Article for North Devon Journal

Last week, I secured a Commons debate on the future of our independent retailers. As I know from my recent meetings with our local chambers of commerce, times are tough for our small shops, which have suffered disproportionately from the recession. They face increasing competition from the internet, unfair competition from the supermarkets and large chains, high fuel prices and parking charges, not to mention the changing behaviour of a buying public who themselves are doing all they can to save money.

It is tempting then, when speaking about our small shops on the high street, simply to reel off a litany of woe, of high business rates, bad planning, indifferent councils, and red tape. This is far too gloomy a picture however. In fact, in market towns and shopping areas around the country our independent retailers are organising innovative and successful initiatives to help themselves. We only have to look at the excellent work done on the “Holscard” loyalty scheme in Holsworthy, or the “Torrington 1646” and “Bideford 500” projects to see local examples of this enthusiasm and drive.

Despite this, it is clear that small shops do need more help from Government, both Local and Central. Small shops could receive extra consideration in the planning process, charity shops, which receive generous concessionary business rates, could be required to sell only donated goods rather than new products, small business rate relief could be made automatic, businesses willing to take on an empty shop could receive a rate holiday, and local councils could do more to assess the damage high fees can do to local businesses and design parking schemes to help the high street. The recent free parking days in the run up to Christmas announced by TDC are a start.

All these points are small, perhaps small by themselves; but taken together they could breathe new life into our high streets and support the excellent rejuvenation efforts undertaken by local communities.

We have already seen some improvement. The reversal of the planned increases in small company corporation tax and in employer's national insurance is welcome, and the Government’s decision to double the level of small business rate relief in England will be music to the ears of retailers across Devon.

One local businessman I saw a few months ago joked that the best way to start a small business under the previous Government was to buy a big one and wait. Ministers need to make sure that this joke is not still told in the years to come. I am confident that they will not be found wanting.