News of a major British high street retailer announcing thousands of job cuts or going into administration comes round with depressing regularity. Earlier this week, the fashion chain Republic took the latter course, following Blockbusters, HMV and Jessops into a place of no return.
The difficulties faced by companies such as these have three main causes: profound changes in consumer behaviour, disruptive technologies and, now, recession. Rescuing the high street, therefore, requires both creativity and determination. Sadly, those two qualities are distinctly lacking from the efforts expended on the so-called “Portas Pilots”, the towns whose fortunes the Government invited the retail expert Mary Portas to try to transform.
Freedom of Information requests seen by this newspaper reveal that 11 pilot schemes, set up following the Portas Review in 2011, have completely failed. Of the £1.2m allocated to those towns, just 12 per cent has been spent, some of it – such as the £1,610 to pay for a person in a Peppa Pig costume – woefully. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Government is responding to the deracination of Britain’s high streets with mere gimmickry.
The long-term challenges may not be soluble. Social changes and rapid technological innovation, together with prolonged economic gloom, are a toxic combination. But there are innovations that local councils should enact to encourage business.
Reducing their reliance on car parks for revenue, and so lowering car parking charges, could encourage consumers to shop in the real world rather than the virtual one. Rent holidays would incentivise start-ups. Improved transport links would generate more weekend trade. None of these measures alone will restore our high streets to health. But they would surely command the respect of the public, which is more than can be said for the projects carried out in the name of the so-called Queen of Shops.
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