Town Centres. The Solutions Are Simple.

Town and city centres across the four nations of the UK appear to be in a permanent and irreversible decline. There are a small number of exceptions, usually where there is mass tourism, but most of our towns and cities are suffering declining footfall, empty premises, and a general air of decay.

Town centre footfall fell by 17% between 2019 and 2022 according to the High Streets Task Force. (Review of High Street Footfall in England 2022 | Resources | High Street Task Force (highstreetstaskforce.org.uk). Anecdotally it feels like more than that but I’m happy to go with that statistic. 17% over three years compounded is likely to translate into virtually no remaining viable retail town centres by 2030.

There is a political clamour to save the town centres. A clamour that will be amplified in the upcoming general election. There are already a multitude of different government initiatives aimed at spending, borrowed, or printed money, to reverse what looks like a seismic shift.

So, should anything be done to arrest this historic collapse and if so what?

If the loss of town centre amenities and facilities was just the natural course of economic evolution, then perhaps we should stand aside and not impede the process. But what is happening is not natural it’s a managed and distorted evolution. The taxation system penalises physical businesses and “lockdowns” and wider medical fear mongering further exacerbate the process. We should at least aspire to a level playing field and I firmly believe that the bias should be towards the small independent businesses that are vital to retaining viable and vibrant town centres.

The pictures below which I recently took in Huddersfield town centre perfectly capture the situation. On the one hand with have a row of completely empty retail units. A few hundred metres away we have the council spending money on repaving the main shopping street. The money for the repaving probably came from some central government fund that the local council had to spend bureaucratic resources bidding for. Ask yourself the question- what drives your decision to shop online or physically and how far down the list is the quality of the paving. The approach is typical of supply side solutions to a demand side issue. They won’t work.

huddersfield town centre deserted shops
huddersfield town centre new paving project

What I set out below is a framework for managing that bias back towards physical businesses. In so doing we will help create a multitude of interlocking local economies which are vibrant and resilient.

The fundamental solution to reviving town centre businesses, indeed all private sector activity is for the public sector economy to shrink. People are being impoverished through taxation and inflation. Both are a direct consequence of “too much government”. Virtually everyone has too little of their own earnings left to spend. The businesses that they might spend that money in are the ones to suffer.

So ultimately the solution lies in a low tax economy. But we are where we are- in a high tax economy. The transition process can be utilised to revitalise town centres by rebalancing spending patterns. I suggest the following immediate steps.

 

  • Exempt all licensed premises from alcohol duties. Ensure it is fiscally neutral by increasing the levy on alcohol sold outside licensed premises.

 

  • Increase the VAT threshold from £85,000 pa to £250,000 pa. Removing VAT from the price charged remains the single most effective support to small businesses. And I make that observation as a small business owner. Lost VAT revenue should be offset by an online purchase delivery charge levied at source.

 

 

  • Charge landlords full business rates on empty commercial properties, including on premises that would otherwise be exempt.

 

  • Exempt cash takings in micro businesses from all tax and benefit calculations. Clearly, we would need to define what constitutes a micro business but the companies house definition used for limited companies is a valid starting point. The role of cash in building a robust local economy has been separately covered here.

The major parties all claim to be in favour of town and city centre regeneration. The measures outlined above would be relatively simple, and cost neutral, to implement which begs the question why don’t they do it?

In places government policy openly and pessimistically proclaims the death of the traditional town centre and the need to “invest” in turning commercial space into residential accommodation. The Levelling Up and Regeneration Act 2023 established a brownfield fund, managed by Homes England which aims to recognise the reality of the move to online shopping and convert town centre sites to homes. Its not difficult to see how this fits with the wider 15-minute city WEF sponsored agenda. To make the dystopian ideal of 15 minute control zones in any way achievable the population will need herding into high density urban areas. Is this what this policy is all about?

Village and small-town centres appear to be faring better. Often, they have busy centres with a wide range of independent shops and virtually no empty retail units. Royston in South Yorkshire (where I work) and Denby Dale in West Yorkshire (where I live) typify this trend. The picture I believe is replicated up and down the country. The large villages and small towns are succeeding where the larger towns and cities are universally failing. Villages have undoubtedly benefitted from the work at home culture that started with “lockdowns”. But the fundamental difference between villages and towns is rental prices. Again, I speak from painful experience.

Asking prices on modest units in deserted town centres remain exorbitant. As a customer it appears that landlords have some form of informal cartel in place. No one dares lower asking prices as that will instantly devalue everyone’s entire portfolio. Should the state have a role in correcting this imbalance. Charging full business rates on empty business premises, including exempt premises, is I believe the appropriate mechanism.

If elected as Mayor of West Yorkshire on 2nd May 2024 I will prioritise championing our town centres. I will do this by platforming measures that will actually encourage people to visit and spend money in all of our centres.

 

 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top