Calls to ‘save’ high streets miss big picture

Linda J. Dodson

Indeed, the distinction between online and bricks-and-mortar retail is increasingly blurred. Two thirds of the businesses that trade on eBay also have a physical premises. John Lewis is aiming to be a 60pc online retailer, from 40pc before Covid. There are also lots of firms that started online and then opened shops, and plenty of shops that have come online to help themselves to survive the pandemic.

Finally, the ugly sight of empty shops and boarded-up properties is certainly proof of some sort of failure. But this is not the national picture.

As the Centre for Cities points out, high streets are thriving in towns and cities such as Brighton, Cambridge and York, despite the same pressures from online competition and high business rates. This argues against a one-size-fits-all strategy handed down from Whitehall. Instead, it makes sense to ask whether unoccupied buildings could be put to better use.

It seems bonkers we have empty shops at the same time as a shortage of housing. Increased home working in a post-Covid world could also free up office space that might be converted into homes. The Government’s latest proposals to simplify the planning system are therefore a good start. More devolution of power to local authorities would help too.

Some have already shown great imagination. The businessman Bill Grimsey has led several reviews which have identified plenty of successful initiatives to develop community hubs that are not simply reliant on retail, in places such as Stockton-on-Tees.

Unfortunately, there is usually resistance to change. Some have already criticised the Government’s planning proposals as a “developers’ charter”. This rather misses the point that we need more development, and it ignores the ways in which the interests of developers and the community can be aligned. The Government’s reluctance to accept the case for more flexible use of green belt land suggests that it is still prone to irrational “nimbyism” too.

In short, change on the high street is often just a reflection of markets working as they should. Where they are not, the emphasis should be on allowing them to work better.

Julian Jessop is an independent economist. He tweets @julianhjessop. Liam Halligan is away

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