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News & opinion

9 SEP 2019

£1bn welcome but high streets need root and branch changes

Geoff White RICS

Geoff White

Policy Manager (North & Midlands)

Newcastle, UK


An increase in the government's Future High Street Fund from £675m to £1bn will be welcomed by cash-strapped councils across the country, but most commentators agree more fundamental changes are necessary to see any meaningful and long-lasting difference.

While he was chancellor, Phillip Hammond announced the £675m to boost 50 struggling town centres across the country, adding the latest announcement's £325m extra for another 50 towns; this totals £1bn for 100 high streets.

Chosen through a bidding process, each will get around £150,000 to develop their outline plans and then up to £25m to deliver them. However, most awards are expected to be in the region of £5m-£10m and the government wants projects to be co-funded by the local authority or private firms.

Prime minister Boris Johnson is right when he says: "our high streets are right at the heart of our communities", we should do everything we can to make sure they remain vibrant places where people want to go, meet and spend their money.

Glasgow high street-unsplash
Not all high streets are as busy as Buchanan Street, Glasgow

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For evidence to support that, you need to look no further than RICS reports over many years with the most recent Cities, health and well-being highlighting the social impact of urban centres. The problems that they face are illustrated every month in the RICS Commercial Market Survey.

The government has also put in place wider measures to regenerate town centres and high streets, suffering as sales move online. They include £900m in business rates relief for small retailers, a taskforce of experts to assist local officials in developing "innovative strategies to help high streets evolve" and a £62m fund to turn disused or underused buildings into creative spaces, offices, retail outlets and housing.

The business rates issue is one which has attracted pro and con arguments for many years and RICS has called for a full review.

Echoing business leaders and rating specialists across the sector, Hew Edgar, RICS Head of UK Government Relations and City Strategy, says: "People want a vibrant high street at the heart of their community. Yet the combination of Brexit uncertainty and competition from online retailers mean small independent businesses are finding it harder to stay afloat. That's why we are calling on the government to review business rates, with the aim of improving the whole system and help provide a shot in the arm for our ailing high streets."

In February, an inquiry by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee also looked at what we want our high streets and town centres to look like in 2030.

MPs said: "Unless this urgent action is taken, we fear that further deterioration, loss of visitors and dereliction may lead to some high streets and town centres disappearing altogether".

Their recommendations welcomed the Future High Street Fund and Task Force approach, but called for measures to go much further:

  • A sales tax, an increase in VAT, an online sales tax and 'green taxes' on deliveries and packaging with revenue raised used to support the high streets via a reduction in business rates and a 12-month holiday for high street retailers from rates increases.
  • Better use of Local Plans and an overarching vision setting for individual high streets and town centres.
  • The appointment of community representatives to Business Improvement District (BID) panels to encourage a more balanced approach in their work and the development of property-owner BIDs.
  • More innovative use by retailers of their space and staff to create opportunities that cannot be found online and opening hours more reflective of people's needs.
  • Landlords to up their game to provide good quality properties on a flexible basis and to engage in local partnerships working on high street and town centre transformation.
  • The Law Commission to review the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954, Part II.

In addition, the Committee urged that any extension of Permitted Development Rights (PDRs) to be suspended until their effects are fully evaluated. This is something that chimes with RICS policy views, following the publication the research report Assessing the impacts of extending permitted development rights to office-to-residential change of use in England in May 2018.

In March this year, then-Housing Secretary James Brokenshire promised to review the quality of homes being built under permitted development (PD) rights, amid mounting concern about the negative impacts of the government's efforts to encourage office-to-residential conversions.

As recently as 13 August, more than 50 major UK retailers called on the government to overhaul the "broken" business rates system. Heads of companies such as Asda, Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer, Harrods, Iceland, and River Island wrote to Chancellor Sajid Javid calling for "fundamental" reforms to the taxes paid by businesses on the properties they occupy.

RICS is pledged to support the industry to strengthen calls for business rates reform with a demand for reform ahead of the next budget. With online retailing growing stronger every day, competition from out-of-town centres and the effect of Brexit uncertainty on our spending, hard pressed high streets and town centres really could do with reform to level the playing field.

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Mon 30 Sep 2019
Geoff White RICS

Geoff White

Policy Manager (North & Midlands)

Newcastle, UK


Geoff is part of the RICS UK External Affairs team which addresses policy, public affairs and press activity to support the organisation’s aims of building influence, credibility and profile to gain recognition of professional standards. Working closely with RICS members, Geoff identifies the challenges and opportunities facing those working in the profession in order to support the delivery, within a public interest mandate, of a vibrant and sustainable land, property and construction sector.

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