Ashton in crisis, say concerned traders

ASHTON is in crisis, claim local traders Val Unwin and Spencer Grady who are critical of the lack of support from Tameside Council for struggling businesses.

And with footfall in the town centre “down considerably” since the Covid-19 lockdown was lifted, Val is calling on the local authority to be more sympathetic.

Val, a member of Ashton Town Team and Ashton Independent Retail, cited many market tenants receiving rent demands, some with a court summons for trivial amounts.

She said: “Despite engagement with traders there has been no compromise on rent rates being mitigated – how can normal rents be applicable in abnormal times?

“If the market, especially the indoor one, is allowed to deteriorate or fall apart, it will have a serious knock-on effect for the rest of the town.

“It is a hub and brings people to the town as well as being a bring employer so supports many families.”

Val, who has run Decisions Clothing for the last 21 years, estimates she is trading at 80 per cent compared with pre-lockdown.

“I have spoken to others in the market hall and a lot are trading at 50 per cent which is not sustainable,” she added.

Val praised the Government for the £10,000 grant, furlough and self-employed support scheme for helping businesses to survive and be in a position to reopen.

But she said businesses still need support more than ever to help them get back on their feet.

Val said: “The Government did its part but the council won’t engage with us and do their part.

“They are adamant full recent and service charges were paid when businesses were closed and also now, but we are not in normal times.”

Val would like the council to make bold decisions such as offering two hours free parking to try and entice shoppers back to the town centre, something which has the widespread support of local businesses which want it implemented to at least March 2021.

Ashton Town Team has made a formal request to Tameside Council for free parking but said it has not received a reply.

Val explained: “There is a lack of capacity for car parks in Ashton but, with many still working from home, they are quite empty.

“The charge of £1 for three hours is not a lot, but some people are still taking baby steps to leave the house and reluctant to use public transport.

“They feel safer in their own car and I am sure the words ‘free parking’ would help as something is needed to encourage footfall.”

Ashton Market Hall

Val added Tameside Council has access to more than £200,000 funding from reopening the high street safely.

She said: “This funding covers many areas but local authorities are strongly advised that the funding be specifically aimed at supporting small/micro businesses, finding ways of encouraging footfall back to the town in a safe environment and local authorities should engage with these businesses.

“However, that isn’t happening. Tameside Council has embarked on a public survey, none of the questions relate to business and it’s hard to understand how this survey will give them any idea at all what is need to help businesses survive this difficult period.

“There seems no clear plan to revitalise town centres throughout Tameside with measures to support increased footfall and help businesses during this stressful time.”

Spencer, from the Ashton Business and Shoppers Association, reiterated Val’s comments.

He said: “People are not shopping in Manchester as they once were, and this is a unique opportunity to shop locally.

“We have lots of ideas to help but need the council to pull their finger out as they are dragging their feet.”

Spencer, who has run Grade A Jewellers for the last 18 years, added: “We need Tameside Council to be more pro-active like other authorities are.

“We have some unique businesses and ought to celebrate what we have got.”

Apart from car parking, Spencer added the general cleanliness of the town is a concern as is the shortage of signage to direct shoppers.

A Tameside Council spokesperson said: “Tameside Council is working to engage with and support businesses and with wider community in its continued response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the outbreak, we have supported businesses to access the financial support available.

“In total, Tameside Council has supported local businesses by providing over £46.53million in grants and more than £38.81million in Business Rates Relief. Support is also available through the Tameside Business Resilience Clinic, which offers free advice and support to micro as well as small and medium enterprises across Tameside.

“Through the Safely Reopening Tameside campaign we are encouraging the safe use of shops and businesses. Funding from the Reopening the High Street Safely Fund is being put to use across the next year throughout Tameside’s town centres focusing on the workplace, travel and the public realm.

“To ensure this is funding is used effectively we are currently running a public consultation and welcome discussion with residents and businesses on how this money can be spent. Since lockdown rules changed and non-essential businesses have been allowed to open again this campaign will be crucial to ensure employers feel supported.

“To ensure traders have been supported, our markets’ management has worked with businesses through what has been a challenging time for everyone.

“This work has been acknowledged by most traders who have let us know the systems now in place allow them to safely open with trade being steady and in cases exceeding expectations.

“We have offered to support traders unable to resolve any outstanding amounts by agreeing to put in place a payment plan.

“We are also continually reviewing social distancing measuring and trading hours across our markets.

“In regard of parking charges, these are essential for the upkeep and maintenance of our car-parks. Our car parks are very competitively priced and benchmark well against other areas. We also have free on-street car parking for short-stay visitors.

“We appreciate this situation has brought unprecedented challenges to our businesses as Tameside Council will continue to work alongside our partners in the business community so we can build back better.

“Any businesses looking for support should email employmentandskills@tameside.gov.uk or visit www.tameside.gov.uk/safetameside.”

• Take part in the public consultation online: www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/ReopeningtheHighStreetSafely

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