In twenty years the Welsh high street will no longer exist.
This is a statement which should send shivers up the spine of the Labour-led Welsh Government as well as communities across Wales. The high street is more than simply a collection of shops on the side of the road; it is the backbone of the local economy which extends into regional growth and national stability. It is also an arena for community engagement with the ability to enhance civic pride. The high street is however disadvantaged by an uneven playing field dominated by online retailers - some of whom don't pay their fair share of tax - and in Wales a business rates system which doesn't acknowledge small businesses.
The future of the high street is increasingly making headlines. The reality of modern day consumer spending, reliance on the internet and ease of out-of-town shopping have thrown a light on the perilous state of the high street. Whether we are talking about the local economy or simply taking a 'nostalgic' view of the high street, its fate is a subject well worth debating. Nowhere is this debate more relevant than in Wales which has the highest rate of shop closures in the UK according to a recent industry report.
The Welsh high street has a long and proud history and remains blessed with a generous number of idyllic market towns whilst also being a comfortable home to busy urban centres such as Cardiff and Swansea. There is huge potential in Wales and yet we are continually behind the UK average. Many towns are surviving on community spirit and the dogged determination of small shop owners.
The Welsh Government is responsible for supporting the Welsh high street yet despite a higher than average vacancy rate the Government in Wales has sat on its hands - seemingly stifled by a lack of ideas, and paralysed by indecision.
It is clear from the recent scrutiny of Mary Portas' pilot towns that the difficulty of high street economics is not unique to Wales. The British high street, whether in Burnley or Barry is facing a struggle to survive. There are however several areas that place Wales on a different footing. In England and Scotland a comprehensive formula which takes into account the size of a business is used to set business rates, whereas in Wales a single calculation is used regardless of size. This is unacceptable when Wales is a nation of small businesses. We must level the playing field through the business rates formula and provide some relief to hard pressed businesses across Wales.
Fairness must be central to the local economy particularly when our high streets are facing such a storm. We have fantastic history and potential in Wales. It is however ironic that Wales was home to the first mail order company as well as Hay-on-wye, the 'town of books', and yet it competes on a playing field dominated by international online giants whose contribution to the Exchequer often falls far below that of their small independent Welsh counterparts.
There is no silver bullet and we cannot simply blame the internet, the superstore or the charity shop. We face a complex range of problems and last October we launched the regeneration strategy 'Vision for the Welsh High Street' which examined a range of proposals including free parking, a night-time strategy and a 'high streets first' approach to planning. Business rates are also central to this strategy, though reversing high street decline takes more than simply giving businesses a tax break; it's about changing attitudes. It is easier to drive, park and load your car at an out-of-town shopping centre. That is why effective planning, accessibility and cheaper, better yet free, parking are just as important as rate relief. We must incentivise people back to the high street or we will not only lose shops, we will lose entire communities.
There are critics who argue that we cannot go back to the old fashioned high street and that 'nostalgia' must not drive policy. This is true to an extent, and it is clear that the high street must evolve. Businesses must better harness the power of the internet and we need to foster a night-time culture and ensure that high street properties can also become homes. Nevertheless, I do believe there is a place for retail. There remains a market for tradition and we should support these traditions whilst evolving their purpose.
In twenty years the Welsh high street will no longer exist - the timer has been set and we must stop tinkering around the edges. We must be brave enough to take a radical approach. This is a warning to the Labour-led Welsh Government that the next death on the high street will be found in Wales.