As with all things, the chancellor’s budget policies aimed at helping high streets are good in parts, and less sure in others.
The £900m in business rates relief from cutting small retailers’ business rates by a third and the £675m fund to revive high streets will be welcomed by many. But the impact rather depends where you sit.
The media regularly asserts that internet and out-of-town shopping are killing the high streets – reports I believe are mostly exaggerated.
The expert panel on the future of high streets on which I sit has yet to report, but I recognise a link between our work to date and the chancellor’s programme.
I am particularly excited to see the £675m future high street fund launched, which should come as a blessing to local authorities. It will provide resources to effect a shift from a solely retail-based high street to one that reflects 21st century needs, and can fund some necessary capital projects for towns to make them function better.
Combine this with proposed changes in planning rules to allow different uses of high street property and it gets more exciting still. The freedom to convert redundant retail property to residential or leisure space without the burden of planning applications would be welcome. We have too much retail floor space in the UK and not enough people living in town centres.
And when folk come to the high street they are not just there to shop. They are seeking the company of friends, a fun experience, and public services close to home.
They also seek tattoos and haircuts, which can’t yet be bought on the internet. Different property uses will facilitate these services and relieve pressure on overstretched planning departments.
Likewise, if I were a hard-pressed smaller business I would be delighted to see the cut in business rates, likely to be a lifeline. The benefit will be directly to the bottom line and make it easier to for them to stay in business.
However, a seriously failing business cannot necessarily be resuscitated by a simple cash injection, so we must expect more changes to our high streets.
As a local councillor with an eye to our own budget, I am also delighted that the chancellor has recognised the importance of mitigating the impact of business rate reductions on local authorities.
The Treasury’s undertaking to fully compensate us for our lost income is vital, as some councils are as financially challenged as the smaller businesses on their high streets. Others need to work hard to keep a balanced budget.
All in all, the reforms are positive. I would call the chancellor’s budget a victory for communities and high streets.
Graham Galpin (Con), portfolio holder for commercial property, Ashford BC, and member of the expert advisory panel on high streets