Town centres could become ghost towns, warns former retail chief

By Ian Westbrook
BBC Business reporter

image captionStockton-on-Tees is one town which has benefitted from following the recommendations in Mr Grimsey's original report

Britain's town centres are "in big danger of becoming ghost towns in the future" if immediate action is not taken, warns a former retail chief.

Bill Grimsey, former head of Wickes, Iceland and Focus DIY, launches his second report into the future of town centres and High Streets on Wednesday.

He told the BBC: "We must act now.

"Forget retail for town centres, they need to become community hubs based on health, education, entertainment, leisure and arts and crafts."

Mr Grimsey's report says that facilities such as libraries and digital and health hubs should be part of the offering to bring back people to town centres, together with housing and some independent shops.

And he explained to the BBC: "We are social animals. We need gathering places as otherwise we are going to have a generation of very lonely people growing up."

Retailers on UK High Streets have been hit by weak sales, online competition and rising costs, affecting 22,000 jobs this year.

High-profile failures include Maplin and Toys R Us while High Street chains such as Marks & Spencer, House of Fraser, Carphone Warehouse, New Look and Carpetright have announced store closure plans.

Meanwhile, the British Retail Consortium has called for a two-year freeze on business rates increases to help provide some financial relief for the retail industry.

"The retail industry, the UK's largest private sector employer, makes up 5% of the economy and pays nearly 25% of the overall business rates bill, over £7bn per year," it said. "This is a disproportionate burden and is leading to decisions to close stores, while at the same time getting in the way of the modernisation and reinvention of Britain's High Streets."

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'Unique history'

One place which followed his recommendations was Stockton-on-Tees in the north-east of England.

Neil Schneider, chief executive of the town's borough council, says: "The vision for Stockton was to develop a big outdoor community centre.

"In our plan we wanted to capitalise on the area's unique history and heritage, support a wide range of retailers and businesses, and improve the connections to the attractive riverside.

"By developing safe evening and leisure opportunities in interesting spaces, we wanted to ensure that people don't come to Stockton just to shop. We really wanted to create a community hub destination."

Free parking

Near the end of 2017, Mr Grimsey decided to publish a second edition of his report and he is confident that it could have a more widespread positive outcome.

He has had support from Conservative MP Jake Berry, as well as Andy Street, the first mayor of the West Midlands who was the managing director of John Lewis, the department store group.

"All I want to do is help make a difference and I think that this time around, it will get traction. Political figures are joining in and it's a clarion call for action."

The new report has 25 recommendations in three sections, which cover:

  • creating a more supportive environment
  • government and planning
  • smarter use of technology

Mr Grimsey puts the High Street's decline down to the growth in popularity of out-of-town shopping centres with their free parking, as well as online shopping.

But he dismissed the idea that free or cheaper parking being reintroduced into High Streets would revitalise them.

"If it was that simple then people would have done it already," he said.

"The point is that the retail proposition in town centres has been overtaken by the more convenient out-of-town parks. The town centres should say 'let them have it'.

"In my generation as retailers, we successfully cloned every town in Britain so they all looked the same, but clearly that doesn't work.

"All the towns have a heritage and history and their reason for uniqueness needs to be brought to the fore.

"We need to repopulate these places and local authorities are the key to unlocking this, along with good leadership. Where it happens it can work."

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