The Independent London Newspaper
25th March 2017

NEW JOURNAL COMMENT: Government must step in to save our high streets

    Camden Town Unlimited chief executive Simon Pitkeathley

    Camden Town Unlimited chief executive Simon Pitkeathley

    Published: 6 November, 2014

    SIMON Pitkeathley, chief executive of Camden Town Unlimited has a dream about the future of our high streets (click here for full story).

    He would like owners of freeholds in high streets to stop thinking only of maximising their returns on their retail investments.  

    Instead they should lower their sights and in the name of “diversity” and the need for more small independent shops they should – presumably – offer leases on better terms and lower rents.

    This is a most praiseworthy idea. Something surely should be done to rescue our high streets from the stifling conformism induced by the domination of the large chain stores. 

    Any glance at the borough’s high streets will testify to the need for change.

    But, sadly, Mr Pitkeathley is being naïve to the extreme. He is forgetting one single – and overpowering – fact. We are living in Corporate Britain.

    The retail sector – more today than 30 or 40 years ago – is dominated, almost entirely, by large, corporate institutions, enmeshed with the City, often part of a global network.

    Economies of scale of these companies ensure that whatever rents are charged by landlords – within reason of course – they are able to meet them and still make an adequate return.

    Given this, it would be naïve, surely, to expect landlords to offer a low rent when a much higher one would be accepted.

    Only government intervention can save the high streets.

    If the government introduced rent controls and offered, say, exemption from business rates for small retailers, a sea change could take place.

    Campaigners who want to save Denmark Street from the developers would like Camden Council or Boris Johnson to waive business rates for retailers to keep costs down.

    But exemptions can only be enforced by the government.

    However, such a bold policy is anathema to all our parties.

    Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats are interested in rent controls or exemption of business rates.

    Labour showed interest in such a policy but appear to have run away from it.

    Mr Pitkeathley, understandably, was upset by the loss of a Camden High Street project to a developer.

    But it will take hard lobbying and a lot of politicking to change government policy, and until that bears fruit we can continue to expect to see the same chain-dominated high streets we have today.