Businesses call for government support to rebuild high streets across Wales
Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter
Cardiff city centre businesses are calling for support from the Welsh Government to rebuild high streets across Wales post-Covid.
Reforming business rates, letting communities buy abandoned land, and shifting away from car-dependent offices on city outskirts all feature in a manifesto being launched tomorrow by FOR Cardiff.
Social distancing has meant many people now working from home rather than in an office. This could continue as the Welsh Government is targeting 30 per cent of workers to work from home, in a bid to cut road congestion and air pollution from people commuting to work.
But fewer people coming into work is impacting businesses in the city centre. The recovery manifesto sets out eight actions that would help city centres and high streets adapt to the big changes expected to remain after the pandemic.
FOR Cardiff is a business improvement district, representing more than 750 businesses in Cardiff’s city centre. Its new manifesto reads: “Cities are places that attract the creative and the ambitious, alternative thinkers and outcasts.
“For centuries cities have provided an atmosphere that breeds opportunity and while we welcome the strides in accessibility that the pandemic has brought through remote working and digital inclusion, we still believe in the power of the city melting pot.
“No government can force a vibrant city into being, but it can create the atmosphere that allows that city to develop itself.”
The manifesto calls for a major review of business rates — a commercial version of council tax, where businesses are taxed based on the rental value of their property. Business rates are seen as unfairly benefitting huge online retailers at the expense of high street shops.
FOR Cardiff is also calling for more power to be given to business improvement districts — there are 16 across Wales — including applying for extra government funding. This would be coupled with extra transparency rules.
The benefits of city centres are also set out with “transport hubs, economic diversity and social opportunities”, and the manifesto calls for offices to relocate to city centres, away from “car-dependent and unimaginative business parks”.
Giving communities the right to buy vacant urban land and buildings from absentee landlords is another suggestion. Similar schemes already exist elsewhere in the UK: the Community Right to Buy in Scotland and the Community Right to Bid in England.
Bringing public services, art galleries and theatres into the city centre also feature in the manifesto; as well as providing public space for young people without the pressure to spend money, and improving public transport and introducing integrated ticketing.
Adrian Field, executive director of FOR Cardiff, said: “The pandemic and its impact on office working and the retail sector makes our work more urgent than ever.
“We can no longer rely on the necessity of office footfall and the nine-to-five, so we have identified actions that are a step toward helping Cardiff and other towns and cities recover and thrive in the post-Covid landscape.
“Strong local economies, community spirit and a vibrant cultural sector are key elements in the future of a prosperous Cardiff and Wales.”
Business improvement districts are funded by levies charged to businesses in their area. FOR Cardiff provides services like street cleansing, hosting Christmas events, night marshals, and training courses.
Local businesses vote in these groups for five-year terms. FOR Cardiff began its first five-year term in December 2016 — and is currently consulting businesses in Cardiff city centre about their priorities for the next five years, ahead of a second vote this June.
FOR Cardiff’s work includes representing the voice of city centre businesses to the Welsh Government, South Wales Police and Cardiff council. With this recovery manifesto, the group hopes to get the support needed from the Welsh Government to help the city centre.
Mr Field said: “While the Welsh Government cannot force a vibrant town or city into being, it can create the atmosphere that allows that city to develop itself — and that is what FOR Cardiff is asking ministers today.
“We hope that current ministers and future candidates take our commentary into consideration as they continue their work of reinvigorating and revitalising our city centres.
“We will do what we can for our city, but we believe that the next Welsh Government must match that commitment and do whatever they can.”