Damaging retail cost increases were the focus of yesterday’s annual Heart of the Community Conference organised by the Association of Convenience Stores, attended by more than 150 forecourt and convenience retailers.

The event encourages retailer engagement with MPs and featured Minister of State for Business and Enterprise Michael Fallon, and Shadow Secretary of State for Business Chuka Umunna. Later came a Parliamentary reception at the House Commons Terrace, which enabled retailers to mix with their invited MPs, and included short presentations by Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government; and Priti Patel, MP for Witham.

During the conference, which was hosted by Radio 5 Live’s chief political correspondent, John Pienaar, ACS chief executive James Lowman said: “We are reaching a critical point where despite being some of the hardest working people in the UK, convenience store owners are facing cost-cutting measures in several aspects of their business.”

Lowman said reckless minimum wage increases meant fewer jobs, less investment, and reduced incentive for everyday entrepreneurs to deliver growth in communities up and down the country.

He also spoke about the high cost of crime against small shops, and on business rates he said they were too high, and locked into a structure of annual increases which meant they were 16% higher than at the start of the economic downturn.

In his presentation Michael Fallon said convenience stores were an “integral part of our communities”, and that small shops “reflect the UK’s strong entrepreneurial streak”.

“With the launch of the retail strategy, I look forward to working closely with the sector to ensure it continues to thrive,” he stressed.

When challenged by independent forecourt operator Steve Highland of Bluntisham Service Station on the impact on retailers of increasing the minimum wage, Fallon agreed with his suggestion that increasing tax allowances for the low-paid was the best way of addressing the situation.

Other topics covered by the Heart of the Community event, included the findings of Demos’ latest report on the role of local shops in preventing alcohol related harm and recommendations for the Government’s alcohol strategy; and what business owners can gain and learn from engagement in charitable activity.