Kill the High Street then nationalise it

Mrs Blears has noticed that some of our High Streets are in a bad way. Her answer? Make it easier to set up advice services or other public activities in other people’s property, and if all else fails to get Councils to take over empty shops by compulsion. After the banks, comes the retail sector! First damage it, then take it over.

Over the Easter period I have visited a couple of our Cathedral cities. I was unhappy but not surprised to see just how much decay there now is in middle England. Empty shop properties are gnawing away at the heart of the commercial centres like death watch beetle in the timbers of society.Litter and graffitti were testimony to the lack of pride and discipline. Public space has become no man’s land. Concerned adults are too frigthened to complain if someone litters or abuses it.

Each city had a welter of really ugly buildings close to the centre. Why did they get planning permsision? Because they were all buildings to provide public facilities at the taxpayers expense. These buildings were usually poorly maintained and especially prey to litter and street art.

It’s not just the retail centres of some cities and market towns that are dying. It’s the sense of civic pride, of shared space, of mutual responsibility. Labour is turning our town and city centres into unpleasant areas of public squalor, supervised by the all pervasive surveillance cameras and by an establishment that has no concern for or understanding of the weft and warp of our society.

We are in danger of being left with vast areas of public space controlled by the graffitti artists and gangs in the evenings. The rest of us will venture into this alien environment rarely for short periods. We will not linger long, deterred by the rip off car parking charges and by the need to comply with an ever more terrifying array of traffic and personal conduct rules and laws. We know the yobs will flaunt all this with no consequence for them, and we know if we make a mistake we will be pounced on. Council officials will enjoy their privileged car parks close to the centre whilst making it as difficult as possible for the rest of us to get in and to park.

As the Today progrgamme wisely reminded us this morning, soon everything in Britain will either be banned or will be compulsory. With Mrs Blears adding her pennyworth to Mr Darling and Mr Brown, more will also soon be run down at the taxpayers expense.


  1. Jim Pearson
    April 14, 2009

    If we policed the area’s with people and camera’s that might help. But your right we need to stop the spread of shops out of our town/city centers. I enjoy walking around the shops, as do many I suppose, so if they’re in one place that’s better for everyone, surely? As for Blears, reminds me of a cartoon Baddie, with another silly idea to take over the world…

  2. Susan
    April 14, 2009

    You’re right, as ever. “First damage it, then take it over.” That’s pretty much what they’ve done to the country as a whole.

  3. IanVisits
    April 14, 2009

    If you want an example of what a high-street looks like after the council takes over empty properties, visit Woolwich in South-East London.

    The town centre was vibrant in the 1960s, but decay set in and rather than consolidating the retail space, the council took over empty buildings and filled them with run down and tatty services, cafes and the like.

    One particularly stunning former Co-Op building is in sorry state of disrepair with shabby posters littering the former ornate decor and dissuading any commercial tenant from taking nearby properties.

    Hopefully the ongoing conversion of the nearby Arsenal into modern housing will boost the local economy, but Woolwich town centre has lost at least a decade of development potential to a council which saw the land as just cheap rent for its offices.

  4. That's News
    April 14, 2009

    All governments over the past 30 years have made mistakes. Why? Human nature, these things happen.

    However, this government is causing damage on purpose. And that’s entire different.

    Anyone can make an error. It takes an almost superhuman skill to do the wrong thing all the time.

    Mind you, you need a compliant media for this to work…

    Can I cite this example, please?
    No more the Torygraph?

  5. Ian Jones
    April 14, 2009

    This is exactly the image I have of the UK. Currently living in Japan it is a real pleasure to see everything clean and tidy and even better is that almost everyone feels responsible to keep it so. No litter, no graffiti and little trouble.

    This is what a sense of social responsibility means, it means matching rights to responsibility. Unfortunately New Labour split the two and has ended up with anarchy. Laws are not the answer, its called a collective responsibility where if you step out you lose your rights and are no longer welcome in society.

    I worry its too late for the UK to go back….

  6. Stuart Fairney
    April 14, 2009

    A good post as ever JR. I wonder if people realise quite the burden business rates are on retailers. Around four years ago, my good lady considered taking over a franchise operation in a shopping mall in Hampshire. On examination of the books the business rates exceeded £50,000 !! and this for a modest sized unit. So the government, like some Mafia protection racket, are saying, a thousand quid a week to stay open thanks.

    She was put off investing by the excess taxation (or two more retail jobs to put it another way). Oh, and it’s now bust, the shop empty.

    If you want to end the recession in retailing this week, abolish the business rate.

  7. Amanda
    April 14, 2009

    At the weekend I cleared up rubbish and gardened a small plot of communal land near our house; meanwhile another neighbour has grassed over a ‘rough patch’ of communal space and will keep it mowed. I have asked the council to clear away some nettles and briars that are growing near us – and will nag them until they do it. Our small northern town also has a strong local team of voulnteers keeping the whole place ‘in bloom’.

    I agree with you John, civic pride and responsibility are important and our small town is keeping that alive. Of course we know that if Labour were to get in again our rates would go up because we ‘live in a nice area’ – so we have to do all we can to ensure they don’t. Nothing like an outside threat to bond people together with the ‘blitz spirit’. It is an ill wind that blows no good.

  8. Brian Tomkinson
    April 14, 2009

    The extent of the damage inflicted on all aspects of life since Labour was elected in 1997 is outrageous and depressing. That was why I could never agree with one of David Cameron’s early statements that he loved his country as it is now, not as it used to be. If Cathedral cities are that bad imagine what other towns are like. Labour politicians will never stop meddling in people’s lives. Most of them, if any, are not instinctively libertarians. Their philosophy is rooted in the politics of envy and they see it as their role to interfere in every aspect of life for the “common good”. Their answer to everything is more government not less. We are witnessing, to our cost, the logical conclusion of their approach.

  9. Lola
    April 14, 2009

    Welcome to The GBDR. Welcome to 1984. Remember ‘socialism always trends to totalitarianism’. Oink! Oink!

  10. oldrightie
    April 14, 2009

    An old and early post of mine had this theme. Whatever Government comes to power will have a tough job to turn this round. If Labour return then the decay will deepen still further.

  11. Dan Tubb
    April 14, 2009

    In case your wondering what happens when you do confront littering youths I can tell you, since I am one of the few left who do. You get a torrent of obscene abuse. Not always directly, mostly they will wait until they are in their car or on their bikes and then start up, safe in the knowledge that you cannot get to them even if you wanted to. Nor is this a youth problem. Every day I see adults take the most obscene risks and act in the most selfish way on London roads, all for some slight perceived advantage.

    Personally I believe its all part of the trickle down problem. You criminalise those you want to discourage and go easy on those you want to encourage. Labour have not built enough jails, so criminals do not go to jail. If they get away with crimes or serve ludicrous token sentences they stop caring about their criminality or behaviour. Labour have been soft on crime. Meanwhile the middle class have been criminalised at an unprecedented rate. I’m a criminal now. I drove at 48mph along a 40mph road. No matter it was 5am, no matter it was a road that had been 50mph a few hundred meters earlier, and would raise again to 50mph quarter of a mile later. I am now a criminal. Not because the judgement of a police officer felt I had commit an offence, indeed I very rarely see police on the roads these days, but because a revenue camera had been fitted to the road. Two weeks later that car was vandalised by two youths, and I caught them. They did over £800 worth of damage, attending the magistrates meant a day of work costing me at least half again. They were fined £100 in total. I can tell you now, I have no faith in our system, and I will not bother calling the police again. The response officers today are totally despondent they are permanently filling in forms. What’s more, of the 144,000 police in this country, 90% never leave their desk, and those that do, spend 45% of their time on paperwork.

    To fix our society we must build a lot more jails, slash police paperwork and get them back on the roads and streets and the cameras off. I suspect we would see a big decline in the sort of thing Mr Redwood describes above.

    1. Blank Xavier
      April 14, 2009

      I think we have enough jails; the problem is that the Government has introduced stronger and stronger penalties for crime (in lieu of policing) and this has massively increased the jail population.

      Since the thrust of this change was to keep spending down (policing is expensive) jails have not been built to accomodate the rise in prison population.

      It’s all incredibly unjust and unfree and it devestates peoples lives.

      Labour doesn’t care about people – it cares about the State, of which it is the executive; it cares about itself.

  12. Number 6
    April 14, 2009

    We are now living in a watered down version of a soviet state. Spied upon at every move, every aspect of our lives (from what we eat don’t forget your five a day children, to what we can put in our tax paid for dustibins) regulated by unelected bureacrats in Brussels and enforced by their local commissars in Werstminster.

    I used to love this country and indeed returned to live here after 10 years in the USA. Now, I hate it.

    Change must come and a start is to remove this rotten government and its posionous ideals from the country.

    The Conservatives are the only option to do that and while I will vote UKIP at the ‘European’ elections I will cast my vote for the Tories on what is left of the National stage. I sincerely hope that they do not let us down as there really is too much at stake now.

  13. Monoi
    April 14, 2009

    The problem is that there is no local democracy. It is too diffuse, with councils full of councillors you cannot name.

    The other problem is the difficulty to have those people held to account. Here is a small example: I was given a fine for parking at the wrong place. The only problem was that it was not the case. So I protested and got the fine cancelled. However, no apology, no “this is what we will do for it not to happen again”. I am not letting the matter drop, but it seems that my options are limited.

    For one person like me who refuses to be bullied, how many more just pay up?

    1. Donitz
      April 14, 2009

      It is a moral duty to fight parking fines with whatever means.

      1. Stuart Fairney
        April 14, 2009

        And wheel clamps for that matter…

        On an unrelated note, you should never, ever keep bolt cutters in your car.

        At all.

  14. Donitz
    April 14, 2009

    Took the “Outlaws” out to Bridgnorth on BH Monday to see the local historic town and the river in the glorious sunshine.

    We live in our idealic South Shropshire countryside retreat about 12 miles away. No crime, no litter, friendly people, community spirit, cricket, anglo-saxon churches etc……….

    On arrival into Bridgnorth the place was heaving with really, really grim people on a dayout from the other direction the West Midlands.

    Swearing, litter, sovereign rings, over weight, fast food, England T-shirts etc …………………..

    If this is town centre culture, you can keep it.

    1. Stuart Fairney
      April 15, 2009

      What is it with you and sovereign rings?

      My bete noir is the baseball cap or perhaps the tatoo that is so rebellious (in a conformist sort of way)

  15. Liz
    April 14, 2009

    Britain is one of the most expensive countries to do business in the western world mainly down to the business rate, mentioned above, and also the over landlord friendly business leasehold system. Labour promised to abolish upward only rent reviews but have not done so – will the Conservatives do it when in office? This is as important as abolishing retail price maintenantance was to reviving the High Street. If the competition authorities were at all efficient and on the ball they would be looking at this and also whether there is enough competition amongst landlords in shopping centres and the high street. The long lease, rent reviews and business rates are the prime reason that chains, and not small shops dominate our shopping centres.

    1. Steve Tierney
      April 14, 2009

      Thanks for that Liz, you are precisely right. But even sadder than having chains knock the small shops out of the high street, the chains themselves have started to leave for ‘out of town’ megastore locations. In my town pretty much all there is now is betting shops and charity shops.

      I’ve got to say, Charity Shops are an absolute curse. Maybe they do good work (‘maybe’ being the operative word with the big charity organisations) but they have become almost the only businesses that can afford to open shop in the center of some towns. There is something very wrong about that.

      Generally I’m a free-trade sorta guy happy to let the most successful businesses prevail. But *absolute* free trade is the path to madness for exactly this sort of reason. You might end up with the perfect balance for production, but you don’t end up with the perfect balance for life.

  16. Adrian Peirson
    April 14, 2009

    First cripple then Nationalise, are you suggesting it is deliberate.

    I seem too to remember reading that it was typical soviet ploy to demoralise the populace ( keeping them down psychologically ) through depressing architecture and works of art while we move into what they now term the Post Industrial and ‘Post democratic era’, this term has been used in Parliament I understand.

  17. Janet Child
    April 14, 2009

    I returned to Cardiff this weekend and was similarly depressed. I lived there for 29 years (including the time you were Secretary of State for Wales). The city centre is being redeveloped so it’s one big building site but just full of glass and steel and one bar after another. The only bit of history is the castle and the only bit of greenery in the centre is the castle grounds by the river Taff.

    At least some cities have some sense of history with some lovely old buildings eg parts of London and Bristol which go some way to mitigate against the worst aspects of our present secular state with all its ills such as an addiction to rubbish generation.

    Give some people a clean space and it’s an open invitation to spoil it with a crisp bag or something similar!

  18. Matt
    April 14, 2009

    In your eagerness to bash the government I think you haven’t identified one of the major causes
    contributing to the decline of city centres.

    The spread of out of town shopping centres and retail parks. Here parking is usually free and it’s easier and maybe safer for old people to get about.
    City centres buildings go unoccupied because of the free market; no one wants the space anymore.

    Weighed against this the “Out of town centres” are soulless places

    The United States provides a glaring example of this, many city centres there are just office blocks and diners – for day time use, come the evenings they’re dead. New York is an exception.

    Reply: Yes, an out of town centre can take business away. A properly nurtured High Street can offer something the out of town centre may not have – atmosphere, cafes, more specialist shops etc

  19. Ruth
    April 14, 2009

    As mentioned by Stuart Fairney earlier, the problem for retail is partly due to rates, but also due to the property boom and greedy landlords. Rents and rates have been going up and up, with commercial properties changing hands on the basis of their rental income. to get a good price for your property, you have to charge a lot of rent.

    Who lends money to companies to buy commercial property? The banks, and here again they have encouraged an unsustainable boom, egged on by the low interest rates set by the government.

    1. Donitz
      April 14, 2009

      Short term finance is indeed often provided by the banks for the developers to create commercial buildings.

      Long term finance is provided by many institutions such as pension funds and insurance companies who either purchase the finished property or give long term finance to the property companies.

      This long term finance is often set on a fixed rate/fixed uplifts which the “greedy” landlord as you have put it has to match through his rental stream.

      With huge restrictions on development land caused rightly or wrongly by the planning system land prices are high.

      With all those pensions to be paid when people retire investment streams need to be certain and very profitable.

      The “greedy” landlord is a victim of the pensioner and the planning dept.

      1. Ruth
        April 14, 2009


        Very good point – you are entirely correct. I suppose I had in the back of my mind one property mogul I know of, who is not an institution but more of a one-man company who owns a large portion of a town centre. He has, by manipulating a town council planning department and raising rents, succeeded in slowly killing a town centre I know of, driving out all the smaller businesses.

        He “redeveloped” something which many people felt did not need redeveloping, it was not successful so he has redeveloped it again! He must owe millions to the banks. Like another similar, greedy operator I know of, chasing after the money paid by chains for flash units has resulted in a wasteland for shoppers and economic desolation for local communities.

        I’m sure many small towns have this kind of property owner – the big institutions tend to focus on the larger towns and cities, with their shopping centres. Sorry I wasn’t clearer in the expression of my thoughts!

        1. Donitz
          April 15, 2009

          Lobby the local Council to attack this mean spirited chap with the infamous s106 agreement, otherwise known as the Local Authority Bribe.

  20. DBC Reed
    April 14, 2009

    With people on tracker mortgages saving hundreds of pounds a month through low interest rates and loads of cheap commercial and retail property, you’d think there’d be a lot of activity on the High Street,but there is n’t.So what is going on?
    I would suggest a return to Retail price maintenance where manufacturers could stop excessive discounting by retailers.Abolished in the Sixties by the Conservatives (doh!), it has since been renationalised in the USA after a Supreme court case,docketed as Leegin Creative leather vs PSKS or something close to that.

    1. alan jutson
      April 14, 2009

      The reason why turnover in the City centres is falling is partly due to the internet.

      If you are a box shifter of standard commercial branded goods, who runs a shop in the high street, there is no way you can compete with a cheaper out of Town warehouse, where the only labour is packaging for transportation of goods.

      Whilst the internet is percieved as all good, the big disadvantage is that in time you will not be able to touch and feel goods before you buy (exception to a degree clothes).
      Many shops are now feeling the effect of just being used as an advice centre for the description, demonstrating and viewing of goods, before people buy on line because it is cheaper.
      Who is to blame?
      Firstly the shopper who uses the experience of the shop owner and then buys elsewhere.
      Secondly the suppliers who very often allow bigger discounts to the on line warehouse, than to the shop who promotes their goods.
      We will all eventually wake up to find no shops, no advice, no touch, demonstration or advice before you buy.
      In this respect we get what we deserve, if price is always regarded as the King.
      John on your other points:
      Yes not enough Police on the streets, not enough sensible sentencing, not enough jails, poor Planning approval by people (Councillors) who very often cannot even read a drawing correctly.

      1. Ruth
        April 14, 2009

        I have already posted earlier but I just had to respond to this!

        As an internet retailer myself, I do think that it is more than just the internet that is the problem. In my earlier post I stated that the price of rent and rates is a big problem – I simply could not make a living selling what I sell if I had a shop, because the margins on my products (which I sell at RRP by the way) are small. So if rents were lower, more retailers would be able to afford to have a shop and still make a living.

        I can’t afford to do free delivery, or other freebies and I do think there is a problem with discounters (the big boys) in some areas but in my experience people come to me for the level of service which the big companies simply do not give and this is what small businesses often provide, not the chains. I could write an essay on the internet vs the high street, but don’t want to monopolise this blog!

        1. alan jutson
          April 14, 2009

          I did say PARTLY DUE.
          It certainly is not the whole reason, but a growing one.
          Certainly rent and rates are a big factor as you say, but by your own admission you say you cannot afford a shop, and that does not surprise me.
          Most independent shop owners feel the same.
          I had a number of showrooms many years ago, but after doing the figures it no longer made sense to keep them going, so I work from home as well.
          But if we all did that, and more will, then the high streets would die of independents, and they (high streets) would all become look a likes, which is very much the case now.
          Like you my Company prides itself on service and value for a bespoke product, but after 29 years in business it is getting harder and harder to make sensible margins.

        2. DBC Reed
          April 15, 2009

          More haste less speed. I mistyped Resale Price Maintenance above and also messed up “relegalised” RPM in the States.
          If you read the online commentary from the States about the Leegin vs PSKS case which rehabilitated RPM ,you will see that a lot of people seem to think that it will help to bolster small specialist shops ( as the Net Book
          Agreement did for bookshops in the UK) and also rein in Internet discounting.
          The two biggest bits of social engineering in the UK,with the most destructive effects on everyday life , were both carried out by Conservative governments : the abolition of schedule A taxation on home ownership and the abolition of RPM.

  21. Simon
    April 14, 2009

    I was in Frankfurt recently. What a contrast to what you are describing. Sitting in the City Centre during the evening was an absolute pleasure, people from 8 to 80 all enjoying the evening sun. We ordered wine and beer for the children with us (14-16 year olds). Not an eyelid was batted by the serving staff, unlike here where you are subjected to interrogation. There was no air of menace and no misbehaviour from anyone.

    Upon returning to England you feel you are under the cosh from the minute you get into the airport. Tattooed unshaven Police toting machine guns. Nasty jobsworths telling you what to do, spy cameras everywhere, generally a menacing and unpleasant atmosphere. What a terrible impression it must give to visitors to our country. You’d think they could at least tell the Police to have a shave and hide their body art and piercings.

  22. Johnny Norfolk
    April 14, 2009

    Sounds a bit like the 1970s all over again.

  23. mikestallard
    April 14, 2009

    I want to say that you have described Wisbech precisely. Have you been there at 9 p.m.?

    1. Steve Tierney
      April 14, 2009

      Mike, I have a great deal of respect for you, but that’s a bit strong.

      Wisbech does indeed have empty shops, but no more so than other suffering market towns right now.

      But we don’t have the “rip off parking” (most parking is free still, with a little at fairly low prices.)

      We don’t have too many ‘ugly building given recent planning permission’. Most of our buildings are old, but historic.

      We do have a ‘rough element’ around at night, but again, no more so than many towns of this type. Furthermore, I’m often out at night and haven’t encountered any significant problem in the town center.

      I’m sure we have cameras, but they’re (by all accounts) seldom turned on and not really ‘pervasive’ (you can’t see them everywhere.)

      We do have a problem (as I said above) with there being too many betting and charity shops and not much else, but that is a different problem to the one being described here.

      Like many towns, we have problems. But I don’t feel Wisbech is any worse (and in some cases is much better) than many towns which have suffered under Labour’s reign.

      Wisbech is, in some respects, a rough place. This is because it has some areas of deprivation which need to be addressed. But it suffers from a reputation which, I feel, is not fully deserved.

      1. mikestallard
        April 15, 2009

        I was brought up here! My Aunt Joy nearly married the curate of St Augustine’s except that he was gay……My grandfather was the Vicar. My father retired here. I love the place. Yes, as a port, it has always been rough, but nice rough.
        This is not the place, really, to discuss just one town. But do read our local paper today and see that I am not the only voice who thinks the town centre is in decay.

        1. Steve Tierney
          April 15, 2009

          I dont disagree that the town center has problems.

          Many town centres do.

          I’ve been active myself in bringing issues to the fore about action that needs to be taken at Town, District and County levels (and still am.)

          The only reason I commented was that John Redwood was saying quite a lot of things and your response that “Wisbech was exactly like that at 9PM” was a little more extreme than just saying the town center had some issues. If I misunderstood your comment, then I’m sorry. But I felt a little protective of Wisbech, which is a place I’ve come to love.

  24. nick
    April 14, 2009

    I live and work deep in rural Herefordshire and have never seen the lanes, roads, motorways or railway embankments so deep in rubbish as now. Every few months I crack, and cycle into work with a black dustbin bag, filling it as I go.

    Never once have I got all 3 miles to work, before my bag is completely full, and this is along lanes few cars travel on. I’m fearful that my good-citizenship in picking other-peoples detritus up, will probably be breaking some new council rubbish law or something.

    I know the police are terribly busy behind their cctv screens putting fines in the post to one and all, but what about the general quality of life that used to amaze visitors the the UK 100 years ago?

    The tourist industry used to be a huge earner for the UK not long ago, but who’s going to visit when Britain’s green and pleasant land is so rubbish-strewn and our cities are so full of drunken idiots at night?

  25. […] Rule of Law to New Labour 2009 April 14 by manicbeancounter John Redwood blogged today on “Killing the High Street”. I started to write a post, but went off topic onto wider issues. I therefore publish my post […]

  26. Derek
    April 15, 2009

    The internet, poor business model etc. are factors, but largely a distraction.

    The major problem is the leases and landlords (business rates, though onerous, are a loose function of rent). I still feel many people here have let the government off the hook too easily.

    How did the landlords have so much money to spend on chasing retail property prices higher and higher and then expecting to push up rental income to pay for it?

    The answer is the money wasn’t the landlord’s it was borrowed and whose fault was it the economy was awash with money to borrow at unsustainably low rates?

    The person who made the BoE independent.

    Napoleon queried the country’s readiness for war by dismissing us as a ‘Nation of Shopkeepers’. Well thanks to this government we won’t even be that anymore.

  27. Liz
    April 17, 2009


    “Over the Easter period I have visited a couple of our Cathedral cities. I was unhappy but not surprised to see just how much decay there now is in middle England. Empty shop properties are gnawing away at the heart of the commercial centres like death watch beetle in the timbers of society.Litter and graffitti were testimony to the lack of pride and discipline. Public space has become no man’s land. Concerned adults are too frigthened to complain if someone litters or abuses it.”

    I am surprised you haven’t mentioned Wokingham, your own constituency. The town centre is becoming a joke as shop after shop now stands empty. It is a sad and disgraceful state of affairs, for Wokingham is renowned as one of the wealthiest and nicest places to love in the country. I should know, as I pay enough for the privilege of doing so!

    Even in the car and moving, you see a whole parades of shops empty now. My family run a small retail shop in a nearby village – rents/rates in Wokingham were ridiculously and prohibitively high. Only the identikit chain stores, coffee bars and charities remain, with maybe 1-2 small retailers hanging on by their fingernails.

    There has long been talk of a town centre regeneration, but it seems our council have managed to design the deal such that the developers hold the cards and the council can do nothing about delays but fob off citizens when we protest. This is before the low level nuisances of graffiti and litter – butthese are cmparitively easy to rectify.

    Look to your own back yard John, before worrying about the other towns. I’d be happy to take a walk through town with you. Focus on making Wokingham the place it should be first.


    Reply: Would that I could. I have often held meetings with the Council and the developer to try to get them to reach an agreement and do something. The Council have decided to seek a new developer, and I am impatiently awaiting progress from them in their quest.An MP has no budget and no planning powers to sort these things out. I would love to be able to.

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