The high street is on a precipice. We must listen to traders, speak up for them and support this vital part of British life. As Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis wrote last week, in an impassioned reminder of what retail has offered our communities for centuries, the fightback is now underway. It’s a fightback for the high street against the triple threat of the pandemic, an incompetent Tory government and a tax system for too long working to the benefit of online and offshore retailers and against local small businesses. This is why I am supporting Labour’s commission on the high street. This initiative, launched by Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds last week, shows that the opposition is serious about backing local traders.
Today the minds of top Tories are, it seems, elsewhere. This petty and egotistical government has chosen a vital moment in the economic recovery to indulge in another round of infighting surrounding the Prime Minister and current and former advisers. By contrast, Labour’s independent commission on ‘rebuilding our high streets’ is looking for solutions for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). It comes after a devastating year for the sector, but with the roots of the crisis much longer in the making. Dodds has published research showing that UK high streets have lost 9,775 shops, 5,785 pubs, 7,400 bank branches and 1,195 libraries over the last decade. These are horrifying figures that should send a jolt to anyone with an interest in their local economy and community.
After 12 months of uncertainty triggered by Covid and three lockdowns, we are into a full-blown crisis on the high street. As Lillis says, the pandemic has undoubtedly hurried the move towards online retail and away from our towns and cities. The moment for a central government push to turn things around is long overdue. Retail trade union Usdaw has long been a champion for change and, in 2019, it launched the Save Our Shops campaign to get the government to improve support for shops and shoppers; another great example of Usdaw’s commitment to genuine backing for the SMEs, owners and staff who populate our high streets.
In the absence of meaningful action from government, it falls to Labour and a coalition of trade unionists, entrepreneurs and SME policy experts to show the way forward for the country. With that in mind, here are my proposals, offered in a comradely spirit, for the Labour Party’s commission to consider:
- Level the playing field between the major online retailers and bricks-and-mortar SMEs with reforms to business tax;
- Revise the outdated system of business rates – an inflexible, fixed tax – and bring in a levy based on each trader’s turnover or profits; and
- Work with commercial landlords and tenants to rewrite the rules on rents that are often the biggest bill for small firms. This should include a shift from fixed quarterly payments to a fairer system based on turnover.
Taken together, this package of measures would make SMEs far more likely to succeed. In turn, this would deliver sustainability for small firms, stability for landlords, security of employment and increased income for local and central government. It would deliver more choice for shoppers at the end of a street rather just than via the click of a button. And it would restore something intangible but essential: a stake for residents in the success of their high streets.
Labour’s commission is asking the right questions. I have one more suggestion for colleagues on the taskforce: why not add a few more small businesswomen and men to its roster? This would guarantee the full range of Britain’s retail offer is reflected – from clothing, book and hardware retailers to restaurants, cafes, takeaways and corner shops, as well as the small business lobby groups, trade associations and landlords that provide the support infrastructure. The use of Zoom means it is far quicker and easier to loop in Labour colleagues from across the UK. I’m looking forward to the commission’s findings and proposals – because I believe Labour can and will develop the big policies to save our high street.