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Communities fight back to stop the spread of ghost towns

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 05, 2012

Mary Portas addresses the people and shopkeepers of Liskeard at the public hall

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Windfalls of £100,000 from a scheme headed up by TV's "Queen of shops" Mary Portas will help two Westcountry communities tackle the blight of empty shops.

Tiverton in Mid Devon and Liskeard in South East Cornwall have both been selected as Portas Pilot towns.

It means they will receive a share of £1.2 million to help rejuvenate their town centres, and one of the issues on the agenda is empty shops.

In Tiverton, district and town councillor Sue Griggs is on the Town Team which is helping to shape the plans. One focus is to fill the six of 31 retail units which stand empty on Fore Street – and she has called on larger scale landlords to take more responsibility for the communities they affect.

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"When you walk down there at the moment, you get to a certain point and it almost looks deserted. It's a terrible shame."

The Town Team is working to engage landlords to try to both reduce rents to make them affordable for smaller-scale businesses, and to fill the units while they are unoccupied. But she said: "Most of those landlords don't live in Tiverton and they have no local connection here. It doesn't seem to matter to them whether the shops are filled or not. It's appalling."

She said she was "excited" by the plans on the table, and by the access to information that the Portas Pilot afforded.

But she said: "I think landlords should be made to do more. They have a responsibility to high streets, and to the people living in the area where they have their business."

The Town Team wants to tidy up shop fronts to stop them declining into a "dreadful" state, and display artwork until they are filled – but they are finding they are restricted by a swathe of regulations, and the question of when business rates have to be paid.

Other plans include a market on Fore Street.

But in Liskeard, Gavin Davies, acting chair of the Town Team, said landlords had been responsive to change, and several had agreed to short-term low rent leases for up to 12 months.

"It's very easy to blame landlords, however every single month they are paying business rates to keep these properties up while they are standing empty. It's in their interest to fill them and we have had very positive responses."

He said it was crucial that landlords benefited from the deal and that the property was well maintained.

But he said the main issue was improving footfall. "If you go to one town and half the shops are shut, you're more likely to seek out a town where they're all full and they offer more choice to the consumer. But it needs to be a good mix, like it always was in a market town. Having them all full but selling the same thing won't make the situation any better."

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  • rcliffe  |  September 06 2012, 10:56PM

    Previous commentators have mentioned many of factors causing decline in the high street (internet shopping, shoppers preferences for the convenience of out-of town shopping, council parking charges). I would just like to mention the business rate regime. Business rates are re-calculated every 5 years. The most recent re-valuation was 2010 and it used commercial rents in 2008 as the baseline. 2008 was the peak in the commercial property rental bubble. Rents have sunk since then but not business rates which have been subject to RPI increases of 5% recently. Quite average shops in Penzance (Market Jew Street) have rateable values of £43,000+. Rates payable are around £22,000 unless you are a registered charity in which case Central Govt rules require an 80% discount (rates payable £4400) and Cornwall Council will pay the rest in certain circumstances. The situation is different for independent retailers in premises with rateable values under £18,000 if eligible for small business rate relief. Currently there is 100% relief for premises under £6000 and a sliding scale between 100% and 0% upto £18,000. As a result Causewayhead in Penzance (lots of small shops) is prospering with very few vacancies whereas Market Jew Street is being hammered. Until the commercial rents drop significantly and this is picked up by the VOA in the next re-calculation (due 2015) the situation is not going to improve. Internet shopping is setting the price many goods can be sold at in the High Street and the price is not high enough for town centre retailers in large premises to survive. The chain stores have recognized this and are closing lots of Town Centre stores as and when leases come up for renewal. The Government response is the 'Mary Portas Show' offering £2 million in grants spread over the country (the rateable value of businesses premises in the Penzance retail area is £8 million. I am not saying Mary Portas does not have good advice – just that Government knows that business rates increases are exaggerating the contraction of the high street and is accepting the situation.

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  • TheodoreV  |  September 06 2012, 2:15PM

    Mary Portas will be viewed like King Canute, holding back the sea. This is not just a Tiverton problem, it is a national problem. Is there any English town not affected? If there is let's hear about it and examine why. There are two principal reasons for the decline in town centres. Everybody is aware of them. First is the out of town supermarket and retail park, to which people understandably flock. The second is the rise of internet shopping. Town centres cannot exist as we know them, if people spend their money elsewhere, although undoubtedly, unwashed streets covered in litter and a runned-down appearance cannot help. What gets me is that Councils still do not get this and actively contribute to the process, then bewail the fact that it is happening. A few thousand here and there, does not replace proper funding of mainstream services, which are still incredibly, being cut. It's a mad, mad world in which we live.

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  • Big_Ger  |  September 06 2012, 10:56AM

    The advantages of, and advance of, internet shopping are irreversible. Pretty soon all those out of town shopping centres will become nothing more than distribution depots. The ONLY chance the High Street has is if sufficient specialist shops open up there, specialist food, clothing and ephemerals, would be the way to go. My business has benefitted greatly from internet shopping, others may be able to adapt to it too. But there may always be a place for small retailers who can place a wanted/valued/rare product on a shelf, in the right location.

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  • Truro_England  |  September 06 2012, 10:06AM

    Local Councils dont help themsleves thou, lots of empty buildings in and around Truro and space to build bid new stores like Pri-Mark, Toys r Us, a cinema complex etc Then the council could force a cost of parking in the out of town sites and free parking in the town near local business shops.. Every birthdays and christmas now I'm buying all my daughters presents online because Truro just doesnt have the choice like it use too when it comes to buying toys and clothes.

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  • Charlespk  |  September 06 2012, 9:31AM

    That is exactly right realityzone, and you did the smart thing. . Many retail operations have been totally decimated by the rise and rise of the cheap Chinese imports that have left many niche retailers in serious trouble. . That together with the Supermarkets "stealing" many retailers top sellers like say jeans or key white goods, by piling them high and selling them cheap. . Then instead of help from councils, the PC madness went marching on as they bled the High Street customers with ever increasing penalties for daring to bring and park their cars. . The crowds of Christmas Eve with people not wondering if their car has been booked or towed away, is how any healthy retail destination should be operating. . Even with the internet people do still like to see a touch products before they commit. . That's the new challenge, but planners will need to step right back and give A3 consent to landlords and owner occupiers alike when asked for so they can develop any new 'destination' ideas to bring the people back to our High Streets once more. . . That or more Ghost Towns.

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  • realityzone  |  September 06 2012, 8:39AM

    Well Charlespk I ran five retail shop in good locations and when I sold up I had five. I decided to sell at the point when it seemed to me that the internet would devastate retailing. That is happening and the impact is still underestimated.

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  • Charlespk  |  September 05 2012, 8:10PM

    I'd be very interested to know just how many commentators here have ever run any business, let alone a High Street store. . But it's clear to see where all the apathy is derived.

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  • Sinjis_Things  |  September 05 2012, 4:21PM

    Who the hell is this Mary Portas person, what does she do, what has she achieved?

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  • toneloc72  |  September 05 2012, 11:11AM

    I'd be interested to see quite what £100,000 achieves. Please do bear in mind that the primary purpose of this is to create a narrative for a television series - think of it like a 'Changing Rooms' for towns, and the fact that the agenda is set by the broadcaster and the TV production company in terms of what is done and who is involved ('compelling' characters going on 'journey', jeopardy, redemption etc etc).

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  • toneloc72  |  September 05 2012, 11:07AM

    I'd be interested to see quite what £100,000 achieves. Please do bear in mind that the primary purpose of this is to create a narrative for a television series - think of it like a 'Changing Rooms' for towns, and the fact that the agenda is set by the broadcaster and the TV production company in terms of what is done and who is involved ('compelling' characters going on 'journey', jeopardy, redemption etc etc).

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