D&S column: the small business backbone of our High Streets

The Christmas season is now well and truly upon us and our local High Streets and Market Places are looking good after the big-switch on events and festive markets last weekend.

After a year when the health of our High Streets has never been far from the news, it is a good time to recognise how lucky we are in North Yorkshire to have vibrant town centres. Compared to other parts of the UK the number of vacant shops is low. And there is a huge amount of work being done locally to keep it that way.

Businesses from Leyburn to Stokesley are coming together, working with partners, to make sure our High Streets are places we want to go to, to shop or simply spend time in.

All that effort was recognised this autumn in the Great British High Streets Awards which saw Richmond shortlisted in the Champion High Street category. Sadly, it just missed out on the top honours but I am sure the town, led by the Original Richmond group, will have another crack at it next year.  Also, Northallerton and Bedale received special mentions for their entries in the awards.

I was able to lobby my Departmental Ministerial colleague, High Streets Minister Jake Berry, with a box of chocolates from Mocha chocolate shop in Richmond, and he has written to me praising our towns’ applications for their strength and great promise. Congratulations to the Original Richmond, Northallerton BID and Brand Bedale teams. I am keeping my fingers crossed for next year’s competition.

As well as backing the Great British High Street Awards, the Government is providing direct financial assistance to sustain our High Streets and help them adjust to the realities of shopping in the digital age.

A few weeks ago I highlighted the £1.5bn the Chancellor set aside in the Budget to boost our town centres and market towns. While some of that money will be spent through the Future High Streets Fund to help towns re-shape their centres in the wake of the switch to online shopping and widespread store closures, £900m will provide business rates relief of up to a third for many small and medium-sized retail businesses.

Planning policy will also be reviewed to allow greater flexibility in the way town centre premises can be used.

Talking of business rates, I was in Bedale last week to promote Small Business Saturday and called at two excellent, family-run, independent businesses.

Cockburn’s Butchers and the Red House vintage shop have really inviting shop fronts and window displays – I particularly loved Red House’s Snowman on the BSA motorcycle – friendly faces behind the counter (Mark Cockburn and Janet Stevens at Red House) and online shopping portals.

These businesses are among the 54 out of 74 in the town’s Market Place who pay no business rates at all thanks to Small Business Rates Relief. Of the remaining 19, all but one will have their business rates bill cut by a third by the Budget measure announced by the Chancellor.

The Government is doing its bit to help but I think we all have a responsibility to do what we can to spend our money locally and help sustain our High Streets and Market Places.

This year I’m going to re-double my efforts to do more of my festive shopping locally. I hope you do too.