1.Much time and effort has been spent in recent years considering the declining health of our high streets and town centres and how this might be reversed. Rightly so. These familiar, useful and fondly-regarded places play an important role in bringing citizens together and providing a social and community focal point for people all ages. The sight of unkempt, vacant shops and empty streets understandably arouses concern. Wanting to build on the work already done, we decided that this inquiry should be forward looking in its approach and set out a positive vision for the future of our high streets and town centres and the interventions needed to achieve this.
2.As it turned out, the six months over which the inquiry took place appeared to be the most turbulent so far. Barely a week went by without headlines pronouncing the ‘death of the high street’ or a major retailer announcing a restructuring or a fall in profits. Particularly high profile were the ongoing closures by Marks and Spencer of over 100 stores by 2022 and Debenhams’ plans to close almost a third of its 166 stores. While employment is not part of our remit as a Committee, we were deeply concerned to hear that 70,000 jobs were lost in the retail sector in 2018.
3.Not long after we launched our inquiry in May 2018, the Government also began a programme of work on the future of the high street. An Expert Panel chaired by the retailer Sir John Timpson was appointed in July 2018 to “diagnose issues that currently affect the health of our high streets and advise on the best practical measures to help them thrive now and in the future”. The Expert Panel proceeded to gather evidence, providing interim recommendations in the Autumn and reporting in full on 20 December 2018. The interim recommendations—the creation of a Future High Streets Fund and Future High Streets Task Force—were accepted by the Government and formed part of a package of measures on the high street which were announced in the Budget on 29 October 2018.
4.We recognise the need for swift and substantive action and welcome these announcements as a first step to addressing the challenges faced by the high street. Fortunately, we were able to ask our witnesses about the Future High Streets Fund and the Task Force in our later evidence sessions. Based on what they said and the rest of the evidence we gathered, we have assessed these measures and offer recommendations which we intend should inform their set-up, structure and operation. We urge the Government to take these recommendations, as well as the others we have made, into account and consider and respond both to our report and the Expert Panel’s report in a holistic and joined-up way.
5.In chapter one, we consider the challenges facing high streets and town centres today and explore our vision for what they might look like in 2030 and how that might be achieved in the following two chapters. In chapters four to seven, we consider what further action needs to be taken by central government and at local level, as well as by retailers and landlords, to create the conditions needed for high streets and town centres to flourish in the future. Finally, in chapter eight, we examine the role of the Future High Streets Task Force.
6.We are grateful to everyone who contributed to our inquiry. We received 90 submissions from local authorities, traders and their representative organisations, place management groups, academics, think tanks and members of the public. The sheer breadth of the issues and the range of stakeholders required eight oral evidence sessions. We are very grateful to the retailers who came to give evidence in December during their very busy Christmas period and to the Treasury Committee with whom we held a joint session with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury.
7.We visited towns tackling the issues, travelling to the North East to visit Stockton-on-Tees and Darlington. These are areas at different stages—Stockton completed its town centre regeneration programme in 2011 although other work continues, while Darlington is at an earlier stage in responding to the challenges faced. We found the discussions we had—as well as the roundtables with local stakeholders—a useful opportunity to put many of the issues we had heard about in evidence in a practical context. We are grateful to Stockton Council and Darlington Borough Council and the Association of Town and City Management for arranging these visits and to the councillors, council officers, traders, landlords, residents and others who took time out of their day to take part in our roundtables.
8.Finally, we thank our specialist advisors, Christine Whitehead, Emeritus Professor of Housing Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Kelvin MacDonald, Senior Fellow at the Department of Land Economy, Cambridge.
2 , Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) press release, 16 July 2018
3 Expert Panel on the High Street, , 20 December 2018
4 HM Treasury, , October 2018
Published: 21 February 2019