Once the hubs of a thriving community, the high streets in my city of Salford are struggling.
Many shops are empty, boarded up, collecting graffiti instead of customers. And those retailers who remain struggle to survive.
This week, shopping figures from December – the most important month for all our shops – revealed the worst Christmas for retailers since the depths of the financial crisis.
High street staples M&S and Debenhams sales have slumped, and John Lewis is considering suspending staff bonuses.
Despite slashing prices in the run up to Christmas, businesses have been unable to get customers through their doors.
The reason for this is simple – people don’t have enough money in their pockets with the UK experiencing the longest period of wage stagnation since the Napoleonic Wars.
We may have high levels of employment, but low wages mean that these jobs are barely covering the basics.
For those on a low income or out of work, benefit cuts, draconian sanctions and the delays associated with the roll out of Universal Credit have left too many families struggling to get by.
Disposable income to spend on the high street is a pipe dream if you’re reliant on food banks to survive.
The account books don’t look great for business owners either with brick and mortar retailers’ business rates costing more compared to out of town online retailers, creating an uneven playing field.
Last April, rates were re-evaluated resulting in the average small shop being hit by an extra £3,663 in rates over the next 5 years. In comparison, online retailer ASOS’s bill fell despite UK sales growth.
Local councils feeling the squeeze with cuts to their budgets have been forced to slash vital bus services into town centres, meaning that even if people wanted to pick up last-minute shopping they have no way of getting into town centres.
One of my priorities is to bring the high street back to life. I’d like to see the return of anchor institutions like banks and Post Offices to our high streets.
If someone drops off a parcel at the Post Office, they’re more likely to stay for a coffee or pick up a bargain on the way home.
Labour will also introduce a fairer business rates system so that businesses are encouraged to stay on the high street.
We will also ensure that local authorities have the funding to retain local bus services as well as providing free bus travel for under 25s, so that they are able to travel for leisure and work, increasing footfall on our high streets.
This isn’t just about returning to a bygone age. I want to see our high streets as places for the future by providing free public Wi-Fi.
Provision of free public Wi-Fi in town centres will make sure people shopping on our high streets can stay connected whether they are in a shop or working in a community space.
This will encourage people to spend more time on our high streets, help unite the online and physical shopping spaces, and bring town centres into the 21st century.
This is achievable, if we start to see our high streets as places of pride, not pity.