The future of Britain’s High Streets has never been far from the headlines this summer.
Some famous retailers like Marks and Spencer and House of Fraser have announced store closures and this week another national brand – Homebase – set in train a further contraction.
Town centre retailing is one more industry which is struggling to cope with the digital revolution. The switch to online, with its convenience and choice, has drawn shoppers away from traditional outlets.
The businesses we have grown up with are having to work harder than ever to attract customers and the number of empty premises in some of our town centres is testament to that struggle.
The High Street as we know it today is having to change. Filling a shop with attractive, well-priced stock and hoping people will buy it just doesn’t cut it any more.
There are still plenty of shoppers out there, but they need to be offered more to switch off the computer and leave home to travel to their nearest High Street.
Firstly, they want the best service and secondly they want an overall experience which trumps online convenience.
The High Streets and town centres in our part of Yorkshire are doing better than most because, in the main, that’s exactly what they are doing. I’m not turning a blind eye to the empty units we do have but Northallerton, Bedale, Leyburn, Richmond and Stokesley are still vibrant – and fighting hard to remain so.
Whether it is the work done by Northallerton’s BID (business improvement district), the Brand Bedale marketing initiative, Original Richmond’s customer charter, Stokesley’s food week or Leyburn’s Town Plan all these town centres have grasped the challenge.
And individual businesses are re-thinking how they operate. Recently I called in to Milners department store in Leyburn to hear what Leonie and Keith Garrard and daughter Eleanor – the fifth generation to be involved in the business – are doing to keep their customers happy and to acquire new ones.
There have been plenty of changes in recent years but at the heart of Milners is that commitment to personal customer service that no online retailer could ever match. I see that in so many of the family-run retailers we are lucky to have – from Barkers, Grovers, Lewis and Cooper and Maxwells in Northallerton, to Campbells and House and Home in Leyburn and Bedale, Oliviers in Richmond and many more.
The Government is working hard to help, starting with more than £9bn of business rate support so that many small businesses now pay no rates and we are reducing annual rises which is worth a further £4 billion, helping shops and restaurants across the country.
There is also a £300 million discretionary relief scheme which local authorities can use to grant relief to businesses.
With our Future High Streets Forum, we are working closely with retail leaders and industry experts so we can develop new solutions to the current challenges we are facing.
Last month, my department launched the Great British High Street Awards which will celebrate the best town centres and the businesses that make them special. I am delighted to see that Richmond has entered.
Finally, we are reviewing the wider taxation of the digital economy, including ensuring international corporate tax rules deliver fair results across different businesses and that sellers operating through online marketplaces pay the right amount of VAT.
I’m now taking a break with my family and the column returns in two weeks. Enjoy your summer.