It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir David. I thank Liz Twist for securing this very important debate.
Any retail strategy for the future must focus on re-energising our town centres. I accept that the retail footprint will inevitably reduce with changing shopping trends and a changing retail landscape, but the challenge is to manage that change. Empty premises sadly prevail in towns throughout the UK. Online competition—in 2018, almost a fifth of all retail sales were online—crushing business rates and taxes, traffic management systems and parking charges, or a combination of the above, have influenced or played a part in the decline of high street retail.
Many accept, as I do, that there is a place for online shopping, and that is evidenced by the steady increase in internet transactions year on year. Online shopping can assist those with disabilities or who are housebound; others may simply be seeking to exercise their freedom of choice. In the not-too-distant future, our communities might be buzzing not with retail activity, but with drone deliveries of internet shopping. However, online shopping must co-exist with high street retail, and not be a replacement for it. The demise of high street shops could lead to further isolation for the elderly, not all of whom—I might include myself in this—are internet-comfortable when it comes to financial transactions, although I suspect going forward the situation will resolve itself.
On a positive note, eateries in Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock are a great success. It is an element of retail that is really successful. In our area and many areas throughout the UK, that sector uses locally produced goods. It is interesting to note that the towns and villages where shops appear to thrive are those where a variety of small, quality, niche retail businesses are intertwined, as has been mentioned, with the residences and professional offices that are integral to the retail provision, and where traffic management systems are minimal and parking charges are zero or at least reasonable. Sometimes there might be a smaller version of one of the larger well-known food retailers, acting as an anchor store and preventing the drift of custom. However, as residents and as a society, we need to stop and ask ourselves whether we could support high street retail, because we the citizens have a part to play.
Shopping should and can be a pleasurable and social experience; as my wife will remind me, we need a bit of retail therapy from time to time. That applies equally to those providing the service and those receiving it.