Traders angry over borough council’s ‘lack of support’
RETAILERS are angry with the borough council over a perceived lack of help during the regeneration works.
Many are reporting massive drops in takings since the work started in January this year, as customers stay away from the town centre.
They want the borough council to offer incentives to help them through the difficult times, and also run a marketing campaign including advertising in The Wokingham Paper. Their calls are even more pertinent as The Lexicon shopping centre in Bracknell town centre opens today, bringing big name retailers including Next, Fat Face and Primark to our neighbouring town.
Last week, the Wokingham Business Association organised a meeting at Wokingham Town Hall to allow retailers to meet with Vail Williams and discuss ways to seek rebates on rates during the regeneration works.
A total of 18 retailers gathered for the meeting, which was also attended by town councillors and Bernie Pich from Wokingham Borough Council.
However, there was anger over a lack of help and that no borough councillors had attended. Some retailers said that there were told it would take up to two years for any rates relief to arrive, which could be too late to save them.
Gill Bell from John Bell Carpets said there were a lot of businesses present at the meeting and they came away frustrated and disappointed.
“Our views were not taken into account. There was no councillors there from Wokingham Borough Council, only Bernie Pich.
“Our councillors should have been pro-active.”
And Mrs Bell, whose carpet store has been in Denmark Street for more than 40 years, added: “I think they should have been in to the businesses before the regeneration work happened to ask for our advice. When the regeneration started, they should have been more pro-active in listening to people’s suggestions.
“Support is needed on rates to businesses at risk, particularly small independent retailers. Some people, unless they get help, won’t be able to weather the storm.
“We’ve had a rate increase, as everyone has. Some have seen [rises in the] thousands – to pay full business rates on a construction site is not a viable option in my opinion.”
She added: “I fully support the regeneration.”
And her views were echoed by Mike Flint from Peach Street’s Wokingham Decor.
“The whole town is devastated [by regeneration works] – it’s a quagmire of sh*te. I’ve been here 30 years and never seen anything like it.
“To be expected to pay full business rates is a joke: there should be some sort of compensation.”
Mr Flint said that the roadworks affecting the town are also not helping the situation.
“My Mum has not been here [to shop] for 10 years and she only lives in Wargrave. People used to come here from 10 and 20 miles away.”
Labour councillor Andy Croy also feels the Council should be doing more to support its retailers.
“It’s incredible the Tories won’t give support at this time,” he said. “They could be doing something like deferment of rates.”
And Cllr Lindsay Ferris, leader of Wokingham’s Liberal Democrats, said that his party hadn’t been invited to the rates meeting but also expressed fears at the cost of the regeneration project.
“The costs of this re-development is growing like topsy. This year alone the costs have grown by many millions and is now estimated to cost over £140 million. I suspect this is why the Council are so reluctant to help the traders.
“What must be remembered is that there is little point in this redevelopment if many of our existing traders and businesses are forced out of business caused by the upheavals associated with the redevelopment.
“This would be ironic.” Responding to the concerns of the retailers, Cllr Stuart Munro, executive member for business and economic development and regeneration, said: “Rate relief is a government scheme which we have no input into, so we organised the meeting to explain it to help retailers.
“They would have to initiate the process and for any potential rebate they would have to justify it with evidence. This is because public money is involved, and taxpayers would legitimately challenge it if money was given out without evidence.”
And a council spokesperson added that borough councillors were aware of the meeting, but felt no need to attend as it was a specialist area of business rates. They added that councillors had attended previous meetings of the Business Association and is committed to supporting businesses.
They added that several businesses have had success boosting trade by using their own channels to promote offers to draw in customers.