Saturday, February 28, 2009

Save High Street From Tumbleweed Blight

Empty shops blight the High Street as a decade of false boom and debt-fuelled prosperity takes its toll in a spiral of recession depression. But shoppers don't have to struggle in ghost towns, if a short-sighted government and greedy councils get to grips with the tumbleweed blight. 

Take stroll down any High Street and the sad, squalid picture is the same. Boarded up shops, a sea of 'for lease' signs, posters advertising endless sales. All an easy target for vandalism and decay.

Nowhere is this more keenly felt than in the traditional High Streets of the market towns and inner city shopping communities. And the problem is set to get worse.

A new survey from the the Local Government Association (LGA) says four out of five councils in England have reported an increase in empty premises as the recession bites and is calling for action to halt the spread of "ghost towns". 

The solutions can be found in the root causes of the problem. 

For a decade council were quite happy for High Streets to be taken over by the big chains which rode on the back of a borrowing binge and expanded their empire and  the local family run business went to the wall. 

Fast food joints sprung up everywhere as a nation was sucked in by crap food Britain. The New Labour sandwich of all style and no substance was born.

An estimated 88 million extra square feet of retail space has mushroomed over the past decade. 

Massive supermarkets saw a chance to boost the profits and set up cute little mini-supermarkets up and down the High Streets.  Cheap imports from China exploded into competing retail outlets all selling leisurewear and a whole raft of womenswear shops. Just how many coffee shops and mobile phone shops can a High Street take and need? 

And who's to blame for the expansion? Not the shopper who goes with the flow but the very councils who are now bleating to save the impending ghost towns. 

Local shops, family run business were squeezed out by a massive hike in local business rates as councils saw a chance to make a fast buck, pushing up business rates as the big chain shops moved in  and family run businesses were booted  off the High Street.

The days of the candlestick maker are long gone but they were soon to be followed by the butcher and the baker. 

Local, often family run businesses which had survived and made a living on the High Street for years are the key to  getting the High Street back on it feet again. 

And it's a problem peculiar to the British Isles and rarely seen on continental Europe where local businesses have been protected and allowed to flourish partly because of traditional daily market shopping habits and partly because local mayors have a vested interest in keeping local shops truly local.

Now the call has gone out to make more creative use of the "dead spaces" with empty shops transformed into 'social amenities'. It's not local arty farty amenities that are needed. It's shops. 

It's not as if there are not enough entrepreneurial souls willing to give it a go. But at the moment they are forced to shiver in their thermals and sell from handcarts in windy street markets and car parks up and down the country. 

It is help with those costs that's needed and that means lower rents from the landlords and lower business rates from the local council.

It also means a cut in VAT from 15% to 5% on the refurbishment of empty shops to encourage new businesses.

Councils need to take the lead to stop our High Streets sliding into decline but only if the model of local shops run by local people for the local community is followed. 

Subsidised local shops run by the local community for the local community may sound all pie in the sky. But all that is required is a massive change in a government mindset. 

At the moment ministers are  still burying their  heads in the sand as the tumbleweed takes root and grows all around them. 

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