Retail boss says British high streets are at risk of becoming ‘looting grounds’ for crime

The chair of John Lewis said some British towns and cities have become ‘shells of their former selves’

Sharon White of John Lewis decried “boarded-up shops left vacant....and in their place, seemingly endless rows of vaping and charity shops”. Picture: Bloomberg

Sharon White, the chair of the John Lewis retail business, has called for an independent public enquiry into Britain’s high streets, which she said risk becoming “looting grounds” for crime and overrun with vacant shops.

Wriging in The Telegraph, White said some towns and cities have become “shells of their former selves”.

“Boarded-up shops left vacant, dwindling numbers of banks and post offices… and, in their place, seemingly endless rows of vaping and charity shops,” she said. “For too many local residents, the heart has been ripped out of their community.”

The retail boss said a royal commission, which is an independent public inquiry, could give them a much-needed boost.

There needs to be a “holistic view” of the problems facing high streets, rather than individually investigating issues such as tax, crime, planning, housing, and environmental policy, she argued.

The British Retail Consortium said in a report in July that some 6,000 shops have closed down over the past five years, largely due to “crippling business rates and the impact of the Covid lockdowns”.

White’s call came as some of Britain’s biggest retailers urged the Chancellor of the Exchequer to freeze their property taxes, saying a rates increase could add around £400 million a year to retailers’ bills.

Major chains including Tesco, Marks & Spencer and B&Q are among those who wrote a letter to Jeremy Hunt on Monday in a bid to prevent costs running too high for already under-pressure businesses.

Sharon White said retailers are “unfairly hit” by business rates, adding that a royal commission could develop proposals for a fairer system which keeps up with the changing face of the high street and shopping habits.

“High streets have long represented the spirit - the centre - of local communities. Yet they risk becoming a looting ground for emboldened shoplifters and organised gangs,” she said.

Meanwhile, 10 of the UK’s biggest retailers have agreed to fund a police operation to crack down on shoplifting, dubbed Project Pegasus.

John Lewis is among the companies which are expected to fund around £600,000 for the project, which will utilise CCTV pictures and facial recognition technology to get a better understanding of shoplifting operations.

The firm will unveil its half-year financial results on Thursday. Earlier this year, it reported a £78 million loss before exceptional items for the latest financial year.