Has Mary Queen of Shops got it right?

Tuesday, 20 March, 2012

Do you think our High Streets are in crisis? Have shoppers gone on strike in Bury St Edmunds?

If you believe Mary Portas (of “Mary Queen of Shops” fame) the English High Street is in decline. That’s what a recent hard hitting review by her says.  

But that’s not what I found as I tried to drive into Bury the other Saturday. Mid-morning there were car tail-backs along Out Westgate and Newmarket Road as well as Northgate Street. That was not just because there were roadworks in town! The roads were buzzing with families trying to get into the town centre to shop.

Bury St Edmunds is one of the most profitable market towns in the East of England. Quite right too. We do things properly in our town.

We are civilised, polite. Great architecture, great shops. A welcoming atmosphere all round. It’s not surprising Bury is a town for the discerning shopper or tourist. But there are some things that can improve, says Mary Portas. I agree with some of her points.

In the late 1960s, as a very young child in Suffolk, I recall how my mother knew the local butcher, baker and greengrocer by name. We walked to the independent shops and received a personal service. We never ever went to a supermarket!

Now, twenty first century shopping is a very different proposition. Many are tempted to buy food, crockery, clothes, and even prescription drugs under the same supermarket roof, seemingly unaware of the impact on the livelihood of smaller shopkeepers.  

Since 2001, the number of superstores has increased by 35% while all other types of grocery stores have dropped. More than half of the country’s off-licences and tobacconists have closed.

Too many out-of-town developments lure people away from centres with a pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap mentality. We see empty shops appear. Spending within town centres has dropped from 50% to a predicted 40% by 2014. Out of town sales will increase to 33%.

Not  encouraging figures for some smaller, independent businesses, are they?

Independent traders in some parts of Bury St Edmunds can’t make a go of it. There are too many fly-by-night shops on temporary leases and empty shops in the town for my liking.  Those who choose to remain struggle, as they face high business rates and Whitehall (and Brussels-generated) red tape.

So what does Mary Portas, shopping guru, say the Government can do to revive the High Street? Some ideas are wacky and impractical, but there are a few that should be taken up by our Council or Bid4Bury (which is making progress under the leadership of Mark Cordell).

She thinks the Government should create a new “National Market Day” where budding shopkeepers can try their hand at operating low cost retail business.

As to local authorities, they should use their new discretionary powers to give greater business rate concessions to new local businesses.

An obvious point is that shoppers will go to streets that are safe at all times of the day. Happily, in Bury St Edmunds the Council and Suffolk Constabulary have helped make Bury’s streets accessible, attractive and a safe place to shop.

The restrictive aspects of the ‘Use Class’ system must be reformed to make it easier to change the uses of key properties on shopping streets. And put betting shops into a separate ‘Use Class’ of their own. There are too many of them.

Crucially, Portas says we should make the Secretary of State have to “sign off ” any new out-of-town developments and require all large new developments to have an “affordable shops” quota.

Her idea that large retailers should support and mentor local businesses and independent retailers may be optimistic – why help the competition, I can hear them saying. But big retailers should certainly report on their support of local high streets in their annual report to shareholders.

She suggests that there should be a “contract of care” between landlords and their commercial tenants promoting the use of leases other than upward only rent reviews. This is equally optimistic. That said, the Government could explore incentives to prevent landlords from leaving units vacant in prime locations which can often mar nice parts of town.

So Portas has a point when she says local councils should make more proactive use of Compulsory Purchase Order powers to encourage the redevelopment of key high street retail space.

And councils should be given new power to step in when landlords are negligent with new “Empty Shop Management Orders”.

Running a high profile campaign to get people involved in Neighbourhood Plans is a good idea and it is up to local resident to seize this opportunity, especially in and around the historic core.  That would have been useful to the many residents who – rightly – felt their views were ignored in the Council decision to give planning permission to Wetherspoons to develop the Corn Exchange.

Bury St Edmunds thrives. The arc in the heart of Bury St Edmunds was necessary. It has drawn more visitors into the town so that even the indigenous traders outside the arc benefit. Without this development in the town we could have seen declining numbers coming to Bury. Local prosperity would have fallen as a result. Shoppers would have gradually drifted away to out-of-town shopping centres, making Bury St Edmunds much the poorer.

The Portas Review may offer us a chance to think anew about the way we use and support our shopping thoroughfares.  But we all know that Bury St Edmunds will always prosper and thrive.

Why? Because it is quite simply the best market town in England.