So another poll today tells us that consumer confidence is at rock bottom – the lowest level since 2009, and once again this means that independent traders and family businesses will bear the brunt of this bad news.
Across Wales up and down every High Street the story is the same – people have less to spend and they are worried about their jobs, especially in areas where the public sector is the largest employer as we are still to feel the worst effects of job cuts in that sector.
And as we enter the crucial pre-Christmas period, a time when many small shops and businesses make the majority of their annual profit and one on which they rely to see them through the long Winter months after the New Year, how will the continuing economic woes affect Wales’ High Street ? And what can be done to help our struggling traders to ensure that we continue to have choice and diversity in the High Street in 2012 and beyond ?
The first question perhaps should be is who exactly is helping our independent traders ? What is being done at Government level to ensure that we do not become a clone town nation here in Wales ? Across the Severn Bridge, David Cameron has appointed Mary Portas to ‘save the High Street’ and she is undertaking a review of what can be done to achieve that.
Upon her appointment she said “When David Cameron asked me to do an independent review into the future of the high street, I turned up at a meeting in Whitehall and asked to see the previous research. Twenty or so reports by various industry chiefs and business groups were put in front of me, full of conclusions, recommendations and action points. When I asked about the outcome of these reports, it turned out that they had been filed away, probably gathering dust.”
And further to that “Three years ago six per cent of high street shops were vacant; by the end of last year the figure had grown to 14 per cent. At this rate, in two years’ time, more than a third of city centre shops will be boarded up. But it’s not just the shops that are going from our high streets; banks and post offices are disappearing too. As they go, we lose a feeling of community because the high street is the heart of a town. And, as high streets empty, the crime rate increases.”
She continued “My task is to look both at why this is happening, and what can be done to reverse it. City centres will matter more, not less, in years to come because we live in an ageing society. If the over-70s have no shops and town centres to go to, they will find life very difficult. Watford, where I was brought up, has been hit, but not as badly as many other towns. Margate has the worst problem in the country, with a 37.4 per cent vacancy rate; Runcorn, Morecambe and St Austell are not far behind. This summer, I shall visit not only the sad cases but also the shining examples that buck the trend. Kingston, Marylebone High Street and Reading are all on that list.”
See the problem ? This is an England only review. So who is looking at how to save and re-invigorate the High Street in Wales ? Some may say a more important task given the rurality and public transport scarcity of large parts of Wales.
We need a High Street Champion here in Wales, we need someone who understands the challenges and the pressures on the High Street, but someone who will drive any changes through at the highest level, not report and retire. The Welsh Government has made the right noises at times, but as Ministers sit across the Cabinet table they need a cross-portfolio approach to fully help the High Street in Wales. It isn’t just the problem that Edwina Hart needs to sort out, there are many aspects to this problem, some of which extend beyond or own devolved Government, and that is why we are missing a trick here in Wales by not undertaking a similar review with a similarly forthright business expert taking the lead.
We need to look at how transport, planning and parking problems affect the High Street. We need to consider out-of-town developments and the charity shop explosion. We need to examine the rents, rates and energy costs of High Street retailers to see what can be done to help. We need a Government in Wales fighting in Westminster for a VAT cut for hospitality and tourism businesses to 5%. In short we need in Wales what is happening in England. So come on First Minister. Make that commitment to businesses in Wales. Make that announcement. Help the High Street in Wales.
And this needs a balanced approach. It must not be driven by vested interests so it cannot be dominated by small business representatives or large, it must be truly an independent review to achieve the best outcome for the economy of Wales.
As Mary Portas said “Sadly, our town centres are like old friends that we don’t have a lot in common with any more. We used to look forward to seeing them on a Saturday but now we find it a bit of a chore. We try to keep the friendship going for old times’ sake, but at heart we want that friend to be a bit more in tune with who we are today.”
So at the heart of this approach and this review must be the two key players. Retailers and us – consumers. Because unless we re-light the flame of friendship and respond to the challenges and responsibilities that each of us play in this project no amount of experts or reviews or Government action is ever going to help – so I am ready are you ? Come on Carwyn... let’s see what we can do together.