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Cars and commerce

- July 17, 2012

Work is under way to give visitors a better visual greeting. Wide public support is vital

When Brighton and Hove’s politicians asked the city’s shopkeepers how they could help them weather the recession, the number one answer was cut parking charges. The question was asked just as the latest increases were the subject of much debate. Traders permits were also in the news. But although the seafront charges have been trimmed, no change is expected elsewhere in the foreseeable future.

Setting up a site – or sites – for park and ride also came close to the top. But the search for a suitable park and ride site has been like the quest for the holy grail. While many local people walk or cycle to the shops, thousands of people visit the city in part because of its unique mix of often eclectic independent stores.

The question of how to help the city’s shops arose in part because Tesco, Sainsbury’s and other chains seemed to be on the march. And independent stores were closing. Of course, the recession has hit even big names such as Woolworths, Habitat and Borders. But the imminent closure of Rounder Records touched many in and around the area. It is, after all, one of the hundreds of independent shops that give Brighton its character.

The council’s Retail Scrutiny Panel, which reported yesterday (Monday), said that shops were “vital to the vibrancy of the city”. It valued their worth to the local economy at more than £300 million a year and acknowledged shopkeepers’ concerns. But while the panel made recommendations, it was hard not to be left with the feeling that there is no cross-party consensus on traders’ key concerns. Of course, the council doesn’t have all the answers and, even if it did, it doesn’t have the power or the money to do everything that it might like. It holds certain cards. And if enough members agree, it can play an effective hand.

For instance, the council owns a great deal of land and property and is the landlord for many firms in the city. So it sets a lot of rents even though it no longer sets business rates. It also decides a whole raft of charges for services and licences. It has enormous scope to make life easier or harder for businesses although it has to make these decisions against a tougher financial backdrop than it has been used to.

The hard conclusion seems to be that shops and other businesses must look to themselves. It can be tricky for a sole trader to deal with finances, admin and legal matters and still run a successful business. Many look to organisations like the Brighton and Hove Chamber of Commerce. The chamber is 100 years old this month. A newspaper report about its first meeting spoke of “gentlemen representing the business interests of Brighton and Hove”. The same report suggested that Brighton didn’t set much store by commerce but should cater more for visitors and commuters.
Forget gentlemen! The leading figures in the chamber today are two dynamic women – Julia Chanteray and Sarah Springford. And while the city is still home to many commuters and welcomes many visitors, it is brimming with enterprising start-ups. The chamber cannot be accused of resting on past glories. It is looking to the future with the return of a council-supported project called Ride the Wave.

The latest phase is designed to provide practical help with free workshops and advice sessions. The subjects range from finding and keeping customers to handling contracts and pricing – real bread and butter stuff. The chamber also provides the networking opportunities that help mutual support to thrive as the city’s shops and other businesses try to ride out the recession and lay the foundations for a prosperous future.

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