Victims of UK High Street crisis tell stories

They are the backbone of the economy, but small businesses on the high street are feeling the pinch like never before.

Often family-run, they are being forced to the wall or threatened with closure due to a toxic combination of soaring business rates, high rents and hefty staff costs.

And that's before you throw in cut-throat competition from the internet, as growing numbers of customers migrate online.

Here, a selection of business owners describe their struggles and offer solutions to help Save Our High Streets.

1. BOOKSHOP THAT EARNED JUST £12 A DAY

Cutting business rates may be the only way to prevent the country's historic high streets being turned into rows of boarded-up shops, according to bookseller Georgia Duffy.

The 28-year-old former radiographer bucked the trend by opening Imagined Things, the only independent bookshop in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, last July.

But while she has attracted a loyal customer base through events and book-signings, last month she was dealt a harsh lesson in the downside of swapping the health service for self-employment.

On June 25 she wrote on Twitter that her store had taken only £12.34 all day. 'Things have been tough recently – today the worst day ever,' she wrote.

The response was overwhelming. Her message was read more than one million times and the next day the shop was inundated with orders from all over the country.

Bookshop owner Georgia Duffy, 21, from Harrogate in North Yorkshire, where she has been known to earn just £12 a day 

Bookshop owner Georgia Duffy, 21, from Harrogate in North Yorkshire, where she has been known to earn just £12 a day 

But one viral tweet does not change the day-to-day reality of running an independent shop in a sector dominated by online retailers, and Miss Duffy argues that reforming business rates would make a huge difference.

'The system is completely unfair,' she said. 'It needs to be reformed, and someone needs to find an appropriate way of taxing online businesses.

'When you're opening a shop, you can negotiate with the landlord over rent, but business rates are completely inflexible.

'It means people struggle to expand to bigger premises and in the worst cases will close down.'

She supports the Booksellers Association's petition to exempt bookshops from paying business rates, but believes change needs to go much further.

'People come to towns like Harrogate for a good shopping experience, but unless we want to see growing numbers of empty stores, something needs to change,' she said. 

'Recently we've lost chain stores like H&M and Topshop. The business rates on those big units are unbelievable – who's going to take them on?'

Originally from Middlesbrough, Miss Duffy has lived in Harrogate for six years.

After deciding a career as a radiographer 'wasn't for me', she looked into several 'crazy business ideas' before deciding to combine her interest in retail with her love of books.

Her store – named after a quote from the author Neil Gaiman – has a separate children's section, places to sit and a fish tank for those who need a little quiet contemplation.

'Business rates are an unnecessary burden on shops like mine,' she said. 'I'd love to see them reformed.'

2. AGED 72, BUT NO WAY TO WORK LESS

At the age of 72, Richard Hunt was hoping to take a step back from the hardware shop he has run with his wife for 22 years.

But the father-of-one found he was unable to give himself a well-earned break when his business rates increased by 30 per cent.

'I was hoping next year to take a bit more time out and get a part-timer to cover,' said Mr Hunt. 'That's out of the door – I will be contributing to their pensions rather than mine. 

'We are managing and doing nicely to hold our own, but we will take a bit with these business rates.'

The business owner, who runs Hunt's of Marlow in Buckinghamshire with his wife Sylvia, said he was having to pay higher rates because some large online firms avoid paying tax.

Richard Hunt, of Hunt's of Marlow in Buckinghamshire, has to keep working at 72 because he can't afford to step back from the business 

Richard Hunt, of Hunt's of Marlow in Buckinghamshire, has to keep working at 72 because he can't afford to step back from the business 

He added: 'Other than employment, nothing is coming back into the economy, to the detriment of all the smaller traders.

'At the moment I feel I'm paying a higher proportion because they are not getting it from these big players. These people with the big lawyers are getting away with it.'

He urged the Government: 'Please, from the bottom of my heart, give us a chance.'

His is another business that has been hammered by the growth of internet shopping.

Mr Hunt said: 'We used to do a lot of model railways but the internet killed that stone dead. 

'We get people who come in to look, touch and feel. You show them it running and off they go to buy it online.'

Hunt's of Marlow once sat on the town's high street but moved to larger premises 11 years ago when rents became too expensive.

Mr Hunt said: 'Marlow itself is a very busy, lively town but there's a total change of trading in the town. 

'I couldn't believe how many coffee shops there are in the town and they have always got people in them.'

He called for the Government to give every business owner a 'fair crack of the whip' and to ensure big online businesses pay more back into the economy.

3. TOWN WHERE SHOPS DISAPPEAR 

Hit by business rates of £25,000, Toby Roberts, 46, who owns a chain of six shops, fears for the future of his town centre outlets. 'They are just forcing costs on small businesses,' he said.

'At a time when the Government also increased the national living wage, I'm the one who has to find the money at the end of the month.'

Even though his Winchester hardware shop is one of the strongest independent businesses in the town, he has seen a rapid decline in footfall over the past two years.

'I do worry about the ones in the town centres,' he said. 'Winchester used to be a thriving place – we used to be a bit different and there used to be some independent shops. They're all slowly disappearing.'

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