£1.5 billion High Street budget boost does not go far enough
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A £1.5billion package to support struggling high street traders due to be set out in the budget does not go far enough, according to business leaders in the region.
Chancellor Philip Hammond is expected to announce £900million in business rates relief for nearly 500,000 small retailers across the country in today’s budget.
A £650m fund will help transform high streets – improving transport access and turning empty shops into homes and offices.
High streets across Suffolk and north Essex have taken a battering in recent months, with major retailers struggling as shoppers shift online and firms railing against rising business rates.
A raft of bank closures in the region has also impacted on footfall, according to research, with people less likely to visit town centres following the closure of their local branch.
Mark Cordell, chief executive of Our Bury St Edmunds Business Improvement District, welcomed the business rates relief for smaller retailers, but stressed the announcement would help larger firms.
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“It’s excellent that the Treasury has acted so quickly in recognising the problem the high street and town centres are facing, particularly with the disproportionately high business rates,” he said.
“For a town like Bury St Edmunds which has so many fabulous independent retailers, any assistance to reduce their upfront costs is welcomed.
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“Having said that, the most recent town centre stores which have been struggling have been larger retailers like House of Fraser and Debenhams, for which there does not appear to any support in the proposals we are reading about.
“Additionally, the major issue still remains over the imbalance of charges between solely online businesses and town centre traders, which is giving online businesses such a huge advantage.”
While the rates relief is aimed at offering short-term help, the plan to revive town centres is aimed at having a long-term impact.
In an apparent acknowledgement that some shops will no longer be viable, there may be changes to planning rules to allow them to be converted into homes or offices.
The £650 million fund will also be used to improve infrastructure, restore properties and put historic buildings back into use.
On Thursday Debenhams became the latest big-name high street retailer to announce store closures, unveiling plans to axe up to 50 shops, putting around 4,000 jobs at risk, after posting a near £500 million loss.
Jill Barrett, owner of furniture store Barretts of Woodbridge, said that due to the size and value of her premises, the proposed small business rates relief will not help her.
“Unfortunately it doesn’t affect me because of the size and the bricks and mortar value of the building we operate out of.
“Business rates are just a huge part of our overheads,” she said.
“I just wish that there was a level playing field, especially when it comes to the out-of-town ones who are given a huge discount.”
Mrs Barrett also pointed to the mounting pressures out-of-town shopping complexes are putting on high street traders.
“They have free parking,” she said.
“That’s already a big thing, people have to look for parking here in Woodbridge, it isn’t free.
“It is great that there is something to help smaller businesses but it would be better if it was across the board.
“The problem is our turnover has to increase so much to cover the rising business rates each year.
“It’s getting harder and harder each year to do that.”