EVEN though Britain has been long regarded as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, and been proud of a description said to have been coined by Napoleon in the 1700s, it will soon be a country of online shoppers unless urgent action is taken to support high streets and small businesses.
More than 8,000 shops have closed over the last 18 months, tens of thousands of jobs have been lost and one in eight shop units now stands empty – stark facts which explain why The Yorkshire Post is spearheading a new Love Your High Street campaign being launched with its publisher Johnston Press.
It will raise public awareness about the value of independent traders and the threat posed by online retailers and unhelpful Government policies.
For, while Yorkshire is fortunate to still be home to many traditional town centres which have retained their vitality with clever innovation and adept marketing, there are just as many areas where rows of boarded-up shops illustrate decline and decay. When well-known department stores, whose emergence jeopardised small shops, are struggling, it further emphasises why local stores can’t be taken for granted.
Just like all those post offices, banks, libraries, pubs and other amenities that have closed, independent shops will continue to be lost if they’re not used and every online order placed with the likes of Amazon – and other internet giants – compromises the future of our communities.
Yet, public support – and appreciation – for local stores won’t suffice on its own. Simple measures by local councils, like smart parking options, can help areas to survive and thrive.
And then there is the Government’s neglect of this policy issue. Exactly five years ago Eric Pickles – the then Communities Secretary – effectively ordered councils to scrap over-zealous parking rules in order to save high streets.
Like many Ministers, he did not grasp the issue’s complexity – or the need for parking restrictions to cut congestion. And, while tax breaks and other initiatives did follow, their combined impact has been negligible – the decline of many high streets is accelerating – and small shops in town centre locations don’t enjoy a level playing field when it comes to business rates, one of their biggest overheads, and rising rents.
This is because an outdated rates system is skewed in favour of out-of-town retail outlets and, of course, those multi-national chains who can pay minimal tax here – money which could be otherwise invested in communities.
Small shops are not charity cases – and they accept this. Yet they have a right to greater fairness from a Tory-led government which once prided itself on being the party of small business.
Yet it does not bode well when neither Business Secretary Greg Clark, an advocate of business rate reform, or any of his Ministers were present for this week’s Commons debate on the issue. Jake Berry, the designated High Street Minister, was another absentee. Instead Mel Stride, a Treasury minister, tried – and failed – to placate those MPs by listing a range of beneficial policies, including the freezing of fuel duty.
Yet, when it was put to him that the “problem is not going away”, he conceded that this is “one of the great challenges of our time for our high streets” and “it behoves us all to do all we can to make sure they are alive, whole and thriving”. He’s right. Now it’s up to politicians, retailers and consumers to respond in kind, and support local shops in every way possible, before they’re forced to shut for good and leave Britain all the poorer.