The retail landscape is as challenging as ever and with high street stores shutting week by week, former Iceland boss Bill Grimsey has decided to do something about it. He tells Tom Gockelen-Kozlowski about his new review.

“What should we be doing to help town centres and the high streets adapt to a different world?”

Few questions seem quite as timely in an age when much-loved, once-ubiquitous retail chains, from Toys R Us to BHS, continue to fail.

It is this spate of crises, plus the imminent arrival of the fifth anniversary of his first analysis, The Grimsey Review, that has prompted Bill Grimsey to provide an answer to that vital question – and release a sequel to his original review.   

The former Wickes and Iceland boss has spent a lifetime in retailing and is, famously, a passionate and outspoken champion of the industry. It was this zeal that provided the impetus for his first review, a document produced in response to a government-commissioned review by celebrity retail expert Mary Portas.

“When Mary Portas was given the review I thought: ‘At last!’ But then I was horrified to see how she did it. At the time, I felt the industry was let down and it wasn’t a comprehensive review – it didn’t identify the structural changes that were going to take place, while the massive impact of technology was barely mentioned. 

“As a consequence of my complaining, I decided to put a team together to write what we thought should have happened. It got some traction but it didn’t get the kind of political will and leadership it needed then and which is sorely needed now. So we’re going to try to do it again.”

And while five years may be a long time in retailing, Mr Grimsey sees the same issues that inspired the last review still rearing their heads.

“Disposable incomes are falling, austerity is biting local authorities’ budgets in a big way this year and there’s a series of high-profile retailers going bust. It seemed like a good time to take a look at this again,” he says.

Indeed, some of these issues have hardly gone away. Did Mr Grimsey, for example, expect wage stagnation – the worst since Napoleonic times – to last so long when he completed the previous review?

“I didn’t quite realise the severity of it. I had my doubts that austerity would work and, sure enough, it hasn’t. Despite the chancellor talking about ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ in the Spring Statement, none of the targets have been met during this process. We have a fall in real disposable incomes, a fall in public service budgets and we’re staring down the barrel of a country where high streets are deprived places.”

So what should be done? Much of the detail will be looked at by the team behind the review, most of whom worked on the first review in 2013 and include property, local funding, regeneration and technology experts. But Mr Grimsey has a good idea of some of the areas it needs to look at.

“This time we’re going to hit the big subjects such as business rates big time. We need to review this whole thing. Businesses should only be paying for the additional services that, by being a business, they demand. Instead, rates are being used as a tax to bolster up other local authority budgets and that’s not the way to use businesses.

“In parking, we have to stop the messing around and it has to be two hours’ free parking all round – stop using it as a revenue generator.”

Mr Grimsey knows his arguments for investment and lower tax will be met by an instant rebuttal in our austerity minded era, but he believes it is a matter of priorities.

“My proposals beg the question: where do local authorities plug their budget gaps? Central government is starving them of funds after all. I don’t know the answer yet, but we can’t spend all our time avoiding proposing what should happen because a lack of money stops us. We should say: ‘This should happen so this is what we need to do about the money.’”

Providing credible answers will be one of the tasks given to the team that Mr Grimsey has assembled.

Importantly, despite his many roles in British chain stores, Bill Grimsey is a passionate supporter of independent retailers and as part of the review, he wants to hear experiences and ideas from independent retailers, either through the group’s Grimsey Review 2 LinkedIn group or via RN.

“I’m a champion of independent businesses in as much as independents tend to generate money for the local economy – they don’t take it out as national chains do,” he says.

Yet, in Mr Grimsey’s mind, not even the best-supported independent retailer or best-performing chain store will be able to ensure the survival of the high street.

“What is going to make it attractive for people to congregate in areas where shops can market their wares? It’s not going to be driven by shops anymore – we said that five years ago. It’s going to be about creating a community hub centred around health, education, leisure, entertainment, pedestrianisation, street food, arts and crafts – when you have that, you are going to get footfall.”

It’s a big subject and it will take months for the team to report their findings. When they do, The Grimsey Review 2 is planned to be released when its main intended audience will be listening: at the Local Government Association’s Annual Conference and Exhibition in July.

And with Mr Grimsey admitting that the last review only had a “limited effect”, what happens if, once more, the report’s proposals are mostly ignored by local and central government?

“They will need to stand up in front of their constituents and say they are knowingly going to continue sleepwalking through the 21st century, not shaping our places for social gatherings and social benefits, and, because of market forces, we will continue to get empty shops and rundown places. That’s not a good legacy for my children and grandchildren.”