WITH excellent timing, a new bookshop opened in Barnsley the week before Christmas. It also timed perfectly with the Queen’s Speech and the announcement that town centre business rates would be slashed.
It’s a welcome move, but a brave one. I’m talking about the bookshop. It’s some years now since we had an independent outlet selling a wide range of up-to-the-minute titles, fiction and non-fiction, for adults and children.
Indeed, we’ve been totally bereft since WH Smith closed to make way for the new £180m Glass Works development, which promises to transform the town centre, bringing big-name stores, a multiplex cinema and all kinds of restaurants and cafes.
Early signs are good; my teenagers are delighted that we now have a JD Sports and the cafe-bars are bringing a much-needed new dimension to the town, especially in the evening.
What worries me are the surrounding streets and thoroughfares, where empty units stand forlorn and shop doorways gather dust and debris.
This fresh government focus on supporting retail and entertainment could not have come at a better time, but it’s not just premises that it needs to address. It’s the sentiment and perceptions of shoppers, tempted away from failing high streets by the easy lure of the internet.
I can’t say that the Queen’s Speech gave me quite the same rush as the smell of new pages. However, I was very pleased to hear that there will be a new 50 per cent discount on crippling business rates for small retailers, to be introduced at the start of the next financial year next April.
It is said that nine out of 10 independent traders will qualify for this enhanced relief, which will be available to retailers with a rateable value below £51,000 – giving small businesses a saving of up to £12,500 in total.
It is also a welcome break for the owners of our local award-winning independent cinema, for example, which is about to face massive competition from the new multiplex. For the first time, independent cinemas and music venues will qualify for business rates relief in a bid to safeguard local entertainment.
I’m pleased that the Government has finally put its money where its mouth is on business rates, but there is still so much which needs to be addressed to help our town centres thrive.
Parking for a start. I nipped into town with my daughter after school one afternoon to help her choose Christmas gifts for her friends. As time was limited, and we would be laden with shopping, we didn’t want to hike across town to the (only slightly) cheaper council car park, or negotiate the drunks on the scruffy street near Lidl, where you get up to two hours free with purchase.
So, it being Christmas and all, we decided to indulge ourselves and park on a meter. It cost £1.80 for one hour. If you live in Leeds or another city, this might sound like an absolute bargain, but it’s the principle of the thing.
Some years ago, the local council experimented with free parking after 4pm in a bid to boast the early-evening economy. I’m not sure what happened to that particular venture, but more ideas along these lines would be welcomed by shoppers and traders.
I’ve heard all the arguments about how car parking raises much-needed revenue for local council coffers and I do appreciate them. Surely, though, this could be balanced out by the potential of an increase in footfall and trade.
Please don’t write in and tell me to get the bus instead. A return 10-minute journey for an adult and a 14-year-old would add up to much more than twice the cost of an hour’s parking.
I don’t want to whinge, I really don’t. I just want to go into town, and enjoy doing my errands, rather than the whole experience feeling like a battle in an urban war zone.
Imagine how nice it would be to pull up outside a row of shops and park free for an hour without feeling violated and harassed by traffic wardens or council officials who swoop without warning with cameras strapped to their chests.
I hope that by this time next year I can report back and tell you that the new bookshop is thriving, and that it has been joined by other new independent businesses which are also trading successfully.
This, however, will depend on more than an attention-grabbing central government cut in business rates; we need improved and more affordable parking, cheaper public transport, kinder local council policies and a genuine belief that town centres are worth saving.