Town centres should learn from Malton’s fine example

I would like to congratulate Malton for its contribution to an important Select Committee report on the future of high streets and town centres. At my suggestion, Malton Estate was invited to give evidence and share its best practices before the Housing Communities and Local Government Select Committee, upon which I serve.

The report has concluded that wide reforms are needed to secure a thriving future for high streets and town centres in face of changing consumer behaviour and that an unfair business rates system is tipping the balance in favour of online retailers. The report says that out of date policies and an unfair tax regime need to be changed to create an environment that will allow high streets and town centres to grow in the future. It says that if the situation continues as it is, with online sales currently at 20%, and changing consumer behavior, the future for high streets and town centres will become increasingly bleak. It warns that some formerly thriving shopping areas are likely to become ghost towns and effectively close down altogether unless the Government, councils, retailers, landlords and the local community act together to implement the Committee’s recommendations.

The Committee calls on the Government to initiate reform in key planning and taxation areas, including the options of an online sales tax and reforms to business rates, to allow high streets to adapt to changing demand, and compete with online retailers such as Amazon on a level playing field.

The Committee finds that:

  • High streets and town centres must adapt, transform and find a new focus in order to survive.
  • Business rates are stacking the odds against high street retailers. The Government must initiate reforms to provide meaningful relief to high street retailers, including giving consideration to proposals for an online sales tax to level the playing field.
  • Achieving large-scale structural change will require intervention led by the local authority, in collaboration with business and local communities, backed by funding and new powers from central government.
  • Local Plans are a key element of this. They must consider green space, leisure, arts and culture, health and social care services to create space that is the “intersection of human life and activity”.
  • Retailers must accept the need to adapt and do more to offer what online cannot, focusing more on personal interactions and convenience.
  • Landlords need to recognise the retail property market has changed and be more receptive to negotiating lease terms with retailers in financial difficulty – The Government should consider providing a conciliation service to facilitate negotiations between the parties.

The troubles on the high street are principally caused by changes in consumer behaviour with 20% of sales now made online. However, there are measures that can and should be taken to ease the pain; national government should reform business rates to level the playing field between online and physical retailers and local governments should reduce or abolish parking charges, which are a significant deterrent to shoppers. Malton is an excellent example of how landlords and retailers can work together to attract footfall to the town through a combination of its strong brand identity as the Food Capital of Yorkshire and two hours free parking in town centre car parks.

I am grateful to Malton Estate for bringing its expertise before the Committee. It is clear that the Committee has taken into account the evidence presented by Roddy Bushell from Malton Estate which showed that it is possible, by way of significant investment, free parking, marketing and special events, such as the Malton Food festival, to attract thousands of visitors every year to keep a town alive and thriving. The fact is that high streets are changing and we need to work together to adapt to that change. This means that local authorities need to set out a long-term strategy for their town centres by finding new ways to use buildings and encourage independent retailers, as they have done in Malton. It’s imperative that tax reforms are introduced so there is a level playing field between online and high street retailers, which might include an online sales tax so that retailers using the internet contribute their fair share.