VIDEO: Penzance "on the tipping point", says Tory Party chair Grant Shapps
CONSERVATIVE Party chairman Grant Shapps said Penzance was "on the tipping point" of success or failure as he attended a breakfast meeting in the town today.
The MP for Welwyn Hatfield, who was invited to the town by prospective Conservative MP for St Ives Derek Thomas, said he could see the town going "either way" following the recession.
He criticised councils that used parking charges as a "cash cow" but said free parking was not the answer to every high street's problems and the towns themselves should be finding ways to attract customers.
Speaking to party members and business leaders at Hotel Penzance this morning, Mr Shapps described west Cornwall as a "unique part of the world" facing unique challenges as a result of its geography and limited access from the east.
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As part of a wider tour to launch the Conservative Party's election campaign across the Westcountry, he promised to help small businesses with the red tape and bureaucracy that many complained was holding them back.
He said: "I see this town as being on the cusp – almost on a tipping point where it could go one way or the other. You are a completely unique part of the world. It is a fantastic part of the world. It is unique."
Penzance chamber chair Dick Cliffe asked what the government was doing to address prohibitively high business rates that were preventing the occupancy of larger shops on the high street.
"People often say that business rates have gone up," replied Mr Shapps. "But they have not risen at all above inflation for the past few years.
He said the government had introduced rate relief for small businesses as well as an opportunity for those occupying larger premises to defer payment on rate increased.
"As a government we do need to think very carefully about how we can go further to help retail," he added.
On the subject of parking, Marcus Wilkinson, owner of Penzance's largest and oldest town centre store, Alfred Smith and Sons, suggested a levy on out of town store parking that could be used to offset town centre rates.
Mr Shapps said he was in favour of "activist" planning permissions that would outline such plans as part of the agreement but said the government was not in a position to force private companies to charge for parking.
Tim Dwelly, who is setting up Penzance's Work Hub, along with businessman Stuart Hakes and former Newlyn fish auctioneer Robin Turner all raised questions about the bureaucracy surrounding small businesses and Mr Shapps promised a "red tape investigation".