RUGBY’S leading business and political figures have a clear message on the state of the town centre - there’s only so much they can do.
Rugby Borough Council leader Craig Humphrey and Rugby First managing director Robin Richter say they are doing all they can to attract new businesses.
But they warn they don’t have the sweeping powers some Rugbeians seem to think they have.
Responding to a barrage of criticism from readers in last week’s Advertiser, Mr Richter said: “We don’t own any shops.
“If a landlord wants to sell his shop to a pawnbroker or a charity shop there’s nothing we can do about it – we have no control over it.
“Neither do we have any control over rates. Business rates is a national issue - virtually all the revenue goes to the Exchequer.
“And we don’t have any control over the level of rent that’s set for the shops.”
He added: “We can talk to people and try to influence them, but we have no control over them.”
Most empty properties are owned by big institutions like banks and pension funds.
The aftermath of the credit crunch has made things more complex still. For instance the former Next premises are owned by the Irish state.
And the complex methods used to calculate the worth of their assets mean these organisations sometimes have no incentive to fill their empty properties.
Mr Richter says Rugby First, the company that manages services and promotes the town centre, is doing what it can.
Its leaders are in regular contact with traders thinking of coming to Rugby
And it will shortly announce a new initiative with local landlords to offer new businesses free rent and other financial support.
Mr Richter said: “We all feel the most realistic way forward is to ‘grow our own’ – people who are going to take a chance in retail premises for the first time.”
The switch to online shopping means town centres will probably evolve into places of leisure and entertainment with fewer shops. TV expert Mary Portas predicted as much in her recent report for the Government.
Mr Richter said: “The picture has changed and it’s changed for good. Only a few years ago one per cent of shopping was done online. Now it’s 12 per cent and still growing fast.
“If that continues it won’t just be towns like Rugby that are worried but places like Birmingham and Manchester.
Cllr Humphrey, Conservative leader of Rugby Borough Council, agrees.
“Retail is changing. You can buy clothes or books over the internet, but you can’t drink coffee over the internet,” he said.
“We have a retail strategy in Rugby and we want things like quality independent retailers and a cafe society.”
Cllr Humphrey called criticism of parking charges in Rugby town centre “a red herring”.
The council has produced figures showing parking for up to five hours is cheaper in Rugby than anywhere else in Warwickshire.