John Graney Online.

Published by John Graney, Brading Town Councillor.
The views expressed here are all my own.
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A future for our High Streets?

Over recent weeks and months we have heard many gloomy prognostications a about the future of our high streets. I have to accept that most of the people making these predictions are experts in the field and know what they’re talking about. I do wonder, though, if there is a let-out clause. That there might be a way round these difficulties for an island community and holiday destination.

I believe that the Island needs to be different. We can no more compete with mainland high streets than we can with the giant online shops. Our offer can and should be something completely different. Nothing that follows should be taken to indicate that in some way I disapprove of or look down on the delightful emporia that cater to the tourist trade even if some of what they is honest-to-goodness ‘tat’. There will probably always be a place in the market for comic sun-hats, beach windmills or tee-shirts with slogans like “my family went to the Isle of Wight all I got was this lousy shirt”. In the same way a lot of what they sell appeals to a far wider clientele.

However we need something different as well. Not just something to occupy the bucket and spade brigade on rainy days, something to bring people into our towns and fill the empty spaces on our high streets. I believe we need to encourage craftsmen and women to set up on the island. There are examples here already; glassworks and bespoke jewellers producing beautiful and precious things; Potters producing unique work that cannot be found elsewhere. There are even artisan bakers producing things that may not last long but will make for good memories. This sort of approach lends itself to all sorts of fields of endeavour: chocolate making; biscuit and cake making, furniture making and renovation; weaving; brewing; winemaking; cheese-making; pickling; painting and other artwork; wood turning; wood carving; leatherwork; the list is almost endless. Nearly all of these skills are already available on the island. The appropriate business environment would attract more.

There are artisan villages all over the country. The Old Tile Works at Barton-Upon-Humber; The Craft Village in Derry, Northern Ireland; The Balnakeil Craft Village in the Scottish Highlands; Artisan Village near Crystal Palace in London. There are smaller scale examples on the Island, Arreton Barns is the biggest (so their advertising says). Holliers Park is another example.

However the empty shops in our high streets give Islanders and visitors alike the wrong impression. Their very presence suppresses trade in the premises which are not empty yet. I am not an expert on retail, this is a political opinion not a detailed master plan for recovery, however I have heard the experts talk about footfall. If the island were to get a reputation as a home of high quality craftwork and food more people would come to visit and Islanders would benefit from the availability of work and the influx of trade generally as well as the opportunity to buy the wares on sale. Existing shops would benefit from the increased footfall and some healthy competition. I am also worried that there is a form of critical mass in these things. A point where so many of the shops are empty that very few people bother to make the trip to town. Then the otherwise profitable businesses start to fail. High parking charges, more than double those in comparable towns, add to the problem.

I am not advocating an end to the craft village in the countryside but a complementary provision. Not all tradespeople can set up in a small lockup shop in a town centre. Wood turning and glass blowing need space and safe management of the machinery and the arisings. In the same way blacksmithing doesn’t lend itself to town centre lock-up shops but in all those cases and others a lot of their produce can be sold from such a place.

What is needed is an enlightened approach to planning. The council should encourage building conversions done in such a way that small lockup shops can be treated as separate premises for business rates purposes. In that way small scale start-ups can benefit from Small Business Rate Relief. Larger operations with workshops elsewhere will also benefit from the lower payments for smaller premises. As a bonus, the tenants of these small lock-ups will have no need for the upper floors of the premises. They can be converted into homes. There are already planning permissions with the councile for similar schemes.

I understand that rent for shops is normally based, at least in part, on the floor area of the premises. Smaller units therefore must cost less to rent. However it has to be said that there is no effective control over commercial rents. Many of the recent high street closures cite the rent as a major part of the problem. Landlords will do well to note that the higher you set the rent, the higher the chances that your income from that property will quickly reduce to nothing and stay that way for the foreseeable future.