MARKET towns are the (slow) beating heart of rural England. Their pace may be gentler than that of the cities and big towns, but they provide country folk with many of the basic necessities of life: shopping, banking, leisure facilities, professional advisers like accountants and lawyers, and often the local newspaper.
I am particularly lucky that my local market town, Skipton “the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales,” boasts what last year was judged to have the best High Street in Britain. And that was in competition to entrants from London, Edinburgh and Bath.
Skipton: street at risk
The judges of that nationwide competition said they were particularly impressed by Skipton’s bustling open market, which takes over the High Street on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, an event whose history goes back at least until the 11th Century and perhaps even earlier.
That market brings in visitors by the tens of thousand, always welcome in an area like the Yorkshire Dales where tourism is a major employer, but these figures disguise an underlying problem: many of them come by coach to what one Merseyside travel company once advertised as “the charity shop capital of the North.”
They may spend a few pounds on the market, or have a cheap meal in one of the cafes or pubs, but few of them make significant purchases at the ever-declining number of family run shops which offer quality wares at, let’s face it, quality prices.
And here’s the rub: Skipton High Street may be the best in the country for hustle and bustle but along its length top-end locally owned shops have been closing for years. The street is dominated by banks, building societies, opticians, those charity shops and branches of national chain stores which – according to the respected Campaign to Protect Rural England – are creating “cloned High Streets” the length and breadth of the land.
One of the reasons for this, say angry local business people, is the lack of adequate car parking space and what little there is is expensive: at present, £2.90 for two hours, £3.60 for four. And, I repeat, those are current prices.
Unfortunately for those small, locally owned shops, five minutes walk from the town centre, people can park at the recently enlarged Tesco for free for two hours or for £1 (refundable) for the same period at the Morrison’s supermarket next door. Private retailers believe that when people have used those car parks, they use the stores too, taking away vital trade from the High Street.
For some years now, there have always been three, four or more empty shops on that street. With the cuts due to bite later this year, this figure could soar – a situation which is echoed in scores, possibly hundreds, of market towns throughout the UK.
That is down to the national recession brought about by the profligacy of Gordon “I’ve banished boom and bust forever” Brown and bonus-mad bankers. But this week a new threat arrived on this already sad and sorry scene – and it comes not from London but from those market towns’ very own local councillors.
Community Secretary Eric Pickles has given back to such councils the right to set their own car-parking charges a step which, in my opinion, could lead to even more deaths on the High Street for it coincides with swingeing cuts in Government grants to local government.
New Labour, obsessed as it was with central control, laid down maximum charges for parking. But now, with their budgets in tatters, hundreds of local councillors will be casting round for ways of raising more cash. And when this happened in the past before Labour took over, steep hikes in car parking charges were a knee-jerk reaction: easy to impose, easy to collect.
Until now, I have been something of an admirer of Mr Pickles, a tough Yorkshire tyke born just nine miles down the road from Skipton who probably shopped on our market before he hit the Westminster big-time. But this time, I fear he has made a terrible blunder.
If our market towns and their locally owned businesses are to survive despite the competition from mega-supermarket chains, they need all the held they can get. The vast majority of them will be represented by either Tory or LibDem MPs. I urge them to think again whilst the slow-beating heart of the countryside still has a few beats left.