We won’t save the high street by mak­ing it harder to get to

Yorkshire Post - - FEATURES & COMMENT - David Behrens

IT’S EASY enough to blame Ama­zon and the other on­line re­tail giants for the malaise that has af­flicted our high streets, es­pe­cially given the dis­pro­por­tion­ately low taxes paid by some of them.

And, of course, their ef­fect is plain to see. Buy­ing at 10 per cent be­low re­tail from the com­fort of one’s sofa, with no need to ne­go­ti­ate the pay-and-dis­play car parks and other ob­sta­cles placed in our way by lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, is an at­trac­tive propo­si­tion for any shop­per.

But Ama­zon is, for bet­ter or worse, here to stay. We have known this for a decade and a half now, and yet a co­he­sive, na­tion­wide strat­egy to make it eas­ier to pa­tro­n­ise those of its high street ri­vals that re­main in busi­ness, seems to have eluded us.

If any­thing, we are mov­ing in the other di­rec­tion.

Hud­der­s­field is a case in point. The coun­cil there, con­cerned that shop­pers in cars were get­ting in the way of those on buses, has been fin­ing driv­ers who go through “bus gates” in the town cen­tre. There are not phys­i­cal gates but CCTV cam­eras that record num­ber plates and trig­ger fixed penal­ties of up to £60. The coun­cil has pock­eted nearly £1.5m in the last year and a half.

It says that traf­fic con­ges­tion in the area has had “a neg­a­tive im­pact on bus punc­tu­al­ity”, but its mis­guided so­lu­tion typ­i­fies the small-minded think­ing that per­vades our town halls.

In­stead of im­prov­ing the town cen­tre ex­pe­ri­ence, it has lit­er­ally driven peo­ple away. A trader who ob­tained the fig­ures un­der a Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion re­quest this week said the 49,000 tick­ets had nearly halved the foot­fall on some streets.

What chance is there for our high streets if their fu­ture is en­trusted to of­fi­cial­dom like this?

And why pri­ori­tise buses in the first place? The so­lu­tion to our dis­jointed pub­lic trans­port sys­tem is to make it bet­ter, not pun­ish those who don’t want to use it.

There are al­ready signs of re­bel­lion. The RAC re­ported last month that one in three mo­torists are more re­liant on their cars than they were the year be­fore. Car de­pen­dency, it said, had been fall­ing for the pre­vi­ous six years but the ris­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion with buses and trains had not only re­versed the trend but sent it to a new high.

One in four driv­ers ex­plic­itly blamed pub­lic trans­port for their de­ci­sion to re­turn to their cars, with re­li­a­bil­ity, ris­ing fares and ser­vice cuts the prob­lems most cited.

This should not have been a sur­prise. The num­ber of lo­cal bus jour­neys in Eng­land fell by 70m last year, and, as we all know, punc­tu­al­ity on the rails is at a 12-year low. And the fares are go­ing up again in Jan­uary.

Yet the im­ped­i­ments to vis­it­ing some of our most im­por­tant high streets con­tinue to mul­ti­ply. Leeds con­firmed this week that it will in­stall 140 sets of num­ber plate recog­ni­tion cam­eras to en­force the “clean air charg­ing zone” that will come into force in 2020. This was de­manded by the EU, to which we will by then no longer be an­swer­able.

No-one is deny­ing that pub­lic health is im­por­tant, but so are the town and city high streets that are the heart­beat of their com­mu­ni­ties. It ought to be made as easy as pos­si­ble to use them, free from the fear of be­ing picked out and fined if we put a foot wrong.

Many such streets are al­ready beyond res­cue by traf­fic poli­cies alone. Blighted by aban­doned shops that will never be filled, they re­quire more rad­i­cal surgery .

This, as I have sug­gested be­fore, might in­volve the kind of lat­eral think­ing that tends to elude coun­cils grasp­ing at off-the-peg so­lu­tions: a con­nect­ing of the dots be­tween the sur­feit of shops and the short­age of houses.

A pro­gramme of in­cen­tives, en­forced by White­hall, to re­bal­ance the ra­tio of re­tail and res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties, to rein­vent dis­used build­ings as de­sir­able places in which to live, would not only breathe new life into count­less de­cay­ing high streets but also ease the threat of build­ing that cur­rently hangs over so much of our green belt.

We are all – lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and in­di­vid­u­als – in­vested in our high streets. The pros­per­ity of our town cen­tres un­der­pins the value of our homes and cre­ates a hedge against the creep­ing sub­si­dence that un­der­mines the foun­da­tions – which is what the growth of on­line shop­ping rep­re­sents.

Looked at that way, those 10 per cent sav­ings don’t seem such a good deal, do they?

We are all in­vested in our high streets. The pros­per­ity of our towns cen­tres un­der­pins the value of our homes.

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