Leading article: When high streets thrive, so do communities

Mary Portas's ideas go to the root of the problem. Now it needs councils to be more active
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The Independent Online

It is easy to romanticise the place the high street has in British life. Most of the nation – or at any rate its older members – have in their mind's eye the image of a small bustling market town from some pre-lapsarian golden age before supermarkets, hypermarkets, giant out-of-town shopping malls and the internet turned upside down the way we buy what we need and want.

Only those with an excessively rose-tinted view of the past would want to go back to the days before these new modes of selling and shopping expanded choice and brought down prices. But nor is it good that our traditional town centres have changed as much as they have. Around 20 shops close somewhere in the UK every day. One in seven shops is vacant. In 150 towns a fifth of shops have shut, and in some high streets as many as four out of every 10 shops stand empty like gaps in a mouth of rotten teeth.

The shopping guru Mary Portas has now made her report into what should be done about this. The recommendations she has made to the Prime Minister go some way to address the problem, though they will probably not be enough. She has stopped short of suggesting that there should be a moratorium on the building of any more out-of-town schemes, which is sensible; it would have been politically unrealistic to suggest otherwise. But she is right to point with alarm to the fact that Secretaries of State since 2008 have questioned just one of the 146 out-of-town developments that have been approved. It's clear that ministers need to be more rigorous in applying existing powers in assessing the impact an out-of-town development might have on nearby high streets, with the National Planning Policy Framework expressing an explicit presumption in favour of town-centre development.

Some of Ms Portas's suggestions, like an annual national market day, smack of gimmickry. But others go to the root of the problem. Something must be done about rents in our high streets. Too many landlords have "upward-only rent reviews" which mean that they can push rents up every few years no matter how well or badly a shop has performed. Incentives for landlords are perverse. At present they can get rate rebates on empty properties; that should change. And more Empty Shop Management Orders, Meanwhile Use and Community Right to Buy measures should be introduced to encourage imaginative community use of empty properties. Compulsory Purchase Orders should be used more often to encourage redevelopment.

Local councils need to be more active in that area but also more flexible in the money they demand from high street businesses. The 5.6 per cent rise in business rates planned for next year should be reviewed; there is a clear case for discretionary powers to be used to give rate concessions to new businesses. Town-centre parking should be time-limited, to ensure a turnover of visitors, but it should be cheap or free. Councils need to forge partnerships with local landlords, businesses and community groups to create teams to enforce these visions.

Above all the culture of our town centres must change. They need a more mixed economy so that shops stand right alongside places that people want to visit – gyms, nurseries and schools, as well as bars and restaurants. The government needs to make "change of use" easier for key properties so that a new model of the high street comes to replace the outdated one.

All this matters because high streets are more than places to buy. They are focal points in which communities come together in ways which are not possible in supermarkets or shopping malls. They are where people bond and exchange local gossip and information. They are where the knowledge, respect, trust and mutuality which bind our communities are nurtured. These are not things to be sacrificed.

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