How can we save our shops and high streets?

Who would have thought that the opening of a new shop would spark a riot?  Usually communities and their political representatives lament the demise of the high street and welcome new investment.  I don’t want to go into the ins and outs of the whole Tesco in Cheltenham Road debate here, while community discussion is underway.  But it shows that modern retailing arouses passions and there is a lively debate to be had over the future of our main streets.

This is not a new debate either nationwide or in Bristol.  In the late 1980s and the 1990s the main worry was the national chains building on greenfield sites and on the outskirts of towns and cities.  Bristol’s city centre faced the challenge of Cribbs Causeway regional shopping centre, given permission by central government against the wishes of local councillors.   It’s taken over a decade for the city centre to fight back, with a revamped Broadmead and new Cabot Circus centre.  Curiously, in the last few years the main supermarkets have started opening small outlets back in the high street and town centres, which is what we wanted them to do a decade ago.   Retail trends and consumer attitudes don’t move in the harmonious way that you might expect in a market economy.  Internet shopping and home deliveries by supermarkets add to the complexity.

This is an issue which has troubled me ever since I was first elected to the council in 1993.  We need a sweeping change in the laws around planning, licensing, restrictive covenants and local business taxes.  Local communities ought to be able to shape the future of their shopping streets.  We should be able to protect or attract certain types of business, for instance book shops.  We should also be able to say that there are enough supermarkets in an area, much as we can already do for bars.  Big supermarket chains also need more regulation.

I’ve been discussing these issues with ministers for some time.   In particular I’m concerned by the collapse in the number of book shops in Bristol and other towns and cities.  My seat of Bristol West is not short of bibliophiles but all of a sudden we don’t have so many places to browse and make new discoveries.  The independent shops on Whiteladies Road and Gloucester Road have gone.  Borders went bust.  Blackwells has shrunk from 4 shops in my memory to little more than a room.  Waterstone’s have gone from 3 branches to just one.  The second hand market is now dominated by charity shops.   High lease costs and business rates are part of the problem.  My Christmas visits to Montpelier Royal Mail sorting office reveal another problem – almost every house had an Amazon parcel in BS6 and BS7…

So I’m delighted that my Lib Dem colleague, Ed Davey, the Consumer Affairs Minister, has today announced a review of the High Street.  Mary Portas (“Mary Queen of Shops” to TV viewers) is to head an independent review.  I will be feeding the issues I’ve been discussing with Ed through to Mary.

But changes in the law can only do so much.  We’ve all got to want to actively support our local high streets as well and use our spending power to save local businesses.

You can feed into the review here:  http://www.bis.gov.uk/highstreet