by Prof Cathy Parker
Last Wednesday, 26th September, at the Labour Party Conference, Rebecca Long Bailey, Shadow Business Secretary announced Labour’s emergency 5-point plan “to save Britain’s high streets”.
In this blog article I look at each part of the plan, and evaluate its likely impact on the high street. Where I think something can really help transform the high street, I award it a point. If I don’t think it will make a difference, then I don’t award any points.
Banning ATM charges and stopping Post Office and bank branch closures.
Access to finance and other services, such as those provided by Post Offices, are important. Some communities are more cash-dependent than others, so when the withdrawal or deposit of cash is more difficult, or more expensive, it hits these places hard. IPM’s study of neighbourhoods across Greater Manchester suggested some districts are not functioning as district centres, because of a lack of access to finance. Reinvigorating the Post Office network would bring basic financial services to where they are needed, and this could include free-to-use ATMs.
Banks may be encouraged to stop closures in some locations, or re-open in places they have withdrawn from, if they focus more on footfall. Like retailers, banks should be where their customers are. As high streets and town centers evolve, banks may want to reassess their physical store locations. But, in my opinion, they can’t be relied upon to adapt quickly enough or to invest in services that will help to reinvent the high street, like doing more to support high street businesses.
Access to funds for business start-up and expansion is really important, but the recent record of high street bank lending to SMEs, especially in the retail or the service sector suggests they are not going to be part of the solution.
Therefore, I think there is a big opportunity for Labour to join up this policy with their call for regional development banks. If small businesses could access funds from this type of funder, perhaps through the local Post Office network, this could bring much-needed finance for reinvigorating the high street. However, without this we don’t think the current suggestion will have any impact on the high street. ATM charges should be scrapped anyway as, like pay-day loans, they target people who can’t afford them.
Providing free bus travel for under 25s
Our High Street Street UK 2020 study found that accessibility, by a variety of modes of transport, was the most important factor explaining a high street’s vitality and viability.
Recent research we have undertaken on behalf of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government suggests that young people are positive about their high streets and town centers, so making it easier for them to visit is likely to increase footfall.
However, buses have suffered under austerity. The Campaign for Better Transport estimates nearly 3,500 services have been withdrawn or reduced since 2010. In many locations there are no evening and no Sunday services. Whilst the Department of Transport has strategies for all other modes of transport, it does not have one for bus travel. If Labour were to develop a national bus strategy then this would have a significant impact upon the health of the high street. Without this, free bus travel for under 25s is unlikely to make a difference.
Delivering free public Wi-Fi in town centres.
Whilst better digital infrastructure helps businesses and consumers, there is little evidence that this suggestion will improve the high street, per se. Commenting in The Guardian, data and location expert, Matthew Hopkinson, explained with the generous data packages available on mobiles pushing for free wifi is a “bit of a waste of time”. “Also what personal data do I have to share to get it?”.
Rather than just focus on the infrastructure, I suggest the Labour Party roll-out tried and tested programmes that enable town centers stakeholders to better-use digital technologies and social media to collectively boost the performance of the town. Mainstreaming the #WDYT campaign, encouraging all town centre businesses to use social media and new technology that will drive footfall to their store (and therefore the high street) could have a significant impact. On its own, free public wi-fi is unlikely to.
Establish a register of landlords of empty shops in each local authority.
You may not have been able to read a newspaper, listen to the radio, or watch the news recently without coming across Altrincham. It is the current poster child of town center regeneration. While this success is usually attributed to the opening of a popular food hall, there’s actually quite a bit more behind the reinvention of the town.
Altrincham is the first town I know of where the place manager identified a complete register of landlords, covering every single property in the town. It’s not only landlords of empty shops that need to be engaged proactively. There are other reasons to talk to landlords, for example coordinating regeneration schemes, or improving facias and store appearance. Nevertheless, the database is a sensible idea if extended to include all landlords. So, I think this suggestion has merit – therefore I award it one point.
On the topic of business rates Labour would “introduce annual revaluations of rates, exempt new plant and machinery from revaluations, ensure a fair appeals system and fundamentally review the business rates system to bring it into the 21st century”.
Our joint submission, with the Association of Town and City Management and The BID Foundation, to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee Inquiry into the future of the high Street identified the need to undertake more reform to business rates. Whilst the annual revaluations are unlikely to be implemented (they are too costly) I do agree that a fundamental review is needed, to level the playing field between in-store and on-line retailing, so this is another suggestion with merit, and worthy of another point.
In short, implementing Labour’s current 5-point plan, as it stands, will not make much difference to the high street. Whilst there are suggestions that can impact positively upon people on low incomes and young people, collectively the plan misses the opportunity to tackle the real issues of developing a national high street vision that integrates with major policy areas across government (e.g. taxation, economy, transport, health) as well as establishing mechanisms to enable and support local leaders and partnerships to take corrective action over issues they can solve locally.
 The Labour Party Report. “A National Investment Bank for Britain”. Accessible via: https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/National-Investment-Bank-Plans-Report.pdf
 O’Hara, M. (2018). “We need to crack down on payday loans- for the sake of our health”. The Guardian. Accessible via: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/apr/03/crackdown-payday-loans-predatory-lending-mental-health-poverty
 Parker, C, Ntounis, N, Millington, S, Quin, S, and Castillo-Villar, F. 2017. “Improving the vitality and viability of the UK High Street by 2020: Identifying priorities and a framework for action”. Journal of Place Management and Development. 10(4): 310-348.
 “Campaign for Better Transport Report: Buses in Crisis”. (2018). Accessible via: https://bettertransport.org.uk/sites/default/files/research-files/Buses-in-Crisis-2018_0.pdf
 Doward, J. (2018). “Bus chiefs warn route closures will hit the vulnerable”. The Observer. Accessible via: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/sep/30/bus-firm-warns-route-closures-will-hit-poor