‘The ban on A-boards is an attack on independent businesses in York’

Owner of The Inkwell Paul Lowman was one of many business owners who were angered by the ban. Photograph: Richard McDougall
23 Aug 2016 @ 7.20 pm
| Opinion
Independent retailer Paul Lowman explains why so many like him are vehemently against the plan to scrap the A-boards

Last week, City of York Council announced plans to ban advertising A-boards from the city centre – except on Micklegate, where businesses would have to apply for a licence.

The council’s stated reason for this ban is that A Boards are hazardous to blind or partially sighted pedestrians and wheelchair users, and contribute to the negative visual impact of ‘street clutter.’ The ban would come into effect on the January 1, 2017.

The reaction from local independent businesses has been immediate, loud, and clear – a petition has been established asking for the proposed blanket, indiscriminate ban to be dropped, and for the council to instead consider the suitability of A Boards on a location by location basis (ie pavement width).

I would like to explain why a large section of York’s indie business community is so vehemently against the A-board ban.

A-boards do work

Micklegate is set to be exempt from the A-board ban
Micklegate is set to be exempt from the A-board ban

To understand why indie businesses are so desperate to keep their A-boards, one must first ask why an independent business chooses to have an A-board. The answer is: to drive footfall. To increase the number of people who notice, and engage with, your business.

The council’s exemption of Micklegate – a “favour” to the ongoing revitalisation project on that street – is of course an acknowledgement that A-boards do work, and that many businesses want to use them.

The next question you must ask is: where are A-boards most necessary? The answer is: where footfall is weakest. Where the task of attracting customers is hardest.

This would be peripheral streets, dominated by independents.

Consequently, the proposed ban goes to the heart of a much wider issue – the lack of interest the council has in improving footfall on certain city centre streets.

No help for Gillygate

No favours for Gillygate
No favours for Gillygate

I’ll speak to my personal experience. The Inkwell has been on Gillygate for five years, and I am not aware of one single thing that has been done to boost business specifically on this street in that whole time.

There’s no signage. There’s no events (the recent sinkhole doesn’t really count).

Outrageously, we don’t even get Christmas lights.

So, yes – in the face of the council’s abject neglect of the street, businesses are going to help themselves, and A-boards are a tried and tested method.

The cruel irony, on Gillygate at least, is that the proliferation of A-boards is a direct consequence of the council’s own neglect of the street. Greater promotion of the street would make A-boards less of a necessity.

Life threatening

For businesses off the beaten track like OG Games, tucked away on Whip-M-Whop-Ma-Gate, the boards are ‘a necessity’
For businesses off the beaten track like OG Games, tucked away on Whip-M-Whop-Ma-Gate, the boards are ‘essential’

Of course, for some businesses A-boards are not just useful – they’re absolutely essential. There are businesses in York – tucked away in snickelways and courtyards – which would be near invisible without an A-board.

An A-board ban for these businesses would not just be problematic – it would be life threatening.

A business in an out-of-the-way location – whether they be literally down an alley, or on a street with challenging footfall – is likely to be independent, and the reason a location like this is attractive to start ups and small entrepreneurs is that rents and rates in more prominent locations are extraordinarily high.

In actual fact the rent and rates even in a less visible location can be wildly inflated relative to the reality of the footfall.

If rents and rates of a high profile location are prohibitive to many small businesses, the least the council can do is allow a business to have a sign that points potential customers in their direction.

Symptom of a bigger problem

Paul's shop, The Inkwell on Gillygate, complete with A-board
Paul’s shop, The Inkwell on Gillygate, complete with A-board

In summary then: the council’s proposed A-board ban is an attack specifically on independent businesses in York, and this attack is particularly egregious given that it is tackling a “problem” that the council is itself at least partially responsible for.

I would ask those who blame shops for contributing to “street clutter” to turn their attention instead to the reasons for A-board proliferation.

A-boards are for many businesses a symptom of bigger problems, the problem of a council which – in some streets’ cases – is doing absolutely nothing to help drive footfall.

For many A-boards are the problem of a council which is doing absolutely nothing to help drive footfall

Signing the petition is about supporting the hundreds of wonderful independent shops, cafés, restaurants, bars, galleries and other entrepreneurial start-ups that make York such a special, unique city.

If you care about any one of those businesses – your favourite deli, that great bar, hell, even that weird record shop on Gillygate with the school desks – I urge you to sign this petition.