Post House Wynd, like so much of Darlington town centre, and indeed town centres across the country, is suffering. Businesses are closing, shops lie empty. The overall feel of the town centre is depressing and uninspiring at the moment. The LGA has recently called on the Government to allow local authorities more powers to make use of empty shops. That would certainly help.
While the Wynd still has a few great independent shops: the Silver Shop and three other jewellers, the Darlington Camera Centre, the Health Warehouse (ahem), the computer shop and a couple of good cafes, we have lost several others over the past few months. There are now five empty shops in the Wynd. A year ago there were none.
The number of charity shops in the Wynd is growing: we already have four (Barnado's, Cancer Research, Help the Aged and British Heart Foundation), and now I understand the unit formerly occupied by Simpsons Sports is to become a new branch of Shelter. That will mean five charity shops all grouped together in the middle of the Wynd.
It's better than the shop lying empty, I suppose, but in the long run I don't see the proliferation of charity shops here, and throughout the town centre, as a good thing.
Charity shops have changed enormously in recent years and many big name charities are now competing directly with small businesses. The new style chain charity shops are more like businesses with the buying power of a major retailer.
Many charities like Oxfam are now aggressively competing in the commercial market place, employing professional staff selling a range of new goods. They have dispensed with the volunteer led shops selling cheap donated goods. Yet they still keep their costs down by benefiting from generous tax breaks, such as the 80 per cent mandatory business rates reduction. Meanwhile smaller businesses have to meet overheads such as rent, rates, paying decent wages and corporation tax.
Recently, a group of MPs warned that unless high street shops are protected they will have disappeared by 2015. Charity shops are now adding to that pressure. Small businesses must be supported and protected by the Government locally and nationally. They are already feeling tremendous pressure from the supermarkets, out of town shopping centres and the relative expense of parking in town.
The definition of charity shops should be changed. Those which sell new goods and employ professional staff should pay full business rates and corporation tax on profits.
The continued loss of local independent shops would take away much of what makes Darlington an attractive centre for shopping.