Ely Standard Column: The Challenges Facing Our Highstreets

It is now so easy to buy online. Official figures from the Office for National Statistics show that almost one pound in every five pounds spent in UK shops is via the internet. 

The online shopping revolution is having an enormous impact on town centre retailing. Fantastic independent stores struggle with decreasing footfall and dropping sales. These shops are owned by hardworking individuals and the value they provide in terms of personal and specialist service cannot be matched online. Our high street is part of our community and none of us want to see it suffering.  The heartfelt response to the recent closure in Ely of Mr Simms is testament to that sentiment.

I recently met with David Learner from Mr Simms and also spent time with Annabel Reddick from Burrows Bookshop as well as Andrew Olley from City Cycle Centre and Sarah Simonds from boutique clothing store, Artichoke, reflecting on the issues faced by independent retailers.  What is it that will drive today’s customer to leave the comfort of their homes to shop? Many of the answers are already in evidence on Ely High Street. 

An innovative product range is a draw. The brilliant Duck Egg Blue Interiors shop has inspired many of my friend’s birthday presents! Specialist advice and a personal touch also counts for a lot.  Cutlacks home and garden store, which sells everything from paint to garden furniture and bedding has been looking after customers for over 20 years.  Alongside the many well established, family run stores, we are also lucky to have shops like the Ely Gin Company leading the way in offering a forward looking shopping experience including gin tasting events.  

The Government is trying to help support our local businesses. More than £9 billion of business rate support means that many small businesses now pay no rates.  The reduction to the annual rates rises is worth a further £4 billion and there is also a £300 million discretionary relief scheme which local authorities can use to grant relief to businesses. In addition to this, the Government are reviewing the wider taxation of the digital economy, ensuring, amongst other things, that online businesses pay the right amount of VAT, something which is of growing concern, not only to independent retailers, but to all British tax payers. I know that Councillors Lis Every and Anna Bailey are working hard to ensure that local businesses can apply for the appropriate relief from East Cambridgeshire District Council. 

The Government has also recently established an expert advisory panel, the ’Future High Streets Forum’, which is to support and champion local high streets, share best practice and develop new solutions and responses to the challenges being faced at a local level. 

I have taken up the particular case of Ely High Street with the Minister for Local Government Rishi Sunak MP and the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse and Local Growth, Jake Berry MP. 

It is not all doom and gloom though.  Experts argue that rather than disappear, high streets will adjust to meet the changing nature of how we shop.  The future of the high street, it is predicted, will be all about the ‘experience’. I do hope that we, as consumers will continue to ‘go shopping’ ensuring the survival of our high street and all the added value it has to offer.