Businesses plea to council for more help as 71 properties left vacant in Dunstable
A Freedom of Information request by Luton News found that there were 71 business premises not being used in the LU6 postcode – and six of them have not been in use since 2000. A former Oxfam shop on High Street North appeared on the list of vacant properties along with Halifax and two Nat West branches.
Business owners are calling on both Central Bedfordshire Council and Dunstable Town Council to do more to make the town attractive to prospective customers and businesses.
The councils say they are helping with schemes including reductions in business rates for businesses that aren’t part of a chain, improvement works in the High Street and a growing programme of events.
Justin Kanzen owns The Vault, a watch and jewellery shop in Ashton Square. He said: “Dunstable is quite a lovely destination because there's a lot of independent shops. It doesn't seem to be very easy to get to, so I hear a lot of people complaining that the transport is not the best. The councils seem to be wanting to put up the price to park, rather than offering free parking.”
Currently, Central Bedfordshire Council owns eight car parks in the town and charges £1.50 for up to one hour of parking.
Justin added: “[The councils] don't really understand what's going on. That's something that is very frustrating not only for me, but for all of the shop owners around here because we all seem to be sailing in different directions. There needs to be one direction to make the town get better.”
Sarah O’Dell, owner of Vaping Not Smoking on West Street, said: “The number one thing is definitely parking. There's so many places you can go that have far more shops or are cheaper to park, such as Centre: Milton Keynes.”
Sarah, who has had her shop in the town for over eight years, continued: “In terms of actually opening up a business or some shop, the rates are horrendous. I know some other business owners that have been and gone because the rate that they were being charged was just too much to be able to sustain business.”
Another Ashton Square resident, Joanne Bowes, is the owner of The Workhouse art gallery and co-chair of Dunstable Cultural Consortium. She said: “I think with the town centre improvements, the reduction in empty units and our diverse historic roots, we are in a very strong position to attract new retailers and customers.”
Joanne suggested a ‘Visit Dunstable’ website to highlight the town’s amenities and events, local and accessible business awards, better joint working between Dunstable Town Council and Central Bedfordshire Council, and a focus on creating more small, low cost retail units.
She added: “We need to find a way to constructively support our independent retailers so that they are able to work together to help promote their own businesses and the town as a whole.”
In response to the FOI data and businesses’ concerns, Cllr Steven Watkins, executive member for Business, Housing and Public Assets at Central Bedfordshire Council said: “We understand local businesses are dealing with rising costs and new challenges. Business rates is one area where we have some scope to help. For example, a typical high street shop that is not part of a national chain will receive a reduction in their business rates.
"Nearly half of the businesses eligible for business rates in Central Bedfordshire receive small business rates relief, amounting to about £5m in 2023/24. Another third are classed as “small businesses” that have their rates bill calculated using a lower multiplier.
“There is also a national scheme for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses where they can receive a 75 per cent reduction in their rates bill depending on the size of the business premises they occupy. There are about 900 businesses receiving this type of relief.
“Other ways we are supporting businesses and residents in Dunstable to thrive include our recently announced funding allocation as part of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF). We’ll be working with Dunstable Town Council on a co-investment plan for the town centre and activities in community spaces. We hope the funding can begin to be spent next year once plans are agreed.
“The South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP) Growth Hub is a business support service that provides coaching, guidance and access to grants to help businesses succeed through whatever challenges they face and would encourage those who are looking for support to engage with the Hub’s services.
“In council-managed car parks in Dunstable, we offer business and employee permits to those working in the area and officers regularly monitor free limited waiting bays and car parks to encourage regular turnover of spaces.
“We also encourage any Dunstable business owner who is seeking advice to contact our Business Support Team by emailing [email protected] who can offer dedicated training and support resources.”
A spokesperson for Dunstable Town Council said: “While there are vacant units in the town, the number is slightly less than six years ago; Dunstable is not a town in decline. The recent works on the high street within The High Street Heritage Action Zone and the growing programme of markets and events are helping to increase the town’s vibrancy.
“The town council employs the Town Centre Manager, who organises over 30 markets with local vendors and also town centre events each year. The number and range of markets have grown in recent years. This year the town council brought the vegan market and monthly Street Food Heroes to the town for the first time, both of which will be returning next year. These events bring our community together and contribute to the overall appeal of our town.
“In addition to these events, the town council proudly manages the award-winning Ashton Square Toilets, ensuring that our facilities remain clean, accessible, and welcoming for everyone.
“One of our significant achievements has been securing £1.2 million of external funding from the High Street Heritage Action Zone scheme. Dunstable is one of only two town councils to receive this funding nationally. This money is enabling us to invest in preserving and enhancing the historical and architectural heritage of our town centre, including substantial works to repair and protect Priory House.
“The town council does not receive any funding through business rates, is not a landlord of retail units and does not operate any car parks. However, we deeply value the town’s businesses and high street and are committed to supporting local businesses and contributing to the regeneration of the town centre.
“The town council allocates over £200,000 each year to support a wide range of town centre related services and activities. This funding reinforces our commitment to working with Central Bedfordshire Council and other partners to use all the resources we can attract to support businesses and provide a thriving town centre.”