Love Your High Street - join our campaign to support small shops and businesses

Pontefract town centre.
Pontefract town centre.

TODAY we are calling on you to help us spread a little love in our high streets.

Our traditional local shopping centres are changing. Many small retailers face rising business rates and rents, while high parking charges, poor infrastructure and the loss of vital banking services have added to their woes.

Castleford.

Castleford.

At the same time a number of well-known chains and department stores have closed swathes of high street stores, with more than 50,000 retail jobs going or gone from big stores this year alone.

The local retail scene is undergoing significant changes and none of us can ignore the effects.

Small shops are in the thick of this.

There are twice as many independent high street businesses as chain stores. They are vital to the health of our town centres.

Paul Cartwright and Karl Gilbert.

Paul Cartwright and Karl Gilbert.

And while there are thousands of small businesses still literally setting up shop - on our high streets and online - across the UK, many others are finding it difficult, some too difficult, to stay in business.

There is no quick fix - and longer term we need to reimagine and repurpose our local shopping areas so they can be less than about just shopping and more a place for leisure and experience and community.

But today we - along with sister newspapers across Johnston Press - launch our Love Your High Street campaign with the aim of focusing more attention on what can be done now to support our small shops and businesses.

And we can all play a part.

Everyone enjoys the convenience of using the internet to meet their shopping needs. But, as consumer spend starts rising in the run up to Christmas, we are encouraging all readers to make a conscious decision to also shop locally and spend some time and money with the shops, small businesses and independent traders who ensure our communities remain vibrant places to live.Between now and the end of the year we will be helping to spread the word by supporting the local initiatives and great independent retailers we have on our patches in a series of regular features.

But more fundamental change is needed - so Love Your High Streets is also about calling for more direct action.

We are backing the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in their calls for both central and local government to lessen the pressure on small firms struggling to keep their heads above water.

We will:

Drive home the message to the Treasury and our local MPs that our outdated business rates need urgent reform to lessen the burden on independent traders;

Call for positive action on car parking charges and spaces to encourage people to visit our high streets;

Pressure the Government to review what access high street businesses and shoppers have to cash and digital payments in the face of dwindling bank branches and ATMs.

Backing the launch of our Love Your High Street initiative, Mike Cherry, FSB National Chairman, said: “It’s great to see this campaign adding to the call for action to help our high streets.

“With confidence among small retailers falling, this is a crucial time to ramp up pressure for urgent reform of outdated business rates and simplifying the way bills can be appealed, as well as improving local roads and increasing the amount of free parking. Government and local authorities must come together now to find real solutions to these issues.”

In 2013 the then Communities Secretary Eric Pickles unveiled a ‘billion pound package’ of measures to support our local shops. It was claimed these steps - which included business rates support, town centre tax breaks, relaxation of planning rules and parking reform - would make it easier for all the shops on Britain’s high streets to grow, expand and take people on. Five years on , life on the high streets are still tough.

Michael Weedon, chairman of the FSB’s Retail & High Street Policy Unit, said: “Small business owners are resilient and are always having to adapt. But we want to see the Government and local authorities come together to look at real solutions to these issues so that our high streets are not only able to survive but to thrive.” Mr Weedon added: “We all know the problems. Shops lie empty, increasingly expensive parking in towns drives shoppers to choose retail parks, business rate bills weigh disproportionately heavily on high street retailers while online-only operators have far lower costs – and pay far less in tax. Then there’s time-honoured necessities such as high street banks and convenient ATMs closing down and competition from online shopping.

“If we don’t act then we know that these problems will get worse – and we will all feel the impact.

“There is much that can be done to free the high street from the burdens imposed by tax, parking and planning policy. There is much that can be done to enable our towns to reimagine and repurpose themselves for a future, which is less about shopping and is more and more about leisure and experience and community.

“There is much that can be done to help retailers and their staff develop and apply new skills for a digital future.

“There are problems to solve and it will take central government, councils, businesses – and consumers - to solve them.

“There is cause for hope. Even in these difficult circumstances the small business community is opening tens of thousands of shops every year, on high streets and online. If those burdens can be reduced and opportunities provided, then small businesses can help give our high streets a new and exciting future.”

Reasons to cheer as district ‘bucks trend’

OUR campaign is being backed across the district as the fight goes on to help our high streets thrive in tough times.

Coun Peter Box, leader of Wakefield Council, said: “This is a great campaign by the Express which has our full support.

“We have all seen the impact of the challenges faced by high streets up and down the entire country.

“Across the district we have the city centre and many towns, all of varying sizes – and all of which we are very proud of and want to see flourish.

“The continuing support of residents and visitors to help our shops and businesses to grow and develop is essential, in these changing times.”

Tony Wallis, vice chairman of Castleford Civic Trust, said: “We are all about taking pride in our town centre.

“We believe that the purpose of our high streets is to bring people together – it’s more than just retail. You hear people saying that town centres are dying because of the internet but that doesn’t have to be the case. There are ways that town centres and online retail can complement each other rather than compete.”

Pontefract Civic Society chairman Paul Cartwright said: “The changes we have seen to the high street in recent years have been positive in many respects. Pontefract has above average occupancy, which is consistently at over 90 per cent.

“We have seen changes in businesses but if a lot becomes vacant another business moves in to take it over. The exception is some of the larger units, which are harder to fill, but the vast majority are replaced.

“There’s a fantastic range of shops in the town, and we are seeing more cafes and restaurants open, which have been very good for the nighttime economy.”