The Future of the High Street
Published date : 10 December, 2020
I do not think there can be any doubt that high street businesses and workers have suffered immensely throughout this pandemic. Despite support, many businesses have sadly gone under. We have already heard about the calamity that has befallen the Arcadia Group and Debenhams, and I might as well mention the Edinburgh Woollen Mill, where 21,000 jobs are at risk. Those collapses have knock-on effects—the supply companies will lose an estimated £250 million in business from the collapse of Arcadia alone—so the vitality of our high streets is crucial to all of us.
It is a truism to say that many aspects of our lives have gone online during the pandemic—working from home and shopping from home, most obviously. That has given those who have been fortunate enough to do that a better work-life balance, and perhaps it has simply accelerated trends that were already in evidence in how we use our high streets and town and city centres. The pace has been quickened.
The change presents a number of challenges for our infrastructure—most notably, how the transport network is configured—and for the footfall in our town and urban centres. We can expect a great deal of upheaval as the way we use those centres to work, rest and play changes in the time ahead of us. It is therefore imperative that we allow the inevitable transitions that are about to take place to happen in a way that does not leave the centres of our towns, cities and smaller communities entirely at the mercy of market forces, with property assets stranded in the hands of those who are unable to develop them or adapt what they own, or who find themselves hide-bound by planning and development objectives that prevent them from responding appropriately to the new reality.
Direct investment from the Government is one way that we can try to facilitate some of those changes. The Scottish Government have invested £4 million for towns,
smaller settlements and business improvement districts, and a further £18 million from its economic stimulus package to add to existing funds in the town centre capital fund. Business improvement districts, which bring together local small businesses to work together in the common interest and improve the overall urban environment, have had a tremendous impact. To bring footfall back, we need to bring people back, create a vibrant streetscape and ensure our towns, villages and city centres are as accessible as they possibly can be for absolutely everyone. We must ensure that the services that we desire to access physically are within easy reach of all, whether they own a car or however they transport themselves about. Everything must be within easy reach and as accessible as it possibly can be.
If we want vibrant urban centres, we need a vibrant economy. The UK economy grew by just 0.4% in October. The SNP has today called for a £98 billion fiscal stimulus to match the scale of those that other equivalent European countries have already put in place. The best way to ensure that businesses recover is to allow them to do what they would ordinarily seek to do, so we need to do all we can to help them survive, thrive, adapt and emerge on the other side.
I will talk about some of the measures that we need. We need to stop money leaving businesses. Business rates have been mentioned already. That is what has allowed many retail, leisure and hospitality businesses to cling on in this time. It is absolutely imperative, notwithstanding the review that the Minister spoke about, that that sort of relief for business costs is allowed to continue.
The Scottish Government are absolutely committed to carrying on with that, but because of the fiscal framework, an equivalent commitment needs to happen in England before that money feeds its way through the Barnett formula to Scotland to allow that to happen. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance in Scotland has written to the Chancellor about that to seek clarity about the approach to non-domestic rates in England and future reliefs. I do not believe that a response has arrived yet, but I hope that a favourable response is forthcoming very soon.
We also need to ensure that money goes to people to maintain demand. It was only after immense pressure and the need for a lockdown right across England that the furlough scheme was extended. Although we obviously all have great hopes for the vaccine, the Government must be absolutely clear that if, heaven forbid, further lockdowns are needed, that support will remain for individuals. The £20 uplift to universal credit must be made permanent. We should also look at increasing statutory sick pay to enable people to buy the things they need and keep that demand in the economy.
I have mentioned the vaccine, which will obviously be key to giving people the confidence to come back into our urban centres. I know that the Government have shown a marked aversion to level playing fields over the last few days, weeks and even hours, but we certainly need one in our retail environment. Online retail has certainly brought many benefits to people, particularly through the pandemic, through home shopping, and it has allowed lifestyle businesses to thrive in better times. However, if we get this wrong and do not rebalance taxation between physical and online retail, it will hollow out our town centres. My party has consistently campaigned
to close tax loopholes and end corporate tax avoidance. If we can close those loopholes and get a better balance, we could pay for the consequences of the pandemic without burdening and punishing workers, while also maintaining the health of our high streets.
I absolutely welcome anything that ensures a better balance of taxation, and that example shows the importance of co-operating internationally. Much time has been taken up in this House pursuing a theoretical sovereignty, but we may be about to find some of the limits of the practical sovereignty we can get. However, certainly I am all in favour of making people pay what they can in taxation and doing so on a collaborative international basis.
That brings me neatly on to my next point, which is about tax-free shopping. The Government have announced their intention to withdraw tax-free shopping. That will have a deleterious impact on our airports, particularly our regional airports, and also have a massive impact on tourism. Much of the tourism traffic that comes into all parts of the UK is led, at least in part, by the opportunities for tax-free shopping.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I look forward to hearing that aspect of his speech. I believe the change could affect anything up to about 33% of sales for the company he mentions, but overall, as well as imperilling the opportunity to develop routes from regional airports, a total of about 40,000 jobs and over £1 billion of investment could be at risk. It is little wonder that the French financial newspaper Les Echos
has argued that the UK is in danger of shooting itself in the foot here.
Earlier I talked about business rates, and wholesalers have also been missed out. They are absolutely critical to the supply chain for many of our smaller communities. They have been given some direct support from the Scottish Government, but have missed out on support from the UK Government. I encourage the UK Government to look at including wholesalers in the support available to that part of the sector.
In conclusion, high streets in communities of all sizes face challenges on a number of fronts. We have heard some from the speakers so far; no doubt we will hear new aspects as the debate continues. But with the right Government support, at local government and national Government levels, our town centres have the opportunity to thrive as places where we work, rest and play, and
effect the necessary transitions in how land and buildings are used. In Scotland, we would obviously rather the Scottish Government were able to do all that is necessary in that regard, rather than just some. Following some of our earlier debates, it would be far better if, instead of grabbing powers from Holyrood through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, the UK Government were instead transferring powers to the Scottish Government, particularly financial powers and borrowing powers, so that they can get on with doing all that is necessary, instead of having to wait for it to happen elsewhere.
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