Ghost towns can be brought back to life – but only with local leadership
Spare a thought for the good folk of Burslem in Stoke-ontrent. Last year, the former Potteries hotspot was named as Britain’s foremost ghost town, where a staggering third of the high street shops are either boarded up or plastered with “to let” signs.
For a town with a proud history, including the home of Josiah Wedgwood’s first factory in the 18th century, its inhabitants must find its fall from grace desperately hard to swallow.
Still, if it’s any consolation, there are towns just like it up and down the country. Dewsbury in West Yorkshire came a close second with a 29pc closure rate, followed by Newport, Wales, at 27pc. There are many, many others, yet solutions to the hollowingout of the British high street are thin on the ground even as it reels from its worst Christmas in a decade.
Salvation certainly won’t come from Westminster. The Government has made it clear that there will be no radical reform to business rates. Despite deafening calls from the industry for a serious reduction, the property tax is a serious moneyspinner for the Treasury, generating £8bn a year.
Meanwhile, Philip Hammond is reluctant to hit online retailers with a so-called “Amazon tax” on sales because it would also hurt traditional bricks-and-mortar chains such as Next and John Lewis that have physical stores and a growing online offering.
With support thin on the ground, there is a palpable despondency about the fate of our town centres.
It’s not just retailers that are in retreat; 3,000 bank branches have closed in the last three years – a rate of around 80 a month. The number of restaurant failures has nearly doubled over the last eight years.
This is having a profound effect on the villages, towns and cities where most of us live. People are becoming isolated; unemployment, crime and poverty are rising; income is being sucked from local economies and entire communities weakened.
The UK has become a nation of identikit high streets. Thousands of empty properties need to be reoccupied but not with pound stores, charity shops and bookmakers. Town centres need more housing, better leisure and entertainment facilities and commercial office space to attract business to the area.
Late last year, the Cultural Cities Enquiry found arts and culture had revived struggling towns and cities across the UK from Nottingham and Norwich to Hull and Dagenham.
Altrincham has transformed itself from ghost town to boom town through generous council funding, improvements to infrastructure and forward-thinking independent businesses.
Yorkshire Bank has opened a branch in Manchester where there will be fitness classes, film screenings and events with entrepreneurs giving talks on how to set up a business.
This is the sort of thinking that is needed. Areas have to be completely reimagined and, for that to happen, decision-making needs to be decentralised and more power handed to local leaders.
Town planning requires dynamic, creative leadership from people who know the area and understand the needs of local people. Only then will our ravaged high streets stand a chance of revival.
Life on Mars?
Someone should remind the poor souls at Jaguar Land Rover that one of the most exciting companies in the world right now is a carmaker. Elon Musk may be rather eccentric, and at times tetchy and erratic, but the billionaire is building the carmaker of the future from scratch, an epic feat if he pulls it off.
Meanwhile, JLR is busy laying off another 4,500 employees – one in 10 of its 44,000-strong workforce – just months after cutting 1,000 temporary contract workers at its Solihull plant, a move insiders have blamed on a “perfect storm” of factors including uncertainty around Brexit. Sorry, but what a load of nonsense. I’m no ardent Brexiteer but the number of companies blaming “Brexit uncertainty” for problems of their own making is getting embarrassing. These job cuts have nothing to do with the referendum and everything to do with the company’s own missteps. You would expect an opportunist like Vince Cable to seize on the comments as evidence of Brexit ruin, but Business Secretary Greg Clark should know better than to fall for the spin.
JLR’S complaints about Brexit are nothing more than a smokescreen from a company that made the grave error of hitching its future to the fortunes of the diesel engine, which will soon have been taxed out of existence. 90pc of JLR’S models in the UK are still powered by diesel, a statistic that fascinates and horrifies me in equal measure every time I write it. Meanwhile, it is well behind in the electric race.
It wasn’t long ago that the City was getting excited about the prospect of a possible £20bn stock market float of JLR. Right now Elon Musk’s ambition to colonise Mars looks more credible.
Ashley on the rampage
Soon it might be easier to name the retail chains Mike Ashley doesn’t own.
The dramatic ousting of Debenhams chairman Ian Cheshire and chief executive Sergio Bucher from the retailer’s board takes the tracksuitand-trainer tycoon one step closer to getting his hands on yet another slice of the high street.
Good for him, certainly – Ashley is sitting on a £150m loss on the stake he has built, so full ownership may enable him to recover at least a chunk of those losses, while expanding his bulging empire further.
Yet is it good for the company? That depends. In the short term it can only further destabilise a business that is fighting for survival. Cheshire is gone and in interim chairman Terry Duddy they have a seasoned retailer, but how chief executive Sergio Bucher is meant to run the company after being ousted from the board is a mystery.
The risk is that this tips Debenhams over the edge but presumably that would suit Ashley very nicely. He’s made no secret of his interest in taking control. Cheshire had bravely resisted Ashley’s aggressive overtures so with his adversary gone, the entrepreneur can exert much more influence.
Administration could allow him to pick up the bits he wants on the cheap, just like happened with House of Fraser. Those who see Ashley as some sort of retail genius and high street saviour claim such a fate would give Debenhams a brighter future but insolvencies are ruinous. Lenders, creditors and landlords would all be out of pocket. The only true beneficiary would be Mike Ashley, on a fierce quest to replace Philip Green as the new king of the high street.
‘Town planning requires dynamic, creative leadership from people who know the area’
Oxford Street in London was packed with shoppers at Christmas, but local high streets are suffering from closures and many empty shops