Street trading: separating facts from fiction

Old Dover Road 2013There has been a lot of discussion in the local media recently about the Royal Borough of Greenwich’s new policy of charging shops and cafes for putting merchandise, or tables and chairs, on the public highway – the so-called “Pavement Tax”.

As a Labour candidate in Blackheath Westcombe ward, and as chair of South East Enterprise (a business support agency based in Greenwich town centre) I have spoken to lots of people about the impact of the new policy on businesses in Greenwich town centre, Blackheath Standard, and elsewhere in the borough.

There are good arguments for some kind of regulation of trading on the public highway. Most people would agree that it is fair, in principle, to charge businesses for using pavements and highways for commercial purposes. A small minority of shops and businesses – not in Blackheath, but in other parts of the borough – do put excessive amounts of merchandise on narrow pavements, impeding access for pedestrians.

Most other London boroughs (Tory, Lib Dem, and Labour-controlled) already have a charging policy so it is reasonable for Greenwich to do the same. The charges introduced (£7 for the first square metre per week, and £3.50 per week for any further square metres) are lower than what most other boroughs charge.

However, the council needs to be mindful of the impact of the policy on small businesses, which are feeling the pinch due to the failure of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition to deliver proper economic growth. The new charging policy was not well explained to traders, and there was not enough consultation with traders groups.

It is also worth remembering that larger businesses like supermarkets won’t have to pay a charge for putting merchandise outside, as they generally own their own car parks and forecourts so don’t have to make use of the public highway.

I am glad the council has now listened to the concerns of traders and residents, and that a review of the new scheme was launched on October 30th.

This review is likely to mean that small businesses will be able to use a certain amount of the pavement outside their frontages without paying a penny. For businesses who want to use more space, the charges should vary according to which part of the borough they are in, so that businesses on smaller shopping parades like Old Dover Road and Kidbrooke Parade would not pay as much as in Greenwich town centre, which has more footfall. Retailers who signed up to trading licences  this summer will have their six-month licenses come to an end around Christmas time: I hope that after consultation, if charges are reduced then this should be made retrospective and traders who have paid too much should be refunded.

By animating the street with goods for sale, and offering places for people to sit and have a coffee and watch the world go by, businesses can help improve our high streets and attract more customers to them. The council should encourage small businesses to make responsible use of pavements, provided they do not block them. And any new scheme needs to be easy to administer, both for businesses and the council.

Like other Labour councillors and candidates, I am calling for any surplus the scheme generates to be put into a ring-fenced fund to improve local high streets (for example hanging baskets or Christmas lights) rather than disappear into the council’s coffers.Kidbrooke Parade 2013

Conservative councillors have called for the new scheme to be abolished entirely, and for the current free-for-all to continue. This would generate no revenue for our high streets, would give traders no certainty over what they are allowed to do, and allow a small minority of businesses to continue to block pavements.

Like so many Tory proposals, their headline-grabbing slogans are at odds with reality: any “pavement tax” is the least of a small business’s worries, compared to the slow economic growth, the squeeze on consumer spending, and the rising fuel prices and business rates that the Coalition’s policies have caused.

I can’t really  blame the Tories for wanting to distract attention away from these real problems that their policies have caused. As for Labour, we will continue to stand up for small businesses, and carry on listening to their concerns.

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3 Responses to Street trading: separating facts from fiction

  1. maryorelse says:

    Paul – thanks for this and as you know I took the traders’ petition to Council. It is also worth noting that a lot of traders have been very needlessly frightened by all the propaganda from the Tories. Here in the area in the side streets around Trafalgar Road and Woolwich Roads – and I am sure elsewhere around the Borough – many of the shops have immediate frontages which they own or lease. These are areas which often cover old coal cellars (and make it difficult for us to plant trees). Shops can of course out what they like on their own premises.
    Mary Mills

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