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High Streets – At the centre of our communities

Thu 24 Jan 2019

By Lisa Robillard Webb

A great high street draws in residents and visitors alike encouraging them to buy goods and services from the local neighbourhood.  Not only do we witness a community brought together, we also see the added benefit of a healthy injection of cash into our local economy.   I’m always inspired by small business owners, the fact that they bring their skills and passions to our area shows a real faith in our towns and villages.   I too have that faith and have chosen to live and work on Bovey Tracey Fore Street.  I get to experience the joys and heartache of the current times on our small businesses and facilities.

There are some exceptional shops, restaurants and businesses in our area, but many of us may have noticed some high streets struggling.  Nationally, a staggering 100,000 retail jobs have been lost in stores across Britain since 2015 (ONS, 11 Sept 2018).  Rather than tinkering around the edges with a light touch, our high streets need the commitment of long term structural support.

Firstly, making it easy to access our high streets is essential.  Prioritising good local transport especially in rural areas is crucial to access and the environment.  The erosion of rural bus routes seriously affects customers’ ability to access local shops.  Cyclists who dare to cycle into town often find it challenging to find a secure bike rack.

It can be off-putting to car drivers to tackle one-way systems, gridlocks, traffic wardens and parking fees.  It can take a couple of seconds to decide to drive away rather towards our high streets.  After 16 years of living on Fore Street, I am fully convinced that a free first half hour in our car parks plus more 30 minute on street parking bays would reap tremendous benefits and outweigh most disadvantages.  Research by XLN last year found nine in ten people would visit high streets more often if free parking was offered. A third of respondents picked expensive parking and the lack of free parking as their biggest high street frustrations.

The loss of so many cash-points is so frustrating when you’re in a hurry and need cash.  The Post Offices have often come to the rescue and are a god-send to our communities.  Out of hours access to cash can be difficult though.  Getting the financial and banking you need with the last bank gone in my town can be tricky for those who cannot go into a larger town regularly. 

Labour has a 5 point plan to support Britain’s high streets: Ban ATM charges and stop bank branch and Post Office closures; improve local bus services and provide free bus travel for under 25s; deliver free public Wi-Fi in town centres; establish a register of landlords of empty shops in each local authority and lastly introduce annual revaluations of business rates, ensure a fair appeals system and review the business rates system to bring it into the 21st century.

In Devon we are fortunate to have communities with welcoming high streets but imagine the hollowness of your local town with no shops or facilities. The British Retail Consortium has reported that 94% of people surveyed say they miss the community feel of their high street.  The social benefits are often overlooked whilst we grapple with the economical and practical solutions and failures of our high streets.  Understanding the value of our high streets means we can prioritise their future with effective, long term plans.  At December’s Bovey Carnival Christmas Fayre, I witnessed hundreds of people coming to our town centre having fun together and purchasing from the stalls and shops.  I was reminded of a deeper priority, our high streets are where we meet each other, buy essential supplies and remember that we are part of something important, our community.

Lisa Robillard Webb, Central Devon Labour Party

Other columns by Lisa Robillard Webb

The Shame of UK’s Indefinite Detention - Thu 8 Nov 2018

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