London mayoral hopeful Zac Goldsmith has promised a £20 million fund that would help revitalise London’s 600 high streets, improving access and their attractiveness.
Goldsmith has said he will appoint a retail “tzar” to help improve regeneration, bringing empty shops back to life. And there would be a “stop and shop” subsidy to councils, to encourage them to provide 30 minutes of free parking for visitors.
“London depends on the success of our local high streets and independent shops – they are the heart of our communities and the building blocks of the economy,” said Goldsmith. “My Action Plan for Greater London will deliver for our high streets a with new £20m fund to secure Greater London’s economy. And I’ll deliver it while protecting family finances and freezing mayoral council tax.”
The idea of the retail tsar was backed by more than 28,000 people who have signed an online petition supporting the concept.
The Goldsmith campaign would build on an initiative already under way at City Hall, with Boris Johnson supporting crowdfunded campaigns to revitalise urban centres. It aims to bring back into use more than 3,400 empty shops that are spread across the capital’s traditional high streets. His campaigners say these high streets are under attack from expensive rents and rates.
Goldsmith says the free parking idea – allowing visitors enough time to stop and pick a small amount of shopping – would build on the success of a similar scheme already in use in his local constituency of Richmond and Kingston.
A hint of more detail in the scheme was provided as Goldsmith visited Hanger Lane, Ealing, where he suggested funds would be used to clean up and modernise shopfronts, remove graffiti, improve street lighting and carry out planting.
The ideas have been welcomed by the Federation of Small Business. London policy chairman Sue Terpilowwski commented: “The FSB welcomes the drive by Mayoral candidates to address the issue of parking. Over half (51%) of FSB London members say that parking costs have a significant impact on the success of their businesses.”
“The value of local high streets to local communities must be recognised and councils should alter parking policies to entice customers from simply going to their out of town shopping centres, where parking is often free.”
LPA Perspective: Croydon and Dartford were among twelve pilot towns chosen as pilot projects under a scheme promoted by TV fixer Mary Portas. Hired by the government, and backed by funding, she set about trying to revitalise tired urban centres. But one of her ideas – that free parking – was ignored, and two years on from the start of the experiment, it was reported that more shops had closed than opened in the pilot areas.
The problem is, a bit of free parking may encourage people to stop off for a quick purchase on their way home; but it is unlikely to transform their shopping habits. And those are continuing to change, as more moves online. Elsewhere in London, the mayor has acknowledged the massive growth in small vans using the road – a direct result of us buying more on the internet, that is then delivered to homes or offices.
Other initiatives, including wider permitted development and a push to build more homes in urban centres, will help. And planning does have a role here, with a need to be realistic about what sort of businesses want to be on the high street, if empty shop units are not to be filled by traditional retailers. The world is changing, and planners need to be flexible too.