Our High Street

A couple of things struck me reading this article today about the government (reportedly) about to provide a £1.5bn package of business rates relief and town centre infrastructure spending to help support our ailing high streets.

The first was Brexit and Trump. Groan! Can a day not go by without mention of either?!! Anyway…many supporters of both seem to want to reshape the world into how it once was in their memories, rather than acknowledging change and shaping the future. That’s not to suggest all ‘progress’ is good. Of course, there are many things about the world that I’m happy to mutter and moan about, but looking back at an idealised picture of the past does not help shape the future.

Once upon a time our high streets were thriving. They were where everyone went to do all of their shopping. No sprawling out of town shopping centres, no internet, we all trooped into the centre of where we lived to buy everything we needed. All that has changed. You may not like it, but it has changed. The high street is now full of betting shops and coffee shops, not Woolworths and Our Price. We simply do not shop in the same way as we once did. Taxpayers’ money being used to prop up retailers will not change that unless we change our habits. Don’t moan about Woolworths disappearing from the high street. The reason it disappeared is because we stopped shopping there!

The second thing that struck me is the financial aspects of this. The government is giving a handout to businesses to the value of £900m to cut business rates. Taxpayer money is being used to help businesses because taxpayers have changed their shopping habits! Now, I read elsewhere that business rates are long overdue an overhaul, but is that because retailers are struggling, or because the rates are genuinely out of step and need modernising? I have no idea what the answer is, but it does seem that a slowly failing business model (large shop in centre of town) is being replaced by a rapidly growing and successful one (online shopping).

Isn’t it the case that neither we, nor government, has yet adapted to the changing retail environment? Many of us still like the idea of the high street, and enjoy ‘popping into town for a coffee’, but are now happier to get our groceries online and have them delivered to our door. As a result online retailers are thriving because they have taken the emerging technology and provided something that people want. Perhaps government, rather than spending our money on supporting something we self evidently don’t use in vast numbers any more, should develop a tax system that is adapted to this ‘new’ world.

Just one problem from the Brexiteers viewpoint…that would require recognition that the world, not just our high street, has changed. The likes of Amazon are global, not local. Going back in time and picturing a world as it once was ignores the reality of change, just as pumping money into the high street is just the latest in a long line of failed efforts to change our habits.