Mary Portas, as seen on TV, is leading a review into the High Street for BIS. The department held a workshop last week to discuss some interim findings from the work which is due to be released in the next month or so. But such a piece of work runs the risk of being too narrow in its approach.
We have just published an interim report looking at the common issues that are affecting growth in some of England’s mid-sized cities, such as Sunderland and Preston. A key difficulty that Sunderland and other similar cities face is that of a weak city centre economy. For example between 1998 and 2008, a time when Sunderland saw strong city wide growth in its private sector employment base, its city centre actually lost private sector jobs.
So the Portas review is timely in terms of our own research. But the issue with the current debate around the High Street is that it tends to be overly focussed on retail. And it also tends to be anti-out-of-town development - the phrase ‘High Street’ invariably conjures up dreams of a David v Goliath battle of the mighty Tesco versus the little local butcher.
But a city centre does not start and end at its High Street – retail is only one part of the private sector of a city centre economy. In Sunderland’s case the city centre suffers from a lack of scale – out-of-town employment sites limit the number of commuters into the centre each day. This limits footfall which in turn limits lunch time and evening demand on the High Street and in restaurants and bars.
No doubt many would encourage the review to call for a limit on such out-of-town development. And Mary herself expressed concern that the NPPF waters down the ‘town centre first’ requirement that is in current planning guidelines. But there are three problems with such an approach. Firstly, the current ‘town centre first’ policy has not prevented the patterns of spatial development seen in places such as Sunderland. Secondly, some businesses, such as manufacturing firms, do not need a city centre location and function better being served by good motorway access. And thirdly, cities such as Sunderland have benefitted from the strong private sector jobs growth seen on out-of-town business parks. Restricting out-of-town growth would likely have restricted overall jobs growth. And that would not have been a good outcome for the city.
Ultimately the preferences of consumers and businesses alike in many cities have driven demand for out-of-town developments in recent years. If city centres are to be strengthened then the key is to remove the barriers that currently make a central location less profitable for businesses than a site on the outskirts, rather than limiting development on the periphery. The problem is that by trying to improve the High Street in isolation, instead of understanding it in its wider context, BIS is attempting to provide a partial solution to a much wider problem. And the likely outcome is that such a solution will have very little impact as a result.