An influential retail expert says it is time to accept there is too much retail space in the UK and town and city centres must be “re-fashioned” into community spaces.
Bill Grimsey, former chief executive of Wickes, Iceland and Booker, came to the conclusion in his latest independent review of the high street.
According to the Grimsey Review, bricks-and-mortar retailing can no longer be the anchor for thriving high streets, which must become community hubs that include housing, offices and some shops.
The report added that town centres needed to be “repopulated and re-fashioned” with libraries and public spaces at the heart of each community.
The review is the second in five years from a team led by the former retail boss.
It comes as the British high street suffers from a wave of closures and restructurings from major brands including Toys R Us and Maplin amid an ongoing shift to online shopping.
Image: The review comes as the UK high street suffers from closures from major brands including Toys R Us
The report concluded that greater devolution and stronger local leadership was needed to give high streets a renewed sense of purpose and identity.
Its 25 recommendations, which included calls to replace business rates, the creation of a Town Centre Commission to develop a 20-year strategy for local high streets and the acceleration of digital transformation in smaller towns.
The review also suggested the appointment of “high-quality” designers to celebrate the historic character and local identity of town centres, the availability of up to 30 minutes of high street free parking with no option extend by paying, as well as improved street lighting and free public wi-fi.
Mr Grimsey said there had been some progress since his 2013 review “but not nearly enough”.
He said: “The first six months of 2018 have seen the highest rate of retail closures, administrations and company voluntary arrangements (CVAs) for more than a decade and there is no sign of a slowdown.
“Our cities, towns and communities are facing their greatest challenge in history, which is how to remain relevant, and economically and socially viable in the 21st century.
“Towns must stop trying to compete with out-of-town shopping parks that are convenient and with free parking.
Image: Report: Towns must stop trying to compete with out-of-town shopping parks
“They must create their own unique reason for communities to gather there – being interesting and engaging and altogether a compelling and great experience.”
Local Government Association economy spokesman Martin Tett said: “Many councils throughout the country are already leading the way in transforming the future potential of their town centres in the face of unprecedented changes in shopping habits and the retail landscape.
“We are pleased that the report backs our calls for councils to have more powers and flexibility, particularly in relation to planning, to help shape and deliver vibrant town centres.
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“The LGA stands ready to work with the government, councils and other stakeholders to help secure a prosperous long-term future for our high streets and town and city centres.”
In March Mr Grimsey told Sky News that the current high street turmoil, along with business rate changes and Brexit, made this “the perfect time” to see which recommendations in his previous report were implemented, and which worked.