Interview with Eric Pickles – ‘The British high street has changed’ warns the Secretary of State

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Eric Pickles

The Secretary of State for Local Government and Communities defends government proposal for small business and local communities.

Bouncy spirited Secretary of State, Eric Pickles could be described in many words but the renowned Tory epithet ‘toff’ runs contrary to his personality and ontological charm. He lacks the awkward snarling countenance and haughty eccentricities of some of his peers. Upon meeting him, he struck me as a simple man, an ordinary sprightly fellow who, in an alternative universe, could have been my State School teacher. In his soft-spoken, limpid regional accent, the Secretary of State spoke to African Voice about the government’s plan to support local businesses and communities.

Eric Pickles is set to reconcile the clashing tides between tradition and modernity on British high streets. He warned that “the times are changing in terms of economic circumstances but they are also changing because of the ways in which we shop”- citing as an example the overwhelming competition from the web in contrast to the decline in competition in our town centres and local communities. Therefore, he continued, “instead of turning our high streets into ‘a homage of the fifties’, we must try and recognize that small businesses in Britain have had a difficult time, following the economic recession”. And it is against this reality of change, that the government has pledged a £415 million cash injection to back local businesses, create jobs and help invigorate local economies. Out of this sum, the government plan to use £300 million to fund tax relief for 300,000 retail firms, allowing £1000 off their next tax bill, beginning from the year 2014 to 2016. £100 million is aimed to support critical business infrastructure, leaving £15 million for the creation of Enterprise zones.

The tax relief proposed by the government only applies to small firms. The rateable value lower threshold is yet to be determined but it is expected to be somewhere north of £50,000. This revelation has cast some doubts on the expectations of small businesses. Some claim that, the government’s proposal only cuts along the crust of their concerns. Speaking to African Voice, businesses in the formerly squalid, rundown arcade that is now trendy Brixton village claimed that, even if they were to qualify for the discount relief, they still have to contend with the annual increases in rents. In response to this, Eric Pickles maintained that the measures taken by the government to support businesses are sound and promising and his government is in fact willing to take on proposals from small businesses, as well as listen to their concerns.

Nevertheless, the Labour Party derides the Conservatives as the chummy buddies of big corporations. Doleful Ed (Miliband) and cheerful Chuka (Umunna – Shadow Business Secretary), both claim that if Labour comes to power they would cut business rates further than the current government promises, which they hope to fund by increasing corporation tax. A quick jerk flight to economic socialism may seem popular, especially in hard times, but the realities, according to Mr Pickles, are devastating. He points to France’s failing economy as a ‘don’t’ lesson in an economic recovery. He further warned that ‘tax systems should not be based on class hatred’.

Putting aside the brewing disagreement between the two parties on cuts in business rates, Mr Pickles expounded on the remaining proposals, outlining other support measures brought in to help local businesses flourish. He mentioned the provision of adequate parking services to encourage local people to use their town centres. The Government would also undertake reductions in arduous red tape in the set-up and running of businesses and facilitate the provision of logistic support to local business through the local authority. He also unveiled plans to use Enterprise Zones as a catalyst to engender new businesses and innovation. Mr Pickles explained that, like the Silicon Valley experience, the government would facilitate better integration of businesses within the local economy. This is commonly referred to by experts as clustering.

Whether one disagrees with Mr Pickles or not does not invalidate his image as a community man, albeit of bygone days. He holds dear to his heart the vision of a community business-focussed Britain. However, it must be said that the government’s proposal of a £400million boost is just a tip of the iceberg for local businesses that have been and are still potential casualties of the current recovery. Last year alone, Britain saw a shutdown of 17,000 small businesses, despite the Chancellor urging that the economic recovery plan has proved successful.

Clearly, the Conservative government is doing everything in earnest to try and shake off their recent image as corporate bedfellows and return to the Thatcherite community-centric traditions. But today’s Britain is a far cry from the late seventies. Indeed, for the full realization of a community business-focussed Britain – strongly championed by Mr Pickles – the government would have to do more to demonstrate to local people that they are on their side. Local democracy should be at the forefront of community-led enterprise. The community should have a bigger say in what kind of businesses move in next door. Thus, governments must recognize community action, by doing away with the bureaucratic wrangling at the local authority level that frustrates community campaigns against ‘big retail development’ and corporate dominance.

As the government once again moves in the direction of community spirit under the hopeful stewardship of Mr Pickles, we must all remind ourselves that the community is not a Brechtian theatre for popular politics. The concerns of local people should be taken seriously and addressed through a responsive dialogue between the government and the people. Eric Pickles, therefore, has more work to do to demonstrate to local businesses that have grown cynical due to the economic hardships of the foregoing years that he is truly a community man ‘with the high streets in his blood’ as the Telegraph puts it. For now, lets us welcome the government’s proposal as a step in the right direction but maintain a cool sceptical eye on prospective development.