Friday, 6 November 2009

LOCAL SHOPS (FOR LOCAL PEOPLE)

Are you... local?! Well, it seems like Thanet District Council have resorted to League of Gentlemen-esque measures in order to support local businesses and independent shops by setting up a Shop Local First project. Largely in the form of a discount card scheme, it's been developed by TDC and local traders to encourage people to shop locally, no doubt lending support to the smaller businesses which – in theory at least – can only be a good thing.

Now, I'm not doubting that this is largely positive, but I do have some minor quibbles. You may remember about a fortnight ago I wrote about Thanet District Council's plans to make Westwood Cross our “principal town centre.” Perhaps realizing that such a move is only likely to attract Goliath-sized retail chains and established brands, this discount scheme subsequently seems like the start of a good opportunity for TDC to promote business enterprise at a grassroots level.

However, we must remember, this should only be the first step, as there is still much more to be done. The issue I have with this Shop Local First discount scheme is if TDC are honest about their intentions of favouring Westwood Cross as a “principal town centre,” then since other High Streets in Thanet have clearly fallen down in their to-do lists, then a discount scheme to promote local or independent shops should, ideally, be the tip of the iceberg. I even suggested in my previous post that the Council should acknowledge that Westwood is their top priority by lowering business rates so that independent shop owners can fill the 24.6% gap currently in Margate's High Street.

An anonymous poster acknowledged that: “Reducing business rates would be great, but the standard line from TDC is that business rates are set by central government and cannot be changed. TDC therefore need to challenge this otherwise it will remain economically unviable to open a shop of any variety for a small bespoke trader in Margate High Street, Higher or Lower Ends.” Clearly, all this highlights to me is that a simple discount card scheme is not gonna make a blind bit of difference – above all, what Thanet District Council needs to do is to lobby the government for the right (or the permission) to lower business rates in our High Streets so that independent businesses and local shops can be started up and encouraged to thrive.

I mean, come on, as an idea, it's not exactly hard to grapple with. If Westwood Cross is their top priority, and promoting local business enterprise is their intention (as most MPs and councillors continually spout), then the Council should be creating incentives to set up your own shops or local businesses. Therefore, if our High Streets don't factor into TDC's “vision” of Thanet's future like Westwood Cross does, then they should be putting in place firm measures to remedy the Mary Celeste vibe you get from most of Margate's shops by filling them up, and this isn't gonna be resolved by a simple discount card scheme. All it'll do (quite rightly) is help the businesses that do exist, but ignoring (quite wrongly) the businesses that don't.

Hopefully, you get my point with this. I applaud TDC's attempts to support local businesses through the Shop Local First scheme, but in my view, it's not enough. If anybody knows of any attempts to lobby the government for a change in policy to promote local enterprise (especially by local MPs or councillors of any political stripe), then I'll be more than happy to hear of it. It's just my gut feeling is telling me that a Shop Local First discount scheme is, metaphorically speaking, a bit like slurping soup with a fork, and that it's going to take a far wider and exertive cause of action from the Council to help local entrepreneurs successfully take flight, don't you agree?

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