Urgent action is needed now to prevent some high streets and town centres disappearing entirely says a report released today by the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee.

This significant and very useful 83 page report proposes a series of actions required from central government, retailers, landlords and in town centres across the country. It contains a great deal of detail but the key recommendations include:

  • Urgent action is needed now to transform and find a new focus for town centres
  • Town centres should be a focus for social interaction at the heart of the community
  • Strong local leadership and cross-sector collaboration is needed to bring about this change
  • Endorsement of the High Street Fund but with recommendation that additional funding from new business taxation be used to add to the Fund
  • Support for the High Street Task Force but with suggestions for an enhanced remit and more hands-on role
  • Support for the Treasury Committee examination of Business Rates but with proposals to government to consider decreasing complexity
  • That government should consider how an online sales tax would work
  • A comprehensive planning review as far as it relates to town centres should be undertaken, reviewing Compulsory Purchase Orders, Use Classes, and Permitted Development Rights
  • Local dynamic strategies for town centres should be adopted and reviewed regularly
  • Strategies must be based on the distinctive nature of the place
  • Support should be offered by local authorities to local traders
  • Local authorities should test new parking regimes and work with businesses on this
  • A national BID Register should be established by government and a census of place partnerships should be undertaken
  • Place partnerships should be established where they are absent
  • Establish a national local authority-wide network of BIDs and encourage knowledge, expertise and resource sharing
  • Support a government review of community involvement in BIDs
  • Retailers should work with landowners, local authorities and BIDs if they are considering closing a store
  • Retailers should review store opening hours to reflect demand
  • Government should commission research on why some shops remain vacant
  • Landlords should work more closely with local partnerships
  • Review should be commissioned of Landlord & Tenant Act 1954 Part II
  • Government should consult on upward only rent reviews
  • Property owner BIDs legislation should be reintroduced

The six month Inquiry drew on evidence from retailers, property owners, place managers, local authorities, think tanks, academic researchers, a government minister and Sir John Timpson who chaired the recent Expert Panel. It recognises that retail had become a dominant force in town centres but this has been undermined first by out of town and now by the ‘transformation’ brought about by online retail. The report summarises the scale of change now underway and its impact on town centres and finds that a ‘tipping point’ has been reached and that retail change threatens the survival of some high streets.

The Inquiry identified what it calls four systemic issues that are exacerbating the challenge for town centres: too much retail space, fragmented ownership, high fixed costs for retailers through rents and business rates, and business taxation.

The report notes the need for town centres to adapt and change, to provide attractions other than just retail and to be a centre for their community. This may be through creating gathering spaces. Town centres should be places of social interaction.

Supporting a recommendation contained in the Institute report on Achieving Change published by the government alongside the Expert Panel report in December, the report highlights the importance of strong leadership and collaboration. The report suggests that this leadership would normally come from the local authority but that partnerships and collaboration were essential to ensure the right decisions were taken.

It is these strong local partnerships that can develop and implement the transformational interventions that our town centres need says the report. This will involve land acquisition and investment in the public realm. The cost of these works will be high and the report recognises that local authorities face funding gaps. The report therefore welcomes the announcement of the High Street Fund. It emphasises that evidence of strong local leadership should be a key criteria of how bids are assessed.

To support the local action in town centres, the Inquiry calls for action by others. It notes the issues around business rates, including the review that was undertaken in 2015-16 and the complexity of the various reliefs now offered, but believes them to be outdated, it therefore welcomes the Treasury Committee Inquiry into business rates and calls for a simplification of the complexity surrounding them. The report also calls for consideration to be given by government to alternatives to business rates so that the unfairness evident for retailers is addressed. It heard various proposals and wants them considered by the government before October 2019. It further recommends that any revenue raised through an online sales tax should be used to support high streets, including by extending the High Street Fund and funding a 12 month rates holiday from increases caused by investment.

The report makes recommendations to government on planning. It welcomes the statement by the Minister that the Compulsory Purchase Order process will be reviewed. The report notes the delays that are often encountered. It also asks government to review whether the Town Centre First policy should be updated to include activities other than retail. It also calls for a bolder review and complete rewrite of the 1987 Use Class Orders. In the meantime, though it sees advantages in more flexible planning, the report calls for the suspension of any further extension of Permitted Development Rights pending evaluation of their impact on town centres.

The report raises concerns that the Local Plan process may result in decisions being made based on the state of the market five years ago. It emphasises the rapidity of change and suggests local plans need continuous review and adjustment. It also explores the need for town centre strategies to be embedded in the place, to be based on its unique characteristics, to be authentic. It warns against merely borrowing ideas that have been used elsewhere but calls for greater co-ordination across regions to develop effective strategies.

The report calls for local authorities to do more to support local traders. This can be through discounts to business rates or through other schemes. The Inquiry heard differing evidence on parking but believes local authorities should be much more willing to test different parking strategies, including free parking for a period, in order to suit the needs of the centre. They should do this in consultation with local businesses.

The report concludes that a truly collective vision will be hard to achieve in areas where effective place partnerships do not exist. It calls on government to maintain a register of BIDs and undertake a census of place partnerships to identify gaps (something the Institute had proposed in its evidence to the Committee). It further suggests the importance of a national BIDs network, including the proposal that BIDs could support each other. The Committee had heard evidence that suggested BIDs need more community involvement and it asks government to consider how this might be done. In the meantime, it suggests community representatives should join BID boards.

The report calls for greater engagement between retailers, landowners, local authorities, BIDs and other place partnerships when considering closing a store. All options need to be considered, particularly for anchor stores and stores in smaller centres. The report recommends that more needs to be known about why some stores remain empty for a long time. It requests the government to commission research into this and report by October 2019.

In looking to the future, the report notes the importance of creating experience, both in retail and in town centres. It also recommends that town centres need to be more convenient. It suggests that more exploration about opening hours should be done. Activity hours are the most important factor that impacts on town centre vitality and viability according to Institute research published in 2016, and so we very much welcome this recommendation. The report also suggests town centres as ideal places for click and collect and that this should be supported.

The report calls on the government to task the Law Commission with reviewing of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954, Part II and to look at upward only rent reviews. It also asks the government to look at the effect of CVAs (Company Voluntary Arrangements) on the high street.

The report also notes that property owner BIDs were part of the Local Government Finance Bill that fell at the 2017 election. It recommends that the government should reintroduce this legislation “at the earliest opportunity”.

The final recommendations of the Inquiry support the establishment of the High Street Task Force. However, it questions the scale and ambition of the information given by the Minister. It must provide real and tangible support to local areas on a much greater scale than the Portas pilots. It has specific recommendations how this should be done.

The report reflects a detailed understanding of the issues facing town centres gathered by the Committee in its six months Inquiry. It includes perspectives from many different stakeholders and sectors and we are delighted that evidence from the Institute and ATCM that we jointly submitted with The BID Foundation is referred to and included in the report. It contains a multitude of recommendations that if implemented will make a profound difference to town centres.

Photo above: Salisbury's marketplace - a perfect 'gathering space'.