December 7 was Small Business Saturday, an idea borrowed from America to encourage people to use their high street shops. The Prime Minister visited his local butcher and declared how supporting small businesses is: “essential for building a resilient, sustainable economy and a central part of my long-term economic plan for Britain.” But our local retailers still face tough times.

The government has pledged to spend £100m on faster broadband internet connections to help small shops and announced in the Autumn Statement plans to cap increases in UK business rate rises – which are among the highest in the world.

But our beleaguered high streets face even more competition from out-of-town rivals. More than three-quarters of new retail space approved since the much-publicised Town Centre First planning policy came into force last year has been located outside town centres, according to a recent study. The government pledged to protect high streets by encouraging retail development in the middle of towns ahead of big out-of-town sites, but so far the exact opposite has occurred, the research suggests.

The study used a sample of 50 planning applications and found that more than 70% of those approved were outside of towns, while a further 16% were on the edge of towns – in other words, purpose-built supermarkets and retail parks. The 18-month independent study was commissioned by a number of small business organisations, including the Association of Convenience Stores, Federation of Small Businesses, Town and Country Planning Association and the British Independent Retail Association.

Urgent action needs to be taken to prevent many town centres from slipping into terminal decline, says the Distressed Town Centre Property Taskforce. The group, which comprises property investors, town planners, banks, landlords and retailers, was set up to look at ways of ensuring our town centres can remain relevant in the 21st Century following the review of the state of Britain’s high streets carried out for the government by retail guru Mary Portas.

The taskforce issued a report at the end of November calling on the government to designate town and city centres as key national infrastructure to try to open up new access to funding to help rejuvenate our high streets.

The recession, the growth of out-of-town retail and the rise of online shopping have meant that town centres simply have too much retail floorspace, the report warns. But our high streets remain the focal points of our towns and cities, so need to be protected. It calls on all concerned to work together, so redundant and decaying empty shops can be turned into bars, restaurants, health clubs, housing, offices or civic space to keep local people visiting their high streets.

Small Business Saturday has done a fantastic job in raising awareness of the vibrancy of our local retail scene, but government – both national and local – and the private sector need to agree on ways to protect our town centres so they remain community hubs for years to come. Otherwise, Small Business Saturday is just a gimmick.

Sources:

On Small Business Saturday: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-25280334

On business rate cap: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-25233978

Planning application survey: http://www.acs.org.uk/filemanager/root/site_assets/retail_planning_decisions_final_report_dtp.pdf

Distressed Town Centre Property Taskforce report: http://policy.bcsc.org.uk/beyondretail/docs/BeyondRetail2013.pdf