WHEN did I last go into Debenhams? When did I last go into any shop? Let me think. Since March, I’ve been getting Tesco deliveries, and I’ve not been into town, so that means, other than a couple of corner shops, I’ve not been in a store for nine months. I didn’t realise it had been that long, but I can’t be alone, can I? In fact, it’s surely people like me who finally killed Debenhams off.

But no, because it was the same before all this happened, wasn’t it? Let me think. When was the last time, before the pandemic, that I’d been to Debenhams? Did I get a shirt in the sale once? When was that? 2018? 2017? Before? I know I went in with my mum once and we had a cup of coffee and a cake. But the department store had become less and less part of my life. How often do I visit one now? Twice a year maybe? Once?

You see the problem, don’t you? Debenhams hasn’t gone bust because of the pandemic, the pandemic has merely caused it to go bust sooner. The trends that killed it – inevitable trends – were there already. Department stores had become expensive compared to the internet. Young people in particular had stopped going. Even older people like me had got out of the habit. We still liked department stores, or the thought of them, but we weren’t shopping in them.

But could Debenhams still have been saved, if things had been different? The signs say no. The Glaswegian Instagrammer Abbie Blyth is 25 and actually worked in Debenhams at one point, but she says women in her age group didn’t go. “I feel like my mum and my gran go to Debenhams for a day out and work their way through all the different levels,” she says, “whereas I didn’t feel like anyone my age would do that. I wouldn’t think, ‘I’m going to Debenhams’ unless there was something in particular that I could only get there.”

This is not necessarily a fatal wound: old people spend money too. But even here, the trend was bad. Before the pandemic, older people were increasingly shopping online. And then, the enforced close-down and the enforced wearing of masks, and the concern about the virus that goes with it, meant that fewer and fewer people were going into town centres. If you don’t believe there’s been a change, ask your postie, who has to lug all the parcels.

But, irresistible though these trends are, we are twisting the knife in other ways. Millions have been spent on trying to keep shops and businesses viable, through furlough, in the hope that one day we might go back to the way things were: landlords, governments, and councils earning millions from high-street businesses in rent, and parking fees, and business rates.

However, that system – the one we’ve been trying to maintain through furlough – was creaking a long time before the pandemic. Businesses like Debenhams and Philip Green’s Arcadia could no longer afford to pay the rent and taxes on their network of stores. But the landlords, and the governments, and the councils would not budge. They thought they could keep squeezing and more money would come out, but they have squeezed some businesses to death.

Glasgow, for example. In the middle of the crisis, the city council refused to consider a long-term ban on car parking charges to encourage people into town, even though we know one of the reasons people use out-of-town malls is because the parking’s free.

There is the same counter-productive attitude on taxes. The 2017 Barclay review into business rates was supposed to make the system better and to some extent it will – reviewing the rates every three years instead of five for instance. But even at three years, rates are not reviewed often enough, and the problem is even more acute now that the pandemic has shown us how quickly things can change. City centre rates are also still way too high compared to the rates for out-of-town.

And there isn’t much sign that we’ve learned the lessons. The Scottish Government’s budget watchdog the Scottish Fiscal Commission has projected that the business rates burden is likely to rise by 25% by 2023/24. You can hear the sound of squeezing.

Cutting these taxes would not change the other underlying trend – most of us are shopping on the high street less than we were. But it would at least acknowledge that we cannot continue behaving as if it were 2010 or 1910 even. Councils and governments can keep on squeezing businesses if they like. But at some point they will be forced to recognise that there isn’t much left to squeeze.

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