Back then the MP for Richmond said he was inspired by the positivity and the steps that independent retailers had taken to welcome back shoppers. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.
Nine long months of stop-start lockdowns and tiered restrictions later and it’s going to take more than a Budget gimmick to ensure the future for thousands of so-called ‘non-essential’ retailers in our region.
However, you’ve got to take your hat off to the determination of traders in market towns such as Malton, already planning the return of the famous food festival this summer, and Beverley, busily drawing up a trial plan to pedestrianise the Saturday market to encourage a friendly shopping experience, for their sheer resilience.
Yet, while £5bn to get things moving again post-pandemic might sound generous, it works out at about £6,000 per shop. Nowhere near enough, when you think about all those lost weeks and months of trading during lockdowns.
Hardly a help, really, when so many small businesses have been forced to dig deep and find the financial resources to ensure their premises are Covid-secure, taking valuable time out of trading activities to train and instruct staff.
I know of several businesses here in Barnsley which have decided to shut up shop altogether and operate entirely online, because quite simply their premises were too small to operate safely under Covid rules. What use will the Chancellor’s hand-out be to them?
This is just one reason why I don’t – literally – buy the divide between ‘real’ shops and online. We need a much more seamless and organic approach. Anyone who regularly uses local shops knows that the savvy ones were already bridging the gap between face-to-face trading and the virtual world. Yet Ministers still seem oblivious to this, fixated on the huge profits made by conglomerates such as Amazon.
Under Mr Sunak’s plan, all non-essential retailers, due to reopen from April 12 at the earliest, will be entitled to these £6,000 ‘restart grants’. The Chancellor says that the scheme will “ensure our high streets can open their doors with optimism”.
It’s welcome, no doubt. However, Mr Sunak should take time out to see what’s really happening on the high street. As British Retail Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson says, the restart grants will provide only “temporary relief”.
More useful, she argues, would be a long-term extension to the moratorium on aggressive rent enforcement and to the business rates relief.
Such structural interventions, requiring the co-operation of private landlords and local councils, which rely on business rates to raise revenue, need to be addressed long-term and not just in relation to the pandemic.
However, Mr Sunak should also heed the words of Guy Barker, boss of Barkers’ department store in Northallerton. High street stores and online retailers need more of “a level playing field”, he warned back in June, and he’s right, but I’m speaking from a customer point of view.
As we’ve all seen, wherever we live, those retailers prepared to evolve into a hybrid of bricks and mortar stores and online operation have proved the most resilient in terms of surviving the onslaught of the pandemic.
What is needed now is a honest and realistic assessment of the support all businesses need to help bridge the divide. It’s an investment worth making, and it could just be the making of our historic town and village centres.
Local councils and publicly-funded business support networks really must be prevailed upon to get on board with this.
During the pandemic, I’ve heard many small business owners lament the sluggish reaction times of local councils, in particular, when it comes to releasing government funding or offering practical support.
Mike Cherry, chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, says that only 13 per cent of funds given to local councils by the Treasury in mid-November had reached businesses by mid-January.
As such, Ministers need to remember this. Nothing beats the jingle of coins in the pocket and the quick buzz of contactless transactions. However, the Chancellor – and his Cabinet colleagues – need to realise that throwing money at the issue can only buy so much time.
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