'Battered and shattered' traders start to reopen their shops

Finishing touches made to a window display at Fields of Sidmouth 

Finishing touches made to a window display at Fields of Sidmouth - Credit: Mark Eburne

It is great to see our town centre gradually reopening after the success of the lockdown and vaccination programme, writes Richard Eley, president of Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce.    

What a relief to see our businesses welcoming back their customers, and things seeming almost normal again. Good luck to all our battered and shattered traders as they try to rebuild their livelihoods. Sidmouth being Sidmouth, there is little doubt that everyone will comply with regulations and observe all the Covid measures required by the government.
Given the burst of optimism, it was sad to learn of the closure of Hayman’s Butchers in Church Street, a Sidmouth institution for 115 years, and the last traditional butchers in the town centre. What a service the Hayman family has provided to the town for well over a century, and our very best wishes to Stewart and Shirley as they enter much-deserved retirement. We can’t be sure, but we think that the Hayman family may be the longest serving members of the Chamber, stretching back to well before World War II. We thank them for their marvellous contribution to the town over such a long period of time, and for their ever-cheerful approach to one and all.
Just as hope for town centres returns, the Government proposes a relaxation of planning legislation to enable shops and offices to more easily become residential accommodation. The thinking behind this policy is that town centres are going to contract and retail’s domination of towns is coming to an end: to be fair, both of these assumptions are likely to be correct.
However, allowing any commercial premises in a town to close and be replaced with residential accommodation, without planning approval, is a risky strategy, and could lead to rapid replacement of long-established shopping centres like our own, with housing. This is particularly likely where, as in Sidmouth, residential values are very high. It is likely that a great many retail outlets in our town are worth more as residential units. Wholesale planning deregulation is not the answer for every town.
Our understanding is that town centres that are also ‘conservation areas’, as is the case with Sidmouth, may be permitted to develop local policies to control these changes, in which case EDDC will have to move rapidly to bring some control and discipline to the procedures, and allow for local circumstances to be taken into account. We can only hope they will consult with individual towns.
Meanwhile, Sidmouth, and similar towns, are likely to be forgotten and ignored by central government once again, when it comes to government support. The much-vaunted Towns Fund is, in the main, being distributed to cities. Smaller market and coastal towns are being deliberately passed by. If you don’t have a John Lewis, it seems, you do not qualify. It doesn’t help that government support for the South West always seems to go to Swindon and Bournemouth: many of us don’t think they are in the ‘proper’ South West at all. It does seem that the closer you are to London, the louder your voice is heard.
Finally, a mention, of course, for Prince Philip. What an incredible life he led, and what service he gave to his adopted country, and to The Queen. We should find some way in Sidmouth of marking his contribution.

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