Store wars: High street shops call for help in their struggle with the giant retail parks

As Mary Portas's retail review nears publication – and it won't be a moment too soon – Laura Chesters looks at the decline of our town centres
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The Independent Online

When Parc Trostre opened in Llanelli, south Wales, locals got a new rugby stadium, new jobs and lots of big, shiny shops from River Island to Boots to WH Smith and Marks & Spencer.

The new retail park by the motorway junction, at the roundabout off the busy A484, brought shops to the area that might not have considered coming here before.

But what about Llanelli's town centre? Did the local council have a plan for the empty shops left when the tenants upped sticks to the new retail park on the edge of town? What about the market traders left with a handful of visitors, and the rest of the town filled with charity shops?

It is towns such as Llanelli that are hoping that shopping queen Mary Portas will have some answers when her high-street review comes out, in the next few months. As do industry experts: last week more than 2,500 from the retail-property industry gathered in Manchester for the annual get-together of the British Council of Shopping Centres (BCSC).

Top of the agenda was whether the government-backed Portas review willoffer solutions to the countless towns where high streets have been stripped of their post offices, corner shops, grocers and butchers. Some of the UK's top landlords – who own the shops – will be meeting Portas next week to give their views too.

Property company Land Securities' head of retail and BCSC president, Richard Akers, who will chair the Portas meeting, blames councils and the Government for a lack of leadership and vision.

"High streets have been outperformed ... because shopping centres are safe and secure with good facilities under a single ownership," he said. "High streets and town centres need vision and concentrated action if they are going to compete."

While the latest BCSC figures show that one in 10 shops on the high street will remain empty for ever, there are retailers such as Marks & Spencer who are still confident. Marc Bolland's group is looking for new shops in town centres around the country; some of them are in new towns, while other shops are being upgraded.

Trading at department-store chain Debenhams, which has more than 165 stores, mostly on the high street, is better than expected: last week it said profits for this year will be higher than last. New retailers ranging from US fashion chain Forever 21 to home-grown fashion retailers Store 21, Select and Internacionale have plans to open new shops across the UK.

But Stuart Harris, a director at retail developer Queenberry Real Estate, says: "High streets are suffering because of large out-of-town areas where there is open planning consent for fashion retailers that would have once only traded in town. We are seeing this in towns such as Stevenage, Newport and Chesterfield. The retailers ideally want in-town space but when the town centre does not offer the right-size stores, retailers have been choosing to go out of town."

Local planners have been accused of lack of long-term vision. One retail expert says: "If you allow new shops to be built in out-of-town centres that is fine, but there should be a strategy for what is left. It is like the councils of the past 20 years were playing draughts when they should have been playing chess."

And now that supermarkets sell everything from food and clothes to carpets, there is little left for other retailers to offer customers. But many experts suggest the true way to turn the high street around is with simple things, such as free car parks.

Nigel Smith, the Co-op's strategic planning manager, says: "A town centre first planning policy is key and this shouldn't be watered down. But key areas are also car park costs, business rate reduction and local enterprise partnerships."

Business rates are measured on the Valuation Office Agency's 2008 valuation report, carried out when values were at their highest. This means some rates bills are 70 per cent of rent costs, plus the rent itself – pricing retailers out. Even if the rent is zero, many cannot afford the shops' business rates.

But many towns and retail areas are still thriving, so what is their secret? Hugh Radford, DTZ's head of retail agency, says: "The key to a good town centre is single ownership by one landlord who is willing to invest money to attract the right retailers with incentive packages. A landlord with control over an area has more reason to invest to improve the area."

Many retailers, though, are still committed to the high street. Clem Constantine, M&S's property director, said: "The high street is and will continue to be important in a multichannel age. Eventually the internet and the high street will ... start to merge, complement each other more."

There is no shortage of property investors in the UK, but the price has to be right. Mark Robinson, joint founder of property firm Ellandi, says: "There are billions of pounds willing to be invested in town-centre schemes but many are in the control of banks after owners were repossessed. In many cases, banks have been unwilling to sell as they cannot achieve the price they lent on the scheme, but they are not willing to invest in the centre. Many struggling centres are in this situation."

But the future of successful has to reflect the modern way we now shop. Jonathan de Mello, a CB Richard Ellis retail consultant, says: "Providing a true retail experience that cannot be replicated on the internet is key. The opening of Westfield Stratford City proves that this can work, though it is clear that fashion, eating out and leisure are the only true 'futureproof' areas of retail left."

Retail Therapy

Problems

The 30 per cent or more falls in the number of independent grocers, butchers, bakeries and fishmongers is linked to growth of supermarkets

Half of town centres now compete with five or more supermarkets within a two-mile radius

Internet retailing accounts for 10 per cent of retail sales

11 per cent of empty shops are there for the long term

Worst towns have 40 per cent shops empty

Solutions

National planning policy should retain a strong emphasis on town centres

Reduce the amount of shops and change some to housing in town centres

Reduce business rates in town

Free car parking in town

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