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.

 
 
 
 

How big data could help London beat over-tourism

Tourists enjoying Buckingham Palace. Image: Getty.

London has always been vying for the top spot of the global tourism charts. In 2016, the city’s visitor numbers first hit record levels, at 19.1 million overseas arrivals, and projections suggest that number will have increased by 30 per cent by 2025.

The benefits to the city of this booming tourism market are clear: as well as strengthening the capital’s global reputation as open and welcoming, international tourism contributes £13bn annually to the economy and supports 309,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

As tourists continue to arrive in droves, however, the question of how to sustainably manage the influx – and make sure that the city continues to reap the rewards of its global popularity – will become more pressing.

London isn’t quite on a par yet with the Netherlands, where the country’s tourist board recently announced that it would effectively stop promoting Amsterdam as a destination for international travellers in order to ward off the ill-effects of over-tourism in the city. But, looking at that 30 per cent projected increase to the UK, there may be a need to begin future proofing against the same problem.

What if, rather than redirecting tourists away from the city centre when they arrive, authorities employed methods in advance: making tourists aware of the diverse neighbourhoods to explore and cultural experiences to seek out, right across London, which would influence their decisions on where to stay and visit before they even get here?

London First has just published the first ever borough-by-borough analysis of the impact of international visitor spending and accommodation in London. Anonymised and aggregated data provided by Airbnb and Mastercard has allowed us to see clearly who is visiting: where they’re staying, shopping, eating, drinking; when they’re doing it, and why. We can see trends in the behaviours of different nationalities – tourists from China, for example, like to stick in the West End, while German and Italian visitors are keener to explore markets and restaurants outside the centre.


Speaking of the West End, a huge amount of spending (unsurprisingly) goes on in London’s tourism core. But there’s also a substantial amount being spent by tourists across the rest of the city: a ‘halo’ of 19 boroughs, roughly covering travel zones 2-3, accounts for £2.8bn of spending, supporting more than 60,000  jobs. The data showed that growing tourism by just 10 per cent annually in this area would add £250m pounds to the economy and over six thousand jobs.

The economic benefits of encouraging more visitor spending in outer city neighbourhoods and far-flung districts is clear. But what’s also made obvious by the report is the potential for authorities to leverage this sort of data to sustainably grow tourism while safeguarding their cities against its negative effects, now and in the future. With a clearer picture of where, why and when international tourists are visiting, authorities can adapt their promotion, investment and national tourism policy levers, marketing individual areas to international visitors potentially before they even arrive.

Our research, while only a first step, shows that innovative data partnerships of the kind that produced these results are worth doing – and have potential to be adopted not just at a national level in the UK but by cities globally. Facilitating data exchange between public and private partners is not always easy but could be a critical tool for London, and any other tourist destinations looking to avoid inclusion on the growing list of European cities who are scrambling too late to protect their city centres, residents and small business owners against the double-edged sword of “too much tourism”. A three-pronged approach of data exchange, innovative analytics and digital transformation must be leveraged, to help cities better manage their growth challenges, improve efficiency and support economic development.

Matt Hill is programme director at London First.