Businesses should take the initiative and work in partnership to give their local town centres a boost
Last week, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) published a report on the challenges facing many town centres across the UK, including the increasing number of vacant units blighting high streets. The report, 21st Century High Streets, also presented case studies showing how some towns had come up with proactive initiatives to boost local business.
Although the BRC, supported by the British Shops and Stores Association (BSSA), will be lobbying the government to raise awareness of the issues harming both independent and multiple retailers, it is clear that local businesses need to take control and work in partnership with each other to launch innovative initiatives to boost town centres.
Often it is local authorities and town centre partnerships that take the lead on such schemes. But it is up to retailers to make sure they are taking advantage of those schemes, approaching existing partnerships with ideas or setting up partnerships themselves.
The annual Independents Day event in Swansea in south Wales, which promotes local small businesses, was set up by Swansea’s Business Improvement District (BID), which in turn was proposed by the City Centre Partnership, a collaboration between the public, private and voluntary sectors.
As members of the BID, retailers agree to pay a levy of 1% of rateable value of their property over and above the rate charge and the money is used to promote businesses in the area. Swansea’s BID includes 720 retailers, a mixture of multiples and small local businesses.
Debenhams’ Swansea store manager and BID board member Nigel Stopher says: “For any city to survive and grow it must have a good mix of large and small businesses. The BID is a very quick way of doing things, with less red tape. We can get the money and make quick decisions. All smaller businesses should be asking how they can join in.”
Although there are only a handful of BIDs in the UK, most towns have some kind of town centre or city centre partnership scheme, whether it is part of the local authority or a separate partnership of private stakeholders.
In West Yorkshire, Huddersfield’s Town Centre Partnership, which promotes local businesses via a quarterly magazine, has 175 members. About 35% of them are retailers, including a large number of independents. Membership costs £80 a year for a business with fewer than five staff, rising to £180 for large businesses. There is also a retail forum held every two months for large and small businesses to discuss issues.
Elsewhere, an initiative in Rotherham in South Yorkshire to subsidise new boutiques was launched following research by the local authority. Town centre manager Julie Roberts says: “We’d done surveys that showed people valued small businesses and boutiques, so we wanted to help those businesses that met that criteria in order to create a good retail mix.”
Organised by the Swansea BID and City Centre Partnership, Independents Day on July 4 is an annual event where local businesses celebrate the diversity of the city. Fashion independents stage a catwalk show throughout the day while bars and restaurants sell American-themed food. A brochure promoting the event includes special offers from indies. Swansea BID pays for the event but is itself supported by a levy on local businesses of 1% of the rateable value of their properties. Retailers say the event boosts sales around the time of the event and increases awareness.
The Huddersfield Town Centre Partnership publishes a quarterly women’s magazine, distributed in the area, promoting local businesses against competition from the likes of Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield.
It features local events, products from local businesses and a comprehensive directory of companies. The circulation of 20,000 is expected to increase to 30,000 next year. The partnership also organises networking meetings for big and small businesses.
Rent subsidy initiative
The local authority has launched a funding initiative to support small businesses and fill vacant units on its high street. Under the scheme, run by the town centre manager, new or existing businesses wanting to open a shop can get a grant of 50% off the first year’s rent and 25% off in the second year. The scheme also contributes to the stores’ set up costs and provides a business adviser. The first recipients of the grant will be decided later this month.