Today we are calling on you to help us spread a little love in our high streets.
Our traditional local shopping centres are changing. Many small retailers face rising business rates and rents, while high parking charges, poor infrastructure and the loss of vital banking services have added to their woes.
At the same time a number of well-known chains and department stores have closed swathes of high street stores, with more than 50,000 retail jobs going or gone from big stores this year alone.
The local retail scene is undergoing significant changes and none of us can ignore the effects.
Small shops are in the thick of this. There are twice as many independent high street businesses as chain stores. They are vital to the health of our town centres.
And while there are thousands of small businesses still literally setting up shop - on our high streets and online - across the UK, many others are finding it difficult, some too difficult, to stay in business.
There is no quick fix - and longer term we need to reimagine and repurpose our local shopping areas so they can be less than about just shopping and more a place for leisure and experience and community.
But today we - along with sister newspapers across Johnston Press - launch our Love Your High Street campaign with the aim of focusing more attention on what can be done now to support our small shops and businesses.
And we can all play a part.
Everyone enjoys the convenience of using the internet to meet their shopping needs.
But, as consumer spend starts rising in the run up to Christmas, we are encouraging all readers to make a conscious decision to also shop locally and spend some time and money with the shops, small businesses and independent traders who ensure our communities remain vibrant places to live.
Between now and the end of the year we will be helping to spread the word by supporting the local initiatives and great independent retailers we have on our patches in a series of regular features.
But more fundamental change is needed - so Love Your High Streets is also about calling for more direct action.
We are backing the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in their calls for both central and local government to lessen the pressure on small firms struggling to keep their heads above water.
We will: Drive home the message to the Treasury and our local MPs that our outdated business rates need urgent reform to lessen the burden on independent traders;
Call for positive action on car parking charges and spaces to encourage people to visit our high streets;
Pressure the Government to review what access high street businesses and shoppers have to cash and digital payments in the face of dwindling bank branches and ATMs
Backing the launch of our Love Your High Street initiative, Mike Cherry, FSB National Chairman, said: ‘It’s great to see this campaign adding to the call for action to help our high streets.
‘With confidence among small retailers falling, this is a crucial time to ramp up pressure for urgent reform of outdated business rates and simplifying the way bills can be appealed, as well as improving local roads and increasing the amount of free parking.
Government and local authorities must come together now to find real solutions to these issues.’
In 2013 the then Communities Secretary Eric Pickles unveiled a ‘billion pound package’ of measures to support our local shops. It was claimed these steps - which included business rates support, town centre tax breaks, relaxation of planning rules and parking reform - would make it easier for all the shops on Britain’s high streets to grow, expand and take people on.
Five years on, life on the high streets is still tough.
Michael Weedon, chairman of the FSB’s Retail & High Street Policy Unit, said: ‘Small business owners are resilient and are always having to adapt. But we want to see the Government and local authorities come together to look at real solutions to these issues so that our high streets are not only able to survive but to thrive.’
Mr Weedon added: ‘We all know the problems. Shops lie empty, increasingly expensive parking in towns drives shoppers to choose retail parks, business rate bills weigh disproportionately heavily on high street retailers while online-only operators have far lower costs – and pay far less in tax. Then there’s time-honoured necessities such as high street banks and convenient ATMs closing down and competition from online shopping.
‘If we don’t act then we know that these problems will get worse – and we will all feel the impact.
There is much that can be done to free the high street from the burdens imposed by tax, parking and planning policy. There is much that can be done to enable our towns to reimagine and repurpose themselves for a future, which is less about shopping and is more and more about leisure and experience and community.
‘There is much that can be done to help retailers and their staff develop and apply new skills for a digital future.
‘There are problems to solve and it will take central government, councils, businesses – and consumers - to solve them. There is cause for hope. Even in these difficult circumstances the small business community is opening tens of thousands of shops every year, on high streets and online. If those burdens can be reduced and opportunities provided, then small businesses can help give our high streets a new and exciting future.’
What do Blackpool retailers think?
Mark Yates who runs Brooks Collectables on Waterloo Road in South Shore, said it was important to make a high street welcoming and an easy place to visit for customers.
He said: “Car parking is certainly an issue. If you are charging £3 for a couple of hours then it is not going to encourage people to come and support local businesses.
“Retailing is almost impossible at the moment with all the various pressures. We are extremely lucky to be a well established family business, 70 years next year, but we need tourists to survive rather than relying on just shoppers.
“I always say that the Promenade is the biggest high street outside London. 14 million people walk down it in eight months. It should be the best, most well kept, thriving business environment benefitting the town,and everyone in it.
“But we have a real problem with street drinking, drugs and people begging who are not homeless. Desperate people taking desperate action to get what they need. It creates a bad image and makes the town feel dangerous.
“Our town centre needs to be friendly and convenient to come to and at the moment it is not.”
Morris and Julie Finn who run 31-year-old Greenhouse Flowers in Whitegate Drive Blackpool, say it is important to have a good mix of shops and cafes along a road to entice customers and improve footfall for all the businesses in an area.
Julie said: “The high street has changed over the past ten years and if you are a retailer you have to have a good online offer too.
“We have seen things change, at our Highfield Road shop, we have a great variety of businesses in the area, I think there is only one empty premises, a former Blockbuster store, which has been a couple of different businesses since its closure, but we have new ones opening up such as the Number 10 Alehouse which has brought more footfall to the street.”
Morris said: “Car parking is always an issue for shops. Ideally there should be spaces for shoppers near any street shopping area but that is rarely the case. We often hear of problems with staff parking in spaces for residents or not enough places for visitors.
“If people are driving past and see a shop they want to visit but can’t park, they are just going to go somewhere else.”
Blackpool Council has promised “heavily discounted” parking in the town centre this Christmas to counter the impact of major road closures – to allow essential work to take place as part of a series of major upgrades in the resort – that will be in place.
Linda Wheeler from Hartes Home Store on Bond Street and Waterloo Road said pedestrianised areas in the right places and car parking were two ideas to help make high streets more inviting to shoppers in the current trading climate.
She said: “The main thing we are lacking is car parking. Shops need somewhere that customers can stop nearby. When the council ended the free parking on the Promenade that was a mistake.
“They should also be able to get on to the owners of empty properties and force them to tidy them up and give them a lick of paint. Empty shops are off putting. Perhaps even having advertising in them would be better. It would at least give people something to look at.
“A good idea would be to have a pedestrianised area from Bolton Street to the Promenade and make it a place where people could also sit out at cafes.”