Ian Scott International


Britain’s High Streets in Intensive Care. How do we save them?

As so many of us self-isolate in the face of the most serious threat to our health for generations, so too does Britain’s High Streets. However, as we have been so regularly informed, those at most risk of serious infection are those with pre-existing conditions. Our High Streets very much fall into this category. As the government frantically rallies around gathering as much PPE and as many ventilators as possible to protect us, they also have to, at both local and national level, provide the necessary measures and life support to help our retailers survive what was already a tumultuous landscape. And, as is the case with Covid-19, economics does not discriminate. Market commentators and periodicals are swooping with doomsday rhetoric. There will be no name too big to fall. Life support measures must be vast, and they must be swift. In my 49 years as a Fellow of the RICS, I have acted for most major Institutions and with some of the world’s most notable brands.  We have faced crises before and by pulling together as an industry and with the right government initiatives, we have always emerged relatively unscathed.


However, over the last 15 years, the shape and mix of the High Streets changed dramatically. The impact of the global giants and booming online sales turned many of us into armchair shoppers, whilst inflated rents and high business rates squeezed operator’s margins so much, that we’ve seen a huge number of Britain’s famous operators struggle, or in many cases disappear altogether. With the additional loss of sales attributed to this pandemic, many more will be facing a similar fate. There’s an ever-growing tsunami sweeping overhead, and our High Streets need all the protection they can get.


According to the Centre for Retail Research, in the 12 months of 2019, 43 major retailers faced either administration or liquidation, with over 2000 stores closed nationwide. This in turn affected over 45,000 jobs. Established operators and household names such as Patisserie Valerie, Mothercare, Clintons and Jessops are just a few to subscribe to that list. In Q1 2020, we saw 21 major companies fail and 1,128 stores affected. Since the coronavirus pandemic gripped the nation more of the High Streets famous brands have been added to that list, including Laura Ashley, Cath Kidston, Debenhams, Oasis & Warehouse, Antler, Animal, Lombok, BrightHouse and Johnsons Shoes. Monsoon Accessorize & Aldo have been reported to be on the brink too. If things continue to spiral at this rate, then we will see the worst numbers in recent memory. The credit crunch at its height in 2008 saw 54 companies fail that year. 


Retail Failures 2007-2020(*Centre for Retail Research*)


Companies Failing

Stores Affected

Employees Affected

2020 (to end April)




2019 (12 months)




2018 (12 months)




2017 (12 months)




2016 (12 months)




2015 (12 months)




2014 (12 months)




2013 (12 months)




2012 (12 months)




2011 (12 months)




2010 (12 months)




2009 (12 months)




2008 (12 months)




2007 (12 months)





A Brief History


From the 1970’s, when I started playing my part, so much has changed. I have witnessed the growth of the global brands, who transformed the mix of the high streets, killing off many smaller independents with their cheaper production models, better logistics, global marketing, high-end presentation and quality staffing. Zara and H&M are two successful examples of these global brands eating substantially into the UK’s retail pie. They both have a unisex clothing range for all ages, both have casual and smart offerings as well as home furnishing ranges. They compete favourably on pricing against the opposition because inevitably with such large operations, their buying is relatively cheap.

The international expansion of online retailers has taken 30% off high street sales revenues and this colossal market is growing daily.  The main benefactors of this surge are the online giants like Amazon, who besides selling their own products, have become a hub for many brands to sell an unlimited range of products.

If we are not careful, Covid 19 could become the final nail in the coffin for those that have been clinging on for some time. Our famous newsagents, our quirky independent retailers and many more cherished leisure and hospitality operators could fall by the wayside. It is not impossible that this involuntary global sabbatical could push the world economy into the worst depression since the Wall Street Crash.


Post Brexit, the UK was excited about its economy, there were talks of a boom from the potential opportunities that would arise from the transition. However, the High Streets have been closed for over 2 months and when they do finally open would have missed their entire summer seasons. Their turnover figures will take up to 6 months to recover. The tourist industry on which our principal cities rely so heavily will take months to regain any sense of life.


“The Future Can be Bright”


However, it is not all doom and gloom. With the right cooperation between landlords and tenants and financial and operational assistance measures by the government in its many varied forms, I am looking forward to a brave new world where shops are once again seen as the beating heart of this nation.


In the short term to keep shops from liquidation, both local and central government will need to:


·       Provide Salary Assistance (Further to Furlough Scheme and via grants or low-interest loans)

·       Rent and Rates Abatements (Further ‘holidays’ and reductions)

·       Flexibility on Planning Use Classes (Permitted COU, subject to landlord’s consent)

·       Provide Free Parking

·       Provide Free local transport on weekends

·       Help create more pedestrian only shopping

·       Hold regular High Street events


Landlord and tenant participation will be integral to the revitalisation. Fair negotiations must be entertained over rental holidays. It is counter-productive for a Landlord to penalise a tenant in trying times. Clear communication will be key. A suggestion to revert to a turnover based rent for example would provide operators with a chance to off-set their decreased revenues, whilst also ensuring that Landlords do not risk entering this period of uncertainty with vacant premises producing no income. Operators will need to use their ingenuity to drag consumers through their doors and boost sales, for example by holding special sale days or PR events more frequently.


Leading agencies together have reported that prime central London Zone A rents fell approx. 8.5% in Q1 2020, which stands as an early indicator of the growing uncertainty. In Q2, the expectation is to see an even stronger re-basing of headline rents.


But there is light at the end of the tunnel for landlords too. Rent reductions and tenant support does not have to come at too great a cost.


This re-basing, along with the various assistance and relief packages, will help the High Street emerge into a brave new era, a world where opportunity can beckon. Opportunistic International retailers could view London and the UK as a comparatively inexpensive option. Easing entry barriers to our market will make it even more attractive and could fuel the surge our High Streets so desperately need.


Lease terms will certainly need to be addressed. In more recent times, we have seen a reduction in lease terms in line with the rest of Europe. The days of 20-25 year leases in the UK have practically disappeared and we tend now to agree terms of 10-15 years with various break options. However, in light of recent events, tenants might be encouraged to agree to longer leases at reduced rents, which in turn will help preserve landlord’s investment values by securing their income over a longer term.


An opportunity for landlords with non-income producing assets could be to offer purpose-built, fitted pop-up stores, where brands with similar offerings can occupy flexible short-term space without incurring huge fit-out costs or liabilities.


Another viable option for landlords, and a mechanism that served well in the past, is the notion of reverse premiums. This is where Landlords pay a premium to secure bigger-named brands with strong covenants on the most favourable terms possible. A reciprocal benefit as tenants will have reduced or even nil fit-out costs and Landlords will have well-secured tenants paying rent for a longer period.


All the press and media speculation as ever concentrates on the doom and gloom. And the reality is that if we as an industry and as a nation do not take the necessary measures to protect ourselves and each other financially, then this eventuality could well transpire.


However, I have witnessed so many transitions and changes to the retail environment over my 50-year career. And the ingenuity of operators, negotiators and intermediaries, landlords and tenants has always prevailed. Central London retail in particular is a world leader. We can and we will make the necessary adjustments to ensure this remains the case long into future. Britain’s High Streets can thrive again.


As Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

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