Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Support for our Small Towns

I have long said that we need a new fresh approach to supporting small town and rural businesses, which are the lifeblood of our small towns and the rural economy in eastern Gwent and across much of rural Wales. Many people have recognised that for some groups of people in rural areas, economic and social problems are continuing to increasing; effective Government and Local Government indifference to the rural economy and rural economic needs when combined with the promise of significant cuts in public spending (which will hit scant rural public services hardest) will have a damaging impact on our communities.

It is time for David Cameron's Con Dem Government to wake up and to work to repair the damage that has been done to our small towns and our rural communities. The Plaid driven One Wales National Assembly Government has worked hard to actively support and encourage rural economic activity – because as many people realise without a prosperous rural economy many of our smaller communities are at risk of quietly and effectively dying as economic activity fades away.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has previously noted that the UK loses approximately 2,000 local shops every year and that of this continues then by 2015 there will be no independent retailers left in business, something that will hammer both consumers and our communities as they effectively lose any real choice in the marketplace. Over recent years in the small towns across Wales, that once particularly rich mix of local shops, small businesses and local suppliers have come under increasing pressure as the usual suspects in the shape of “identikit” chain stores have replicated themselves across our nation's high streets.”

The Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England report ‘Rural Roulette’, focused on the area around the small town of Saxmundan (in Suffolk) and revealed that 81 shops surveyed employed 548 people, with 317 employees working part-time. They discovered that local small businesses were very flexible and able to fit in odd hours, at odd times for their staff and that many employees travelled short distances to their place of work and the majority of employees were women.

The Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England further noted the following:

  • There was a loss of choice as it becomes harder to buy local foods. 64% of the local shops in Fakenham, Norfolk, and 75% of those in Warminster, Wiltshire, closed when new superstores were built in those towns.Most supermarkets sell very little locally sourced produce, with only 1-2% of their turnover coming from local foods, so, when local shops close, the outlet for local produce disappears with them.

  • There was a loss of jobs as local businesses close. Supermarket domination of the retail trade puts the local food infrastructure at risk threatening the viability of local abattoirs, wholesalers and small farms and the associated jobs. A study by the National Retail Planning Forum in 1998 of 93 new superstores found that each one resulted in a net loss of 270 local jobs.

  • There was a loss of character, as once distinctive lively town centre's become 'clone towns'. Local shops and services depend on each other for survival. As independent shops close, once vibrant market towns can become retail deserts (or ghost towns). Where shops are taken over by national chains, creeping homogenisation creates clone towns.

  • There was a loss of landscape when traditional farming practices are discontinued. River valley meadows, marshes, heaths and pastures need to be grazed by livestock to maintain their appearance and wildlife, but the supply of meat from such animals, often traditional breeds, is often considered too small and intermittent to suit supermarket specifications.

Our small (and not so small) towns and communities need an economically active local network of food producers, wholesalers and local retailers to not only help to sustain many other jobs within the local economy but to grow local employment. Local businesses provided work for local trades people such as electricians, builders and plumbers – whereas national chains tend to employ people from outside of the area for renovation and repair work. There other beneficial knock on effects with local employment in banking, accountancy, legal advice, insurance, etc – all of which underpin the viability of our small towns - as small businesses also trade with each other.

We need to develop more sustained long-term initiatives to actively promote new and existing businesses in our small towns, our rural areas and all of our communities, whatever their shape and size. Our often hard-pressed existing small businesses, local retailers and suppliers provide much-needed jobs for local people and provide a linked network of businesses that use each other's services and feed the local economy. Small shops and local retailers provide a significant social network for  many local people and passers by and add to the long-term viability and vitality of our communities.

While every Government (since the 1980’s) has talked about promoting the vitality and viability of our small market towns, they have accomplished little as over the last twenty years retail developments have consistently undermined this much vaunted aim. Local authorities have effectively turned a blind eye to the economic consequences of out of town or edge of town retail developments on the edge of market towns in England and Wales. The sad fact is that the economic reality has fallen well short of the verbal aspiration, just look at the damage that has been done to Abergavenny, Chepstow and Monmouth within Monmouth constituency and elsewhere in Wales.

Can we seriously expect our Local Authorities local regeneration schemes to work, when the once thriving commercial heart of our high streets has already been seriously damaged by an inability to compete on level terms with the increasingly aggressive tactics of supermarkets and retail chains who are chasing an ever larger market share. Our planners need to think about the long term economic consequences of planning decisions, to take the longer term view, rather than get fixated on short term financial gains and questionable inducements from developers.

The reality is that We need our small local businesses to be economically active and making a contribution to the local economy and Government at all levels should provide a helping hand and a level playing field to ensure that they are still around and economically active in the heart of our communities in future years. 

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