The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) is spearheading a campaign to make sure that Leighton Buzzard High Street thrives against the threat of out of town retail parks, increased housing and Brexit.
Its Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire branch has launched the ‘Live, Play, Stay Local’ campaign, urging retailers to join its group in a bid to keep raising key issues such as growth, promotion, accessibility, public transport, car parking, strategic planning, and how to keep trade local.
The FSB will then raise these points on a local and national level. It is currently planning a meeting on September 24 in Bossard Hall in order to speak to Andrew Selous MP about retailers’ fears and hopes for the future.
Caron Kendall, development manager at Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire FSB, said: “Our aim is to protect the town centre and local businesses, as well as to protect them from out-of-town retail developments.
“There’s a lot of new housing and what we want to ensure is that people come to Leighton Buzzard and understand what’s in there, so we retain shoppers and they don’t go out to MK or Luton.”
She added: “Leighton Buzzard is a fantastic market town and town centres hold other services; banks, libraries, all those sorts of things. Having a proper, thriving centre is a great way to protect against loneliness. In an out-of-town development, it is hard to build a cohesive community.”
Indeed, Leighton-Linslade is bracing itself for up to 2,500 new houses to be built to the east of the town, while a debate is currently raging about Mayfair 500’s planning application to build 18 flats on land south of high street; local pubs argue that potential noise restrictions could damage trade, but the developers state that the site will “rejuvenate” the town centre.
As these issues will directly impact local businesses, Gennaro Borrelli, leader of the FSB special interest group for Leighton-Linslade and the surrounding areas, is encouraging retailers to get involved and have a voice.
He said: “We’re a small committee who meet every few months to discuss a plan of action – what’s best for our local members – and raise this with the local authorities.
“We do lots of promotional stuff as well.
"We have discussions on a national level, for example about business rates and VAT rates, and about local issues - more and more people are worried about parking charges and access into town. Congestion seems to be a growing problem and so many villages are having their bus services cut.
"I have made this quite clear in the past - we have embraced growth but where people started to get fed up - they're all saying there's an urban sprawl with no joined up thinking about facilities and amenities. But there's an awful lot of potential with growth and potential new customers."
Caron points out that Ely doesn't have parking charges, suggesting that this could also be done in the town centre, perhaps if the council only charged in the early hours of the morning to dissuade commuters from leaving their cars there all day.
But aside from looking through a local lens, her role in the FSB sees Caron examine the impact of national issue, Brexit, arguing that small firms are struggling to expand, hire and raise productivity as political uncertainty leaves them increasingly hamstrung.
She said: "In Leighton Buzzard there's quite a lot of industry - imports and exports - and people are telling me they absolutely can't find any warehouse space. People are stockpiling in uncertainty.
"The FSB is politically neutral on Brexit, but we know we can't afford to have a chaotic exit."
The FSB's new 'Live, Play, Stay Local' campaign comes as Central Bedfordshire Council is asking local residents to get involved with its survey about local Leighton-Linslade shops and services in order to produce a benchmarking report to better understand the current local retail market and anticipate future demand.
The FSB is encouraging local businesses to get involved in politics as much as possible, by either becoming a member of the FSB Special Interest Group, or passing on their concerns to the team.
The September 24 meeting at Bossard House will be from 1pm - 3pm. It is hoped that members of the Town Council will attend, while it is an opportunity for retailers to speak to their local MP, so as he can raise any points with the government.
Gennaro concluded: "We recently had a well reported and supported Independent's Day, but some are saying that things are a bit quiet. This could be to do with the slow down of the economy and the Brexit effect, but we can't ignore the fact there's a new retail park on Grovebury Road.
"But on an optimistic note, we are seeing signs - and the FSB has data - to show that people are turning back to traditional high streets that offer something unique, bespoke and specialised to the area."
To find out more, visit: https://www.fsb.org.uk/
To read about CBC's town survey, visit: https://www.leightonbuzzardonline.co.uk/news/politics/give-your-feedback-on-leighton-linslade-shops-and-services-1-8991637
To join the FSB Leighton-Linslade and surrounding areas special interest group, call Gennaro on: 01525 854273.