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'Retail isn’t enough to keep high street alive – councils must innovate'

Bill Grimsey
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2017 is a big year for devolution deals in local government.

Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Birmingham and Bristol hold the first elections for combined authority mayors, creating a new breed of regional politicians with significant powers.

But will they use these powers to transform their communities? Housing, transport and skills will undoubtedly feature highly in their in-tray. But one issue they can’t ignore is our ailing high streets.

The high street is a proud fixture in every community. Home to the country’s biggest private sector employer in retail, it contributes enormously to civic pride and a strong shared identity.

However, it faces a major threat in the way consumer behaviour is changing. Having just endured the quietest Christmas trading period since 1998 and with more people shifting to online shopping, serious decline looms unless high streets adapt to a changing landscape.

This will only come about through strong local leadership and one figure our mayoral hopefuls could learn from in this respect is Kris Declercq. The mayor of Roeselare in Belgium is a great example of a local leader fighting to make his high street fit for the 21st century.

After his team expressed an interest in my review of the high street, which I presented to the government in 2013, I went to see the change he was delivering. It was so impressive that last month I led a delegation of senior local government figures there, organised by the National Research Knowledge Exchange Centre at Nottingham University.

Kris has prioritised building a sense of community at the heart of the high street. It can no longer rely totally on retail to drive footfall so leisure, technology and greenspaces now play a bigger part.

Technology is essential and free wifi, smart parking technology and a city app offering loyalty rewards, personalised merchandising and community information (real time, personalised offers that flash up on shoppers’ phones as they approach certain shops) are big drivers. So too is education, entrepreneurship and creativity, and he’s consolidated libraries to create a new flagship Kenniscentrum (knowledge centre), which combines a traditional library with a technology hub, offering training and supporting entrepreneurs.

Beehives, makerspaces, mobile breastfeeding facilities and holding fresh food markets in churches were just a few of the initiatives I saw. He’s also employing powers to fine landlords if they keep shops empty for over a year.

Equally impressive, though, is that he has a seven-point plan to drive through change that is widely supported by local people.

At a time when reports suggest Britain’s business leaders don’t think local government is doing enough to support business, future mayors would do well to build support around this kind of long-term vision for change.

Westminster isn’t going to save our high streets. But strong local leaders with a proper plan for change could.

Bill Grimsey, former chief executive, Wickes and Iceland

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