Small Talk: How a 117-year-old printing firm survived two world wars but had no chance against its council’s parking committee

A rather tragic sign went up last week in the window of Arber & Co, a small printer that has inhabited the same premises in the heart of the East End for almost 120 years.

“This shop will be closing at the end of May,” it read. “We have been here for 117 years. Printed for the suffragettes. Survived enemy bombing through two world wars and now we are finished due to Tower Hamlets Council’s parking policy.”

The council’s restrictions outside Arber & Co prohibit anyone stopping to pick up orders from the shop during working hours. Print orders are often very heavy – and a number plate recognition camera on the other side of the street automatically doles out fines to anyone who breaks the rules. Customers have therefore given up on the business.

It’s a story that will resonate with small firms and independent retailers who have long argued that such parking policies put them at a major disadvantage to the out-of-town shopping centres and retail parks with which they compete.

Last week’s Local Business Week, a nationwide campaign to encourage people to buy from local businesses was a big success. It follows the triumph of Small Business Saturday last November, which produced a huge jump in UK revenues for independent business.

These promotions tend to do well because the target audience is hugely receptive to them. A survey published last week by Everline, which provides finance to small businesses, suggested that 42 per cent of British consumers already “shop local”, deliberately choosing to spend their money with at least three local firms.

The problem is that we’re making it harder for people to follow their hearts. Why shop on the high street and risk a £60 fine every time you take the car when you can park safely and conveniently at a large shopping centre with all the retail outlets you need under a single roof?

The Federation of Small Business thinks parking is a huge problem its firms, particularly in large cities. A survey it conducted last year found that 64 per cent of small companies in London thought parking availability and cost had a negative impact on their businesses.

There may be steps small businesses can take to mitigate some of those problems – more home deliveries, say, or baggage storage facilities – but only up to a point.

Local authorities naturally need to consider strategies that ease congestion and maintain access in their high streets and town centres – not to do so wouldn’t help small businesses either. There will always be a tension here because these locations, by definition, have less space.

However, the Federation of Small Business’s long-held suspicion is that many authorities are increasing restrictions, raising charges and introducing more fines because they see parking as an opportunity to raise revenue at a time when their budgets are straitened.

If that’s the case, it’s a short-sighted strategy.

Back in Tower Hamlets, for example, the local authority may have made a few quid from fining people stopping outside Arber & Co for a few seconds, but it will soon be missing out on the business rates that the printer has been paying until now.

And once there’s no reason to stop at the shop, the parking fines will dry up too.

Half of HMRC’s ‘late’ fines are incorrect

As many as half the fines imposed on businesses for filing VAT returns late may be incorrect, figures obtained from HM Revenue & Customs suggest.

Accountant UHY Hacker Young said a data request it had made to HMRC showed that in 2013, 49 per cent of the 17,200 appeals made by businesses against late filing penalties were successful.

Under a computerised system introduced in 2009, businesses automatically receive fines related to their VAT bills when they file returns late. Those that have an explanation for the late filing then have to challenge the fine and seek to have it overturned.

Simon Newark, a partner at UHY Hacker Young suggested that the high success rate in such appeals suggested that the system was unfair – particularly since only those businesses that go to the trouble of challenging a fine can win redress.

“HMRC’s late filing system starts off with the premise that the taxpayer is wrong – you have to prove your innocence,” he said. “This  is perceived by taxpayers as being unfair, but unfortunately, that’s what the law says.”

Smaller firms want UK to remain in EU

Britain’s small and medium-sized companies are overwhelmingly against the idea of the UK withdrawing from the European Union, new research shows. But while 90 per cent of these businesses think the UK should remain with the EU, 71 per cent also think the Government should renegotiate the UK’s relationship with other member nations.

The Quoted Companies Alliance, which conducted the research, said there was almost no support for EU withdrawal among stock market listed small and medium-sized companies. Just 4 per cent of such businesses think the UK should pull out altogether – even though 39 per cent say membership has no impact on their business.

“Small and mid-cap quoted companies clearly see value in the UK remaining part of the European Union but for them, it is not a binary ‘in or out’ question,” said Tim Ward, chief executive of the Quoted Companies Alliance. “We have found that small and mid-cap companies would rather the UK sorts out how it can optimise its position within the EU system rather than be sitting on the outside looking in.”

Small Business Person of the Week: Simon Evans, Co-founder, Slingshot Effect

“I founded the business in 2008 with my partner Simon Johnson to encourage integration between entertainment and technology.

“Slingshot runs street games in cities across the UK – the idea is to put people at the centre of the action. Our best seller is 2.8 Hours Later, an urban chase game where participants have to escape zombies who are out to get them – we’re planning events in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Manchester, Glasgow and Sheffield this year.

“That game has really established the business, giving us the cashflow we need to plan ahead, but when we started out, it was tough. New ventures don’t trade sustainably and we found ourselves living on our nerves and working all hours – we’ve finally been able to escape that vortex.

“We’re a creative business and that brings with it certain challenges – creatives are obsessed with innovation, which is obviously important to a business, but it’s not the only thing to get right – you’ve also got to rationalise and repeat. Fortunately, we enjoy doing that, too, and the business is now performing strongly – from turnover of less than £20,000 in our first year, we’re hoping to make sales of £815,000 in 2014.

“The future is exciting and we’re already beginning to work internationally. The whole zombie thing is huge in the US, but we’re also looking at new types of venture such as boutique theme parks.

“When we launched 2.8 Hours Later, we didn’t realise how big it would be. We’ve ended up being the leader of an industry we didn’t really know existed.”

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