Property Week: Bill and Mary Save the High Street

Posted by Property Week on 13th Sep 2013
By Mark Robinson founding partner of Ellandi.

Although the title reads like a key stage 1 book, the plot is full of passion, hubris and recrimination, and it has a denouement less satisfactory than the last episode of Lost.

Media, old and new, have been full of the relative merits of both “high street tsarina” Mary Portas and “alternative retail guru” Bill Grimsey’s visions of how to save the high street, and it would seem to be impossible to support one lengthy set of proposals, without being utterly dismissive of the other.

However, there are probably more things in common between the two reports than either appear to be able to admit. Between them, there are more than enough worthwhile strategies that could be easily and quickly implemented — and that is before any economic recovery gathers momentum and restores the high street with it.

I for one don’t doubt either party’s sincerity, although I would caveat that by questioning their motives and agendas. One is a celebrity retail marketing and branding adviser working with the likes of Westfield, the other is a former chief executive of two out-of-town retailers, Wickes and the now-collapsed Focus.

Read all 61 recommendations and decide for yourself....

There are clearly limitations with both reports. The Portas review now appears lightweight and gimmicky relative to Grimsey’s, and in more recent appearances the self-styled doyenne of retail is more accepting that the problems are more intractable than even she could solve single-handedly.

However, the Grimsey report has gone too far the other way, extrapolating trends from the worst recession in a generation to predict retail Armageddon - tellingly he has both an insolvency practitioner and e-commerce expert on his team.

Occupiers and landlords alike would agree that the rates system is broken and needs an overhaul. Among Grimsey’s suggested practical short-term fixes are to link to an annualised Consumer Price Index and reintroduce the 2015 rating revaluation. However, annual revaluations are impractical.

Town teams, commissions, call them what you like — these need to be statutorily supported and well funded to achieve long-term goals. And they need to be more than talking shops for local worthies.

 Obviously empty shops are a blight and there does need to be some empowerment of local communities to compel absentee landlords to do something, anything, but how this could work is trickier.

Creating a minister for town centres would give the sector a voice in the heart of government and should be done tomorrow.

Representing a company that has recently invested £200m more than either of them in the UK’s town centres, could I humbly suggest a few further ideas?

Out-of-town car parks- Make rates payable on them, as with in-town car parks. Receipts to be used to fund town commissions.

Landlord and Tenant Act 1954- A clue to the problem is in the name: a complete review is required.

Town centre investment management- The industry should really debate the ideas in Peter Brett Associates’ report about assembling diverse ownerships through amending CPO (compulsory purchase order) powers. If successful, this could result in billions of investment in towns.

Planning- The government could actually apply its “town centre first” policy to large out-of-town developments. There are now more retail parks than shopping centres.

Having spoken to other town centre investors who have collectively invested more than £1.5bn in some of the country’s most needy communities in the last three years, the most glaring omission by both gurus is a lack of meaningful engagement with — or understanding of — the property industry at the sharp end of regeneration, and it is not for a want of trying on our side.

Landlords are central to any solution and deserve more credit and consideration than oblique references or the inference that we are the source of all ills.

I am looking forward to the Distressed Retail Property Taskforce recommendations, as they will hopefully reflect the deep well of expertise, professionalism and passion within our industry. 

After all, the solutions for our town centres are more complex than Dick and Jane.

This article first appeared in Property Week 13/9/13, for the full article please click the link below.

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