Date: August 2019High Streets across the country have been evolving for many years - Southend High Street being no exception. Originally ‘The High Street’ mostly a range of terraced three and four storey housing to cope with the burgeoning population of Southend transformed into the retail shopping area we know today. During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Southend High Street was one of the most highly valued (in rental value) High Streets in the UK outside Central London.
High Streets across the country have been evolving for many years - Southend High Street being no exception.
Originally ‘The High Street’ mostly a range of terraced three and four storey housing to cope with the burgeoning population of Southend transformed into the retail shopping area we know today. During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Southend High Street was one of the most highly valued (in rental value) High Streets in the UK outside Central London.
At my last count there were 22 vacant shop units in the High Street with boarded-up shop fronts and to-let signs with so called ‘street art’ on the boarded-up units. The High Street looks a very poor shadow of years gone by.
The Government could and should do far more to alleviate the problem. Rateable values based on the rental value of the property remain so high that potential occupiers will not take a lease setting up a business with a high payment in business rates to the local authority. The rateable value assessment is dealt with by the Valuation Office Agency, a Government department which for a number of years has steadfastly refused to accept that the High Street requires radical reduction in rateable value and rates to attract businesses starting up or relocating.
A number of units have been let with rents equating to £30-£40 per square foot compared to the all time high in the early 2000s of £130 per square foot. This has not been taken into account by the VOA setting rateable values in 2017. The VOA are under instruction from Central Government to resist substantial falls in rateable value.
The Government has to obtain revenues from somewhere and business rates across the nation are a contribution to the Government coffers of £30 billion per annum. This could be reduced to half, based on true and fair rateable values, not just in Southend but across High Streets in general.
This is not the fault of Southend Council, but HM Government. However, car parking charges should be reduced by the Council in order to discourage out of town shopping.
It is also true to say rents for many years were too high and unsustainable given the onslaught of retail sales on the internet which are more than 25% of non-retail sales.
There needs to be a readjustment of rental values and in the long term this problem will resolve itself. Landlords will have to adjust their sites to accepting lower rents.
Upper accommodation above retail units in the High Street are now gradually being converted to self-contained flats. This is good news, but this has only occurred as a result of falling market values making a conversion to residential more viable.
Leases need to be shorter; we are now living in a fluid changeable society. Rents should also be paid monthly and not quarterly to assist the cash flow of a start-up or even an established business. Short term tenancy agreements should be permitted. Longer leases currently contain provision for upward only rent reviews which should be abandoned, all rent increases based on the cost of living CPI index.
Market values of retail properties will be required to be adjusted. Price falls of 20-40% cannot be ruled out. Overall, this may be bad news for landlords but would be of great benefit to the nation as whole. This would encourage small businesses to start up in places like Southend High Street. Family businesses could operate once more as was the case during the 1920s to 1960s. To an extent at least this is beginning to occur in Southend but the whole process needs to be speeded up in order to bring life back into the High Street.
It is admitted that this is really beyond the control of Southend Council as the problem is very much private sector based with the exception of the Government intransigence relating to business rates payable.
It is true to say Central Government has assisted small businesses by not making assessments for business rates where rateable value of the premises falls within certain criteria. This has been a great assistance to shop properties elsewhere in Southend in secondary and tertiary locations but has not assisted the High Street as rateable values are greater.
I am convinced the High Street could be rejuvenated and small local family businesses could once again operate profitably serving the community and bringing an attractive centre to Southend.