Can Phillip Hammond’s Treasury really revive Britain’s high streets?

Dartford. Image: Getty.

The Chancellor spotted a great deal for Britain’s economy by making city centres a key focus of his recent budget. In among the tax and spending tweaks was the launch of a plan to save the high street. Philip Hammond offered high streets a 3-for-1 deal, announcing a trio of policies to help city and town centres adapt to changing consumer preferences, including a business rates holiday, a new Future High Streets Fund, and consultation on an extension to Permitted Development Rights (PDR).

The government’s acknowledgement that high streets must “adapt and diversify” is welcome. Past policy has focused too much on retail-led solutions which do not address wider economic issues – but as our recent research has shown, many city centres have far too many shops and need to remodel away from this dependence on retail. The government also recognises this, shown for instance in the announcement of a new pilot to facilitate meanwhile use for empty high street properties. In particular, having more office-based businesses in city centres will bring both more footfall into shops and boost customers’ spending power by providing them with better wages.

Here are three thoughts on the government’s high street policies.

1) The Future High Street Fund should focus on remodelling struggling city centres

The city centres most in need of reshaping will find it hard to attract private sector investors and developers given their low property prices and unproven markets, so remodelling may not happen without public sector involvement (and funds). In recent years the European Regional Development Funds (ERDF) have been a vital source of funds, allowing cities like Bradford and Huddersfield to develop new quality workspace in their city centres.

As ERDF support ends with Brexit, the announcement of a £650m Future High Streets Fund is a helpful first step toward its replacement. The new Fund should be directed at the city centres with the highest vacancy rates and aim to support them to diversify. This means repurposing empty retail stock to other commercial uses and housing and developing additional high-quality office space too.

The Chancellor should go further than this, though, by making the £38bn National Productivity Infrastructure Fund available to make struggling city centres more attractive to investment from high-productivity businesses.


2) A more flexible planning system could help high streets adapt, but PDR may not always be the right tool

In some cities, greater flexibility over a property’s use could encourage both a reduction in excess retail and address housing shortages. In Basildon, for example, average house prices are 10 times average household income, signalling an urgent need for more homes. And the city centre has far too many shops (62 per cent of commercial floor space is retail and 20 per cent lies empty). So it makes sense to convert some of these empty shops into homes, which also benefit from being within walking or cycling distance of workspaces, amenities and transport hubs.

But most cities are not like Basildon, and a combination of high housing demand and high vacancy rates is unusual. Introducing the proposed extension of PDR to retail – allowing change of use to office or residential without planning permission  – risks losing quality commercial space in city centres with healthy high streets, and is likely to be ineffective in city centres most in need of help. (We explored these issues ahead of the Budget, in an earlier blog.)

Take Brighton, for instance. The city also has high housing demand but a low high street vacancy rate of 8 per cent. If PDR made conversions easy in the city centre, successful shops which residents rely on could be discarded for new housing.

At the other end of the scale, weak city centres with struggling high streets have low demand for both housing and retail, so take-up of PDR would be rare even though repurposing the buildings would help the high street.

So while the policy could benefit a select few cities, for the majority it would need to be handled cautiously to make sure it works with, not against, the city centre’s economy. Given the lack of control, local authorities have over PDR conversions, this could be very difficult.

3) Business rates are a red herring – other factors are causing the high street’s struggles

The Chancellor yielded to pressure from retailers and offered smaller shops business rates relief. But placing the blame for the struggles of retail on a property tax (despite its flaws) is misleading and distracts from the underlying factors leading to the decline of high-street retailers. While the discounts provide some welcome short-term help, it is not an effective long-term fix.

Business rates are higher in city centres because they are attractive commercial locations, offering firms the benefits of density and access to many customers and workers. Rather than indicating that the tax burden is too high, the difficulties shops are having in paying the rates instead highlight the lack of footfall past their doors.

The most effective way for the government to support high streets is to help cities overcome their weak economic performance. An empty high street is a sign of a lack of economic activity, without the spending power and footfall to keep amenities open. So to help the high street, policy must focus on improving the performance of the broader city centre economy both directly through improving commercial space and public realm; and indirectly, by raising the skills of the cities’ workforces.

The authors are analysts at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

 
 
 
 

Joe Anderson: Why I resigned from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership

Liverpool Lime Street station, 2008. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Liverpool has a few choice words for Chris Grayling.

I resigned from the board of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership this week. I just didn’t see the point of continuing when it is now crystal clear the government isn’t committed to delivering the step-change in rail investment in the North that we so desperately need. Without it, the Northern Powerhouse will remain a pipedream.

Local government leaders like me have been left standing at the altar for the past three years. The research is done. The case has been made. Time and again we’ve been told to be patient – the money is coming.

Well, we’ve waited long enough.

The only thing left is for the transport secretary to come up with the cash. I’m not holding my breath, so I’m getting on with my day job.

There’s a broader point here. Rail policy has been like a roller-coaster in recent years. It soars and loops, twisting and turning, without a clear, committed trajectory. There is no consistency – or fairness. When London makes the case for Crossrail, it’s green-lit. When we make the same case for HS3 – linking the key Northern cities – we are left in Whitehall limbo.

Just look at the last week. First we had the protracted resignation of Sir Terry Morgan as Chairman of HS2 Ltd. Just when we need to see firm leadership and focus we have instead been offered confusion and division. His successor, Allan Cooke, said that HS2 Ltd is “working to deliver” services from London to Birmingham – the first phase of the line – from 2026, “in line with the targeted delivery date”. (“In line?”)

Just when HS2 finally looked like a done deal, we have another change at the top and promises about delivery are sounding vaguer. Rumours of delays and cost over-runs abound.

Some would like to see the case for HS2 lose out to HS3, the cross-Pennine east-west line. This is a bit like asking which part of a train is more important: its engine, or its wheels. We need both HS2 and HS3. We are currently left trying to build the fourth industrial revolution on infrastructure from the first.

If we are ever to equip our country with the ability to meet rising customer and freight demand, improve connectivity between our major conurbations and deliver the vision of the Northern Powerhouse, then we need the key infrastructure in place to do that.


There are no shortcuts. Ministers clearly believe there are. The second piece of disappointing news is that officials at the Department for Transport have already confirmed to the freight industry that any HS3 line will not be electrified, the Yorkshire Post reports.

This is a classic false economy. The renaissance of the Liverpool Dockside – now called Superport – is undergoing a £1bn investment, enabling it to service 95 per cent  of the world’s largest container ships, opening up faster supply chain transit for at least 50 per cent  of the existing UK container market. Why squander this immense opportunity with a cut-price rail system?

Without the proper infrastructure, the North of England will never fulfil its potential, leaving our economy lop-sided and under-utilised for another generation. This is not provincial jealousy. Building a rail network that’s fit for purpose for both passenger and freight will remove millions of car journeys from the road and make our national economy more productive. It will also be cleaner, cheaper and more reliable. Our European neighbours have long understood the catalytic effect of proper connectivity between cities.

Similarly, linking together towns and key cities across the North of England is a massive prize that will boost growth, create jobs and provide a counterweight to Greater London, easing pressures on the capital and building resilience into our national economy.

To realise this vision, we need the finance and political commitment. Confirmation that the government is pushing ahead with HS3 – as well as HS2 – is now sorely needed.

With Brexit looming and all the uncertainly it brings in its wake, it is even more pressing to have clarity around long-term investment decisions about our critical infrastructure. Given the investment, the North will seize the chance.

But until ministers are serious, I have a city to run.

Joe Anderson is the elected Labour mayor of Liverpool.