wins by find­ing a few far sighted lo­cal au­thor­i­ties who can set ex­am­ples for others to fol­low.

The vi­sion for each town needs all round sup­port – from lo­cal coun­cil­lors, com­pa­nies, lawyers, plan­ners and prop­erty in­vestors.

Suc­cess is likely to be cre­ated by an in­spi­ra­tional lo­cal leader. Trust and team­work are vi­tal in­gre­di­ents for a project that’s likely to chal­lenge all the cur­rent rules – es­pe­cially those to do with prop­erty and plan­ning.

Land­lords re­alise their game has changed; 25-year leases, with five-year up­wards-only rent re­views, have long since gone. The fu­ture value of many town cen­tre prop­er­ties will be achieved by tak­ing part in a joint re­de­vel­op­ment that pro­vides the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion with a com­mu­nity hub they can be proud of – and im­por­tantly, en­joy.

Coro­n­avirus has un­cov­ered the way the high street de­cline can be turned into an op­por­tu­nity to re­vive town cen­tres, but there’s no time to lose.

Shop­pers have re­turned to Cam­den Town in north Lon­don and other high streets but for re­tail­ers it con­tin­ues to be an up­hill fight

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