Ely, a High Street in crisis.

Ely, a High Street in crisis

Following the announcement of probable closure last week by Mr Simms and the closure of Select, plus looming and recent closures of other retail businesses around Ely, a lot of people have voiced their concerns and touchingly, their best wishes for Mr Simms owners and employees.

Mr Simms’ statement cited rates and fading footfall as the main drivers of their downturn; this naturally drew many comments and questions from the public.

These are complex issues and the comments show a good deal of misunderstanding about various aspects of our local governance and economy, from who sets rates to rents, building use control and more. Ely is facing a growing fight for the survival of its High Street; councils and government have a big role to play but one of the most powerful weapons we have is a well informed and organised community.

I have written this report not only to help to clear up some of the confusion but also to empower Ely to fight for the survival of its High Street.  I will preface this now with a warning that it is a very long article due to the complexity of the subject matter, but one I hope you will find a worthwhile read (assuming you make it to the end!)

If you feel that you are familiar with the powers and roles of the 3 councils which govern Ely and the Combined Authority, feel free to skip to the section “Irate about rates…” now.  If you feel that you know enough about how the rates system works, you can skip that section and jump straight to “The Charity Shop debate…”

One Council to rule them all...

The first thing I’d like to address is the council structure and governance of Ely, in particular what powers they do and don’t have, within the scope of this subject.  A lot of people have the misconception that there is one single council here, often with powers well outside of the remit of any council at any level. In fact we have 3 different councils who take responsibility for Ely, each in very different ways, plus the recently created Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.

The City of Ely Council

www.cityofelycouncil.org.uk/
www.cityofelycouncil.org.uk/contact/

Although Ely is a city thanks to our magnificent cathedral, in all other senses we are closer to a Market Town in makeup.  The City of Ely Council is actually a Parish Council and is responsible for local issues which are generally relevant to Ely and the villages of the Parish (Chettisham, Prickwillow, Queen Adelaide, Shippea Hill and Stuntney).  Their duties include:

  • Visit Ely (Ely’s Tourist Information and Town Centres team)
  • Management of Ely’s Cemetery and services
  • Management of The Maltings
  • Operation and management of CCTV in Ely (and some nearby towns)
  • Local Needs Housing (The Clay Way/Ramsey Road housing scheme)
  • Management of many of Ely’s playgrounds/recreation areas
  • Managing Ely’s allotments
  • Ely’s Christmas Lights and Switch-On event
  • Sessions House – maintaining and using this important Grade II* listed building

The City Council has notably taken over several key roles from the District Council in recent years, including CCTV and The Maltings.  Just this year the Visit Ely team have also moved from the District to the City Council, which includes the management of tourism and town centre along with Oliver Cromwell’s House, Ely’s award winning Tourist Information Centre.

The City Council also takes responsibility for and plays a role in some of Ely’s street furniture, environment, trees, street lighting and other small initiatives.  The City of Ely Council is also a statutory consultee in planning matters and considers all planning applications within the parish – its views and comments are then considered by the District Council as part of their process.

Parish councils generally have fewer powers but are more and more taking on responsibility and roles traditionally held by higher councils, as is the case in Ely with The Maltings, Visit Ely, CCTV and so on.  Parish Councils can create minor bylaws and can enforce some existing laws.

One final point of note is that the City Council has for the last 5 years been taking over an increasing share of the annual grant to Ely Museum (shared with the District Council).  This transition has come to an end and they will be taking full responsibility for the grant going forward. Ely Museum runs the Ely Shopmobility scheme for the City Council as part of the grant conditions.

You can read more about this level of government here:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parish_councils_in_England

East Cambridgeshire District Council

https://www.eastcambs.gov.uk
https://www.eastcambs.gov.uk/customer-services/contact-us

East Cambridgeshire District Council are the next rung up on the governance ladder.  In addition to Ely they cover towns, villages and areas within the East Cambs district, including Soham, Littleport, Haddenham, Burwell and Bottisham.  A complete list can be found here:

https://www.eastcambs.gov.uk/council-and-democracy/town-village-wards

The District Council has a far greater burden of responsibility than the City Council.  It is responsible for, amongst other things:

  • Planning Applications / management
  • Building Control
  • Council Tax operation & collection
  • Business Rates collection
  • Licensing (various including taxis, pubs, street trading, gambling etc.)
  • Social Housing provision (delegated to Sanctuary Housing and other organisations)
  • Housing Benefits
  • Refuse collection (under the Street Scene trading arm of the District Council)
  • Environmental Services
  • Food safety and hygiene
  • Sports Provision
  • Markets (under the ECTC trading arm of the District Council)
  • Car Parking
  • Public toilet facilities
  • Parks (including the Jubilee Gardens and the Country Park)

These services are offered within the entire district (along with many others not mentioned above) and can generally be categorised as services which are localised to an area but would not be specific to any one place (although there are exceptions).

The District Council are geared up to undertake large scale projects and even some infrastructure work, for example the recently opened Ely Leisure Village.  In recent years they have formed two trading companies, East Cambs Trading Company (ECTC) and Street Scene. ECTC has already engaged with building residential homes (on Barton Road) and is enabling house building across the district by supporting the creation of Community Land Trusts (CLTs) [C.DCLT].  It also manages the local street markets.  Street Scene has taken the domestic refuse (and in time commercial refuse) collections in-house, following the termination of contract due to poor performance from the previous commercial supplier, Veolia.

The District Council, unlike the City Council, holds greater powers to enforce laws, regulations etc.  For example, they would be responsible for prosecuting landlords who engage in illegal practices, food safety/hygiene violations and more.  They are also responsible for business development within the city and undertake various activities in this role, including approaching national chain stores to attract them to the city.

Despite this role, the District Council has very few powers to deal with the types of issues the public often think they should do.  For example, the District Council has no real powers other than through planning/conservation area restrictions to prevent specific businesses/types of business from taking a premises.  Planning restrictions are very narrow in scope and can only really deal with the fabric of buildings, building regulations and how a development would affect the surrounding area (termed the Street Scene).  One measure which can be used is to refuse the conversion of a premises’ Planning Use Class from shop to takeaway/restaurant (or vice versa). However, outside of this the classifications are quite blunt. Most premises in Ely city centre will be in the A class, which is divided as follows:

  • Class A1 shops and retail outlets, including:
    • Shops where goods are sold, excluding betting offices/loan shops
    • Post offices
    • Ticket offices
    • Hairdressers/Salons
    • Hire shops
    • etc…
  • Class A2 – professional services
  • Class A3 – food and drink
  • Class A4 – drinking establishments
  • Class A5 – hot food and takeaway

You can read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planning_use_classes_in_England

As you can see from this categorisation, most of the time when we’re talking about “The High Street” we’re referring to either Class A1 or A3/A5.  Even though the District Council can refuse to convert a premises’ class between these, it still leaves little control as virtually any type of shop/showroom can go in an A1 property without any change of use process to interject in.  If the government made these classes less broad, particularly A1, it would offer more of an opportunity to control the types of shops/retail within the UK. However, this would place an additional cost burden on businesses (particularly small ones) who would then more frequently have to pay for a Change of Use, so it is not without a downside.

This leaves the selection of tenants up to the individual landlords, who in Ely are made up generally from private individuals, companies, pension/investment funds and others.  A lot of people assume that Ely Cathedral is “the landlord” when this sort of emotive issue comes up and whilst it is true that they are one of the larger landlords, there are other large concerns of similar size or larger.  Notable landlords include Rannerlow Ltd. who own the building in the centre of Market Place, plus others around the periphery and throughout Ely. For example a pension fund owns the Coronation Parade building (currently housing from Mr Simms up to Scope, plus residential lets on the upper floors) whilst Ely Cathedral owns a majority of the medieval buildings along the High Street, plus its recent acquisition of the Edinburgh Woollen Mill building.  These are just some of the larger concerns but the reality is quite a patchwork of landlords throughout the city, some of whom let their buildings as a mix of both commercial and residential dwellings.

The District Council is responsible for the management and collection of Business Rates; they are often accused of setting them too high when the reality is that they are merely the collector of the rates.  Business Rates are in fact formulated nationally by the government – the District Council merely uses the formula to calculate and then collect the rates. Rates are calculated by multiplying the rateable value of your property by a multiplier.  A property’s rateable value is calculated by the government Valuation Office Agency or VOA [C.GVOA], who update rateable values on a 5 year cycle.  The government sets the multiplier (also known as ‘Poundage’) at the beginning of the business year (April 1st).

There are various reliefs for which you can apply to the District Council, including Charitable Rate Relief (I will discuss this in a later section) and Small Business Rate Relief but again the District Council merely applies the rules set higher up in central government.  This is an important point to understand because so often people’s reaction is “why are ‘the council’ charging such high rates” and similar questions. With the exception of the ability to give charities an additional relief rate at their discretion (above the mandatory national 80% relief), the District Council has virtually no powers in this respect.

Cambridgeshire County Council

https://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/
https://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/council/contact-us/

The final and top level of governance from a council is the County Council.  As the name suggests this covers the entire of Cambridgeshire and their services and remit are generally far broader than either the District or City Councils.  You could generally categorise their services and responsibilities as those which are shared by many areas and are not specific to any one area (again there are some exceptions).

Some of the County Council’s services and responsibilities include:

  • Social Care provision
  • Schools and Education provision
  • Highways/Infrastructure management and expansion projects
  • Street Lighting (although in Ely, both the District and City Councils are responsible for a small portion of the street lighting, which they outsource to the County Council’s contractor – Balfour Beatty)
  • Public Transport
  • Waste Management (recycling centres, tipping facilities etc.)
  • Consumer Protection
  • Jobs/Unemployment Services

These are just a few of their services and responsibilities but as you can see they are much broader in scope and relate to every village, town or city, rather than individual areas or places.  I won’t go into further detail on the County Council because except for the scale, it is somewhat repetitious, except to say that again the powers to prevent certain types of shop or reduce rates do not lie at this level of governance in England.

Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority

http://cambridgeshirepeterborough-ca.gov.uk/
http://cambridgeshirepeterborough-ca.gov.uk/contact-us/

In addition to the 3 councils we also have the new Combined Authority, led by the County Mayor.  This body has been granted a large pot of money to undertake development and infrastructure projects in the area.  At this time it is not clear how this funding might be delivered or how Ely might benefit as the authority is relatively new and is still finding its feet.   It may however become a potential source of investment money for Ely in the future.

Who funds the Councils?

The councils are funded primarily through the local precept. This is a portion of the Council Tax that you pay and is set annually by the City and District Councils as part of their budget planning.  The City Council’s precept for 2018/19 was set at £515,547 which for a Band D property works out to £75.15 per year (£1.45 per week). The District Council’s precept for 2018/19 is £142.14 for a Band D property (£2.73 per week).  Finally the County Council precept is £1249.83 for a Band D property in 2018/19 (£24.03 per week), with a further £198.72 per year for Cambs Police and Crime Commissioner and £68.76 for the Cambs & Peterborough Fire Authority (combined, £5.14 per week).

The various councils also have the potential to raise revenue through services, including refuse collection, cemetery fees, venue hire and so on.  Generally any such revenue will primarily cover costs of the service/venue and then any remainder would be taken into account in the budget and when considering whether or not a raise or reduction to the precept rate is required for the next period.

Another source of funding which the City and District Councils receive is from development works.  When a large scale development (or even a single dwelling) is built, various levies are negotiated by the District Council to offset the potential damaging effects they may have on the area, by allowing various mitigation projects to be undertaken. Section 106 agreements and Community Infrastructure Levy are negotiated by the District Council and a share is passed to the City Council from these, managed by the District Council (at present). These funds do come with restrictions and regulations, for example they may be locked to transport projects or open spaces development, can often be spent on new projects/developments only and particularly in the case of Community Infrastructure Levy, project proposals must undergo public consultation before the money can be spent.  A recent example which is easy to understand was that from the levy on the Sainsbury’s development, which was expected to cause congestion due to extra in-town driving, the Ely No. 15 bus was funded to provide cheaper transport and reduce dependence on cars to shop there. Whether or not this worked, in reality, I will leave for you to decide!

Finally the District Council who administer and collect Business Rates are entitled to keep up to 50% of the revenue they generate, with any not retained being returned to central government for redistribution through various mechanisms.  The District Council will use these funds to run local services and projects and they will also help to determine how much they charge in the Council Tax Precept to each household. It is crucial to remind yourself at this point that the actual rates and valuations are not determined by the District Council; they merely apply the formula set out by the government for the whole country and use the predetermined property values (London has a different formula due to higher valuations).

Irate about rates…

So now that I’ve broadly outlined the different councils and their responsibilities and powers, it’s time to look at the situation affecting Ely’s traders.

Mr Simms’ statement squarely puts the blame on Business Rates and fading footfall.  So what are business rates? Simply put they are a tax on the occupation of any non-domestic property (with a few exceptions).  Rates are rooted in taxation legislation dating back many centuries. The funds raised from them are supposed to support local services however in reality a significant portion is handed back to central government.  So why are they causing a problem in Ely?

There are several factors to consider here.  Most importantly is the rateable value for a business property and how it is calculated.  The Rateable Value represents the rental value of the property over one year, from a given date (these are updated every 5 years).  This is then multiplied by the Poundage multiplier which gives the Business Rates figure that each business must pay per year. If your rateable value is below £12,000 then you are exempted entirely and will pay no rates at all.  If you have a rateable value between £12,001 and £15,000 you benefit from a sliding scale reduction, which is termed Small Business Rate Relief. Some examples would include:

A rateable value of £13,500 would be eligible for a 50% reduction in your rates bill,

A rateable value of £14,000 would be eligible for a 33% reduction in your rates bill.

Even above these levels there is a low and high multiplier rate (the Poundage).  If your property’s rateable value is below £51,000 the multiplier for 2018/19 is 48p and above this threshold, 49.3p.  Whilst this may seem insignificant, it all adds up.

The next thing you must consider is that shop rents are very high in Ely.  A 2012 update to the East Cambridgeshire District Council’s Retail Study [R.DCRS] includes examples for Ely, Littleport and Soham in 2011.  At the time of writing I was unable to find more recent data.  These high rents will of course return high rates when this is put through the national formula.  When you compare the rents (and hence rates) here to comparable market towns in the area (adjusting for the fact there’s a cathedral here) we are significantly higher.  The rents in 2011 for Littleport were £161 per square metre for Soham £188 per square metre. Soham has a population roughly half that of Ely and yet the same measure for Ely shows an almost 300% higher rate at £543 per square metre.  This is the real crux of the matter and it has a complex series of sub-factors which make the whole thing very difficult to tackle.

Firstly high rents can be infectious!  One aspect to this is that we do have quite a number of large landlords with multiple properties and if they see they are able to achieve high rents on one property they will be inclined to try for higher rents on their other properties, it is after all their business to rent properties and so profit margins are king.  This is not restricted however to single landlords as rental prices from anywhere in the city can be a strong influencing factor when a landlord makes their decision.

Location is as with everything, a key factor in deciding rental prices on commercial premises.  The closer a property is to a main street, the higher its rental price will be. For example you would expect the passages between Market Street and High Street to be significantly lower than on those two main streets.  Footfall makes up part of the equation too in so much as shops at the very end of the street where fewer people visit will usually command a lower rental price than those further in/toward the centre. The number, type and sizes of surrounding businesses/properties (commerce type and density) may also have an effect too – for example if there is a small shop in the middle of a row of residential properties, you would expect a lower rental than one in the middle of a dense row of shops/businesses.  Similarly a shop surrounded by/characterised by desirable features or aspects, such as Ely Cathedral or a shop in one of the medieval commercial premises on Ely’s High Street would be expected to command a higher rental value.

To give a few examples of currently advertised properties and their rates:

1 High Street (Anglia Wines)

435 square feet of sales floor (plus 409 square feet upstairs, for amenities, storage etc.)
Rent: £20,000 pa ~ Rates: £8,040 (current rateable value £16,750)
Total per year:  £28,040 ~ Rent/Rates split: 71% / 29%

13 High Street (Clinton Cards)

975 square feet of sales floor (plus 760 square feet upstairs, for amenities, storage etc.)
Rent: £35,000 pa ~ Rates: £12,815 (current rateable value £12,815)
Total per year: £47,815 ~ Rent/Rates split: 73% / 27%

29 High Street (the old convenience store)

1,256 square feet of sales floor (plus extra for amenities, storage etc.)
Rent: £42,500 pa ~ Rates: £22,920 (current rateable value £47,750)
Total per year:  £65,420 ~ Rent/Rates split: 64% / 36%

36 Market Street (Joyce Family Butchers)

980 square feet (comprising sales area, office and stores)
Rent: £13,000 pa ~ Rates: £0 (current rateable value £9,800)
Total per year:  £13,000 ~ Rent/Rates split: 100% / 0%

68 Market Street (China Inn)

1,127 square feet (ground floor comprising kitchen, storage, lobby & dining area: 80 covers)
689 square feet (upstairs floors and basement, for storage and services)
Rent: £25,000 ~ Rates: £10,320 (current rateable value £21,500)
Total per year:  £35,320 ~ Rent/Rates split: 71% / 29%

As you can see from these examples (correct at the time of writing, based on active property listings on the Internet) for many premises, rent is only ⅔ or less of the battle.  See reference [R.GPRV] to check rateable values for yourself.

The Charity Shop debate...

The final big factor influencing rents, taking all of the factors I’ve already discussed into account too, is a very contentious issue: charity shops.

I would like to preface this section of discussion by stating that I appreciate the enormous amount of good charities and charity shops can do.  In many cases they fill in holes left by poor government policy and underinvestment in social care, disease research (in particular) and more. In many places they can help to fill vacant properties and stave off the knock-on effects of shop vacancy.  It is reported that as many as 25% of charity shop volunteers are there whilst seeking full time employment, which can be of enormous benefit to mental wellbeing and can even add to one’s CV. What I am presenting here is a dispassionate statement of the facts and effects the charity shops can have.  There has long been an argument that they are damaging the High Street and I hope simply to give you a grounding of the facts and figures here in Ely so you can make up your own mind on the issue.

The central point of contention in the debate around charity shops damaging our High Streets is that of Charitable Rates Relief.  Put simply, charities are entitled to the Mandatory Charitable Rates Relief of 80% in England. In addition to this charities can also apply to the local authority responsible for handling rates (for Ely this is the District Council) for a discretionary additional relief of up to 20%, which if granted in full could mean a 100% exemption from Business rates.  In reality the majority of English councils reported that they do not grant this additional relief [C.DRRR].  This may not seem like a bad scenario – charitable organisations get a tax break so more money goes towards their good work; there are however some obvious side effects and some subtle issues surrounding this policy, which it is argued have a seriously deleterious effect on our High Streets.

The first of these is the effect on rental prices.  As I’ve demonstrated previously the rates can be over 50% of a property’s rental price, especially if the 5-yearly update rateable value hasn’t caught up with the current market climate (this is very noticable for 29 High Street, where the rateable value is a full £5,250 above the current asking price).  Where charities can obtain an 80% reduction (potentially even a 100% exemption) in rates, their overheads are significantly lower. This means that their ‘buying power’ when it comes to choosing a property and rental price is significantly higher than a private non-charitable business. A recent example is Oxfam which has moved into the old Argos shop:

The rental price for the old Argos property (7 High Street) was £53,000 pa.  The current rateable value is £50,000 for this property and so the rates are:  £24,000. This means that in order to rent the property and before all other costs including utilities, fitting, staff and other costs, a private business would have to pay £74,000 per year just to be in the building.  Compare this with a charity in receipt of charitable rate relief which would only have to find between £53,000 and £57,000 (depending on whether they were granted discretionary full relief by the District Council). In addition, charity shops rely almost solely on volunteers and so the staffing overheads are significantly lower, as of course are their stock costs when the majority is comprised of donated goods.

The argument is that this disparity in ‘buying power’ puts private businesses at a significant disadvantage by comparison.  Charity shops will (within their budget) be able to offer up over and above the level a private business can withstand. This may also be compounded as many charity shops are backed by a national organisation which can provide funding to weather a dry spell, should a store not be performing so well.  When we compare this to the case of Mr Simms (who despite being a franchisee, must fund their own survival entirely) there is no such safety net and obviously conditions have become too difficult to for them to continue to trade. I won’t name names but I am reliably informed that within the last few years, one or more businesses trying to enter the market in Ely have been gazumped by one or more charity shops, who have offered up on the already difficult to afford rents in the area.

Government policy dictates that landlords must start to pay Business Rates on an empty premises after 3 months.  There are a few exceptions including warehouses (for an additional 3 months), listed buildings (until they are reoccupied) and buildings owned by charities (if the next use will be charitable) [C.RRES].  Even where a landlord may wish to let to a private business over a charity shop, this policy could force their hand due to the not insignificant mounting costs of business rates they face paying on their empty premises.

Unlike the domestic rentals market, commercial landlords are driven to seek the longest terms possible.  The cost of marketing and filling an empty property (to say nothing of rates and lack of rental income) mean that for a commercial landlord short term rentals are a higher risk.  For any business new or existing, the commitment to a longer term contract poses a higher risk especially so as should they fold, they are still legally liable for the ongoing rent bills.  As previously discussed, most charity shops have the weight and financial security of a large charitable organisation behind them. This when combined with the massively reduced overheads (rates, staff, cost of goods etc.) creates a clear imbalance in the level of risk a longer term contract poses to them as opposed to a private business, especially those of a smaller scale or with no additional premises.  This reduced risk will naturally be more attractive to commercial landlords; it could be argued that this puts an upward pressure on the commercial lettings market, as landlords don’t have to choose between higher risk/shorter term private tenants and charities who are prepared to take longer tenancies and are more shielded from local and national market forces and collapse.

Another not so obvious effect charity shops may have is a reduction in footfall draw, when compared with a private business in the same location (and hence of a similar size).  If you recall Mr Simms’ statement included that “fading footfall” was in part to blame for their downturn. This is actually the perfect example of this effect; Argos, a major “anchor” store which drew significant footfall and was a destination shop (one for which people would potentially make a specific trip to Ely) has gone and instead of a comparably sized retail or food service business taking its place, has become a charity shop.  When planning shopping centres, designers ensure they are carefully studded with anchor stores. These draw people around the complex and ensure that they pass as many of the smaller stores along the route as possible. Argos had this footfall effect and draw in a way which kept the top end of High Street busy (even throughout a rumoured decline in their sales at the Ely location). If you compared footfall when Argos was operating with the same place on Market Street which had no similar “anchor” store, the difference in footfall would be highly evident.  Footfall data doesn’t go back far enough but a similar decline would almost certainly be evident following Cutlacks’ move from Market Street (what is now The Hereward pub, right through to Caffe Nero on High Street). Retail at this end of Market Street has basically collapsed and has been replaced by service industries (fast food, restaurants, barbers, offices etc.) At the time when the premises was converted from retail use, then chairman for Planning at the District Council Philip Reed stated that: ‘the super-pub had been given planning permission as part of a drive to encourage more people to shop in the city centre.’ [C.MKST].

Whichever way you turn it, with the best intentions in the world, charity shops will never have the same draw as a large store such as Argos does, even if they are lucky enough to be super-duper Mary-Portas-souped-up style charity shops (I’ll get to her later!)  We have to face the reality now that Ely’s High Street may never regain that critical footfall driving store it desperately needs (as Oxfam are likely to be a long term tenant) and trade may be permanently harmed as a result. We have only to look at the Hereward/Cutlacks example to see the outcome of this sort of downturn.

I did not intend through this example to single out any one charity shop – it just so happens that the Argos/Oxfam example is intrinsically linked with the fate of Mr Simms and ably demonstrates all of the issues already covered.

Another effect to consider which is more subtle yet is the impact to the local economy of a charity shop vs. a private business.  Private businesses generate jobs which in addition to putting money in the hands of the owners (even if they’re a national chain) creates local disposable income.  A good portion of this income will be spent in local stores, boosting the local trade and economy. It is also not uncommon for local businesses to cooperatively supply each other and boost the interconnected trade, branding and recommendations between businesses which give customers more choice and reason to visit Ely.  With the exception of a few management staff positions (which are not always full-time) charity shops rarely enable any of these local economy boosting activities to occur and further still, may prevent other businesses from entering the market which could do so.

Over the last decade charity shops have taken on more and more brand new goods to sell in their stores.  This has become a hot topic issue in this debate and many argue this is incredibly damaging to local commerce.  The argument is that a charity shop selling new goods is able to directly compete with private businesses, without the overheads of full rates or staff.  Such an advantage would enable them to sell at prices the private businesses could not sustainably match, or to be selling items which a rate paying business might not exist to do, due to the overheads and local competition levels.  The law states to be recognised as a charity shop, a store must sell “wholly or mainly donated goods”.  It’s actually quite difficult to find a solid answer on this although the general consensus seems to be that a maximum of 15-20% is allowed.  Whatever the upper limit, national estimates suggest that 6.3% of sales in charity shops are new goods [C.NWGD].

The final aspect to consider is the actual funding of the Business Rates relief.  It used to be the case that central government would fund 100% of the Mandatory Relief (80%) and 75% of any granted discretionary relief (up to 20% of the rates).  In April of 2013 the funding rules were changed; going forward from this date, any newly granted relief on rates in Ely is split 50/50 between central government and our District Council.  This represents a drop from 85% government funding to just 50% overall. To put this into some hard numbers, I will use the Wood Green and new Oxfam shops as examples, both of which opened post April 2013.

Oxfam’s rateable value is £50,000 for this property and so the rates are:  £24,000.

80% of this is £19,200 so where the government would have paid this fully prior to 2013, now they only pay 50% and so District Council would fund £9,600 per year.

Wood Green’s rateable value is £30,500 and the rates payable are: £14,640.

80% of this is £11,712 so where the government would have paid fully before, now they only pay 50% and so the District Council would fund £5,856 per year.

These calculations are just for the Mandatory Relief of 80% and ignore the potential for the 20% Discretionary Relief.  Whilst the numbers might not seem that high, if you think over a 10 year period that would equate to a £154,560 cost to the District Council for those two shops alone.  Think about where this money will come from – the Council Tax precept perhaps? Reduction in services elsewhere in the district budget?

I don’t wish to sound like a monster and suggest that charity shops are evil – rather I would suggest that perhaps this country needs to have more open debate about whether charity shops are the best way to raise money for these good causes, given the damage they could potentially cause.

One final note is that at the time of writing, a new charity intends to move in to a sizable vacant property, one of the few remaining on that street.  It currently has a planning application in progress. This is happening in area which is already struggling and in a property which has remained unlet for some time due to trading conditions, high rental price (and of course rates as a result) and rental terms.  I am not going to name names here and am mentioning it because it specifically backs up the arguments about how charity shops can act to keep rent and rates artificially inflated in Ely.

When you take the arguments I’ve given overall, the key point to take away is that because charity shops can afford the higher rents (regardless any of the other arguments), when they are abundant within an area this can act to keep rents artificially high, especially when compared with like for like towns locally.  As I’ve discussed previously this can also have a direct impact on the rates for every single shop premises in Ely to some degree and of course the City, District and County councils have no powers to mitigate these effects.

The Portas Review and Ely’s City Centre Forum…

In 2011 the Prime Minister asked renowned retail guru and TV personality Mary Portas to undertake an independent review into the state of the UK’s High Streets and town centres.  Published in December of 2011 [P.PRHS], the review found we had reached a critical point as a country and urged action in various forms to prevent irretrievable decline.  Ely was actually featured as a case study on page 39 of the report, around the period when the car parking charges were still being considered by the District Council.

The key message from the report was the need for joined-up thinking, interconnectedness and communication with and hence involvement of all stakeholders from the traders and landlords to the public, councils and potential investors.  One of the key ideas she promoted was the creation of “Town Teams”, set up to promote footfall, ease relations between tenants and landlords and much more besides. The key was that these teams should be empowered and enabled to bring about meaningful change and to promote growth and communication within an area, rather than just creating a new talking shop with little chance of achieving any lasting results.

Ely took up the challenge and initiated a series of open forum meetings to which everyone was invited to attend.  I attended from the very start and have continued with the team as it went through several different iterations to become the City Centre Forum.  Today our team consists of traders, councillors from the various councils governing Ely, the Head of Tourism and Town Centre for Ely, representatives from our Cathedral, Stained Glass Museum and Ely Museum.  I represent Ely Perspective on the team along with a fellow director and together as a group we have worked to promote greater cohesion and collaborative working between all of the councils, tourism, Ely Cathedral, our museums, shops and services in Ely.

Some of our main achievements include:

  • Breaking down historic barriers and improving communication between the various councils and stakeholders in Ely, especially our visitor attractions and traders.
  • Held seminars and consultations with a significant representation from Ely’s businesses and traders on a range of issues, including improving signage.
  • Offered training seminars on social media and other promotional strategies.
  • Creation and funding of a new Shopping and Eating guide for Ely, distributed locally to both residents and those visiting our city.
  • Creation and funding of a series of special offer leaflets which were free to participate in as a trader.  These were distributed to visitors and residents at major events such as the Cathedral’s Christmas Gift & Food Fair, Eel Day and others.
  • Distributed eco-friendly Ely-branded cloth shopping bags to visitors at major events.
  • Undertaken regular footfall surveys (with the help of Ely’s traders) to build intelligence about the health of our High Street, flow of people and to build on the data received from reports commissioned previously by Ely Perspective and various councils.

You may even have seen a few of us bouncing around dressed up as Father Christmas and Rudolph at the Christmas events in Ely!  Whilst we are very pleased with our achievements and feel that in particular the opening up of communication channels has really helped to move Ely forward, we have hit a bit of a brick wall and progress has ground to a halt.  The City Centre Forum received a small amount of funding (under £10K) from the City Council along with some of the Tourism budget (at that time from within the District Council) and grants from Ely Perspective. We kept costs low by using skills and time from within our own team, for example with graphic design work and distribution.

We were also awarded £12,000 of Section 106 money for new signage in the city.  Unfortunately following consultation and workshops with traders it became clear that this amount of money was barely sufficient to cover one of many identified areas which needed better signage, for example the top of Fore Hill (directing to the river) or one of the High Street/Market Street passages.  At this point the money is still there but the project remains on hold until such time as funds in the order of £100K can be raised to pay for a new uniform, city-wide signage scheme.

As a group we have considered various options for raising money including a Business Improvement District (a BID).  This is a national framework which allows an additional rate to be charged to businesses within an area (basically an additional tax) to fund projects to market and promote an area.  The team coordinating the BID is able to set a threshold and geographic boundary for the district, both of which act to ensure that such a measure does not unduly burden small to medium businesses, most of whom would be exempt.  The remaining businesses would then be levied with the charges, comprising mostly nationals and chains such as Boots, Tesco, Waitrose, Bon Marche, WHSmith and so on. This sort of framework is widely used throughout the UK and something which these larger businesses are well acquainted with.  Our achievements and team have been assessed by several experts and whilst there would be a long way to go to achieve a large scale scheme such as a BID, we received high praise for the significant achievements and progress we had achieved in Ely so far

Future projects we have considered (with input from traders and residents), given sustainable funding include:

  • City Centre Wi-Fi (including the river and parks) with the ability to promote business and events to visitors and residents alike.
  • A full signage package for Ely, replacing the now quite dated signs.  This would include improved modern signage throughout the city, directions to and from the riverside, updatable signage at the end of our High Street/Market Street passages and in other smaller areas to promote the businesses there and more.
  • Digital information points for tourists with interactive shopping/eating directories, directions, accommodation information and much more besides.
  • “Eel Train” shuttle service to help visitors get between the station and more remote car parks to the riverside and city centre (many visitors leave Ely never having visited the riverside or shopping centre!)
  • Ely Loyalty Card Scheme – like your supermarket reward card but used with a collective of businesses around the city.
  • More investments in new and existing events and festivals to attract new visitors, increase footfall and improve the health of our businesses.
  • Work to build a better night-time economy in Ely, for example dedicated late-night shopping night with heavy paid promotion in and around Ely to ensure best chance of success.  This might also include more use of the public outdoor spaces in the evenings to hold outdoor events and activities, for example regular evening street food and live music nights throughout the summer.
  • A dedicated paid officer empowered with funds and authority to spearhead new initiatives, events and promotions throughout the city.
  • Ely Ambassadors programme (as seen in Cambridge, amongst other places) which places Ambassadors on the ground to assist visitors and shoppers alike.
  • Commission extended footfall monitoring, surveying work and customer intelligence gather to build the sort of data needed to attract companies like Marks & Spencer, Next etc. and work with the District Council in outreach to companies.

These are just a snapshot of the sorts of things which could be achieved in the area with more funding.  It doesn’t have to be the City Centre Forum who undertakes this sort of project of course although I know I can speak on behalf of the team in saying that we would relish the opportunity to do so.

Obviously as an active founding member of the group who has spent considerable time working to achieve our aims I am biased and would like the group to be able to go further, to continue to promote and boost Ely’s city centre.  If this is something you feel should be funded I would urge you to contact the City or District Councils (I have provided contact page links in the section about each council earlier in this document) and voice your opinion. I would like to add that the City Centre Forum team is 100% voluntary and we all dedicate our own time and skills to this cause (and occasionally even money).

Where’s The Masterplan?

The District Council drew up and published the Ely Masterplan back in 2010 [M.DCMP], outlining many of the issues and pressures on the growth and development of our city.  A key issue it identifies and which is highly relevant here is the lack of available space in our city for retail growth.  We’ve all heard (or have maybe even said) “Ely’s rubbish, there are no good shops here”. Whilst at any one time we do actually have around 150+ shops, including many national retailers and some fantastic independent traders, we lack sufficient space for some of the bigger chains that people desire (those “anchor” type stores I talked about previously). The national chain shops use well honed formulas which include population size, footfall, square footage and many other metrics to assess where they can/will place a new shop.  The simple truth of the matter is that in many ways, Ely just doesn’t cut it for these retailers and so they cannot invest here. At times it may seem like it just needs someone to go out and talk with these companies and represent Ely but I can assure you this is something the District Council works hard to do on an ongoing basis.

Lack of space naturally increases the likelihood of edge-of-town and out-of-town growth and indeed new out-of-town retail developments are imminent here.  Octagon Park is set to add a new Tesco (although this is no-longer certain following Tesco’s recent financial difficulties) along with 6 retail units, a DIY/garden centre, a hotel, a restaurant, offices and some light industrial units [M.OTOP]  Situated along Angel Drove (A142) this out of town development has proven to be controversial with traders and residents alike.  Mary Portas even commented “New edge of town and out of town development is threatening to take trade from the high street”.  I do agree with her and many others that such developments pose an existential risk to our High Streets, but only if the opportunities they create are not seized upon and leveraged to the advantage of our city, its businesses, shops and residents.

Right now we are on the cusp of a large population expansion in Ely.  Upwards of 4000 homes in Ely North will add a significant boost to the population, potentially in the order of 6000-8000 people.  This could take our population close to the 30K mark and with this comes that all important footfall. More residents equals more people shopping here and using our local services, plus more guests visiting.  Of course without proper investment in services such as medical facilities and transport this could create enormous problems but above all we will start to see a huge boost to that all important metric required by the big retailers – footfall.

Boosting both domestic and international tourism in Ely is another natural way to increase footfall here.  In fact we already enjoy a very healthy level of tourism in the area with over 250,000 people visiting Ely Cathedral each year and levels in East Cambs nearing the 4 million per year mark.  There is a “but” however as much of our tourists in Ely are single-day visitors. We have some great hotels, a fantastic range of B&B establishments and some other options including self-catering lets and even AirBNB rentals.  Despite this offering, Ely desperately needs new hotels – the type which can handle coach loads of people. Octagon Park’s inclusion of a hotel will bring a significant boost to Ely’s accommodation options. Whilst it is true that these visitors will be out of town, the all important factor is that they are here for more than one day and will visit our shops and restaurants and other services where they may otherwise not have done.  Ideally we would be able to build/establish hotels within the city centre area but again we are back to this issue of lack of options. Many of our larger historic buildings and areas which could have offered opportunities for hotel development are now home to King’s Ely which locks up their use permanently and so we can only look out of town for these larger developments, in the absence of any brownfield sites.

Another organisation which locks up a significant amount of prime land is the District Council at the Grange Site (opposite the police station).  It has long been planned that these offices should be moved out of the town centre to make way for a new shopping development, on a scale which would attract the larger shops people are clamouring for here.  Very few of the District Council’s officers are actually customer facing (so to speak). Retention of an in-town presence for those customer facing roles whilst moving the majority to an out-of-town location would make a lot of sense.  Building/occupying space at The Octagon Park development would be a fantastic opportunity to start this process. Some people might argue that dumping these larger shops in the city could damage trade for our smaller independent retailers and this is of course a risk, however I would remind you at this point of the anchor store concept.  Obviously these wouldn’t be directly located on streets which are struggling, for example High Street; they would however make Ely a more desirable shopping destination, pulling in greater footfall overall with enormous potential to benefit the entire city. The thing to remember about direct competition is that it also offers greater choice to customers.  If a shopper plans a visit to make a specific purchase, a destination which offers multiple options and increases chances of achieving the desired purchase is a far more appealing prospect to that shopper, so it can be very positive. Along with the fantastic new plans to redevelop and improve Ely Museum, a development on The Grange’s site offers a potential solution to so many of Ely’s problems and would open up an exciting new shopping zone in an area which has suffered enormous decline in retail.

I would personally take everything a massive step further by expanding the Cloisters site onto its current car park footprint, enabled by moving parking provision for it and The Grange site to an underground car park beneath the Paradise playing fields.  Whilst this would be an enormous project for Ely it is done throughout Europe (even in highly heritage sensitive areas) and would open up a huge amount of land for development right in the town. Dependent on the future of the Paradise leisure facilities, now that The Hive has opened, a hotel/retail/entertainment complex could potentially replace the existing site if one were to really do big blue sky thinking… maybe that’s just me!

The final opportunity opened up by Octagon Park is the District Council’s mothballed Ely Station Gateway plan [M.DCSG] which holds huge potential for Ely.  It would rely on the relocation of Tesco (which is no longer a certainty of course) and the completion of the bypass reducing heavy goods traffic through the area, combined with the decline of light industry at the site.  If these elements could all be achieved (the bypass is already nearing completion for one), the District Council’s proposal would offer a bold and exciting regeneration of the area station area. This would include residential and office space, new jobs, potential for light retail and expansive open spaces to take aesthetic advantage of Ely’s beautiful riverside and of course the cathedral.  Right now when people visit by train they are greeted by a run-down industrial area with heavy traffic and no obvious visual link to either the city or the riverside. This sort of improvement to the area could easily boost visits by railway to Ely and consequently our local economy too.

So what’s next…

Obviously these larger scale plans I have just discussed would be years in the works.  Many things will need to slot into place to enable them to happen, including continuing to lay the solid foundation of data collection/intelligence and dialogue with traders, landlords, potential investors, residents and councils.

At present a crucial survey is underway with all of the city centre businesses.  This is being led by 4 District Councillors from the Ely Electoral Wards and has also been adopted by the City Council.   This survey will assess key the issues businesses are facing right now in these tough trading conditions. If you are a trader and have yet to answer the survey (which is currently being collected) I would urge you to fill it in as soon as possible.  The results will allow the discussion to move out of the anecdotal stage and start to build a solid picture of the issues, facts and figures. This will enable the councils and the City Centre Forum to begin to take stronger action, including taking representation all the way to Parliament if necessary.  There may also be easier fixes, for example issues with rateable valuations that can be addressed en masse. Whilst the option to simply reduce rates is not within the powers of any of our three councils (as discussed in the first section of this article) there may be other measures that can be taken – any of which would require strong evidence to start the ball rolling.  The councils can also collectively fight on behalf of the city for new legislation and options to reduce the current burden to business, due to government policies.

As I already mentioned the City Centre Forum has achieved all it really can without additional funding.  If you feel this is a worthwhile body which should be funded then I encourage you again to contact the City and District Councils to express that view.

It’s not all about the official bodies however as each and every person who lives and works in Ely can help too!  It’s an old refrain but if you make the switch to buy locally, particularly from smaller independent traders, you will provide a significant boost to the local economy.  Even just switching a single regular item purchase from a supermarket to an independent trader can make a big difference. If things are too expensive or you can’t find what you want, consider letting our traders know.  If you’re unable to get to them during the opening hours they operate, make sure they know about it – good feedback informs good service. Equally if someone is doing something particularly well, tell them – you might just make their day!

A lot of people don’t realise it but using a bank card (or contactless payment device) is not free for businesses, quite the opposite.  Whilst companies like Tesco and Waitrose have enormous market power and can negotiate very low rates with payment processors such as Barclaycard, for smaller traders the charge can be as high as 50p per transaction (in addition to monthly fees).  As you can imagine this adds an enormous overhead to purchases so if you have the cash, or can get some before you go to an independent retailer, it too can make a significant difference to their bottom line.

Recommend a friend!  Ely isn’t perfect but it has a lot to offer to visitors, shoppers and tourists.  If you have an opportunity to recommend Ely, do it! If it’s an office party, a conference, friends looking for somewhere to visit or any time you see an opportunity, give Ely that hard sell!  You might not know it but we have excellent conference facilities here so consider bringing your company to Ely for a retreat, meeting, product launch or even an AGM. Along with a fantastic range of facilities and accommodation options, our transport links by train are excellent (particularly to London and Cambridge) with many frequent services running throughout the day.  Do you know someone looking for a wedding venue, are you looking for one for that matter? Ely has some wonderful offerings from the beautiful riverside setting of The Maltings to Poets House and the breathtaking Old Hall in Stuntney, so make sure you take a look at or recommend Ely!

Say Hello!  I mentioned previously that the City Centre Forum would like to start an Ely Ambassador program; until we find a way, be an ambassador yourself!  Ely already has a reputation for being a friendly place but why not make it even better… if you see/hear someone who looks like they need directions or maybe a suggestion for somewhere to eat, take a moment to stop and help them.  Not only might you direct them to a local business they otherwise wouldn’t know about but you might leave such a good impression that they come back or recommend Ely to friends further afield. I realise this may seem like a light suggestion but there’s a reason we want to have ambassadors here, it really does work!

Explore some more!  During my time with Ely Perspective and the City Centre Forum I have surveyed and personally spoken to almost every business in Ely at one point or another.  Something I’ve frequently been told is that people who’ve lived here since the year dot walk in and say “I never knew you were there!”. Did you know for instance that we have a SubWay restaurant at the back of Spar on High Street?  Or that we have Sew Much To Do, a fantastic arts and crafts shop on High Street Passage? Ever fancied a nice relaxing massage? Positively Treated (also on High Street Passage – are you seeing why we need some signage on the passages yet?) offer a fantastic range of massages and holistic treatments.  Perhaps you’re looking to hire or buy a cocktail or party dress? Maybe a swanky new handbag? Something Special of Newnham Street may have just what you’re after. Fancy yourself some Scandinavian style – no problem, just pop along to Jensen’s on Market Street and check out their fantastic clothing ranges!  We have some really excellent shops and businesses in Ely and maybe you’ve missed a few, so why not seek them out and pay them a visit! Google Maps is your friend here, just search “shops in Ely”, zoom right in and see what you can find! You can also check out the business directory at https://www.spottedinely.com/business-directory (if you own a business and you’re not on there, make sure you add a listing too!)

We do have some very difficult issues here which require significant investment and effort to overcome. We’re not the only ones going through these difficult times but I hope this now very long report has offered some insight into the complexity of our situation – thank you for reading if you’ve made it this far!  Above all, keep the dialogue open, engage your friends and colleagues in the discussion on social media, in the pub, at home, at work, anywhere!  Shop locally, spread the word and do let the councils and decision makers know your opinions and ideas (contact links are in the first section of this article titled “One council to rule them all…”).  Together, we can keep Ely vibrant and thriving for generations to come.

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