Councils throw a lifeline to the high street to keep stores afloat

Braintree High Street, Picture: Braintree District Council

Braintree High Street, Picture: Braintree District Council - Credit: Archant

Cash-strapped town centre stores that are buckling under the weight of outgoings are being offered some help by councils in Suffolk and north Essex - but is it a case of ‘closing the gate when the horse has already bolted?’

Braintree District Council is the latest council to announce plans to cut business rates, and the cabinets of Mid Suffolk and Babergh district councils are also set to back the new discretionary business rate reduction scheme, which could mean one third off bills for retail and other businesses across the two districts.

Local independent retailers in these districts could benefit from a slice of around £800,000 in business rate relief, which was announced by central government in the Autumn budget.

The proposals comes at a time when high street stores are in fierce competition with online traders. Many stores have found themselves unable to compete with online prices, given the extra outgoings of rates and town centre rents that they have to stump up.

The plans will help traders in Stowmarket and Sudbury, Needham Market and Hadleigh in Suffolk, and Witham, Halstead and Castle Hedingham in Braintree.

The range of small businesses which will benefit ranges from butchers, bakers, florists, jewellers, and greengrocers to opticians and car sales, hair and beauty, cafes, restaurants and takeaways.

However, financial institutions, such as banks, building societies, as well as estate agents and medical services, would not qualify.

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Kumba Plummer is a manager at Fever Accessories, a fashion accessories retailer in the George Yard Shopping Centre in Braintree where there are currently around eight empty units out of more than 30 in all.

“There are a lot that have closed down - it’s quite worrying really,” she said. “I used to work at Carphone Warehouse here 15 years ago and it was bustling back then, now it’s so much quieter - all the customers comment on it.

“It’s good that the council is recognising that there is a problem, but it’s a case of closing the gate when the horse has already bolted.”

Under the relief scheme, eligible retailers with a rateable value below £51,000 will receive a one third discount on their net business rates bills after other business rate relief schemes have been applied.

Braintree District Council’s cabinet will also discuss plans this month to increase the amount of council tax that people with homes that have been empty for two years or more will have to pay as well as introducing a financial incentive to bring empty homes back into use.

Cllr Graham Butland, leader of the council, said: “These two proposals are important for our residents and businesses. We’re pleased to be able to offer high street independent retailers this reduction in the amount of business rates they pay. This will mean shops could save on average £2,000. We’re also keen to encourage those with empty homes to get them back in to use. Homes sitting empty benefit no one – we’d much rather see them back in use for the benefit of our residents.”