The business style of Philip Green, whose Arcadia retail empire collapsed into administration on 30 November, exemplifies the worst excesses of contemporary British capitalism. Throughout his long career, Mr Green, the so-called King of the High Street, has asset-stripped companies with little concern for the common good.
In 2005, the Arcadia owner paid his wife, who is resident in Monaco, a £1.2bn tax-free dividend, while ultimately leaving a £571m pension deficit at BHS, which collapsed in 2016 a year after he sold it for £1. He was courted by fawning politicians – Tony Blair awarded him a knighthood, David Cameron appointed him a government tsar – and was indulged by feeble regulators.
Mr Green’s humbling should mark the end of an era of corporate recklessness. But for now, it has merely intensified the economic crisis facing British workers. Arcadia owns long-established retailers, including Topshop, Burton and Miss Selfridge, and its collapse, as well as the likely liquidation of Debenhams, puts 25,000 jobs at risk.
By necessitating shop closures and home-working, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the long decline of the high street. A study last month by the Local Data Company found that 18,000 high street premises could be left empty by the end of this year, almost double the number in 2019. A recent review led by Bill Grimsey, the former chief executive of Iceland, estimated that half of UK retailers are at risk of failure.
In an era of online retail, some will be intensely relaxed about the decline of the high street. But they should not be. As well as offering work, the high street provides city and town dwellers with an enduring sense of place and belonging. High streets should be residential and cherished as areas of leisure and recreation as well as of shopping.
[see also: The emperor runs out of clothes]
Rather than giving up on the high street, the Covid-19 crisis ought to be a moment to reimagine it. In Paris, as the social historian Ken Worpole writes in this issue, the recently re-elected mayor Anne Hidalgo has championed the “15-minute city” – a project designed to ensure citizens’ needs can be met within a 15-minute walk from home. This includes access to grocery stores, parks, cafés, sports facilities, health centres, schools and workplaces. “My project is about proximity, participation, collaboration and ecology,” Ms Hidalgo has said. Long before the pandemic, she led the reallocation of road space from cars to pedestrians and cyclists.
In the UK, a comparable transformation would require similar political will if town centres and high streets are to be revived. As Britain seeks to recover from its worst economic recession since the Great Frost of 1709, the gov-ernment should empower local authorities to lead the recovery. And they should be imaginative and seek to create the conservation areas of the future by creating fine public buildings and communal parks. This process could include the introduction of a community right to buy scheme, as pioneered by the Scottish government, which would ensure that unused or neglected properties can be bought by community trusts or local councils. Ministers should also abolish the business rates system – which privileges online retailers – and replace it with a 2 per cent sales tax, which would better protect high street outlets. Commercial property rents are often ruinously high and ought to be properly regulated.
A decade of austerity has degraded the public realm and depressed living standards. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, average real wages had barely recovered from their 2008 level. As unemployment rises, it would be an error to reverse the temporary increase in Universal Credit, which would cost six million households £1,040 a year. Boris Johnson’s vow to “revive the high street” will remain hollow as long as many people cannot afford to spend.
The age of private affluence and public squalor, epitomised by the business practices of Philip Green, must now end – and civic pride must be restored.
This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed