OKEHAMPTON MP Mel Stride has met with the chancellor of the exchequer to call for help for Okehampton’s struggling high street.

The MP has asked Sajid Javid to reduce business rates further to support traders in Okehampton and other towns in his constituency. He said they were really struggling in the face of online competition.

Central Devon has some wonderful market towns stretching from Okehampton across to Crediton and down to Chudleigh, Bovey Tracey and Ashburton but trading conditions are not easy,’ he said.

‘Every year that passes sees a small demographic shift from older generations who are more likely to browse their local shops towards younger people who do most of their shopping online.

‘If we want our high streets to survive, they need to be competitive and continuing to reduce business rates is one way we can do this.’

Currently businesses in the town are benefiting from a one third reduction in business rates for two years but traders in Okehampton would like to see a more permanent scheme to help them put in place.

Mark Turner, who runs Donald’s Menswear on Fore Street with his wife Gail, said traders like him would like to see the business rates system completely overhauled.

He said: ‘Business rates are basically tax with no benefit to a business unlike council tax where you do get services for it. Business rates are purely money that goes to the Government, unlike VAT which happens at the point of sale and is at least linked to how well you are doing.’

Mr Turner is currently benefiting from a reduction in business rates brought in in April this year of a third off their business rates for two years. For his business, this amounts to a £200 discount on their monthly business rates totalling £600. However he said the Government needed to go further.

He added: ‘The reduction on business rates that is in place at the moment is obviously great but I think what’s needed is a complete root and branch look at it, bearing in mind that online only businesses don’t pay any business rates.

‘If they want high street businesses to survive they need to help them.’

Mr Stride, who was until recently financial secretary to the Treasury, said he had played ‘a key role’ in reducing business rates for small and medium-sized businesses and is urging the chancellor of the exchequer to consider further reductions.

There is concern locally about the number of empty shops in the town.

Nicola Bentley-Lovell, who runs NBL Antiques in the Red Lion Yard, said she agreed that there was a need for more help for traders in the town to avoid the phenomenon of empty shops which made the town look unloved.While she is herself exempt from business rates under a rent relief scheme for the smallest shops, she says traders are deterred from taking on larger premises in the town because they would have to pay the business rates on them.‘It is a shame because there is a lovely shop that is opposite me that has been empty for a long time. It has got a big old floor space and I would like to run that one to step up a bit but it would mean paying business rates,’ she said.She said that empty shops were deterring people from coming into the town when they drove into the car park by Waitrose.She is currently displaying some of her shop goods in the empty shop at the end of the Red Lion Yard overlooking Waitrose, with the permission of the landlord.‘That shop has been empty since March and it didn’t look good; when people are coming into the car park all they were seeing was massive empty shops. ‘My landlord has allowed me to put my stuff in, as a display, so that it looks less empty. I have filled it up and made it look a bit more inviting.’Mr Turner said there was also an urgent need sort out the traffic in the town.He added: ‘Personally as a business we are doing ok, we are kind of holding our own but others are struggling. Footfall isn’t great as soon as something happens with the roads. ‘For instance, when they were digging up East Street the other day it caused this absolute standstill. People were doing three-point turns and driving straight back out of Okehampton.’He added, though, that a permanent reduction in business rates on all retail premises in the town would help.‘The third off, two year reduction is great for as long as it lasts and it has allowed us to invest in the business – but it is a short-term fix.‘I would have hoped that we would be looking at a complete reform of our business rates system.’