These are challenging times for our retail centres. Inflation and high interest rates are putting pressure on local businesses, by adding to their costs and reducing the spending power of their customers.
Behind the immediate problems created by the current state of the economy, lies the long-term effect of a switch to online shopping. This shift started before the pandemic, but was accelerated by the forced closure of shops during the Covid lockdowns. Many town centres across the country have seen the closure of major anchor stores. When the large stores go, that increases pressure on the smaller units, which often rely on the footfall generated by their bigger neighbours.
These challenges are felt in our borough. There are, to be sure, some positive signs; new businesses are starting up in our town and village centres. But it cannot be denied that many local shops are experiencing difficult trading conditions.
The borough council has a duty to help, despite facing its own financial challenges. Thriving local businesses are the bedrock of a successful community, providing job opportunities, local choice, and important social contact for residents who may otherwise be isolated. Successful local businesses, furthermore, often play a very full part in helping local charities and good causes.
When the council, as a result of the enormous financial pressures it currently experiences, decided last year to raise car park charges for the first time in five years, many local traders understandably expressed concerns about the impact at a time when they were already confronted with considerable challenges. The council continues to monitor the situation, and will make adjustments if the evidence suggests that they are necessary, but early indications are that the new car park charges have not reduced the number of people coming to our town and village centres. Ticket sales in the summer of 2023, measured on a like-for-like basis of Monday to Saturday, 8.00am to 6.00pm, are actually up significantly on the comparable months in 2022, before the charges were increased. Nor should we forget that, since the start of the pandemic, it has become more common for people to walk and cycle to local retail centres, which the council is seeking to encourage with its active travel initiatives.
If the number of people in our town and village centres has actually increased rather than declined (which is what the number of car-parking tickets issued suggests), the obvious question is why are many of our shops and other businesses not seeing the benefit. The council is carrying out detailed survey work to understand better the changes to the pattern of local shopping and to assess footfall volumes in particular locations. We are also enaging with local businesses to get a better sense of their perspective on the problem.
In Woodley, the executive member for business and economic development, Clive Jones, and Cllr David Cornish, who has extensive business experience, recently went on a walk-about in the town centre to listen to the concerns of shopkeeprs. Clive and I will be attending an early morning meeting with businesses in Wokingham town centre this week. We want to understand more about the experiences of those at the sharp end of retailing.
Our business and economic development team has already been making an important contribution. To give just a few examples, the council has:
The council will strive to do more to help, as much as its limited resources allow, but we all, as consumers, can play a part.
If we value all that local shops and businesses provide for our community, we should try to shop locally whenever we can. The Covid recovery slogan 'Buy Local', designed to encourage a return to local shops, is as relevant now as it was then. Every pound we as individuals and families spend in the local economy helps local businesses. If they thrive, we all benefit.