Monday saw the first meeting of the The Future High Streets Forum. Yet another talking shop put together by the government to talk about…shops. This of course comes hot on the heels of the Portas review which pretty much identified all the problems and then set about trying to convince us that they could be dealt with by the judicious application of some showbiz fairy dust.
Of course when I say ‘hot on the heels’ I’m using an approved government timescale. We’re now something like 18 months on since the Queen of Strops published her initial findings, and just over a year since the first audition tapes for her Pilot bandwagon were submitted and considered by an X-Factor panel comprised of herself and a certain Mr Green (AKA Grant Shapps). Judging by the glacial speed of most government initiatives that’s probably Olympic standard.
After Shapp’s promotion to apologist-in-chief for the coalition, Mark Prisk was handed the delicately poisoned chalice of Minister for the High Street, a position created shortly after the Portas review was published in an attempt to show just how seriously the government regarded it.
Even though at first glance Prisk seemed like a much more able candidate for the position, his apparent lack of understanding about the problems we face seems to have eclipsed even his predecessors total ineptitude for effective policy making. This has only been matched by his hitherto monumental lack of action, which may be why he’s letting a whole heap of ideas flood out now, like a backed up colon after a dodgy curry.
According to Mr Prisk, discussions at the first forum meeting focussed on speeding up the mentoring initiatives supposedly established during the set up of the Portas Pilots. He also wants to offer Town Teams workshops, secondments and mentoring from over 30 organisations, including the British Council of Shopping Centres, the ACS and the British Parking Association to provide advice on aspects such as retail and tourism, the night time economy, public space design and age-accessibility.
So a veritable smorgasbord of limited options topped off with a selection from the sweet trolley of the bleedin’ obvious!
As always this new improved super-forum is taking the approach that all the problems the high street faces are of it’s own making. They start from the premise that none of us have the first idea why we ended up in this mess. We’re all such terribly naive and inept businesspeople that we need a big brother or sister to hold our hands, read us a bedtime story and tell us where the monsters are hiding. Apparently, reduced consumer demand and a failing economy can all be swept away with a few tired ideas, such as market days and pop-up shops. Greedy intransigent landlords, hocked up to the eyeballs, and councils and governments ignoring economic imperitives can be dealt with by creating a new logo and installing some extra street furniture.
That’s not to say that the people on the panel aren’t qualified to offer effective advice. Far from it. In fact I’ve got a lot of respect for most of them, even if they do seem to be predominately rooted in the property industry. It’s just that there’s really nothing new to bring to the table now. Most of the problems now being faced were identified and listed chapter and verse in the Portas review and most people, me included, agreed that the key areas for concern were in there. If those in power chose to sideline the important issues with circus tricks and razzle-dazzle why should we think it’ll be any different this time around?
At the launch of the Portas Pilots both Mary and Grant Shapps were fond of saying how they’d accepted “nearly all” of the the points in her report. Carefully and disingenuously avoiding mention of the 3 main areas they ignored – high rents, high rates and high parking charges. Without dealing with those points, the kinds of suggested improvements that are frequently trotted out by various experts are far removed from the key issues that have undermined the viability of the high street. Superficial changes and local initiatives are all very well, but they’re cherries on the cake. The problem is we don’t have much cake left after local and national government have finished taking their slices.
Why the government is so reluctant to take positive action on things like business rates really is beyond me now. They seem to do nothing but thrash about looking for any option other than the most expedient solutions open to them as the people in charge. The argument seems to be that they can’t be seen to be directly supporting private enterprise with public money. Yet in the same breath they happily justify shovelling skip loads of cash in the direction of bankers who’ll just as blithely trouser huge wedges of the stuff in the guise of bonuses or just stack it up in the corner and gaze lovingly at it. Not only is that direct support for one of the most unpopular and bloated sectors of private industry, it’s the very same sector that brought most of us to the door of ruin just a few years ago. Yet we’re all supposed to be in dread of bankers moving their cash skimming operations to foreign climes, whereas Vince Cable seems to be pretty keen to see retailers head overseas as soon as humanly possible.
Do the math(s)!
Business rates are, along with rents, the two most corrosive factors eating away at the heart of the high street today. In a few days the second of two massive hikes in business rates will kick in, leaving the retail economy shouldering the burden of over half a billion pounds worth of additional taxes imposed over the past two years in this single tax alone. Yet Mark Prisk seems not to have noticed.
In a statement about the new forum he said “Over the last year this Government has worked hard to help boost the high street, including initiatives to simplify planning, revamp the public realm, cut the business rate burden and revive local markets”.
Now I don’t know if he’d normally describe an increase of £525M as a ‘cut’ but if so I think perhaps he needs to buy a new abacus or at the very least have a word with a professional about providing appropriate medication. Self delusion is one thing, but trying to drag the rest of us into his fantasy world is probably a step too far, even for a government minister.
Although to be fair, this isn’t the first time this bit of spin has been thrown out there. Whilst watching the Andrew Marr show a year or so ago I almost pebbledashed my TV with fruity granola after hearing Call-Me-Dave Cameron announce to all the world that his government were “tackling business rates”. Again a definition of ‘tackling’ that I don’t think would have got him very far on the rugby fields of Eton.
Peddling this kind of PR piffle serves to demonstrate just how little the government really wants to tackle the core structural issues that are undermining every high street retailer today. In the past 2 years they talked a lot and walked very little. To put this into sharper context we need to realise that the sum total of all the cash handouts given to towns under the various soundbite schemes dreamt up by Shapps and Prisk amounts to little more than 8% of the increases in business rates imposed since they were announced. If there really was a will to fix the high street we all know what would be the first demonstration of intent – a freeze in business rates in the last budget. That hasn’t happened so just like last time we’re expected to be satisfied with the sop of yet another inquiry.
And timing is everything. The deadline for last years Portas Pilot audition video submissions was coincidentally the day before £350M worth of extra rates bills had to be paid by retailers. This year we have a new talking shop that meets less than a week after the chancellor smacked us in the mouth with a further £175M hike and expected us to to smile about it through broken teeth.
Lies, damned lies and politics
We all know that no amount of pop-up talking shops and secondments are going to solve these structural issues. Those in government know it too, and every time we swallow another piece of bullshit pseudo policy we’re letting them get away with the subterfuge. There’s no substitute for proper action from a motivated and principled government. That’s something we need NOW, not in another year, not after yet another report or another raft of hair-brained ineffectual political stunts.
It’s going to take a lot more than just talk to get these problems solved. Sadly though, it seems talk is still all we’re going to get.