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Social Affairs: Snapshot of a City

Gloucester – a future or none?

The City of Gloucester is my home turf and most people have an image of the city, believing it to be a big historical place. It does have history but like other cities and towns across the country, increasingly dangerous times are coming with the local council not supporting the local economy with rates that are too high for businesses, both local and national, to afford. With even nationwide chain stores closing everywhere, smaller, independent stores are disappearing fast and in Gloucester, despite the reputation it has, it is as noticeable as anywhere.

National mainstream media has reported, in some cases at length, as to why this is happening and the general view is that it now simply costs too much for any business to stay open, especially when some of those business are reliant on history and tourism, as many are in my home town.

Businesses are treated as a ‘cash cow’ by many local councils and the case for getting rates down is irrefutable. Taxes generally are too high anyway but the business rate, which is a tax on property used for business, whether it is a shop or office, a warehouse, any building used for anything other than living in, is a tax which each company has to pay to local authorities every year. This money is, along with your council tax, spent on infrastructure, maintenance, rubbish collections and so on (if you are not sure where the money is going, ask your local council. They will undoubtedly have a slick answer, complete with statistics and graphs to show how careful they are with spending the money you give them).

It is not only business rates however that are the cause of the rapidly disappearing high street across the UK. One of the other things that councils are quick to do is hike up the cost to citizens of using their town centres to shop in or otherwise visit, even if it is only (as my KJM Today colleague Kevan James would put it) for a cup of tea and a sticky bun. If the cost of just running a town centre business is too high, then so is the cost of using your car to get there.

The campaign against car use, in terms of pollution and so on, is another story and one which I won’t go into now, but pollution is not why councils continue to put car parking costs up and up. They do so simply to make more money, and apparently without any thought as to how they will replace the income they will lose when car parks are empty because nobody can afford to use them. Alongside that is the loss of those business rates as shops, stores and, just as significantly, cafes and other places to just visit, close down because nobody is going to them – something that is vitally important in a city like Gloucester, just as it is in other places around the UK with a tourism structure and the heritage that goes with it.

You may be one of those who believe that young people don’t go shopping in town anymore. I may not be typical but on a personal note, I love to go into town, sometimes merely to do a little ‘hanging out’ admittedly but also to buy things. Unlike many (and not just of my age) I am not devoted only to the online world and I find it helpful to look at what I want to buy, to see if the quality is good and ask questions as to whether or not I should buy it.

Gloucester however, is not in good shape; even Poundworld has closed. Street maintenance is also poor – there is rubbish everywhere. Broken glass litters the pavements and the city no longer looks presentable, which is one reason why tourism is down. The economy isn’t great.

As I have already said, it is not only Gloucester that is creaking under the strain of a decimated high street, and even though local councils must bear a large portion of the responsibility for this, there is another factor at work, that of the online retailer.

There are two aspects to the online retail sales business that get very negative coverage in mainstream media. The first is the tax they pay. Online companies do not occupy town centre stores and thus are not subject to the same high costs as those that do. What they do pay however, is corporation tax – just as the high street business does and in addition to the business rates they have to pay. But the online retail company’s tax payments are notoriously lower than those of the high street shop. To change this means either imposing new and very high tax rates on the online company, or reducing the burden on the high street. Since it is a well-known fact that lower taxes bring in greater tax revenue from an increase in use, it seems that lower taxes are the answer.

The second aspect is how high street business competes with online business. The high street shop and store has not yet really adapted to what is a relatively recent intrusion into what was previously a monopoly – the high street competed only with itself. It does lead to one question however, which can only be answered by those who use them; have we, nationwide, become lazy in our shopping habits? The simple answer is yes, we have. We are becoming completely dependent on technology and find it too easy to simply tap in our order and wait for it to be delivered to our door. The curious part to this is that these deliveries are made during the day, when many people are at work. Those same people then complain about their order not being delivered on time…

Online retail is not going to go away and it can play an important role in the lives of those who need it, particularly people whose mobility may not be as good as others so we need to find the right balance between the two. Government however, both local and national, must do its part by reducing the costs of business being in business. Business rates have to come down. Corporation tax has to come down. The cost to people of going into town has to come down.

If it does not, no matter what the history, Gloucester, like other places, will become ghost towns.

© Lee Sibley 2019.

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