If a ‘tsunami of shop closures’ is being predicted up and down the high streets of Britain, as economists would have us believe, then St Austell appears to already have been wiped out by the wave of retail doom. Or has it?
Independent retailers up and down the country are said to be bracing themselves for a whopping £280 million business rates hike from April 2018.
And according to City experts the Government’s mandarins in Whitehall must to rethink their calculations or face a wave of high street closures.
The retail price index (RPI) – the formula currently used by the Government to control business rates – rose to 3.9 per cent in August 2017 and is expected to surpass 4 per cent by September. This, in turn, will determine the business rates rise for April 2018.
Zee Haider, the manager of the Fone Care shop in St Austell is not impressed with the number of drug users in town which he feels it’s bringing the whole town down (Image: Tom Last)
But what does all this economists’ jargon means? Does it really translate into shop closures and our high streets slowly decaying into ghost towns and no-go zones filled with empty shops and charity outlets?
We decided to visit St Austell to put these theories to the test and take the pulse of one of Cornwall’s largest towns to see if indeed it is headed, as many fear for retail centres across the country, for a high street washout.
“The ideas for this town are out-dated,” said shop manager Lee Shiner in the Bay Gift Cornwall shabby chic shop. “They need to change for the town to change. We need big brands to come to St Austell. Competition is good. And big names attract people. At the moment it’s not working as it could.”
As Cornwall Live walked through the core streets that form the shopping precinct at the heart of St Austell we sadly counted 16 empty shops. That’s several more than when we last visited the market town six month ago.
Lola Blu clothes shop is closing down for good in St Austell making it the 17th empty shop in the town (Image: Tom Last)
Fashion shop Lola Blu in White River Place will soon be the 17th after owner Andrew Cheeseman, a businessman with a total of nine similar shops in Cornwall, decided the town was too much of a hard sell.
“We’ve given it five years, but it’s no longer viable,” Mr Cheeseman said. “With the high rent and business rates, nothing is being done to encourage independent shops to start out in the town. The rents should not be that of a city when St Austell is a Cornish market town.
“I think St Austell is in decline. More and more shops are leaving. To make it work we need to invest a lot more money but that’s not worth the investment right now.”
Mr Cheeseman, who owns shops in Looe, Padstow, Bodmin and St Ives, added: “We’ve had the best trading quarter to date with our business. But we trade better with our shop in Looe in the depth of winter than with our St Austell shop. It’s a shame. But for us that’s it with this town.”
According to the British Retail Consortium, the steady rise in inflation will push up “already onerous” business rates bills for high street retailers up and down the contry.
Tom Ironside, director of business regulation at the BRC, warned the latest inflation readings painted a stark picture for independent retailers.
“Retailers are staring down the barrel of a hefty £280 million hike in their business rates bills from next spring,” he said in a statement.
“It is highly questionable whether communities across the UK can afford a spike in business rates of this scale and any resulting loss of commercial investment will contribute to fewer shops and fewer jobs.”
Lillie Cafe and restaurant now closed in St Austell (Image: Tom Last)
There are almost one in 10 shop units currently vacant on Britain’s high streets. Mr Ironside warned the growing issue would severely limit the chance for economically-vulnerable communities to thrive.
One fashion clothes retailer, who did not want to be named, had an axe to grind about the town’s business improvement district (BID) and what he perceived as a lack of foresight to bring the town up and keep it up there.
He said: “I’ve been in the trade for more than 20 years. I have seen it all. We were doing very well until the recession hit. But I don’t think hanging a few flower baskets will do anything to reverse the town’s fortunes and attract shopers.
“It won’t put more money in people’s pockets.”
Despite the incessant drizzle keeping shoppers away, not all was doom and gloom in the market town. And many of its shop owners, new and established businesses alike, were keen to fight for St Austell as a town with plenty going for it and cheaper rates than in other parts of Cornwall.
Sweeney is the owner of one-year-old Sea Dogs barber in St Austell (Image: Tom Last)
A businessman who goes by the name Sweeney is one of those upbeat entrepreneurs who decided to give the town a go. Now his industrial-cool barber shop, Sea Dogs barbers in High Cross Street, is a year old and business is booming.
“I wanted to bring something different to Cornwall. We looked at Bodmin and Newquay but Newquay was not an option. There’s too much of everything there and it’s too busy in the summer.
“I liked this shop,” he said. “I worked in London and Brighton for years and I’m always on the lookout for cool new ideas. Why can’t the young people of this town and Cornwall enjoy some of the cool ideas from up country before they actually happen in London? That’s the idea.”
Sweeney is a big bloke with a full beard and plenty of tattoos. He wants his barber shop to provide the chance for men in the town to take their time to chill out and relax.
“Business’s been better than I expected,” he added. “We provide something totally different in the town. It’s a unique experience. We want to offer the next cool thing before it’s cool everywhere else.”
The now closed down Hop and Vine pub in St Austell (Image: Tom Last)
Sweeney, originally from Looe, is keen on seeing St Austell work and do well. He wants to give back and that means setting up a boxing club so young people have something to do and somewhere to go that does not involve hanging around street corners.
“It’s about keeping our young people off the streets and giving them an outlay,” he said. “It’s about teaching them respect and working hard. I didn’t have any self confidence as a young man. I had plenty of confidence to fight but not to step into a ring and do it with respect.
“Boxing is about learning to respect others.”
Dale Lovett owner of Fancy Dress Giant shop in St Austell (Image: Tom Last)
Dale Lovett, the owner of several shops in the town including Fancy Dress Giant in Trinity Street, is equally positive about St Austell’s prospects as a town.
“Business is good,” said Mr Lovett. “We’ve had a great summer and the town was full of holidaymakers. There is a BID in place for the town which I think works well. St Austell looks great and bright even though there are some incidents of anti social behaviour at times. But it’s no different from any other town.
“There is a marketing scheme going on right now to tell people what’s happening in St Austell. We have to stay positive about our town and not always talk it down.”
Source: Cornwall Live