Older and infirm people feel 'vulnerable and unwanted' in Sheffield city centre claims shopkeeper

A Sheffield shopkeeper has hit out at pandemic changes which she claims have made life difficult for elderly customers damaging trade.

By David Walsh
Thursday, 3rd September 2020, 1:23 pm

Elaine Bird, of JC Bird Opticians on Surrey Street, says the closure of the road has seriously inconvenienced customers who arrive by car, while the closure of Pinstone Street has left bus passengers with a longer walk to the shop.

Meanwhile an influx of ‘drug addicts, drunks and beggars’ on Fargate is intimidating and off-putting for customers. Some 11 of 40 units are empty following lockdown.

All this comes on top of ‘exorbitant’ rates that ‘bear no relation to the value of a business’, making life the most challenging it has ever been.

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Elaine Bird of Bird Opticians Surrey Street is cross about city changes which have made life harder for her mainly older customers.

Elaine wants to see a ‘nominal’ parking charge for the first two hours, reflecting the length of a hair or eye appointment, then rising to discourage long stays, cheaper business rates and Fargate featuring ‘independent, unique, stylish’ enterprises.

Sheffield City Council introduced the road changes to boost cycling and social distancing during the pandemic.

A spokeswoman said on-street parking charges were pitched to manage traffic, but there were cheap bays five minutes from Bird’s. Several agencies were supporting vulnerable people in the city centre. Business rates were set by government and the opticians had received a £25,000 Covid grant and 100 per cent business rates relief this year.

Elaine said: “The city centre is becoming less and less welcoming to a great many people.

Elaine Bird of Bird Opticians, Surrey Street.

“Many of our customers now say, 'I only come into Sheffield to see you and then I go straight home' and that was before Covid 19.

“Who in their right mind would want to brave the drunks and spice junkies on Fargate to reach Surrey Street from High Street?

“Older and infirm people feel vulnerable and unwanted in the city centre. Fargate a centre for cafe culture? Forget it.

“Can anyone enjoy a coffee whilst being harassed by spice junkies and drunks? Besides, who pays Sheffield parking fees to go for a coffee never mind a meal?

“Did anyone ask the existing coffee shops and restaurants if they wanted all this proposed competition?

“If our council is trying to drive businesses out of the centre, then they are succeeding - about the only thing they are doing well.

“If John Lewis or Marks & Spencer ever go, that will be the death knell for Sheffield. The stylish retailers you see in Leeds and Manchester are nowhere to be seen here.

“Empty shops and cheap temporary shops are filling the centre. We are barely a second-rate city, more like third-rate. Even Nottingham is considered a better destination. What we need is more independent, unique stylish enterprises.

“For this, we pay exorbitant business rates which bear no relation to the value of the businesses here in the centre.”

Despite the government’s push to get people on bikes, Sheffield was too hilly ‘for all but the intrepid cyclist’, she added.

“Talking to some of my friends and acquaintances, many women do not just go to work and then back home, they use the park and ride so that they can combine shopping, collecting children or visiting parents with their work commute.

“Even if our staff wanted cycle to work and we bought them bikes, by the time they got to work they would need a shower, which we cannot provide, and secure storage for their bikes, which we cannot provide.

“Almost none of our staff come to work and then go straight home. Most do some shopping, visit relatives, pick up children and things. Park and ride is great for this kind of journey pattern.”

Coun Bob Johnson, cabinet member for transport and sustainability said: "As we adapt to the new normal, businesses have had to change the way they operate and as an authority we have had to bring in measures that allow people to remain safe, while being able to work, shop and enjoy themselves.

"We know that the impact of some of these measures has seen both positive and negative outcomes, and while we are committed to supporting the recovery of our economy and a return to normality, we have to make sure that protecting people and limiting the spread of Covid-19 remains our priority.

"We encourage people to park in off-street locations to help ease traffic levels in the city centre and for those with accessibility issues who have a blue badge, on-street parking is available free of charge.

"Throughout the pandemic we have done everything we can to support businesses in the city, to access relief and grants from the Government, and in this case we understand that the business has received full relief plus a £25,000 grant.

“These decisions, including business rates are set nationally and any changes would have to be made by statutory legislation.

"Support is available within the city centre for people with substance misuse, and they are all open access including a dedicated Spice clinic.

“Despite Covid-19 there are a number of agencies offering street outreach and support to Sheffield’s vulnerable through helpushelp.uk.

“Our city centre ambassadors are not able to move or arrest people but they try to support those who need help and work with partners to manage issues that arise.

"Despite the pandemic, we are still seeing significant investment in Sheffield. We shared the fantastic news around John Lewis and Radisson Blu last week, as well as the plans we have for the future of Fargate and we will continue working hard to ensure our city centre is thriving and vibrant throughout, attracting businesses and visitors across all sectors.”

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