Ghost towns can be brought back to life – but only with lo­cal lead­er­ship

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Business - BEN MAR­LOW Fol­low Ben on Twit­ter @ben­jam­in­mar­low

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

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