What is the connection between the Women’s Institute and Mary Portas, the self-styled ‘queen of shops’? Well, the institute has been running a campaign urging councils to support our established shops and Mary Portas has been advising the Government on what it can do to promote and improve traditional High Street shopping.
The background to this is that the number of shops in the country fell by almost 15,000 between 2000 and 2010. Much of this loss is in smaller communities where out-of-town supermarkets have dragged the customers away but the High Street has shown a big decline too.
A good part of this decline is usually put down to increasing competition from internet sales.
Latest predictions have internet sales as forming almost 25 per cent of all sales by 2018.
The UK has the highest proportion of online spending in the world and well known stores are feeling the pressure of the prices and convenience that online offers. Stores from bookshops to electrical goods retailers are closing.
So how are we doing in our district? Certainly, like elsewhere, some shops have closed. There are big differences between our communities and the precise reasons for closures.
While it is normal in the villages to have a very high proportion of independent retailers, Horsham town unusually still has a high percentage of independent retailers - almost 50 per cent of the total.
It is also pleasing to note that the level of vacant retail units in the district is approximately one half of the national average figure.
The Portas Review outlined 28 recommendations to help UK High Streets. The Government, retailers and the public supported her plan, and Mary Portas’ work has become a catalyst for discussions about the future of High Streets across the country. The Government has committed funds in excess of £10million to support the findings of her review.
In short, the main Portas recommendation is that the public expect shopping visits to be as much an entertainment as a need to buy goods, and successful retailers will be those who embrace this idea.
The Women’s Institute is particularly worried about the effect of out-of-own retail parks on the High Street.
There is a difficult balance to be struck here, since given the continuing success of this type of trading the public are effectively voting with their feet. However, the council fully understands the need to protect town and village centres and so is keen that business does not drift to out of town retail parks and weaken the High Street.
In Horsham town centre there is a long list of retailers that have arrived or expanded in the recent past and Horsham District Council is promoting a new Thursday market.
There has also been investment in East Street and this has proved to be a catalyst for a flood of private investment into the town. West Street is currently being enhanced to make shopping there more attractive.
The Women’s Institute also mentions high rents charged by private shop owners to retailers. While the council is not able to influence the level of rent they seek, it is worth perhaps noting that rental levels in Horsham are significantly lower than those charged in neighbouring towns such as Crawley and Worthing.
For the villages, the district council is supporting each community in producing its own Neighbourhood Plan where, led by parish councils, they can give thought to every aspect of their future.
This includes how they see commercial firms and shops in our villages dealing with our rapidly changing world.
We then need to look at what emerges and how we can work together in the future on this.