What is the future for the high street in Yorkshire? As a retail expert sets out his plans, James Reed and Neil Hudson look at the situation in Leeds.
In Leeds retail is still riding on the crest of a wave after the opening of Trinity Leeds, one of the most prestigious shopping malls to launch in recent times.
But the future of high streets elsewhere in the city could be bleak, according to a weighty tome being presented to MPs today.
The report, written by Bill Grimsey, a former chief executive of retail chain Iceland and building supplies business Wickes, paints a grim picture.
It suggests there are 20,000 businesses at risk and 40,000 empty shops across the country and calls for urgent action to reverse the trend.
Across this city, many communities have seen their town centres struggle. Bill Grimsey has his own views - but so do local councillors.
According to Morley town councillor Neil Dawson, town councils should be granted additional powers to influence the mix of shops on their high streets.
Coun Dawson, who is also the area committee champion for employment, leisure and skills and sits on Leeds City Council (Lab, Morley South), said it was high time the Government devolved such powers.“It would be entirely in keeping with the idea of devolving power to the regions and it would allow town councils to have a greater say in what shops came into the town, because one thing we do not want is to have just lots of the same kind of shop.
“As councillors we have to think about the long term viability of the town centre and what kind of shops attract families here - one thing I can tell you is those kind of shoppers won’t come here to go to the local betting shop.
“We’re talking about encouraging niche shops and family-run businesses, like independent restaurants, book stores and cafe bars, the kind of shops which can’t always get a look-in in big shopping centres, which tend to be dominated by big name chainstores.
“In Morley, we are always looking to bring people into the town centre and we support that by staging events on a weekend, putting on brass bands, Punch and Judy shows and things like St George’s Day parades.
“I do have some concerns about Morley, one being the growth in the number of charity shops and I think there needs to be some kind of limit. The other concern is the number of betting shops - I think we have four on the high street now. Both these kind of shops have their place on the high street, I just do not think they should dominate them.
“The problem being there are no planning limitations which we can impose, we do not have the powers to influence things like that. At a time when there is in general a big push away from the high street to internet shopping, I think this would be one way of helping us even up the battle and revive high streets.”
Across the city, there is no shortage of alarm bells ringing and a growing sense that action is needed as major changes in the way consumers behave have consequences for town centres.
But in Horsforth the view is more optomistic. Town Councillor Paul Hanley said: “We have two main streets: New Road Side and Town Street and both have a good mix of shops with some fairly long-standing family-run businesses, which I think is a good thing.
“I can see that over time the trend would be for this to dwindle and one example of that would be the former Outside Inn restaurant, which closed some time ago now but which has recently been taken over by Pizza Express.
“I welcome Pizza Express to the town, I think they are a valuable addition but I would not want to see lots of charity shops and betting shops here, I do not think it would be good for the area.
“People’s shopping habits have altered in the last 40 years, so while we don’t go to the local shop for all our shopping, we go to the supermarket, because it’s more convenient. The opening of smaller Tesco Express stores and so on is a threat to the independent retailer but I think most people still like to be able to go to the local butcher for some things.”
He added: “One thing which does concern me is the recent opening of a Clothes for Cash shop in the town, which replaced a family-run sandwich shop. I think that takes away from the prosperity of the town. On the upside, though, there is a new fish and chip shop opening at the top of Town Street soon.”
Cathy Barnes, professor of retail innovation at Leeds Metropolitan University. said: “It is not a homogenous picture. What we have had in Leeds is Trinity Leeds opening and increasing footfall in the city centre - that’s on the high street.
“Trinity is a good example of the focus of the high street being in large conurbations whereas satellite towns are suffering because it is easy for us to hop in in a car and find ourselves in a city centre.
“If all we want to do is purchase something we can do that online, if we want to shop for fun we will go to a large retail centre.”
Professor Barnes believes that encouraging smaller town centres to foster independent traders will have a limited impact.
“Yes there are farm stores and farmers markets which we all love to dip into but that’s not the mainstream and its not where we are going to do the bulk of our shopping.
“Maybe we just have to accept every town in every part of the country can’t have a high street.”
A common feature of recipes for a high street revival is securing new investment and giving new powers and responsibilities to councils. Bill Grimsey advocates a levy on major chains to invest in high streets.
Councils in Yorkshire are also beginning to introduce “community infrastructure levies” - effectively a tax on property developments that could be a source of funds to support high streets.
Will Martin, assistant director for real estate at Deloitte’s Leeds office, is unconvinced for the need for more powers, pointing to York’s recent success in securing new Primark stores for both the city centre and the out of town Monk’s Cross development.
Mr Martin said: “If councils identify a project in the city centre they want to fund they can use the levy for that, providing it meets the rules. Even if the money is coming from houses built on the outskirts if improvements are needed in the centre they will support that.”
On the levy on retail chains, he adds: “A lot of the big players are already investing in town centres and many of the big mixed-use schemes are anchored by the major retailers.”
And there is evidence across the region that local authorities are already taking a pro-active approach in supporting their centres.
Where once the debate focused on ‘out of town versus town centre’ tension, the rapid growth of internet retailing is posing new questions.
Lindsay Whitaker, development manager of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said of Dewsbury:
“The town has always had the market to attract people but a few years back they built an out-of-town retail development right on the edge of the town centre.
“What it effectively did was shift the town centre because they were offering people free parking so businesses around the market area are lacking footfall and the market traders as well.”
The FSB has been pressing councils across the region to be more flexible about business rates and parking charges to help town centre businesses, issues both raised too by the Grimsey report alongside the way planning laws are used.
Bill Grimsey suggests it is time for us to dispense with the “nostalgic” view of high streets that are focused on retail and instead make them hubs for health, education, arts and leisure as well as shopping.
There is no shortage of efforts going in to giving high streets across Yorkshire a future but it is clear that not all can survive the digital retail revolution.
And it is consumers who will ultimately decide the future of high streets as they choose how and where they spend their time and money.