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            What does the future hold for British high streets?

            Join DWF and Policy Exchange at this Conservative Party Conference Panel Event to discuss the future of Britain's high streets.


            Aerial view of crowd walking outside

            30 September 2019 15:30
            30 September 2019 16:30

            Conservative Party Conference
            Manchester Central: Cobden Rooms 3 & 4

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            Britain’s town centres and high streets are often at the heart of people’s sense of place and local identity. Changes in global and local economies have put this under pressure, with 1 in 12 shops having closed in England and Wales in the last 5 years. With the radical global shift in how we use and relate to our local resources, it may be time to empower local authorities and communities to deliver a high street revolution.

            What does the future hold for British high streets?

            DWF and Policy Exchange Conservative Party Conference Panel Event 

            Time: 3:30 - 4:30pm


            The Context

            In recent years, high streets and town centres have been struggling, due to several contributing factors, including the rise of online shopping, the widening of products on offer, business rates, a decline in consumer confidence and competition from retail parks. In July 2019, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) reported the longest sustained decline for retail sales in the UK since 2011, as the group’s Chief Economist Rain Newton-Smith noted “despite the recent pick-up we’ve seen in households’ real earnings, the sun is clearly not shinning on the British high street”.
            The British Retail Consortium (BRC) reported a decline in total retail footfall of 1.9% across the UK, with the high street suffering a 2.7% and shopping centres suffering a 3.1% drop in footfall in July 2019 - the worst performance for seven years. The Centre for Retail Research in 2018, reported 43 companies failing, affecting 2,594 stores and a knock-on effect of 46,014 employees impacted consequently. 

            The Government has expanded the Future High Street Fund to £1 billion, from the original amount of £675 million – allowing 50 more towns to benefit from funding. The scheme launched in December 2018 was established to support adaption of the high street in response to changing technology and improving transport access and circulation in the area. The Prime Minister stressed “our high streets are right at the heart of our communities, and I will do everything I can to make sure they remain vibrant places where people want to go, meet and spend their money”.

            Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, Communities Secretary stressed: “high streets have a crucial role to play as we work to grow the economy of all parts of the country. Our £1 billion Future High Streets Fund is key to delivering this, empowering local leaders to help transform their high streets and town centres as consumer habits change, by investing in housing, workplaces, infrastructure and culture.”

            HM Opposition Leader, Jeremy Corbyn MP has recently promised to tackle ‘retail apocalypse’ to help Britain’s struggling high streets. Labour wants to give Council’s to seize and reopen shops in premises left vacant for more than a year. Andrew Gwynne MP, the Shadow Local Government and Communities Secretary highlighted “high street closures are a historic high, leaving too many of our once thriving towns abandoned and awash with boarded-up shop fronts”.

            July 2019 saw the highest vacancy rate of shops in town centres, with one in ten stores left empty -the highest level since January 2015, according to the BRC and Springboard’s recent survey. Helen Dickinson OBE, Chief Executive of BRC stressed “if the Government wishes to avoid seeing more empty shops in our town centres then they must act to relieve some of the pressure bearing down on the high street”.

            Consumer confidence is low, due to prolonged Brexit uncertainty, shoppers are notably disengaged contributing to the decline in footfall across UK high streets. Local government, landlords retail and real estate sectors are crucial in delivering the transformation and investment needed for our high streets and town centres and ease pressure on communities.

            Local government, landlords retail and real estate sectors are crucial in delivering the transformation and investment needed for our high streets and town centres and ease pressure on communities. Interesting perspectives from sectors, are noted below:


            Cllr Richard Watts, Chair of LGA Resources Board, stated “Councils can do more to support small businesses and boost high streets with the freedom and finance to set business rates discounts and reliefs locally. They also need more powers and flexibility, particularly in relation to planning, to help shape and deliver vibrant town centres. The LGA is ready to work with the Government, councils and other stakeholders to help secure a prosperous long-term future for our high streets and town and city centres”

            London Councils emphasised that “high streets act as a focal point for community activity and are part of how areas perceive and understand themselves”

            Ed Cook, Chief Executive of Revo insisted “landlords were very interested” in their tenants trading performance and were “motivated to try to support them in their large operations”

            Mike Ashley, Sports Direct Group, commenting on this suggested “maybe shoppers want to come in and pick up their internet parcels after work, so whereas a store used to shut at 6pm or 5.30pm, maybe it needs to stay open later”

            Tony Ginty, Head of Public Affairs at Marks and Spencer described the increase of online shopping and the change in consumer’s shopping habits “as a major structural transformation” and “by far the biggest” challenge faced by the sector

            The Local Data Company indicates that 3.5% of high street units across the UK are remaining vacant for more than three years and it is clear that there is “clear north/south divide” with the North East and North West having the most long-term vacant units


            In advance of the Panel Event, ComRes conducted a poll with over 2000 British adults:

            Two thirds (64%) of GB adults believe that the majority of British high streets will not exist in 50 years’ time

            Three quarters (76%) believe that online retailers are the reason for the decline of the British high street

            Only 15% feels that local government is playing a positive role in the future of the British high street

            Two thirds (65%) of adults believe that local authorities are better placed than central government to decide what is best for the future of the high street – just 6% disagree with this

            Nearly half of all adults believe the government should increase taxation of online retailers in order to decrease the tax burden placed on high street retailers - creating an even playing field

            People are equally likely to say that local government or retailers are the most responsible for investing in the uncertain future of the high streets (both 25%)

            67% believe that Enterprise Zones (designated areas that provide tax breaks and government support) should be used to help retailers on British high streets

            Follow the debate on our LinkedIn and Twitter channels.

            Bob Blackman MP, Conservative Member of Parliament for Harrow East and Vice President of the Local Government Association

            James Hamilton, Acquisitions & Estate Director, Costa UK & Ireland since 2011

            Melanie Williams, Partner, Head of Real Estate Sector, DWF

            Warwick Lightfoot, Head of Economics and Social Policy at Policy Exchange


            Meet the speakers

            Melanie Williams

            • Partner // Head of Real Estate Sector // Head of Hospitality Group

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