Everything’s different now – high streets, Portas and the future

Somewhere in another part of the room, Downton Abbey was grinding along, and I looked up from my copy of Retail Week to note Hugh Bonneville observing that the war was over, and that everything might just not get back to normal.

It’s been three years since Lehman, RBS, Iceland and all the rest spread like an influenza epidemic across the planet.  Few of us feel any safer or more secure than we were in October 2008, despite the trillions of dollars that have been poured into supporting banks and averting a major slump – and despite the necessity of most of those actions.

But, like Lord Grantham, we aren’t going back to normal, although it appears necessary for the political classes to suggest we might.  We don’t believe them, but we all need to dream – just cut the deficit, overhaul social security, inject some unspecified vigour into the economy, try to ignore the pensions timebomb, and we’ll be back to the way we were .

We all know this isn’t going to happen, and George Osborne knows it, and he knows we know it too.  The fall-out from the financial crisis runs alongside a rebalancing of world power, in favour of newer, stronger and not always wholly democratic nations, and it accompanies a revolution in the management and availability of information.  The new normal isn’t going to be a return to anything like what we’ve seen before.

Retailers know this, because they are always the first to feel any shifts in consumer spending, and they’re the first to notice trends developing and old certainties evaporating.  DSG has made a habit in recent years of announcing terminations – no more cassette players, no more cathode ray tube TVs – which garner column inches, but also remind us that nothing is forever, and this year’s big earner is next year’s forgotten fad.

There’s a big, covering-all-the-bases piece to be written about all of this, but a single example can also give us a point of focus.  Mary Portas, who is heading up the government’s retail task force, has drawn some flack in the past week for suggesting that there may be too many charity shops on our high streets.  The babble has drowned out her balancing remarks – not that charity shops should be penalised, but that the advantages they enjoy in terms of rates relief should be spread to other businesses – eg retail start-ups.  This seems eminently sensible – privately, the charities know that they cannot thrive on otherwise dead streets, and that more charity shops drawing from a diminishing pool of donations will fail anyway.  We aren’t replacing stuff like we used to, so (once we’ve emptied the self-storage and cleared the loft) we aren’t going to be donating like we used to either.

The legal and fiscal structures that support our high streets are outdated.  Whether we are talking about planning laws, the powers of local councils (real powers, not just the enactment of statutory duties) vs those of central government, the attitudes of landlords, the expectations of consumers, and changes in demographics, everything assumes a growing retail sector within a buoyant economy, where successful businesses are fighting tooth and nail for leaseholds, and where rapacious consumers must be all but discouraged from spending.  Why else would start-ups be discouraged, transport solutions so poor, landlord attitudes so hidebound and regulations so onerous?

The future high street is going to shrink, partly because of the shift to online shopping (which will continue), and partly because absolute per capita wealth will shrink, as my generation lives longer on enfeebled pensions, and today’s youngsters struggle with debt.  We don’t know how this future will rebalance itself economically, but trying to preserve the high streets of the past, using the solutions and procedures of the past, will be inadequate.

The high street – as commercial centre, as meeting place, as community focus – has been an essential part of the human experience since the first traders, and high streets and markets exist in every culture.  They aren’t going to go away.  But a society as sophisticated as ours needs to find solutions to stop high streets from furring up and decaying, and in this (as in so many other things) it would behove government, councils and landlords to be a little bolder.  Roll on, the Portas report.