By Martin Betts.
New research from Price Waterhouse Cooper has shown that a total of 2,692 shops disappeared from Britain’s top 500 high streets in the first six months of this year – a rate of around 14 a day.
During the same period, a record low of only 1,569 new shops opened, leaving a net total of 1,123 more outlets lying empty. Over 50,000 retail jobs have been lost this year. We are warned that this
crisis is due to get worse.
Across our borough shopping centres look run-down and neglected. In Tunbridge Wells there are 22 vacant shops in Royal Victoria Place and 13 in Ely Court. The old cinema site is still a vacant
eyesore despite nearly 20 years of public protest and promises that it would be fixed.
There are more empty units in Southborough – where even more shops are being built, and in Paddock Wood – where the town has to prepare itself for the addition of 4,000 new houses over
the next 10 years. Our business rating system is largely responsible for this problem with rate increases hitting high street shops for a second year in a row. Business leaders have complained that the system favours online retailers like Amazon who operate in out of town sites with lower rates.
They complain that action recently taken by the Chancellor is tinkering and inadequate, and will not prevent what Labour has called ‘high street annihilation’. High business rents, poor planning laws, internet shopping, inadequate and costly bus services, and expensive car park charges have also helped to drive people from our town centres.
Government and local councils must take some responsibility for this and work together. For a start government must sort out the business rating system once and for all and set a business
environment for our high streets to flourish. Rather than cutting bus subsidies and services, government should start supporting public transport to encourage people to shop in our town centres. Many people living in our smaller villages have no regular bus services to do their weekly shops.
For years our council, which should be taking leadership on this issue, has promised improvements, but it is always jam tomorrow. It should be working with developers to agree a town
centre improvement plan that actually happens. In recent years we have seen the council continuously increasing car park charges as a way of making up for revenue taken away by the government. This is self-defeating since it is another disincentive for people to come into the town to shop. Expensive developments like the Civic Centre and Southborough Hub claim to be a future boost to local shopping but have little public support. Consultation has been abysmal and the views of local taxpayers regularly ignored. Most doubt that these projects will bring back life to our high streets.
Both government and councils need to treat the shopping centre issue as a serious problem and genuinely listen to traders and residents. Otherwise we will end up living in underused ghost