Has the boss of Timpson got the key to saving the high street?

Has the boss of Timpson got the key to saving the high street?
Dan Martin
Dan MartinDan Martin Content & Events

Posted: Wed 25th Jul 2018

Amid doom and gloom on Britain's high streets, the government has announced that a team of experts, led by Timpson chairman Sir John Timpson, has been appointed to diagnose the problems facing physical retail locations and come up with solutions to help them thrive.

As big chains continue to shut stores amid dwindling profits in the face of competition from the internet, ministers hope a man whose key cutting and shoe repair stores are still thriving 153 years after the company was founded has the answers.

But we've been here before. In 2012, entrepreneur and TV presenter Mary Portas launched her government-backed 'Portas Pilots' to try and revive struggling towns. But figures released last year showed over 1,000 stores have actually closed in the areas she tried to help.

Portas claimed it was all a PR stunt by the government and no policies were in fact created. She called on chancellor Philip Hammond to scrap business rates.

Business rates

Business rates is a massive issue and has been raised by many as one big reason for retailers' problems. Tatty Devine co-founder Rosie Wolfenden wrote last year that rates valuations saw her bill rocket by a massive 265%. Many suggestions are being made including replacing business rates with a land tax.

In his latest comments on the issue, Philip Hammond acknowledged business rates are hitting companies hard but stopped short of making any immediate changes.

Former Wickes and Iceland chief executive released his own review earlier this month, following a previous report in 2013 which it is believed what prompted the then prime minister David Cameron to appoint Mary Portas.

As well as suggesting an overhaul of business rates, he said high streets need to focus less on retail and more on things like housing, leisure, entertainment, education, arts and commercial office space.

He also called for fines on landlords who leave properties empty for more than six months and setting up local town centre commissions tasked with drawing up 20-year plans.

The role of independents

Most of the headlines are about struggling big businesses, but what about small firms?

Costa Coffee has reported a decline in sales which one analyst said shows "its high street dominance is being seriously challenged by rising competition including small chains and independent craft coffee shop".

I live in Bristol which has a very proud heritage of independent businesses; in fact Gloucester Road in the city is believed to be the UK's longest row of independent shops.

While the street has suffered closures in recent years like every other city and town in Britain, many businesses there have been there for years and are well supported by locals and tourists alike who are drawn to an area with a strong independent spirit and a rebellious nature given with some of street artists Banksy's most famous works.

Another new area of Bristol has also popped up. An old car park has been transformed into Wapping Wharf, an old car park to a thriving district of housing plus lots of indie businesses set up in old shipping containers.

It's a mixture of both retail and food outlets with some straddling the two. The Bristol Cider Shop for instance sells bottles of cider as you can imagine, but stays open late for people to drink and runs cider tasting sessions.

That's not to say it's all rosy as some businesses have come and gone. Trendy London burger company Spuntino closed after just a year but it has been suggested that being a London brand, it didn't properly understand the local market.

Perhaps that's the solution. Rather than so many clone towns with the same massive chains we should be focusing on local retail environments that fit the wants and needs of the local population.

The big boys may be struggling but in many areas indies with just one or a couple of outlets are doing well.

Another member of the government's new review is Eric Reynolds who ran some of the most significant regeneration projects in London since the 1970s including Camden Lock Market and Spitalfields Market which are jam packed full of independent firms.

Mary Portas couldn't do it so let's hope Sir John and co can. But we also hope they focus on the role independent businesses have to play.

Read more of the latest business news on Enterprise Nation

Dan Martin
Dan MartinDan Martin Content & Events
I'm a freelance content creator and event host who helps small businesses and the organisations that support them. I have 18 years of experience as a small business journalist having interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs from billionaires like Sir Richard Branson to the founders behind brand new start-ups. I've worked for a range of leading small business publications and support groups, most recently as head of content at Enterprise Nation where I was responsible for the prolific output of content on the company's blog and social media. I'm based in Bristol where I run and host regular events with the local small business community and have strong connections to major business organisations in the south west region. In total, I've hosted over 50 events; from intimate meet-ups to conferences with an audience of hundreds including events for international brands like Facebook and Xero. I'm also a big fan of podcasts having hosted Enterprise Nation's Small Business Sessions as well as lots of online events including Facebook Live interviews, webinars and three live web chats from inside 10 Downing Street. With my partner, I co-run Lifestyle District, a lifestyle blog focused on culture, art, theatre and photography. I'm here to help. I'm volunteering free advice calls of up to an hour as part of the Recovery Advice for Business scheme, over the next 6 months. Please get in touch to see how I can help your business. 

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