Survey highlights issues for market towns - but Norfolk battles back

Council Leader John Fuller. Council Leader John Fuller.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014
9:15 AM

Business rates, the perception that parking is problematic, and a failure to push home the message that people should use what is available to them locally are the major issues facing towns and high streets, according to a new survey.

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The findings of the report

Towns’ biggest challenges, 2014 (Towns Alive national survey):

1. Business Rates

2. Parking is perceived to be a problem

3. Our town is failing to push home the message that people should use what is available to them locally

4. Our town is in danger of losing vital local services eg. library, health services, banking etc

5. Residents feel they do not have a great enough voice in how decisions are made that impact on the town

6. Competition from out of town retailers

7. Competition from internet retailers

8. Towns’ issues are not taken seriously by government

9. The street scene – design, safety, accessibility, attractiveness etc – is detrimental to the town’s appeal

10. Lack of affordable housing

11. Not enough sufficient opportunities for our young people

12. The uncertainty of the new planning framework is causing confusion

13. Availability of jobs

However, across Norfolk there are several striking examples of local authorities and the business community working together to address the challenges.

The charity Towns Alive, formerly Action for Market Towns, surveyed 103 towns across the UK and asked them to name the most pressing issues affecting their town or high street – and what the Government needs to do about them.

As in 2013, business rates and parking were the biggest challenge for respondents. But towns also take responsibility for the need to engage their communities in using – or losing – local facilities.

In this year’s survey, “Our town is failing to push home the message that people should use what is available to them locally” shot up the list of problems to become towns’ third most mentioned challenge.

Also climbing the league table is “Our town is in danger of losing vital local services eg. library, health services, banking etc”.

Towns were asked, “What can Government best do to support you in overcoming these challenges”, and many made comments such as “Look at the issue of business rates – what can be done to reduce them without local authorities being made to pay the price.”

Great Yarmouth town centre manager Jonathan Newman agreed that business rates remained a major frustration, especially that the setting of new rates - likely to result in a reduction because of deflated property prices - had been delayed from 2015 to 2017.

However, he said hope was on the horizon in a government measure to be implemented from April 1 that would give new retailers a rates reduction if they were moving into a property vacated for at least two years.

He said the town centre partnership was in discussion with the borough council over new parking initiatives to increase footfall and he gave the local authority credit for not putting up car park charges despite their reduction in government grant.

In South Norfolk, council leader John Fuller said they would be investing £1m over the next 14 months - cash from their government new homes bonus - in a market towns initiative covering Diss, Loddon, Wymondham and Harleston.

They were investing in training for shopkeepers, a programme of events to generate footfall and street scene improvements “to make our towns look a million dollars”.

“From Easter onwards we will be spending £400,000 on upgrading all our public toilets,” he added.

He said the authority had been addressing the parking issue since 2008 by making car parks free for the first hour.

“We have joined Visit Norwich to make it clear that there is a ‘City and Country’ tourism product in the market towns, further driving footfall” he said.

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