Chairman, we have all seen the decline of our high streets – both locally and nationally. It is important that we all recognise the value of these spaces economically, culturally, and recreationally. Breckland Council has a crucial role in supporting our town centres, a role in making them places that people want to visit and importantly, spend money.
To be places that people want to visit there must be shops worth going to. When I look at the empty shops in Thetford they are often sadly long term empty properties. Large corporations that do need seem to care that they are empty, sucking the life and vibrancy out of our communities. When myself or others enquire about rents, they’re often at levels unaffordable with terms that do not make sense. It’s tough running a small business, I know myself as a run one, I speak to dozens of small businesses every month through that role. There is talent in our district, creative thinking, entrepreneurialism, but forces too great for individuals to overcome are preventing progress. We need the councils backing.
This proposal is simple, it uses Breckland Councils soon to be more generous capital reserves to purchase shop units in the district, allowing affordable rents and terms to be set, specifically to support local entrepreneurs and small businesses. With an estimated return of around 4%, this proposal would make no difference to our revenue budget, rents matching our returns from bank interest, but it will provide new opportunities for people to trade. And this council will own the capital asset. The new support with paying the rent for 6 months for businesses moving to the town centre is to be welcomed, the new Puddin shop in Thetford is a great example, but it is short term and not sustainable, what happens when the grant runs out, what happens if the rents change. Why are we as a council prepared to pay off other landlord’s mortgages, but not look to own such assets ourselves? We need to be bold.
This amendment also looks to continue the MTI scheme, no, not with murals or clocks for Dereham, conveniently kicked into the long grass until after the May elections, but with facilities that the public quite rightly have been campaigning for and recognise as a barrier to people visiting. Amenities such as new public toilets can be supported by this fund, with the hope that Town Councils will join and match fund wherever possible.
I urge you colleagues to support this amendment.
Firstly, there is significant concern across the District about the Councils current approach with Breckland Bridge and small sites. Communities in Thetford at Glebe Close and the Woodlands Estate and in numerous locations around Dereham fear much loved parcels of land will be forever lost. In the pursuit of relatively minor financial returns, valued community sites and green lungs will be lost with a consultation process that does not do these locations justice. Our amendment proposes a delay to these plans, enabling more time for consultation.
Secondly, disabled facilities grant. Our proposals to increase the funding for disabled facilities grants was defeated last Autumn. But since then….
Thirdly, costs related to temporary housing accommodation continue to spiral. The cost of living crisis and continuing Government cuts fuel the demand. The Council is setting aside ever increasing sums of money to fund hotel and B&B accommodation in the District, when it could be taking a longer term approach and investing in our own property portfolio for targetted intervention. Our budget amendment calls for a million pounds to be set aside, complementing the support about to be provided for Ukrainian refugees – creating housing options. A proposal that would likely reduce revenue costs for this council of up to £100,000 a year and contribute to reducing our longer-term budget gap.