“Breathing Life Into Britain’s High Streets”: What Hope Have We Got?

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In our latest blog, Hannes Read looks at the Labour Party’s short-term intervention proposals like banking hubs and addressing shoplifting alongside their long-term changes such as reforming business rates to favour high street commerce.

The Labour Party are firmly on the election hunt. Quickly off the back of the announcement of Labour’s “five missions” for a future election manifesto, have come pledges to renationalise rail, launch a publicly-owned Great British Energy company and a five-point plan to “breathe life” into Britain’s high streets.

But policies to revitalise high streets are nothing new. A cornerstone of the 2019 Conservative election bid was the “levelling up” slogan, with high streets being a part of that mission around “pride in place”. Even before the 2019 election came the £675m Future High Streets Fund and the announcement of the £3.6bn Towns Fund. High streets have been a key political battleground for years. So, what chance have Labour got to turn the tide?

In the short-term

Labour’s five-point plan includes a mix of short-term and visible interventions and some offers of more long-term and potentially transformational change.

The short-term proposals include pledges to roll out banking hubs, stamping out late payments to ensure small businesses are paid sooner, and tackling anti-social behaviour through more policing.

The closure of banks is a long-term trend. Over the last 30 years, the number of high street banks has continuously fallen, with the number of bank branches in the UK falling from over 20,000 in 1986 to around 7,000 in 2022. In particular, the impacts of the bank closures are felt most by people with disabilities, older people, small businesses and by people in rural and more deprived areas.

Shoplifting is one of the most common crimes, with over 430,000 instances in 2022/23. More worryingly, whilst some offences such as violence and public order offences are declining, shoplifting is growing at a very fast rate. Shoplifting increased by 37% across England and Wales from 2022 to 2023. Rising shoplifting, often seen as a crime of poverty, is a symptom of a wider cost of living struggle. Success in reducing shoplifting could be just as likely achieved through an improving economic position, rather than through more police officers, as Labour are proposing.

A bolder transformation

Labour pledges to make more fundamental shifts in the high street economy. Replacing business rates aims to rebalance the burden between high streets and online is welcome. There have long been calls to realign taxes between online and high-street shops. However, raising taxes on online businesses does little to improve the attractiveness of high streets themselves. There is a risk of an unintended doom-loop scenario, with increased prices for online goods, coupled with little to objectively improve the high street. What is vital is to encourage a more fundamental shift to reposition town centres and high streets as places of leisure, not just commerce.

There is a long-term trend towards a more experiential shopping environment. Since 2013, the largest net changes in store numbers have been around barbers and salons, cafes, restaurants and bars, and coffee shops. Revamping empty shops with “right to buy” community assets embraces the increasing demand for high streets to be places of social interaction, as much as places of commerce. Whilst the Conservative government have put in place a Community Ownership Fund, this is only worth £150m over four years and doesn’t specifically focus on high street regeneration. Labour’s policies mark a shift towards specifically acting to redress the balance between online and high street and bringing in a new purpose to the high street.

There are still wider issues to address. Examples of places with an increase in the leisure economy is also matched by increases in housing density in town and city centres. Further, people working in hospitality tend to be on short-term, insecure contracts. Absentee landlords provide a barrier to redevelopment, as well as property portfolio holders extracting rents and wealth out of an area.

Labour’s policies should also redress this balance to: ensure that people are able to live in houses close to the town and city centre amenities; the jobs people work in are secure and well-paid; and the wealth generated by hard-working residents, also works hard and is recirculated in the local economy rather than being flung off to the pockets of distant shareholders or the murky waters surrounding tax havens.

Achieving Labour’s vision

These issues aren’t new. But the ways in which Labour is proposing to address them offers a new approach. Further, the trends identified by Labour’s plan resonate with the findings of the Future Business District research project. In conjunction with the City-Region Economic Development Institute (City-REDI) at the University of Birmingham and Colmore Business District in Birmingham, the Future Business District study identified trends facing the high street in the wake of the pandemic. Some of the issues identified in the Future Business District Study, such as the move to hybrid working, issues around crime and safety, and the need to revamp existing shops to evolve towards a more leisure-focused high street economy, are mirrored in the policies picked up by Labour.

In Birmingham, the five Business Improvement Districts, Birmingham City Council, and wider city centre partners have appointed a City Curator with specific responsibility to act as a Creative Director for the city centre. And Birmingham isn’t alone in pushing forward a vision of a Future Business District. Manchester and London have appointed night-time economy advisers to ensure that safety comes first. The policy is a move towards the stuff of night mayors, rather than nightmares.

Labour can learn from Birmingham, Manchester and London in finding new approaches to put policy into practice. And, more importantly, any policies must address the wider structural issues of the economy, and work just as well for small towns and rural places, just as much as they do in larger cities or risk exacerbating the issues that got us here in the first place.

This blog was written by Hannes Read, Policy and Data Analyst, City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the author and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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