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Saving the rural High Street

Friday 20 February 2009

Our countryside correspondent John Sheard, whose local High Street has just been voted the best in Britain, congratulates local traders who have voluntarily agreed to increase their outgoings despite the credit crunch, in a bid to save the town from long-term decline.

A REPORT on the BBC Radio Four channel estimated this week that 80,000 shops will close in the UK this year thanks to the credit crunch. It did not give any figures to suggest how many of those shops would be on the High Streets of rural market towns but, from long and often sad experience, I would suggest that it will be roughly half – and the process has already started.

I am lucky enough to live a few minutes from what has just been voted the best High Street in the country: the heart of Skipton, so-called "gateway to the Yorkshire Dales." It was given this award from a body known as the Academy of Urbanism, and it beat two London finalists to the title.

Skipton High Street
Skipton High Street

They were ever-so-posh Kensington High Street and uber-trendy Portobello Road. Even more amazing to me is that along the way, the judges – including distinguished architects – had passed over much publicised jewels like Princes Street in Edinburgh and the Royal Crescent in Bath.

What appealed to the judges about humble Skipton, I am told, was the "hustle and bustle" of the High Street, which has a thriving street market four days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday) and a handful of shops which – to city dwellers – must seem "quaint".

It certainly brings in the tourists which we locals sometimes find irritating because it can add half an hour to going about one’s daily business: on market days, the pavements are so crowded with slow-moving visitors that the only way to the bank or the chemists quickly is to walk down the centre of the road dodging the traffic.

When I get particularly frustrated about not being able to get a table at my favourite restaurant or to the bar in my local pub, I remind myself how lucky I am to live in a town which thousands of people travel long distances to visit every summer’s day. But sadly, amongst all this bustle, there is a growing problem.

In Sheep Street this week, a small side street dating back to medieval times which runs alongside the High Street, I counted four empty shops side by side. On the High Street itself, the biggest shoe shop is closing down and there are rumours that other big, national names are about to go under.

Woolworth’s, at the bottom of the street, closed its doors for the last time a month ago and even sold off its shelving on the last day of business. It now stands like a skeleton, stripped of all flesh, and who knows when it will open again in a new guise.

It is too big for a charity shop, and those have mushroomed in Skipton in recent years for one key reason: they don’t have to pay the same crippling business rates as commercial operations, an every-growing stealth tax which, although collected by the local council, goes straight into the gaping maw of Gordon Brown's tax-and-waste government.

There are county towns like this all over the UK. Protest groups like the Campaign to Protect Rural England issue regular statements condemning the "cloning" of country towns, where big national chains move in, take over the prime sites, and ignore local planning guides by plastering the High Street with their own, often garish, corporate colours and ugly signage.

Too often, local traders are forced out, particularly those in competition with out of town superstores selling food, clothing or white goods. Thus disappears a town’s individual character so that, according to the CPRE, they all look the same.

This as a bold decision by local businessmen and women to get off their backsides and get something done without the interference of local politicians.

Well, not in Skipton if members of the local chamber of trade and commerce have anything to do with it. They have just taken a move which is absolutely novel in my experience: they have agreed to put up their own overheads to raise a £500,000 fund which will be pumped into the town’s business economy over the next five years.

It will be paid for by a voluntary increase in business rates varying from £30 to £1,000 per year, depending on the size of the business. Every penny will be spent in the town.

This is not just keep Skipton from going under but to improve its architecture and car parking, plus backing more tourist pleasing festivals and hiring an expert marketing company to boost the town’s image as a "must-see" destination.

The bid was backed by the local development agency, Yorkshire Forward, but there is one key difference between this and past initiatives to boost the town: its has absolutely nothing to do with the Craven District Council. This has in recent years been at the centre of several vastly unpopular planning decisions and a so-called "renaissance" project ended in political recriminations with over £1 million spent and not a brick laid.

No, this as a bold decision by local businessmen and women to get off their backsides and get something done without the interference of local politicians. Not every market town in Britain’s can boast the High Street of the Year, of course, but hundreds of them face similar problems. Well done, Skipton. May many others follow your lead.

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