Labour’s Anneliese Dodds spoke to a range of Hebden Bridge businesses about their experiences during the pandemic, which began just after the town had suffered serious flooding.
As well as broader national policy she said local communities should have a role to play through their local council shaping how town centres build their future.
Introducing the virtual round table session, Calderdale councillor Josh Fenton-Glynn (Lab, Calder) said from the double whammy of flooding last February and the start of the pandemic in March, different businesses had different experiences, some bringing new and innovative solutions.
Haley Tansey, of the White Lion pub and Crown fisheries, outlined challenges faced by hospitality businesses including staffing and product ordering along Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s road map out of lockdown.
She said it was crucial confidence was quickly brought back to the high street, bringing in visitors who tended to spend all day in the town benefiting all kinds of businesses.
Chris Booth, of the Grilled Cheese Booth, said the business had started when the pandemic forced a change of career when losing work but there had been a lack of support to do what the Government was saying people should do – finding alternative employment.
Hebden Bridge postmaster Satnam Singh said the Post Office had been a hub of the community but post offices were facing huge business challenges and felt consistency of support was needed – he had not received grant support during the pandemic when applying to Calderdale Council whereas some in other areas had.
Both businesses and Java Bere, who runs an online business and spoke about obstacles Brexit had brought her, raised the issue of business rates being too high and with online services not having to pay these Ms Dodds said it was a concern.
Totally Locally’s Simon Waldren spoke about the need for shops to have an online as well as a physical presence, how it had helped businesses sell through the pandemic and the need for training – good business people did not necessarily have digital skills.
Antony De Heveningham spoke about his own change of employment leading to him founding Cargodale, delivering goods for local businesses by cycle, including many Totally Locally had helped, and said a green new deal would help his business – both he and Chris said help to scale up enabling businesses to work together was needed.
Ms Dodds said she was talking to businesses all over the country at what is a critical time for high streets.
“We are really trying to hear directly from businesses about the challenges they are facing.
“That is what is most important, to do that so I understand exactly what businesses need to get back on their feet and into the future,” she said.
The decline of the high street was a serious issue and it would be important to get a “mix” in town centres including legislation to allow councils to repurpose buildings empty for 12 months – an issue raised by come of the Hebden Bridge businesses.
Labour also wanted to reverse new planning rules being introduced by the Government which could allow big developers to price out businesses and potentially change the character of high streets, although town living in high quality, affordable homes could help high streets bringing customers to businesses’ doorsteps.
“We do need to see local communities more in control around this,” she said, adding the planning changes were being driven by the Conservative Government from London but applying everywhere.
That would reduce the ability of local communities to help shape their high street through their local council, she said.
The issue of fairness of allocation of funding, in the wake of the round of Towns Fund awards announced this week, was also raised.