Peril on the High Street – Could increased business rates be the final nail in the coffin?

Catherine Shuttleworth

Fri 3rd Mar 2017

I’ve always been a lover of our local shops – in addition to the national chains of course, but there’s something about an independent shop that’s hard to resist.

Take the High Street in Southwold for example. I’m part of its retail tourist economy – a proud ‘Comfer’ who comes for the day, the afternoon and the weekend – but critically, I’m always sure to contribute to its continued existence. The draw of its high street, with a mixture of independents and chains that are all individual in nature, with lovely retail staff, its free parking and a beach just a mere wave away, is fantastic – and I’m not alone in thinking this.

I start my shopping trip in Southwold in the middle of the high street at Collen and Clare – a fantastic independent (predominantly) women’s clothing store with great products, terrific staff, a water bowl for your dog and the kind of customer experience that much bigger national retailers could only dream of achieving. Next I nip to the traditional chemist equipped with its original wooden merchandising units and great big old fashioned pharmacy bottles in the window and then pop into Adnams wine and kitchen shop. Its brilliant selection of booze under one cavernous corrugated roof also has a fantastic cafe where I can nibble on a sausage roll whilst sitting inside a brewing copper. I always leave with a new wine to try or a bottle of Southwold distilled Adnams gin! Other favourites of mine include the amazing Denny’s, Southwold Amber, Chapman’s Newsagent (excellent card selection), Farmhouse Bakery, Magpie Bakery for meringues as big as your head, the two charity shops and the eclectic Wells book and gift shop, Tilley and Grace – great for scarves and bags.

You see, not only do I get a lot of pleasure out of visiting these stores for different items, but I also make sure I spend at them to truly support these independents. Thousands of others visit the town every year too, but I’m afraid it’s still not the volume of visitors that can in any way finance the proposed business rate increases that all the retailers are facing.

On every window there’s a poster explaining how big these increases will be and they are massive – over 150 per cent in most cases. Every retailer in the country – big or small – is looking on with horror at the impact these increases will create and, paraphrasing Mark Twain, the reports of the death of the British High Street will not have been exaggerated nearly enough.

We all want vibrant high streets where independent retailers can thrive and prosper alongside the national retailers that the local community wants and needs, but there’s an urgent need for a more flexible approach to business rates if we want to treasure the high streets we love. This is important for national retailers too – Mike Coupe from Sainsbury’s has made it clear that the increased burden of taxation will have a negative effect on bricks and mortar retailers whatever their size, whilst online retailers will see big commercial benefits. This means that the future of the high street, even in places like sunny Southwold, sits under a very dark cloud indeed.

We must work together at making the government sit up and listen – and together find a better solution. By using all of the brains in UK retail combined we’ll be a force to be reckoned with. Who’s with me?