Jake Berry MP: The high street is our original social network
Speaking at Nationwide's Conservative Conference event, Jake Berry MP, Minister for the Northern Powerhouse and Local Growth, said that “the death of the high street is exaggerated”.
What will the high street of tomorrow look like? This was the question Katy Balls, Deputy Political Editor of the Spectator asked to the panel at a Conservative Party Fringe event, sponsored by Nationwide.
Speaking on the panel, Jake Berry MP, Minister for the Northern Powerhouse and Local Growth, said that “the death of the high street is exaggerated”.
“The high street has always been dynamic, which has changed due to changing retail behaviour, but they are the original social network” he said.
Tony Prestedge, Deputy Chief Executive of Nationwide agreed. He stated: “The high street is growing”.
For Nationwide, the high street always has, and continues to play, a vital role in their interactions with customers. Nationwide was formed 160 years ago in the back room of a pub on a high street. It now has 15 million members and members in 1 in 4 households.
“That desire for community is no different”, continued Mr Prestedge.
"That’s why earlier this year we made the promise to stay in every town and every city we are in until 2021”.
Jake Berry, the MP for Rossendale and Darwen, stated that “the retailers which will succeed the most in the future of our high streets are those who combine bricks and clicks”.
Mr Prestedge described how Nationwide is expanding the services that they can offer their local communities. That the organisation is already running seminars around financial crime, around digital skills and connecting people, bringing the membership together in the local environment.
The organisation is planning on launching “Nationwide for business service” next year which will be the first time they enter the SME marketplace.
They aim to provide “a different form of destination for SMES so that there can be a better exchange for learning.”
“Organisation like Nationwide have a responsibility to be a convening force to bring different constituent parts of the community together to have a conversation about the role of that high street” he continued.
Catherine Anderson, CEO, Jo Cox Foundation spoke of the “erosion of our high streets” and as result of how we live differently now, for example, in working remotely and interacting online.
To counteract that, she said “the high street has got to be one of the most important places where those interactions can take place.”
“Hug on the high street should be a new government policy,” said the Minister.
“Communities which are more diverse and more vibrant are happier communities”, continued Mrs Anderson.
Jake Berry MP spoke of the importance of “embedding services” in our high street, for example, council services, libraries and child care and to place “experiential retail at their heart”.
Andrew Carter, CEO, Centre for Cities, warned that our high streets are “too reliant” on retail.
“The answer to the retail problem in our high streets is not more retail. In many instances it will be less retail complimented by people then who are coming back to live in our city centres and indeed firms who want to be relocated back to our city centres.”
Tony Prestedge, Deputy Chief Executive of Nationwide, said that the high street was moving from “being a commercial exchange to a social exchange”.
“And all of our best performing branches are on high streets where there are a different mix in the economics including restaurants and libraries, beyond the purchase of goods.”
“It’s about creating a different form of interaction,” he continued.
“Diversification on high street would lead to the high street “thriving”. said Catherine Anderson.
“The original social network is precisely what we should be aiming for,” she continued.
The panel were asked what effect a no-deal Brexit may have on the high street.
“I would be very worried about places that are already struggling going into that situation”, said Andrew Carter.
“The biggest threat to high streets is the ‘Hotel California Brexit’ we are in at the moment, with the inability at the moment to escape from a continual discussion about it”, said Jake Berry MP.
Tony Prestedge said that “there is a risk that we underestimate the uncertainty in consumers minds. We have to balance the impact of a no deal Brexit with the continually kicking of the can down the road, clearly the best outcome is a deal.”
The Minister for the Northern Powerhouse stated that in order to maintain the dynamic retail environments that are our high streets, planning reforms should be looked at.
“If you have a mortgage shop and you want to change it to a nail bar that requires planning permission. That is local government getting in the way of you as the entrepreneur.”
“There is a big job to move the planning system out of the out of the way and ensure that we can have a truly vibrant high street,” Mr Berry continued.
This was agreed upon by Andrew Carter, who said that there was a need “to make it easier for them both in terms of regulation and changes of use”.
Mr Prestedge stated that “current planning rules are really prohibitive around what work and mix you get”.
“If you remove some of the controls that exist, you get a much greater mix in the economy,” he continued.