Sudbury: MP blames internet shopping for decline in High Street - not business rates

Tim Yeo

Tim Yeo - Credit: PA

Traders pushing for changes to the business rates system to help save high street shops have been told they cannot expect to preserve traditional town centres in “aspic”.

South Suffolk MP Tim Yeo’s comments were met with an angry response from more than 40 local entrepreneurs who gathered in Sudbury to talk to him about the “unfair rating system” they say is destroying their businesses.

Landlords in Hadleigh and Sudbury have slashed rents in a bid to entice tenants into empty shops, but they say the rates are still to high, and the method used to calculate them is inequitable. Several have appealed against their rates, but the current system is not due for review until 2017.

They have asked Mr Yeo to put their case to Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles. Mr Yeo said, while he understood the concerns about business rates, other factors – such as the increase in internet shopping – were also responsible for the downturn in town centre trade.

He said town centre business owners needed to face up to the fact the some shops would not survive in their current form and would eventually have to be replaced with other enterprises such as cafes and restaurants, which could not be replicated online.

He said: “Even if we abolished business rates altogether in town centres, it would not slow down the inexorable shift in retail trade to online. To try to arrest the progress of electronic retail is unrealistic. It may mean a change of use for some of the town centre premises, but we cannot simply preserve in aspic the model of a town we have grown up with.”

Traders attending the meeting, including people from Hadleigh and outlying villages of Long Melford and Lavenham, want to see the current system, which rates out-of-town supermarkets and town centre shops differently, to be changed. They want the rates of retail giants such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s to be increased and those of small town centre shops to be reduced.

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But Mr Yeo said: “There is not in infinite pot of money to go around and is it fair to take the burden away from one person and give it to someone else?

“There’s an unstoppable trend towards people shopping out of the town centres and it will not be easy to change the rules to raise business costs for some of the most popular businesses in the UK.

Supermarkets are very popular, so if the case is to raise their costs, there will be resistance. If you push up the supermarkets’ costs then their customers, who tend to be the poorer people, will have to pay more.”

He has asked for data that proves rates have increased significantly during the past 10 years compared to businesses turnover. He also urged Sudbury to join with other market towns to start a national campaign.