Duncan stood up for North Norfolk's High Streets this morning, as part of a debate held in Westminster Hall.
"This is somewhat of a passion of mine: the High Street, given that I worked in retail in my home of North Norfolk before I became an MP. The High Street is dying at an alarming rate. This isn't something new but, year after year, we see this decline continuing. And my feeling is there's little long-term strategy that's being done about it, and whilst I welcome the changes to business rates and the £3.6bn that the government's towns fund will do, sadly I don't feel this is the finished answer because it's in effect a temporary sticking plaster to the issues, when major structural change and reform is urgently required.
"Because what we're seeing is a fundamental technological shift, that's enabled, through technology, shopping habits to alter. And I'm not one of those to stand in the way, but I do feel the government needs to intervene - to level up what has now become a completely unfair playing field. Bricks and mortar stores are seeing costs rising at an exponentially high rate, through wages, rent, pensions, energy - whilst their front-line sales growth continues to contract. And by contrast, the internet giants, by an enormous bulk, lowering costs, and they don't have the same cost base to contend with as that of what we term A1 retail space.
"Now the High Street not only employs millions of people, but it also contributes major social and economic value to the country. We can all realise that boarded up, vacant towns will have a major impact on our health and well-being. Think of the isolation and the loneliness issues that people suffer if they can't go out to the shops and add that social value to their lives. Now, internet sales over the years have rocketed from around 5% when the data was first collected, to now around 20% of all retail sales. That is an alarming rate of growth and, last July, the proportion of all shops that are empty on the High Streets reached 10.3%. That was the highest level since the relatively other recent date of January 2015. And what we see every year is major chains being lost: House of Fraser, for instance, were narrowly saved, but many go bust and, if they don't, the restructuring deals mean that hundreds of shops are closed instead, and we witness thousands of job losses each year, particularly after Christmas which is a crucial period for many retailers who either sink or swim after that time.
"When you've got industry leaders like John Lewis now saying - you know, who are seen as the bellwether for the High Street - struggling and announcing they may further see job losses, you have to now start to see there's some structural change that is required. John Lewis, for instance, have the luxury of Waitrose. Waitrose cash from their supermarket division enables them to reinvest in their department stores. Most businesses on the High Street don't have that. Then you realise how hard it must be.
"For the High Street, all the indications are that footfall is continuing to decline, potentially at around 2% every single year. Pretty depressing news. So you have that declining customer base, shifting consumer habits, and we will witness that managed decline, I think, in our own lifetimes. So what I say is that we must act now. Some kind of intervention to change that playing field before we see communities and the High Street really, really lost and then, off the back of that, enormous unemployment.
"So what are the suggestions? Well, for starters, we need to consider some kind of internet sales tax. A tax specifically on online shopping. Great Britain is renowned for having a backbone of small shopkeepers, so some kind of online tax would give the High Street retailers, whose overheads are high and, of course, in many instances, employ local people, to provide a better chance for them being able to survive. Or similarly, some kind of higher-rate VAT-style sort of tax should be considered. But if we do nothing, I think we will continue to see what is happening in front of our eyes. And in times when the Treasury is looking for generating income, why are we not considering it? Surely it's an issue that's staring us in the face. But what we absolutely must do is tax those internet giant operators that are contributing to the demise of our towns and cities by not paying their fair share of tax. Only when we do that as my Honourable Member has said here, that we can start to support the business rates reductions that we are welcoming hugely.
"Now people say to me, well why should the government intervene? It's not their problem to interfere in industry change. It's an evolution that we're seeing led by technology. And to that I say it's a reasonably simple answer - because you have done. You've done it before. For instance, we've subsidised agriculture for many years. And even though the payment system is now altering, for me perhaps this is just the chance now to have some sort of support mechanism in place while retail adjusts.
"And I think, as I sort of close off, we are partly to blame to this, for not sorting out some of the hopelessly lax planning decisions and policies that we've had over the years. Unfair competition from out-of-town stores has placed further threats on our beleaguered traditional town centres. Had previous governments applied a policy for every supermarket to be restricted to the sale of just food items, our High Streets would have had somewhat of a remaining viable use. Furthermore, if you think that the modern practice of supermarkets developing in-store bakeries, fish counters, butchery departments, that's led the competition to many smaller businesses on the High Street, disappearing almost on a weekly basis, particularly in that 'greengrocery' type field.
"Stringent planning policies must be put in place to curtail some of that supermarket growth that has led to this demise. So I think it's a complex problem. There's a vast array of contributing factors. But the rise of the internet is, I think, at the very crux of this issue, and it's a problem that we have to start to tackle now. Surely, if we do something now - I'd like to use our favourite term of the moment - we need to do some 'levelling up' of our beleaguered High Street."