I will begin by recounting a couple of conversations I had with business owners. A couple of months ago in Batley, I called into a restaurant called Mi Nonnas. It is a really nice coffee shop and lunch destination.
The owner showed me painful statistics demonstrating the fall in his revenue due to the controversial changes to our bus routes, which have completely decimated his restaurant’s footfall. He told me that he has not taken a wage recently, and that the situation is really stressful for him and his family.
His is not the only local business affected by those changes. Sadly, since 2010, we have lost 3,000 bus routes nationally, and central Government cuts have little regard for the wider consequences for retailers.
The second conversation I had was at a lovely needlework and wool shop in Heckmondwike. The owner told me that footfall had really reduced because the last bank had left.
The people who use her shop are often older people who knit and sew. They are less likely to take a longer journey to go to a bank, so they take their business elsewhere; considering that the UK has lost almost two-thirds of its banks and building societies over the past 30 years, that will not change any time soon. A fifth of the population are two miles adrift from their nearest branch, likely with a sub-standard bus route to boot.
The massive hike in business rates announced last year is another issue that constituents mention to me regularly. In an age when people shop online, our local independent retailers need a leg-up. They are hamstrung by antiquated rates systems, which price too many independent retailers out of the market.
Although I welcome the short-term rate relief for some businesses announced in last year’s Budget, it is nothing more than a sticking plaster. While our high streets are increasingly dotted with vacant shops, the big supermarkets get a cut in rates and online giants such as Amazon pay a fraction of their multi-billion-pound turnover. That does not make sense to me.
With the collapse of big brands such as Toys R Us, which had a store at Centre 27 retail park in my constituency, it is clear that these issues go way beyond our high streets.
The retail sector accounts for more than two million jobs in the UK, yet it is often overlooked. The British Retail Consortium warns that 74,000 jobs were lost last year, and that up to 900,000 will be lost by 2025. That would be a staggering blow to the sector.
We need a clear retail strategy. The fact that the Government’s Industrial Strategy, which was unveiled almost two years ago, has yet to create a sector deal for retail speaks volumes. The Government’s Retail Sector Council, which was designed to address key challenges facing the sector, meets a paltry three times a year. That is not good enough.
How do we move forward? Let us start with the basics. We need to ensure that people can access our businesses. Public transport is crucial. We need to invest in buses and trains. We must not have communities where there are no banks left. I applaud NatWest, which has a pilot scheme to bring a number of banks under one roof and offer a limited service to businesses. We need to escalate such opportunities.
I am delighted that the Labour party recently committed to introducing a network of post banks based in post offices in the hearts of our communities. It is really important for older people in particular to be able to access their money, and that business owners do not to have to travel too far with cash in their pockets, or put their workforce at risk by asking them to carry large amounts of money around on buses and elsewhere.
Our business rates system also needs fixing. Nothing but a comprehensive review and overhaul of the system will suffice, so I am pleased that the Labour party is committed to doing exactly that, along with taxing online retailers, implementing free wifi and banning ATM charges.
I commend USDAW’s brilliant Save Our Shops campaign, which focuses on levelling the playing field between traditional and online retailers, improving pay and conditions, and changing perceptions of retail jobs.
We are just not having the conversations that matter with policy-makers. It is down to MPs, and trade unions, to try to get those conversations going. I do not think policy makers understand the challenges for villages such as Birstall, or bigger communities such as Cleckheaton and Heckmondwike. Having short-term fixes and Whitehall departments working in silos certainly is not cutting it.
A clear retail strategy that looks at the whole picture is overdue. We need great ideas for making our high streets more community-focused, tackling loneliness and introducing flexible workplaces and leisure opportunities, and for bringing culture – buskers, art and so on – to our high streets and greening them. We need to ensure that our retail survives and can transform our towns and villages, bringing us a sense of place and home, and making our communities great places to live and work.
Tracy Brabin is the Labour MP for Batley & Spen. She spoke in a Parliamentary debate on retail strategy.