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14/02/2019

The internet is not the reason high streets are struggling

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'Small-friendly, collaborative and place-centred' –  Dr Jackie Mulligan offers a recipe for revival of Britain's struggling high streets

Threats to town centre retail are not new. For decades, places have been de-centred by out-of-town retail parks offering big brands and free parking. Rates and rental systems have forced many small businesses to close.

Yet, even as the media reports on the giants toppling in the doom and gloom of 2018/19, it is these small businesses, and home-based entrepreneurs building their businesses, that provide an answer to how we can revitalise local economies.

“Commercial hearts are not only crucial to our economies, they are critical to our sense of belonging, community and identity”

But the environment needs to be small-friendly, collaborative and place-centred. It does not mean shrinking the commercial footprint,  as Philip Hammond’s Future High Streets proposal to repurpose retail as housing would suggest. It means nurturing new businesses.

Businesses play a role in social cohesion and inclusivity. Markets, for example, provide access to fresh produce for vulnerable people, and local services reduce the need for car journeys. Moreover, interaction in healthy town centres reduces loneliness. Commercial hearts are not only crucial to our economies, they are critical to our sense of belonging, community and identity.

On a recent trip to a big town I found a beautiful Tudor building boarded up in the main thoroughfare. It had been like that for years. Landlords who have empty domestic properties pay council tax. But commercial property landlords can leave a property vacant for three months without any pain and sometimes longer. Yet closed commercial properties damage perceptions.

Remote landlords are often accused of assuming a rental value higher than the reality of the local marketplace. This calls for negotiation at a local level and where giants have fallen there is a chance for councils to repurpose larger units to enable smaller businesses to take up spaces at peppercorn rents. There are growing businesses in living rooms behind our main high streets that need encouragement to take up bricks and mortar. Whether it is rent/rate relief, co-sharing and managed spaces, or promotional support, councils and business improvement districts should be exploring ways to grow their commercial offer before they start reducing it.

Digital, often blamed for the high street’s demise, could be part of its salvation. My website ShopAppy, for example, provides a shop window for small businesses, allowing people to buy online during the day and collect their goods after closing time. Online activity does not have to mean our local economies lose out.

Dr Jackie Mulligan is a social psychologist and founder of ShopAppy

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