A lively West Riding market town on the edge of the border with North Yorkshire, Otley is not a tourism hotspot so it relies on the custom of the people who live there. The retailers and residents thrive off each other.
Yet although the place continues to flourish – even on a wet Wednesday in October – it is also struggling. For while many businesses have put up signs welcoming back their customers, it is impossible not to notice the number that will be unable to do any such thing.
In the very heart of the town, opposite the Market Square where they used to film scenes for Emmerdale Farm because it looked so much like a Dales village, three shops in a row are empty. Last time I looked, they were doing a respectable trade.
Two doors further down, a large unit is given over to what appears to be a temporary shop of assorted oddments. At the other end of the street, the whitewashed windows of a former hair salon cannot conceal the remnants of the business that had been there.
A place like this goes to the very heart of the debate about the future of our high streets. With starter homes aplenty within walking distance of the centre, Otley is less exclusive than nearby Ilkley – but as the presence of a Sainsbury’s and a Waitrose within a few hundred yards of each other bears witness, it is hardly on its knees. It’s just ordinary, in the nicest sense. If all English towns were like this, there would be no social divides, north-south or otherwise.
But there are – and as the newly empty shops demonstrate, it is places like this that are on the front line.
The immediate problem, obviously, is the enforced closure of many businesses for several months and the lack of confidence among returning shoppers. But we have known for years that the real issues are deeper rooted. Customers have moved online and bigger shops to out-of-town developments with free car parks, while the business rates system has penalised those who have stayed put.
This is especially true in the North, as this week’s “shops tax” report by the former Treasury economist Chris Walker made plain. Put simply, shops in Yorkshire hand over a higher proportion of their earnings to their Town Halls than those in the South.
The south-east of Sheffield, for instance, has a business rates burden 81 per cent above the national average; in the west of Bradford it is 64 per cent higher. Three-quarters of the most burdened areas are north of Watford.
This, says Mr Walker, is because the tax rate takes no account of economic performance. So the greater the economic challenge facing an area, the bigger the burden of business rates. Across the country, about 11,000 shops closed between January and June – twice as many as in the same period last year – and since March, 170,000 businesses have lodged appeals against their rates. That’s more than in the previous three years combined.
The effect of all this in places like Otley, where the cause of retail failure cannot be put down to simply social deprivation, demonstrates that nowhere is immune.
It’s particularly disheartening in a town that had got so much of its retail offering dead right. Most of the shops are independent, and there is a near-perfect balance of the everyday and the exotic. There is even, I noticed, a fairly new pancake cafe, which I expect will do my waistline no end of harm in the cold months ahead.
Winter is when Otley traditionally pulls out the stops. The first Sunday in December is given over to a Victorian-style event which ought to be a template for every town. Traffic is kept out and the streets are taken over by stalls, chestnut vendors, and people in Dickensian costumes dispensing cups of mulled wine. All the shops are open and the place is packed with people just itching to part with their money.
The event has been cancelled this year, and the further loss of trade may be the last nail in the coffin for a handful more retailers whose businesses are only now barely viable.
This weekend, someone with a pair of ladders will climb Otley’s most recognisable landmark, the clock tower built in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, in order to turn the hands backwards an hour. If only we could put them back a year.
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