The boss of John Lewis has called for a royal commission review into the UK’s ailing high streets, arguing that mass stores closures, crime and antisocial behaviour are blighting Britain’s town centres.
Dame Sharon White, the chair of John Lewis Partnership, which owns the John Lewis and Waitrose chains, said 6,000 shops in Britain had closed over the last five years and a rethink was needed to make town centres “once more welcoming places where people want to live, work and spend time”.
“Too many towns and cities are shells of their former selves,” White said, writing in the Telegraph on Monday. “Boarded-up shops left vacant, dwindling numbers of banks and post offices. And in their place seemingly endless rows of vaping and charity shops.”
White, who said the John Lewis Partnership had also been forced to close retail stores and supermarkets, warned that high streets “risk becoming a looting ground for emboldened shoplifters and organised gangs”.
In Britain, shop thefts have more than doubled in the past six years, reaching 8m last year, while last month police called on TikTok to investigate a “robbery” campaign on London’s Oxford Street supposedly orchestrated on the social media site.
“We need a comprehensive plan to stop organised gangs,” said White, who pointed out that retailers have had to move to increase security, introduce bodycams and install more CCTV. “I want to see the Scottish legislation that makes the abuse of a retail worker an offence brought in UK-wide.”
“We now need a new royal commission to set a course to revitalise our high streets,” she said. “Planning, taxation, crime, environmental policy, housing and transport all play their role, but must be considered as a whole.”
White said that a royal commission, an independently run public inquiry, would need to look at issues including the need for council planning to take account of post-Covid working changes, “unfair” business rates on retailers and the impact of decisions such as the government scrapping VAT-free shopping for tourists two years ago.
Other factors that need to be taken into account include considering the impact of ultra-low emission zones as “part of a broader plan to ensure towns and cities meet their clean obligations in a way that doesn’t leave anyone behind”.
White called on the UK’s political parties to work together – notwithstanding a general election looming – for “the good of the country” to work on a nationwide agenda.
“Piecemeal decisions on individual problems will not work,” she said. “Only a royal commission can set out a fresh vision for a prosperous high street for decades to come. Britain’s high streets have hope, but they need help.”