Never underestimate the value of friends in high places, says Robin Mannering. Here’s how to get your MP’s attention
It costs nothing to get to know your local MP, and yet their value to your business could be priceless. MPs influence national policies affecting your store, such as planning, tobacco, alcohol and crime, and they can also lend considerable weight to solving local issues. But if you want them to effectively represent your interests and understand the challenges you face on a daily basis, they need to see you in action.
Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) public affairs director Shane Brennan says: “Your MP can be an incredibly useful person to unlock local problems, be it parking, traffic around your store, bureaucracy or licensing, while also providing publicity for your business. They’re also involved in national decision-making - but don’t assume they know what they’re talking about. Get them to visit the store to understand the issues. I never cease to be surprised how much MPs can get from going to stores.”
With the Localism Act heralding a new era of community decision-making, there is even more reason for retailers to build relationships with MPs. From planning to policing and licensing, key decisions will now be taken locally. “Getting involved in local plans will be the best way to fight supermarkets opening up in your area. Councils will also have more say on licensing, and more people will be involved in deciding police and crime commissioners, too,” Brennan adds. “MPs are the best starting point to understanding these things, and they’ll put you in touch with the right people in specific areas.”
Cambridgeshire retailer Jonathan James agrees that getting to know your MP is a no-brainer. “It’s absolutely vital to get to know your MP it’s a win-win for both of you,” he says. “For example, our MP Jim Paice [minister for agriculture] put us forward for a Parliamentary Small Shop Award and we got to the final. It meant lots of press coverage for both of us.”
MPs have also helped Jonathan on more bureaucratic and political matters. “Our previous MP, Malcolm Moss, wrote to the council when we were having problems with obtaining planning permission for our forecourt store in Littleport. He outlined how it was Tory policy to grant planning permission [East Cambridgeshire district council was Conservative controlled] and it worked,” he says. “The objections were based on pure Nimbyism, and a few locals had successfully got councillors on side.”
He adds that Jim Paice asked a question in Parliament when Jonathan was having problems with fixed penalty notices on his customers’ cars. “It automatically brings a lot of media hype,” Jonathan points out.
Sunder Sandher, a Leamington Spa Londis retailer, adds: “Last year we had issues with red tape over the Royal Wedding celebrations. My MP, Chris White, sorted it out and suddenly the issues disappeared! He must have had words with the council. In another instance, cars were parking in front of our store where the lorries needed to make deliveries. I told our previous MP and he got the council to paint loading lines on the road to solve the problem.”
Sunder has asked his MP to keep his ear to the ground regarding planning developments. “The last thing we want is the mults opening a c-store on our patch, so I asked the MP to let me know if anything is in the pipeline. He said he’d keep me up to date. It just means you can stay one step ahead and plan for changes on the high street accordingly.”
Lesley Brown of Frankmarsh Stores, Barnstaple, Devon, says the relationship with her MP, Nick Harvey, has enhanced his understanding of recent issues. “We’ve engaged with him about changes to licensing laws and the tobacco display ban, and we’ve written letters which he’s taken to Parliament. He’s supported us even though we haven’t always had the required outcome.”
He has also worked on the shop floor to put himself in Lesley’s shoes, and has campaigned about problems on the high street. “He helps with publicity and turns up at events, which improves our profile. Ultimately, he realises what it’s like on the ground.”
Bedfordshire retailer Kishor Patel says he told one of his local MPs, Andrew Selous, about local crime and the MP wrote to the police at county level, which appears to have made a difference. “I’m sure the police have become more vigilant,” Kishor notes.
He also wrote to Selous, as well as councillors and planning officers, when Morrisons submitted a planning application for a supermarket in Houghton Regis. He says it is crucial to keep MPs and councillors informed of the realities on the high street, because they so often “get all their knowledge from the tabloids”.
It is hoped that retailers will get more control over future planning developments through neighbourhood plans under the new Localism Act. “We can fight by getting involved in neighbourhood planning,” says Jonathan. “We can’t stop the expansion of the mults, but we can be involved in the process of making sure retail goes where retail should, rather than where developers think it should go.”
Lesley says she will also get involved once the national planning policy framework is drawn up in a couple of months, and Kishor is already involved in developing the Houghton Regis plan.
Retailers across the country can follow suit, and knowing your MP can help facilitate the process by offering their advice. They, in turn, will get to hear your priorities, and not just those of developers who have greater resources to lobby.
There are no excuses for not getting to know your MP, says Sunder. “It doesn’t cost anything - just go and do it.” He suggests one way to break the ice is by attending MPs’ surgeries, which are usually held once a week. “It’s easy to sign up,” Sunder adds. “I went along and invited him to the store and to in-store events.”
Kishor says he got to know MP Mike Penning when he invited him to the opening of his Hemel Hempstead store in 2010. “I invited him back again a year later to show him the benefit of small businesses such as ours.”
Nisa retailer Rav Garcha says he built his relationship with his MP Peter Luff by finding things they had in common. “I started tweeting him after I saw he was on Twitter. It also helped that he knew councillors and constituents who knew the store.”
But Rav initially met his MP through the My Shop is Your Shop (MSYS) campaign, which is organised by the Federation of Wholesaler Distributors (FWD). “MSYS was a brilliant way of opening the lines of communication with our MP. When he came to the store we made postcards with the slogan ‘vocal local’, which people used to note down concerns,” he says. “The MP took action to address the issues, so we were a bridge between constituents and the MP, which helps our standing in the community and boosts our reputation.”
FWD director of communications Dave Visick says MSYS is a “great mutual relationship” between retailer and MP. Its awards for community retailing recognise the special relationship independent retailers have with their customers and the extra efforts they make to contribute to their communities.
By asking MPs to visit the stores taking part, MSYS not only gives the stores valuable local publicity, but also gives the MPs an insight into the value of engaged local retailers.
“Of the 20 or so MSYS community retailing presentations I attended last summer, I think the MP involved left every one with a better appreciation of what small shops offer to communities. They were also able to advise the retailers - for example, on local planning issues - and took away action points based on their conversations with the retailer,” says Visick.
So if you haven’t already made contact with your local MP, then now is the time to take action. This truly is an opportunity to make friends and influence people.
MPs in action
One MP who regularly engages with local retailers is Mike Weatherley, who represents the constituency of Hove and Portslade and also heads up the All Party Parliamentary Group on Retail and Business Crime (APPG-RBC). “Our high streets are a vital part of every town and city in the country - retailers need to let their MP know how government can help,” he says. “I would advise talking to their MP, even in general terms, and then the issues will start to tell themselves.”
He says that he got involved with forming the APPG-RBC after attending meetings with retailers, both in his constituency and nationally. “Without speaking to them directly, I would not have heard the horror stories that small independent convenience store owners seem to now accept as part of daily life.” He has campaigned on a number of points that have been made to him, such as how it is “now statistically more likely for a retailer to die during their working day as a result of their employment than a police officer”, and how the victims of crime are treated differently depending on if they live above the shop or not.
His knowledge has come directly from retailers. Without it it is unlikely he would have campaigned on retailers’ behalf and set up the APPG-RBC.
“Small businesses are the lifeblood of communities like North Devon, and I have always been keen to do all I can to support them - whether that’s raising their concerns in Parliament to simply picking up some shopping in one of the many small stores like Frankmarsh Stores.
Nick Harvey, MP for North Devon, whose constituents include Lesley Brown, added: “I have spoken at length with many small business owners in the area as it’s important to know what the issues are that they face. Many local people are employed by small businesses and it is key that their voice is heard in Westminster. I know that I can rely on shop owners like Lesley to keep me in touch with what’s going on in their industry.”