As Mary Portas tackles her government-commissioned review of the diversity of Britain’s high streets, David Jenkins, commercial director of 25-shop Jenkins Bakers, says the retail guru should visit Llanelli for a case study on how it all went wrong
The Prime Minister has gone on record as saying, "The high street should be at the very heart of every community, bringing people together, providing essential services and creating jobs and investment, so it is vital that we do all that we can to ensure they thrive." Well, Mr Cameron, if you really mean what you say and firmly believe the high street is worth restoring, then your government must tackle the free parking that lures consumers away from the high street to out-of-town developments.
About six years ago, an existing out-of-town development was significantly extended in Llanelli, where we are based so much so that we now have a two-tier town centre: the old shops that have remained in the town centre, which are struggling for business; and the bright new shiny buildings, which have sprung up about a mile-and-a-half away on an edge-of-town retail site. The latter are visited by thousands of car owners week-in, week-out, parking free of charge in the new development. Rather unusually, we have three shops in Llanelli town centre representing 16% of the company’s turnover.
In January 2008, the town centre and all those businesses trying to survive the harsh economic recession, suffered a very bitter blow. Marks & Spencer, which had been trading right in the heart of the town centre since 1938, decided to close that store, having opened a brand new outlet in the new development in December 2007. The consequence of its decision was that other retailers followed suit a bit like the herd mentality.
Although a number of shops in the town centre have had their rates and rent reduced by up to 25%, this just softened the blow. The real, long-term damage had already been done, and trade in the town centre will never get back to the level it was a few years ago.
How on earth can a business in a town centre compete with those out-of-town retailers when the cost of parking is very often prohibitive especially where many roads in town centres often lead you out of the town and straight on to the new developments?
I remain convinced that if parking charges were implemented, it would make the out-of-town developments far less popular and might help to breathe some life into the high streets.
Other incentives to make the high street more attractive would be to have realistic rents charged by landlords to minimise the number of empty shops. Business rates should be reduced to stimulate independent retailers to open in the high street and trade there successfully. For far too long in this country, successive governments have allowed the supermarkets to become too big and powerful especially Tesco, which currently has a market capitalisation of £32bn, roughly four times the amount of Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.
The time has come for the government to flex its muscles and tighten up on planning applications not relax them so that those specialist retailers that remain in the high street have a chance to survive initially and then trade successfully.
What we have experienced in Llanelli over the past few years has probably happened up and down the country. I would be delighted to show Ms Portas around our town, so that she can see at first-hand the damage caused to the high street by these soul-less out-of-town developments.
The future of the high street looks very bleak unless the government is prepared to take some radical action and tackle the parking issues in out-of-town developments. It must offer incentives for businesses to open and flourish in the high street. If nothing is done, this country will be a lot poorer for choice. Not all roads should ’lead to Tesco’!
l If you have comments or opinions on this article or the decline or development of the high street, please do not hesitate to send them to British Baker on firstname.lastname@example.org