Business

David Lonsdale: Local councils must act to boost our town centres

Much of the retail industry’s attention in the first half of 2022 is rightly focusing on next steps for the pandemic and economy recovery.

The brilliant Covid vaccination programme is helping quell the worst harms of the virus, however more stringent public health advice coupled with fresh government restrictions in stores such as physical distancing are impacting shopper footfall. Store visits fell 23 per cent in December compared to the same period two years ago, during the most important trading period for many stores.

Hopefully, the country will turn the page on the pandemic over the coming months.

Two upcoming initiatives – the Scottish Government’s economic transformation plan and its inaugural retail strategy – should point the way to better times ahead.

However, a key milestone in the first half of this year is the election of Scotland’s 1,200 councillors. It’s a fascinating time for local government, which too has been significantly challenged by the pandemic.

The UK Government is offering financial support to local authorities through its Levelling Up Fund, and councils’ powers are being expanded with new responsibilities for setting taxes on tourism and parking at work.

Newly-elected council administrations this Spring must ensure their policies and approach towards retail are supportive. This is about much more than simply backing Business Improvement Districts or ensuring there is a town centre manager in place.

Scottish households pay £2 billion annually in council tax. The government’s cap on council tax has been rescinded. The retail industry asks that councils consider the impact of any rises on household finances.

This comes at a time when the cost of living has spiked and workers are set to see their take home pay squeezed by April’s uplift in employee national insurance contributions.

This will dent consumer spending which is critical to economic recovery; councils must keep rises in council tax to a minimum.

Scotland’s town centres have a great deal to offer however many need a much more compelling reason for people to visit, spend time and money. There also needs to be a concerted effort to attract footfall back and improve the vibrancy of town centres.

New thinking is urgently required with parking made easier and more affordable and public transport improved. There are good examples of councils taking a positive approach but this needs to become much more widespread.

From April councils are to be permitted to introduce workplace parking levies. They should think twice about using this new power before economic recovery is secured.

Firms already pay business rates on the parking spaces they provide for staff. In the absence of a pause on their implementation then safeguards should be built in – a cap on the amount that can be charged, a sunset provision similar to those which apply to Business Improvement Districts, and consistency amongst councils implementing any levies.

With one in every six shops lying empty there also needs to be a concerted effort to reduce the cost of operating in our town centres.

For the past six years Scottish councils have had the power to reduce business rates in their areas, however less than a handful have sought to take advantage of it. High business rates have become a heavy burden for many retailers and a rates reduction could rejuvenate local high streets.

Keeping down council tax rises, cheaper parking, and rates reductions – no one said running a local authority was glamourous.

However, this could make a real difference to Scotland’s shoppers and deliver healthier and more vibrant town centres.

David Lonsdale is director of the Scottish Retail Consortium

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