We need to work together for town

A business leader has raised concerns about the future of the high street in a north Northumberland market town which has a number of premises sitting empty.

At least nine properties are currently not being used in Alnwick, particularly around Narrowgate and Fenkle Street.

It has sparked Alnwick Chamber of Trade chairman Carlo Biagioni to organise a meeting to see what can be done to protect the vitality of the town.

“It’s been tough before but I think this time it’s worse because the rents and business rates are so much higher than they were,” he said. “We know it’s a free market on rent, but we need to speak to owners of properties and have a rethink.

“We are in a deep recession and confidence in small businesses, especially independent businesses, is very, very low.

“I think we can find a solution if we all work together. But what are all these empty shops going to be? It’s a real problem if we want to maintain the future of Alnwick as a tourist town.”

Mr Biagioni explained that the bad weather last summer was a real hit, meaning that traders may be feeling the pinch even more over the winter.

And many of the problems affecting small businesses form a vicious circle with low confidence leading to the banks not lending, which leads to more closures and even less confidence.

He said that he would encourage the county council not to raise business rates, because ‘everything is so fragile’ and the banks need to start lending.

Otherwise, business owners will become more disenfranchised with politicians, ‘who are not helping and in some cases making it worse for small, independent businesses’.

“I will always try to run businesses with common sense, but the problem with common sense is it’s not very common,” he added.

Now a meeting is to be held to discuss the issues and councillors John Taylor, Gordon Castle and Roger Styring are all set to attend.

Alnwick ward councillor Gordon Castle said: “The chamber of trade is rightly concerned.

“High Streets are going through tough times at the moment and this is probably the toughest time of the year.

“My own concern is that a lot of them seem to be concentrated around Narrowgate.”

Several of the premises in that part of town belong to Northumberland Estates and a spokesman said that they “appreciate that many businesses have experienced tough trading conditions as a result of the recession but, unlike many towns, Alnwick has fared relatively well.

“The Northumberland Estates has low vacancy rates overall and, as well as recently renewing leases for existing tenants, we have been extremely pleased to welcome prestigious national businesses to the town.

“This is a positive indicator of the confidence we have in Alnwick and creating the right environment to both attract new investment and grow the economy of the town is very much at the forefront of our minds.”

Coun Castle did agree that it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom.

“I don’t want to be too pessimistic, because shops do close down and other businesses try to move in.”

He also pointed out that Alnwick, with its tourist attractions and countryside, has an advantage over many other market towns elsewhere in the country.

“There’s a limit to what institutions and elected members can do other than removing hurdles to business,” he added.

“In the end, tough times are tough times and it’s hard to see that we can do more other than what the traders are doing for themselves by banding together.”

Coun Roger Styring, deputy leader of the county council, whose Lesbury ward surrounds Alnwick, is also getting involved with discussions, along with Coun John Taylor, who represents the Longhoughton ward.

“I’m not an Alnwick councillor, but my rural area uses Alnwick for most of its shopping and services so whatever happens in Alnwick affects people in my area,” said Coun Taylor.

“The major concerns are the shops that are beginning to empty. I walked around Alnwick on Sunday morning and counted nine and I’ve been told that there are others that are going to close down.

“The two main issues seem to be the price of rent and business rates, which are difficult for people with small businesses, so we will have to listen and see if there’s anything we can do.

“I also have concerns about car parking.”