Justin Tomlinson MP

Justin Tomlinson MP

MP For North Swindon

Swindon Advertiser Column - Government Helping High Streets After Difficult Year

Whilst the shop tills have been ringing over the festive period, it was another tough year on our High Streets, with a further swathe of major retailers being lost to changing consumer habits embracing online shopping, as well as the impact of Covid.

As the former Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Retail and from a family of shop keepers, supporting our local shops has always been key for me. Whilst I understand the convenience of online shopping (that is until your parcel delivery is missed or lost!), to me the traditional way of shopping, with good quality customer service, still wins the day.

At its peak, traditional retail provided 11% of all jobs, often flexible working and seemingly a rite of passage for all young people taking their first job. Busy retail areas also spill over into hospitality and leisure spend – all vital for our respective local communities.

Not all hope is lost. Studies have shown 71% of shoppers will spend more in a store than online, meaning retailers who get it right can profit. A lesson being ignored by John Lewis who continue to close their traditional stores (including the Swindon Mannington store) to focus on their online business. But for what gain? As whilst their shops prided themselves on choice and customer service, their online site is no different to any other online retailer.

The Government is helping the High Street both nationally and locally. Nationally we have extended the Business Rates Relief and frozen the Business Rates multiplier. There are growing calls for a modest online sales tax to go further on Business Rates and support the High Street, something I have been supportive of for many years.

Additional financial support has been targeted at businesses in the retail, hospitality, and leisure sectors. Shops, pubs, music venues, cinemas, restaurants, hotels, theatres and gyms are all benefitting.

In Swindon, the Government has backed our local ambitious £19m Towns Fund and £25m High Streets Fund which will deliver much needed regeneration projects, including the new bus station, improved cycle paths, the restoration of the Health Hydro and improvements to public open spaces. The £38m Zurich HQ, Kimmerfields development and ongoing expansion of the Carriage Works will also bring more employment as well as footfall to the town centre.

Whilst there are fewer national retailers, there are opportunities for local independent stores to flourish. The long-standing Forum in the Brunel, the Darkroom Espresso, Love Brownies and the Highworth Emporium are good examples, offering something unique, with excellent customer service. If we as shoppers support them, they and others can and will grow.

As Swindon heads into 2022; there is a lot of important work happening. At the GWH, work has started on the new Urgent Care Centre & new Radiotherapy Centre, delivering much-needed expansion to our hospital. Progress is taking place on securing new businesses at the former Honda site. Work has finally started at the Abbey Stadium (speedway) and we all welcome the continued upturn in fortunes for Swindon Town, including the upcoming FA Cup tie against Premier League champions Man City. We also need to see works proceed with the Oasis, something which is still essential albeit much harder with the listing.

Finally, may I wish all the readers a very Happy New Year!

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