Ailing high streets to get £1bn boost

Boris Johnson on Sunday unveiled an expansion of a government initiative designed to improve some of England’s ailing high streets, in another indication that the prime minister could be preparing for an early general election.

Last month, the government announced that 50 areas — from Whitehaven in Cumbria to Penzance in Cornwall — would receive a total of £675m from the government’s future high streets fund that would help local leaders to revitalise town centres.

On Sunday, the prime minister announced that another 50 towns across England — including Dover, Dudley, Scarborough and Stockport — would benefit from a further £325m, taking the total size of the fund to £1bn.

Some of these 50 are key Conservative-held parliamentary constituencies, including High Wycombe, Salisbury, and Wandsworth in London.

The £1bn future high streets fund is part of a broader package of £3.6bn that aims to boost deprived towns and was announced last month by Mr Johnson in one of his first speeches as prime minister.

Mr Johnson said the package was aimed at boosting local economic growth, broadband, transport and cultural infrastructure.

He added he would do everything he could to make sure high streets “remain vibrant places where people want to go, meet and spend their money”.

Robert Jenrick, communities secretary, said the government was “going to level-up our regional economies” and that interest in the £1bn future high streets fund had already been huge.

Despite the government’s initiative, many leading retailers believe high streets will only be revitalised if companies with shops secure tax cuts that help them compete with online rivals.

This month more than 50 UK retailers, including Marks and Spencer, Harrods and Iceland, wrote to chancellor Sajid Javid demanding urgent reform of the business rates system, which taxes companies based on the property they occupy.

The retailers said the system was outdated and harmed investment, and was to the detriment of jobs and communities.

“The UK has one of the highest commercial property taxes in the world,” the retailers wrote in their letter. “This is damaging the country’s competitiveness internationally and although productivity growth in retail is outpacing the rest of the economy, the industry has the potential to do so much more.”

The British Retail Consortium said this month that the competitive pressures on the trade body’s member companies were considerable.

It said retail unit vacancy rates across the UK had risen to 10.3 per cent, a four-and-a-half-year high, with many having been empty for more than two years.


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