The West Briton and Cornishman are to be commended on their new “Go to town” campaign which aims to get people shopping in our towns again. There has been much debate about what can be done to save our town centres, but there is one simple truism, “use them or lose them” so we all have a role to play.
Two years ago I organised a local conference to discuss some of the issues. Conscious that such events are often attended primarily by councillors and local government officials, I walked through Camborne, Redruth and Hayle going in to shops to discuss their concerns.
Three key issues repeatedly came up. The first was that the term “town centre regeneration” had negative connotations for a large number of small retailers. This surprised me but the reason is that, all too often in the past, insufficient thought was given to the disruptive impact of one way systems, pedestrianisation schemes and the like. In Redruth, for example, the old County Council decided to resurface the car park gradually, in between other jobs. As a result, it took six months to sort out the main car park in the town, which had a hugely detrimental effect on trade. So we must apply the principle, “First, do no harm.”
The second major issue to come up was car parking. Most small retailers recognise that the single biggest reason they cannot compete with supermarkets is that supermarkets can offer free car parking. I always remember the managing director of one of our large retailers saying that if a survey is conducted of the public, they will say that they want a picture postcard high street with a fishmonger and a butcher, but when it comes to how they vote with their wallets, 97% do their grocery shopping at a supermarket because they want to open the boot, load everything in and go home. We need to consider the issue of parking and I want to see Cornwall Council using the new retained business rates the government is giving them to offer more free car parking.
The third issue was business rates. I think it is a crying shame to see small retailers and new business who take huge pride in their shops snuffed out because the rigidities of the business rate system means they go backwards, losing money month after month. I think we need to look at ways of making our business rate system much more flexible so that we can give more breaks to new businesses that are doing a good job and that, given the time, could achieve so much more and really bring new life to our towns.
George Eustice can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.