High streets up and down the land are facing challenging times. They struggle to compete with online retailers. These internet giants don't have to pay for high street buildings – or business rates. And their selfish culture of tax dodging gives them an even stronger edge. Small wonder then that so many high street shops struggle to make ends meet.
Here in Dover and Deal it's no different. Our high streets find things tough too. We can't wish it all away. The hard truth is that our high streets will need to change. That's not to say we shouldn't act to make a level playing field with online retailers. We should. For example, in Parliament I have been active in making the case to tackle online tax dodging. Yet proud as we are of our high streets, we all know there is work to do.
Locally, we must remember just how far we've come. For decades the hated Burlington House cast a long shadow over Dover. It took a monumental effort – yet it was finally torn down. The fall of Burlington House was a symbol of how Dover was changing for the better. The new St James cinema, shops and restaurants rose in its place. The once desolate car park is now packed with shoppers. The £50 million invested is paying off. The redevelopment of the leisure centre next door will boost things further.
No-one likes empty shops. There are 45 empty shops in Dover and 10 in Deal. So it's welcome to see a scheme for grants to spruce up empty shop fronts approved by Dover District Council's Cabinet last week. In Dover, the old Stembrook Co-op store is being turned into a start-up business base, helping entrepreneurs test ideas before moving into the high street.
Deal's high street has been crowned Britain's high street of the year and tops a list of the UK's best coastal towns. So Deal is in a better position. Yet even there retailers tell me things are not always easy.
The key to the future will be to make our high streets attractions in their own right. This is part of the reason Deal has done better – the sea is closer and there are quite a lot of more niche businesses. A key question will be how we can make Dover's high street more of an attraction and put more buzz in. Maybe having more people living in the town centre will help – as could having more entertainment there to draw people in.
There are no easy answers and it's something we need collectively to think about. To work together to make our historic high street successful destinations with a greater future. I would welcome hearing what readers think we should do to move things forward.
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