Covid-19 has forced many of us into our homes and off our high streets. What can be done locally to get our small businesses and entrepreneurs back booming? Brendan Chilton believes he has the answer.

Government decisions concerning Covid-19 have completely transformed our local high streets, business parks and commercial centers. Towns and cities are a shadow of their former selves. Footfall has collapsed as government has forced businesses to close, driving many into liquidation. Covid-19 has catalysed the already declining traditional retail sector as we increasingly rely on online retail giants, Amazon and eBay. As Britain and other western countries battle Covid-19 and its new variants, we must turn our attention to economic recovery and a plan to save our small towns.

Central government has as its disposal all the levers of macroeconomic policy to create market conditions favourable to business. Those measures are extensive, ranging from slashing corporation tax and unnecessary regulation, to reforming business rates and increasing access to finance. But local government, despite its limited capabilities, also plays a vital role to support local businesses, stimulate employment and remove barriers to growth. Local government, over ten years, has become more entrepreneurial in the managing of its own affairs, but the current challenge to local town halls is how it encourages businesses and individuals to thrive in a post-Covid world.

Many Councils use parking income as a base-funding source to their budgets. This is wrong and extremely unpopular with the retail and hospitality sector. High parking charges deter  customers and consumers. In order to revive high streets after the pandemic we need as few restrictions as possible to entice people back into town centers. Councils need to respect consumers and therefore, at a minimum, freeze or reduce parking charges for at least five years. If necessary, Parliament should legislate to this effect. This will restore customer confidence to venture back into towns, and will also encourage businesses to return knowing barriers to trade will not increase.

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In cases where councils have purchased commercial units in town centers, policy should actively encourage the leasing of these units to small startups. Specifically, they should encourage businesses which demand such space to occupy these units, including from hospitality, the arts, and even very light manufacturing. As home working becomes normalised and online retail dominant, town centres are going to have to attract businesses which cannot operate domestically and require reasonable space to operate. Businesses that cannot operate online will have the opportunity to succeed in this case.

There also needs to be a cultural change with town halls across Britain. When government indoor gathering restrictions were introduced, councils did not respond positively. Many introduced new license requirements on pubs and bars for example, who were compelled by the Government to move business outside their premises to ensure customers could still enjoy meals or drinks. So, in essence, landlords and restaurateurs were hit by central government as their market was restricted, and then that market was further restricted by extra local council fees. Local councils ought to remove all unnecessary licenses on family-run, family-owned businesses to assist recovery. Furthermore, councils should ensure any licensing systems operate at minimal cost to businesses.

These are some measures local councils can take to support business recovery. Whilst the situation for town centers appears bleak, there are reasons to be hopeful. As more people work from home, and as they move from cities to smaller towns there is an opportunity for local high streets to recover. Increased demand for local hospitality and other social outlets could return. Those commuters who would otherwise socialize in cities before returning home, may turn to their local pub or restaurant providing a boost to the local nighttime economy.

When conditions allow and social distancing relaxes, town halls must work with the arts and cultural sector to create bustling local cultural scenes. Continental towns and villages hold regular festivals, religious holidays and other opportunities for residents and business to interact. There is no reason why these artistic, cultural and musical events cannot be replicated in our high streets. This would provide huge support to those talented people who have not been able to demonstrate their talents and support local businesses. While such a scheme might seem simple and obvious, the revenues it can yield can be substantial and essential for recovery.

Covid-19 is transforming our economy. The final outcome of various lockdowns and other measures are not yet known. But one thing is certain: There will be no return to the old normal, as a new normal is here. All tiers of government will need to decisively act to support business and enterprise as we recover from the Covid-induced recession. While the situation looks challenging, the crisis will compel local councils to adopt new approaches to town centers and businesses. Opportunities for new business will emerge and while our town centers may be smaller, they could eventually be more diverse and viable than they have ever been before.

7 votes

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