How we can help town centres across the country thrive again - Matt O’Neill
Covid-19 brought huge challenges and coupled with the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, sky-high energy costs, a high VAT threshold and labour shortages, those operating in the hospitality sector are dealing with an existential threat on a daily basis. It goes without saying that it’s tricky to balance the books.
At Barnsley Council, we know there isn’t a silver bullet. This is a national issue affecting every operator, no matter how big or small. But what we can do, and what we actively try and do in Barnsley, is support our food and beverage retailers.
We’ve invested significantly in the infrastructure of our town centre and outlying key towns. We know that a well-designed and vibrant public realm is the lifeblood of a healthy town centre. It’s the link between the town and the people.
We’re driving footfall and Barnsley remains one of the busiest town centres for its size in the UK. We also know that more needs to be done.
Across the board, we’re working with business owners to offer support including business skills, training, grants, funding, and partnerships. We’re providing small business rate relief to all eligible businesses to further help them, and we’ve set up partnerships with JobCentre Plus to ensure skills are brokered in the most effective way. Together, we’re making sure businesses in the town get the right employees with the right skills for a post-Covid world.
Employee, as well as customer, expectations have changed enormously in recent times. We’re helping businesses adapt to ensure their ongoing success and we’ve employed a retail advisor who works as part of Enterprising Barnsley, the Council’s economic development arm.
Recruitment and retention are a huge issue in the hospitality sector, as many readers will know.
Brexit remains a factor having caused labour shortages and we’re seeing how employees, grappling with their own personal cost of living crisis, are gravitating to the highest salary.
That is triggering vacancies and wage inflation which leads to cripplingly low margins and widespread economic instability. I’ve heard very recent stories of chefs jumping from one establishment to another for a couple of extra pounds an hour.
As a local authority, we understand these acute pressures and we’re invested in supporting and listening. Whilst accepting there isn’t a silver bullet, we know that the central Government can ring some of the changes necessary. In the UK, we have one of the highest rates of VAT for hospitality in Europe. This holds the sector back and needs to be addressed by the Government without delay. Energy prices are reducing but the legacy of the energy price peak is still being felt with businesses on different tariffs. The Government must direct energy suppliers to play fair and bring down energy costs for businesses. Labour shortages in hospitality are a staggering 48 per cent above pre-pandemic levels. Skills funding needs to devolve beyond mayoral authorities to local councils so training provision can be tailored towards local needs and opportunities.
Matt O’Neill is executive director for growth and sustainability at Barnsley Council.