Yesterday was a good example of why, despite the highly political jobs I’ve had during the last 10 years at the BPF, at Heathrow and in recent years, campaigning across music piracy, VAT in tourism and housing, I remain highly ambivalent about Politics (with a deliberate capital P).
The vote around Sunday trading was a shameful display of everything wrong with the system: the petty semantics, hypocrisy and all-round childishness.
What it also highlights is the utter failure of the retail industry to pull itself together and take a cohesive message to the people. Many MPs from down-trodden areas opposed the moves. And while the likes of New West End Company, which represents posh Oxford Street tourist shops, have been out and about in the FT, the woeful disorganisation of national bodies is now clear.
Of all the various things successfully lobbied on over the years – from tax breaks on bingo and cider to incentives for computer games developers – surely there is nothing more tangible than helping a local high street? I won’t re-tred the same ground doubtlessly covered by everyone around online retail and changing work habits. But at a time where we’re seeing a resurgence of insolvencies (BHS) and mass shop closures (Carphone Warehouse), I would have thought somebody would step forward and act as a figurehead of common sense.
While it would seem that this week’s decision is unlikely to be revisited anytime soon, there is still a conversation to be had. Successive governments have talked at length around helping local town centres. We’ve seen all manner of reports filed straight in the bin along with “celeb” endorsements – like the pointless Portas review. Throwing all this together with this week’s decision, and the government’s stated position on localism, is nothing short of a shambles.
If ministers are serious about driving local economic growth outside of retail mega-domes like Westfield, Lakeside, Meadowhall, the Trafford Centre and other regional leisure hubs, then we need cohesive policy right across the board.
This doesn’t just mean fixing the easy stuff like rip-off parking charges or Sunday trading. It means a real re-think on business rates to incentivise new companies and avoid pushing landlords towards renting to betting shops or chicken outlets which are the scurge of many deprived areas. Planning policy can easily be used to restrict such places.
Finding a constitutionally compliant way of avoiding kindergarten politics by the Scots is also essential. But this shouldn’t distract from the need for our retail sector to get its act together and form a cohesive voice able to communicate with local MPs and local communities. The BRC has always had a tougher time catering to smaller firms than the big supermarkets which it typically cowtows to. This should be a wake up call to all concerned.