Times are tough for high street traders, particularly those small businesses suffering on several fronts. They’re already struggling to compete with internet giants who offer economies of scale and the convenience of ordering and delivery without leaving home.
But today they find themselves also being hit with rising rates, rents being pushed up and the uninspiring sight of more and more empty units around them. Many are in despair and fear all that they have worked to build could be destroyed by the pressures they are under.
So it’s little wonder that Southsea traders’ warning to high streets minister Jake Berry on a visit to Albert Road was stark and heartfelt.
‘Without rates relief, a few of us might go bust,’ was the message that was repeated to him as he sat around a coffee shop table with traders who are clearly fighting to stay in business.
The irony was that Mr Berry was visiting to launch the Great British High Street competition – supposedly a celebration of all that is good about our town and city retail centres.
But the strong message he left with was one of alarm and pessimism. Because the tradition of the high street is under threat as never before and people’s livelihoods are at stake, as well as customer choice and the kind of independent shops that give an area its character and prevent it becoming Anywhereville.
Mr Berry heard from Robert Smith, who has run Adelphi Books in Albert Road for 31 years, but is now facing an unsustainable rent rise from £5,250 to £7,750 a year.
He is certainly not the only one being squeezed hard by landlords. The News has spoken to traders across the Portsmouth area who are worried about rents as part of our Support our Shops campaign.
The problem is that, although councils can help traders survive by offering up to 50 per cent rate relief, they and the government have no jurisdiction over private rents. It means landlords can bleed tenants dry.
Surely the time has come for some kind of protection to be given to small businesses who are at the mercy of the people and companies who own their buildings?
And what about the social responsibility of those landlords who are threatening to change the very fabric of our high streets with their unreasonable demands?
Surely it is shortsighted to put up the rent so much that it breaks a long-standing business and runs the risk of leaving a property empty and earning them nothing?