Looking after our high-streets this Christmas

Christmas always starts for me when I join the throngs in Falmouth listening to the Harmony Choir. Everyone will have their own festive favourites from the live nativities and Santa runs to some welcome innovations such as the Science at Christmas event at the Poly, enabled by Exeter University.  

Christmas shopping is such a treat with so many wonderful shops in Falmouth and Penryn where we can buy our Christmas presents and locally produced festive food and drink. There is no doubt that Falmouth and Penryn high streets are a crucial part of our communities and local economies.  

However, the rapidly changing behaviour of many customers presents a significant challenge for retailers in our town centres and I am pleased that the government announced in the recent budget more action to help our local town centres to evolve.   

Our Plan for the High Street was one of the announcements.  From April 2019 small retailers will benefit from a business rates discount, cutting their bills by a third for two years. The discount will be available to occupied retail properties with a rateable value below £51,000. Up to 90% of all retail properties will benefit, subject to state aid limits. This represents a maximum saving of around £8,000 per property per year. A retailer with an annual bill of £16,203 in 2019-20 (based on a rateable value of £33,000) will save £5,401 a year. In total, the relief is worth almost £900 million to retailers. The relief will be available to a range of retail properties including, but not limited to, shops, restaurants, pubs and hairdressers and local newspapers. 

To support the transformation of the high street, the government will create a £675 million Future High Streets Fund which will support the establishment of a new High Streets Task Force to help local areas make their high streets and town centres fit for the future. 

This will provide hands-on support to local areas to develop innovative strategies to help high streets evolve, connect local areas to relevant experts and share best practice. 

The fund will also support the regeneration of heritage high streets, helping Historic England restore the historic buildings that make our high streets special and become destinations that people want to visit.  

It will also support community groups looking for affordable space by trialling a service to register empty properties. The government is taking further action to strengthen vital community assets, including a 100% business rates relief for public lavatories, many of which are run by our town and parish councils. This is something I have worked with Falmouth Town Council to achieve. Cornwall Council will be fully compensated for loss of income as a result of business rates measures. This may seem like a small thing but it will save our local councils vital taxpayers’ money.  

The government will also trial a register of empty commercial properties to help prospective retailers to find empty properties and help local people tackle fragmented ownership on their high street. 

While the business rates discount will provide up front support to the high street, the government is taking long term action to help high streets and town centres evolve and keep up with changing consumer behaviour so that they can remain at the heart of local communities. The £675 million fund will also invest in improvements to town centre infrastructure, including increasing access to high streets, reducing congestion, supporting redevelopment around high streets and enabling housing and new workspaces to be created. 

The government will consult on modernising planning rules to ensure that they support the transformation of the high street. There will be two consultations on supporting the conversion of commercial properties into offices or homes and the implementation of new mixed-use business models that could form the vibrant high street of the future and on how to support local areas to use other planning tools more effectively. 

It just remains for me to wish you a very happy Christmas and a healthy and happy 2019.  

First published in the Falmouth Wave December 2018 edition