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We Need To Cherish The High Street At The Heart Of The Welsh Economy

From corner shops and florists, to newsagents, cafes and pubs, our high streets are at the heart of every community in every corner of Wales.

The retail sector is a key part of the social and economic fabric of Welsh life, contributing £3.95 gross value added to our economy in 2021.

However, our retailers are going through a period of profound change. Technology is transforming the way that we shop; costs are increasing; and growth in consumer spending is slow.

Analysis from the Welsh Retail Consortium (WRC) shows that Wales has the second highest number of vacant shops in the UK. It’s not good news for our economy or our communities with one in six shops in Wales now empty.

Indeed, the most recent data from ICAEW’s Business Confidence Monitor showed that sentiment remains very weak in the retail sector against a backdrop of high inflation, interest rate rises, and financial pressures.

As the collapse of high street chain Wilko continues to dominate the headlines, the Welsh government hopes that its retail action plan will bring “vibrancy” back to town centres. Towns like Narberth, Cowbridge and Treorchy in Rhondda Cynon Taf are proof that it can be done, as they continue to buck the trend thanks to their focus on independent businesses.

As one of the largest private sector employers in Wales, retail has a vital contribution to make to our town and city centres and rural communities. Importantly, we are now starting the ‘Golden Quarter’ of retail shopping in the lead up to Christmas with retailers doing what they can to entice shoppers back to the high street.

As we approach the autumn period, it’s a critical time. Our high streets need us all to be buying local but they also need government support. Retailers cannot survive without some extra help. The planned rise in business rates next April, the implementation of new regulation and the usual challenges of energy prices, labour costs and inflation are hitting business owners hard. Their resilience is being tested to the limit.

I know that our members want to see government and business working collaboratively together to transform our town centres, support businesses to transition to net zero, and deliver business rate support. The hope is that the Welsh Government’s Retail Vision and Action Plan will provide the foundation and the opportunity for the industry to remain a mainstay of the Welsh economy.

Developed in social partnership, the plan highlights key policies, including championing workforce diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at all levels, embedding fair work principles including promoting the Real Living Wage, assessing skills and training provisions, reducing town centre vacant premises, creating safer working environments and encouraging the retail sector to move towards net zero.

It builds on the Welsh Government’s shared strategic vision introduced for the retail sector last year but it will not work in isolation. It needs support and it needs budget if it is going to make a positive difference.

The message is clear. A successful, sustainable and resilient retail sector needs help and we’ve all got a part to play. We’ll then reap the benefits of vibrant high streets, investment in communities and the creation of more jobs.

Robert Lloyd Griffiths is director of the ICAEW in Wales. Story Saved

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