I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of the future of town centres and high streets.
Let me begin by thanking the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, Natascha Engel, and her fellow colleagues on the Committee for granting this debate. I thank also hon. Members and Friends who supported the request for this debate at that Committee.
We all have at least one if not several town centres or high streets in our constituencies. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members share my passion for our town centres. For me, that passion was developed during my time as a local councillor and council leader, when I had responsibility for town centres during the deepest and darkest period of the recession. Our town centres are focal points for shopping and meeting friends and colleagues, as well as for accessing entertainment, leisure, culture, public services and transport among other things.
The economic and social contribution that our town centres make cannot be understated. High streets make up 13% of UK economic value and 14% of total UK employment. Unfortunately, over many years the position of our high streets and town centres has been eroded to varying degrees. Many of the stronger retail chains have squeezed out the individual small businesses from many high streets but are now retrenching owing to the economic conditions. They are becoming dependent on fewer and fewer stores and consequently are withdrawing from many of our town centres.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, as well as on setting up the all-party group on town centres. Does he agree that one way of regenerating town centres is, as happens in my constituency, to give tax incentives to areas that are trying to regenerate themselves and to independent shops and small businesses so that they can set up, as opposed to only the chains coming into every high street across Britain?
I certainly think that we at least need to put our town centres and high streets on a level playing field with other parts of the retail industry. We need to be as innovative as possible to make sure that taxes are as low as possible for people who want to operate on our high streets.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on his success in securing the debate. Dudley town centre has seen better days; it is just a few miles up the road from the Merry Hill shopping centre. Does he agree that Dudley town centre would be ideal for one of the pilot studies resulting from Mary Portas’s review? Does he agree that the Minister should select Dudley for one of the pilots and that the Minister ought to come to Dudley so that I can take him around the town centre and he can see for himself the problems we face?
Dudley is an important area and the hon. Gentleman makes a strong case for it, but I think it probably ranks somewhere behind my constituency in relation to this matter.
In the last few days alone, we have seen some long-standing store chains, such as Blacks Leisure, Peacocks and Barratts, all enter administration. In the words of Mary Portas,
“our high streets have reached a crisis point,” a statement with which I am sure many people up and down the country will agree.
A number of factors have led to the decline of our high streets, although the main reasons are undoubtedly the steady rise of out-of-town retail shopping malls, together with the dramatic impact of the arrival of internet shopping, which has soared. Back in 2007, it accounted for 4.8% of retail sales, but last November it was found to account for 12.2%. That is a challenge to our town centres, and it will be greatly exacerbated by the increased use of mobile phone technology, which is broadening the internet spectrum.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this very important debate. May I share with him the experience of my local town of Leek, where the totally locally Leek initiative has been developed by independent shopkeepers? The idea is that if everybody who lived in Leek spent £5 each week in a local shop rather than on the internet, it would be worth £4 million to the local economy. Does he agree that we need initiatives such as that to promote local high streets?
It is important for people to try to get the best deal in terms of their shopping habits, but reliance on local shopping is also important. Only in that way will we secure the future of our local town centres and high streets.
My hon. Friend eloquently lays out the reasons why many town centres are falling on hard times. Has he noted Mary Portas’s remarks about the motor car? In market towns, and in rural areas, a car is no luxury, and it is essential for the vibrancy of those towns that there is adequate parking. What does he feel about that and, in particular, Portas’s remarks about a league table for car parks?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely sensible point. For far too long, we have not thought about the people who want to drive into our town centres and we have not considered the quality and availability of car parking. We have certainly not considered its cost, which I shall come to later. It is extremely prohibitive and is one reason why there is not a level playing field for our town centres in relation to their out-of-town competitors.
In my constituency, Nuneaton town centre has fared reasonably well, and better than many. There is a property vacancy rate of about 6% while the national average is 11.1%, although the factors I have mentioned account for a vacancy creep that is happening at different rates across the country. Many of the factors in my analysis of the reasons for decline may be a little simplistic, but what we do to arrest that terminal decline is far from simple.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Is he aware of a study by Transport for London showing that the average retail spend per month is £373 for people who walk to their high street but only £226 for those who take their car? Similar studies show that those who cycle or take the bus or train spend more than those who drive.
My hon. Friend makes a reasonable suggestion, but there is a difference between travel in the London area and the situation in other regions of the UK. I can certainly say that far more people who shop in my local town centre in Nuneaton drive there than use local transport, so we have to be pragmatic.
That is a sensible if not obvious point, and it is important.
As for how we address that decline, I welcome the review that the Government have instigated and their decision to commission the Portas review, which has not just brought the views of Mary Portas, a recognised retail guru, to the high street but has served to stimulate much-needed debate on this crucial issue. I was delighted that Miss Portas took time when researching the report to hold a discussion with the all-party group which, as my hon. Friend Robert Halfon mentioned, I chair. The meeting was nearly as well attended as this debate, which highlights the importance of our town centres and high streets to parliamentarians and their constituents.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he welcome what is happening in Wellingborough and Rushton, where the Government’s economic policies are being enforced with great gusto? We have free car parking, and a new Marks and Spencer is opening in Wellingborough. A multi-billion pound project is hopefully about to open in the Rushton area providing jobs and local availability for shopping.
That vision is certainly significant and, along with the national planning policy framework provisions such as the “town centre first” policy, it is extremely important. I shall come on to that in a moment.
I shall go through some of the Portas proposals in more detail but, before doing so, I should like to quote the final words of the review:
“Those are just my ideas. What are yours?”
I hope that it is in that spirit that right hon. and hon. Members will use the focus of today’s debate to feed into the work of the Portas review through their own constituency experience, which should serve to inform Ministers’ thinking before they make their response and implement any policies following that crucial review.
I will briefly mention one or two points from the five groups of recommendations in the Portas proposals. I very much welcome the idea of a town team. Many constituencies have town centre partnerships or business improvement districts, and I was personally involved in setting up a town centre partnership in the town of Bedworth in the neighbouring North Warwickshire constituency when I was council leader. The concept of the town team represents a shift in thinking.
As my hon. Friend and neighbour has mentioned the town of Bedworth in my constituency, may I take the opportunity to thank him for doing that work when he was leader of the council? Bedworth is one of those towns that are linked to a larger town in the borough, and was sometimes considered, for want of a better word, the slightly poorer neighbour by the council.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. With regard to the local shopping on offer, Bedworth is an extremely important player, even if it is not as large or always as vibrant as Nuneaton.
Town centre teams would give more teeth and opportunity for more detailed public-private sector engagement, which could go beyond the operational, micro issues, that town centre partnerships and BIDs deal with, and cover strategic issues, helping to shape the vision for our town centres. The proposal would allow landlords to become investors in town teams or super-BIDs, and would seek to strengthen that vision for town centres with the possibility of leveraging in further private investment. The all-party group secretariat, the Association of Town Centre Management, very much advocates that approach and is convinced that there is real will on the part of the private sector to make a major contribution to this.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that if we are trying to attract investment, the proliferation of betting shops taking over premises from the closure of banks and building societies, which has happened in Deptford high street in my constituency, is a disincentive and spoils the diversity of our high streets, which is so important and which we need to hold on to or bring back?
Betting shops are an important part of our town centres and high streets, as I am sure the right hon. Lady would acknowledge, and they offer valuable employment. However, the proliferation of betting shops has been caused to some extent by the provisions of the licensing legislation in relation to the number of machines that such businesses can have. That needs looking at and Mary Portas refers to it in her report.
In addition to the proliferation of betting shops, there has been a proliferation of high-cost credit lenders on our high streets, which prey on some of the most vulnerable members of society. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Medway council, which has established a cross-party working group to look at how the council can get involved in ensuring that the licensing of those money-lending shops is controlled and reduces the possible damage to the most vulnerable members of society?
Order. Before Mr Jones responds, let me say, first, that he has been speaking for 14 minutes. I am sure many Members have been greatly enjoying his speech, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman has been enjoying it, but there are nearly 50 Members who wish to speak and to whom a time limit applies, so I hope he is bringing his remarks to a conclusion. Secondly, the frequency with which he gives way is a matter for him, but he might want to bear that in mind. Thirdly, interventions are too long.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that guidance. I will try to keep my remarks brief and to keep interventions to a minimum.
Starting new enterprise is crucial on our high streets, particularly with many of our chain stores retrenching. We need to reinvigorate our independent shopkeepers. Street markets and indoor markets are an important route to doing that. In my constituency we have an award-winning street market on Wednesdays and Saturdays which often has more than 150 stalls. As in the case of car parking, which I shall come to shortly, local authorities must be careful to make sure that markets are not just cash cows and income generators for the local authority, but are there for the benefit of the local community and the local town centre.
That brings me to ways of allowing businesses to flourish. Lower taxation and less regulation are the keys to unlocking that potential, although we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Through deregulation—for example, the deregulation of pedlars—we could end up with a situation where pedlars can turn up and trade alongside market traders, without paying any rent or rates. The market traders who have traditionally been on our high streets will find themselves at a disadvantage.
Car parking is a major issue. There is a case study in the Portas review that mentions Swindon, and my hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson will probably elaborate on that. Although I acknowledge the restraint on both Government and local government budgets, further direct action on car parking charges must be explored. It would be fantastic if a pilot scheme could be run to see whether we could bring in free short-stay parking that would have the effect that we are looking for. The pilot should be run in a constituency, and I would make the argument for that to be my Nuneaton constituency, but other right hon. and hon. Members probably have other ideas on that.
There is also an inherent unfairness in how the business rates regime applies to town centre car parks and out-of-town-centre car parks, and we need to look at that carefully to ensure that we allow our town centres to operate on a level playing field. As Mary Portas rightly pointed out, we need to look carefully at planning in our town centres. My hon. Friend John Howell mentioned the national planning policy framework, and we must ensure that the “town centre first” policy and the sequential test are retained in the framework. I also think that it is important that office development is included, because although we must not deny out-of-town development, we must ensure that it is proportionate and meets the needs of a particular area.
I note your comments about time, Mr Speaker, and appreciate that many right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak. By bringing the matter before the House, I sincerely hope that we will have a positive debate, that our views will prevail and that the Minister will go away loaded with positive ideas from Back-Bench Members that can be fed into the Government’s review. I firmly believe that the British people instinctively wish to see our high streets and town centres not only survive, but flourish and prosper, as they form one of the unique components that make up the UK.
That is fantastic news, and just the sort of support that our town centres and high streets need. It is extremely important that we support our high streets and town centres not only as Members of Parliament, but as individuals, and that at all times we promote their cause so that they are there for hundreds of years to come, as they have been for us all thus far.
Order. In view of the level of interest, and as has been made clear on the Annunciator, I have imposed a seven-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.
I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee and Mr Jones on securing this important debate. The state of our high streets and town centres is important not only for our local economies and for providing jobs, but for strengthening our local communities. I think that setting up the Portas review of the high street was an inspired decision by the Government, although Members will not be surprised to hear that I have concerns about how the Government are supporting the retail sector.
Retail is our country’s largest private sector employer and accounts for 20% of the UK’s gross domestic product. The sector accounts for 40% of employment for the under-20s and pays 28% of all business rates. Now that the Government have achieved a youth unemployment level of over 1 million and failed to replace the public sector jobs that have been cut with private sector jobs, we can see how important the sector is to the health of our economy.
The retail sector’s prospects for 2012 are not good. Hardly a day goes by without another high street brand going into administration; Peacocks has already been mentioned. Consumer confidence is exceptionally low. Although that is clearly impacting on the larger retail multiples, it is also having a devastating impact on independent retailers, a group of businesses that do not always have a voice—or rather, are not always heard—in debates about the economy. That is why I believe that commissioning the Portas review was an inspired decision. It inevitably shines light on the smaller retailers that provide the diversity and quality customer service that enhance our high streets.
There has been much press coverage of Rochdale’s town centre in recent months, not least because McDonald’s has decided to leave, and because we have a disproportionate number of charity shops. In reality, however, our town has a great retail offer. Businesses such as Chantilly, 25 Ten, Denis Hope, Bragg and the Number Ten Gallery are perfect examples of the high-quality independents that enhance Rochdale’s high street, but Rochdale, like towns throughout the country, needs the Government to act more quickly and responsibly.
It is terribly important to point out that the issue is not just about retail, but about attracting people into town centres. Beckenham used to be a wonderful place to go, but it is getting shoddier and shoddier, and we need more funding to make such areas good places for people to go—even if they are going there not to spend any money, but just for social reasons.
I agree, and the Portas review makes the point that town centres are not just about retail, but about being a community magnet that brings people in for a variety of reasons. One problem is that the Portas review was delayed for months, and came to us late, but it is also disappointing that the Minister has decided not to respond until the spring.
The review makes a host of recommendations, practically all of which I welcome, but it also pushes a disproportionate amount of responsibility on to local government. We all know that towns such as Rochdale have received devastating cuts from this Government, so it will not be easy for local authorities to implement some of the recommendations, such as discounted business rates. Local councils can help with national market day, and set up town teams, as Members have said, but it is for central Government to take responsibility for the major issues affecting our town centres.
On planning, as the review recommends, the Government must put the town centre first, and following their consultation on the national planning policy framework, I get the impression that they will. I believe that they will make that change to the draft NPPF.
But the Government need to go further than the review, and we would benefit from looking at how credit insurance works in the retail sector, and at how the lack of credit insurance for wholesalers and suppliers makes it difficult for businesses to manage cash flow and, ultimately, to survive. A Government scheme to assist suppliers with credit insurance would certainly help.
The review makes some welcome recommendations on business rates, and Mary Portas is right to highlight the adverse impact of business rate levels on our high streets. In Rochdale, retailers that are closing have cited high business rates, but the Government have just introduced the biggest hike in such rates for 20 years—an increase of 5.6%. That is just not sustainable for small businesses on our high street.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is also a problem with bank lending to enable high-street shops to invest and bring their businesses up to the standard that we all expect in this day and age?
That is absolutely right. Bank lending is a real problem for small businesses, and one that the Government need to address in terms of the larger economic situation.
Returning to business rates, I also highlight the problem with the Valuation Office Agency. I recently had a Rochdale bar owner attend my surgery, describing how the VOA had told him that it assumed his takings would be about £179,000 per year—a figure that he could only dream of achieving. I know from my own dealings with the VOA that its performance leaves a lot to be desired. Not only is it difficult to deal with, it is also slow to act. Thousands of businesses in Greater Manchester have appealed against the new business rate valuations, yet the VOA admitted that in 2010 it could deal with only 3% of the appeals made, leaving a massive backlog that still needs clearing. The VOA is now refusing to publish what percentage of appeals are successful—presumably to discourage businesses from challenging its valuations. We should not underestimate the impact that business rates and the VOA are having on the high street. I urge the Government to give those issues more urgent attention.
I started by mentioning consumer confidence. We cannot underestimate the adverse impact that our country’s economy is having on our high streets. For all the tweaks and adaptations that can be made locally, it is the level of unemployment, the fear of becoming unemployed, the lack of credit for small businesses and high inflation that will make or break our high streets.
To conclude, the Portas review provides worthwhile recommendations on which the Government can act, but there needs to be urgent action, and the Government need to recognise the effect that their economic policies are having on our high streets.
I am pleased to be taking part in this debate about the health of our high streets and town centres. I will risk making the passing comment that to see so many colleagues here to take part in a debate with a one-line Whip suggests that there is not a lot wrong with the health of our Parliament. It is an encouraging sight. I commend my hon. Friend Mr Jones for triggering this debate, and Mary Portas for producing an excellent report on our high streets and town centres.
High streets and town centres have been under assault for many years from out-of-town shopping centres. Perhaps that horse has now bolted, but there is the new threat of internet purchasing. That is, in part, a generational thing. In the place where I live now there are four families, as three of our grown-up children and their spouses have joined us in our little community, which was described, when I became a Minister in 1996, as an evangelical community on the edge of Dartmoor. That sounds very alternative, but it is nothing like that. With three families of a younger generation, it seems that the delivery vans arrive several times a day as a result of their internet shopping. We grandparents are not really doing it, but the younger generation are. This is a very new assault on the high street.
That is why I strongly support what is perhaps the key recommendation of the report—that a new vision for the high street must recognise that it is not just about retail but about culture, community and leisure. We must make a visit to the high street or the town centre like a day out. It should be a pleasurable experience, and not just about retail.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many of those who make purchases on the internet take the trouble to visit the high street and look at the product that they wish to purchase, only to go home and buy it more cheaply on the internet? Without the high street, that market simply would not work.
I think that that is right, although my daughter and son-in-law spend most of their time browsing not in the shops but online, and make their purchasing decisions in that way. Either way, of course, is good. High streets will never compete with the internet or out-of-town shopping centres on retail alone. That is the important point that the report tells us.
My constituency of South West Devon has three shopping centres: Plympton, Plymstock and Ivybridge. Most of those communities will be well known to colleagues in this House. Over the nearly 20 years in which I have been privileged to represent those communities, I have seen the ebbs and flows of the high street. It is right to say that local people want to support their town centres, but it is important that the offer from them is right and attractive.
Does my hon. Friend agree that market days have a role to play in the high street to give shoppers something different? On Saturday, he is welcome to come to the Turnham Green terrace market day in Chiswick, in west London.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is absolutely right. However, if I had a choice between being in Devon or Chiswick on a Saturday, I know which one I would choose. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I suspect that most of my colleagues would say exactly the same thing.
I thought that it would be helpful if, drawing on this excellent report and my experiences over the past 20 years, I came up with the five golden rules for regenerating our town centres and high streets. The first is to have local leadership. Simon Danczuk spoke eloquently about what the Government should do, but let us talk about what the local community should do. Bottom-up local leadership is crucial in sparking the regeneration of our town centres and high streets. I give the example of Ivybridge town council, which already has in place a neighbourhood plan and has engaged the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment to come up with a brand new vision for the town centre.
I will not, if my hon. Friend does not mind. I have given way twice already, and I have an awful lot to say.
Ivybridge town council is very keen on the report that Mary Portas has produced and hopes that the Government will formulate a number of policies to make it a reality. Local leadership, particularly from the energetic town clerk of Ivybridge, Lesley Hughes, is a crucial part of taking forward the regeneration of our town centres. Two of the other areas that I have mentioned, Plympton and Plymstock, are suburbs of Plymouth and do not have their own town councils, and we can see a real difference in how they grip the need for a new vision.
My second point is about the buy-in of the other local authorities involved. Whether they are district councils, county councils or unitary authorities, it is very important that all the relevant authorities are involved in bringing forward new visions. They need to be brought together on issues such as land ownership, parking, highways and various other powers.
We have heard talk of the important part that business rates can play in town centre regeneration. The Minister for Housing and Local Government is listening to me right now, and I say to him that the Government need to encourage and incentivise local authorities to make more creative use of business rates collected locally to underpin and support local businesses and new economic development in their communities. Let us find ways of doing that.
Thirdly, I wish to mention car parking. I have been through 20 or 30 years of town planners, architects and academics telling us that we need to build sustainable communities with the car designed out of them. I am sorry, but it has not worked. Whether it is right or wrong, the people of this country have chosen the car. For most of us, in our rural communities, the car is absolutely essential. In many parts of my community there not one bus a day but one bus a week, and if someone misses it by two minutes they are in for a long wait. It is essential to provide space for car parking in the regeneration of our town centres and high streets, and for that parking to be either free, very reasonably priced, or free for a certain period. We are all lazy.
I also support “pop and shop” schemes whereby people can park outside a shop for a few moments even in a pedestrianised or semi-pedestrianised area, to pick up their dry cleaning, get cash out of the bank, buy the grandchildren an ice cream or whatever. I am afraid that the idea of designing out the car is now old-fashioned and has to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Car parking must be at the heart of what happens.
Fourthly, we need flexible planning. In the west country we have a lot of rural areas and a lot of rural planning authorities that have done a great job of preserving our countryside for many generations. However, I say to them that we do not want our town centres or high streets to be museums. We need much more flexible planning laws. I agree with Mary Portas that we should change the law on use classes to make it much easier to change from one high street use to another. I suspect that planning officers in many parts of the world need a paradigm shift. In too many places, their default position is to say no and then try to justify it. I hope that our planning guidance, which has somehow got stuck somewhere in the system in the past few weeks, will be introduced early in this new year to encourage and incentivise local planning officers to allow new life to be breathed into our high streets. We need much more flexibility, because our high streets must not be left as a museum.
While I am on the subject of planning, it is worth saying that sometimes English Heritage does not help us. I am sure my hon. Friend Oliver Colvile will agree that the decision to list Plymouth civic centre as some kind of historic and beautiful building, when it is probably the ugliest thing outside Dudley, is absolutely disgraceful. [Interruption.] Have I got myself in trouble there? I think I probably have.
Fifthly, landowners and developers need to be brought into the equation, and they need to be much more creative. I shall finish by returning to Ivybridge, where there is a development called Glanvilles Mill that is full of empty or half-empty shops. We need much more creativity in establishing a new development to bring Ivybridge into the 21st century.
I commend the report to the Government, and I hope that at the end of the debate the Minister will tell us that he supports it completely and will bring in a lot of new policies to make it happen.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate and all those Members who approached the Committee, of whom I was one. The debate is a reflection of their wisdom, because this issue clearly excites interest on both sides of the House and across the country, largely because everybody has a local high street and a local town centre—not just Members of Parliament, but individual citizens. The importance of the welfare of high streets and town centres cannot be overestimated.
The issues around town centres and high streets are perennial. I join others in welcoming the Government’s commissioning of a report from Mary Portas and her work. The report introduces some new language, and anyone who reads it can tell that it has been written not by a planning professional or a civil servant, but by somebody whose main qualification is in the business about which they are speaking and whose enthusiasm is patently transparent. That runs through the whole report. I am not quite familiar with a few expressions in the report—I do not know what she means by a “three-dimensional retailing experience”—but we can forgive that kind of hyperbole when the essence of what she addresses is so critical to the health of so many of our communities.
I notice that the Government say they will have their response out by the spring, which I think means the day before the House rises in the summer, whatever date in July that might be. I hope the Minister takes into account what people say and how important this issue is. I sometimes worry about Ministers’ responses to Backbench Business Committee debates. They accept motions—although there are no specifics in today’s motion—but spend all their time during their speeches explaining why they do not agree with them. I hope that that will not be the case today.
High streets and town centres mean different things in different parts of the country—they mean different things in urban areas, semi-urban areas, towns and villages—but in both this country and around the world, the common denominator is that the local market, however we describe it, is a key ingredient of the local community. In many ways, it defines the local community. As others have said, it is not just a place of trade and exchange, but a place of social interaction and opportunity, a meeting place and a centre for all kinds of activity, not merely retail.
There are many different aspects of the high street debate. I agree with the hon. Member for South West Devon that the threat is no longer from new out-of-town developments. Time will tell whether we have sold the pass on that and whether we allowed too many developments in previous years with which the traditional local ribbon high streets must contend, but the threat is not from new developments.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s thoughtful speech. He says that local retail centres are not a threat, but all the retail centres in Harlow are very popular and have a huge advantage because they have free parking. People can park outside the door and go about their daily business at the retail centres, whereas many shopping precincts—not just in Harlow, but all around the country—are paved over and very difficult to park near, and many have parking charges. Does he agree that free parking would make a huge difference, as my hon. Friend Mr Streeter suggested?
I shall come to that in a moment. Perhaps I have not made myself clear. I do not think that the threat comes from new developments, the construction of which seems largely to have abated, as the hon. Member for South West Devon pointed out. The fear is that we have already created too many of them, and that they will still have an effect on the traditional town centres and high streets.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that our high streets have a wider role in supporting local supply chains and increasing local resilience? In some areas, there is still a threat not only from out-of-town developments but from large distribution depots, which are merely displacing jobs rather than creating new ones.
That is indeed true.
I was involved in producing a report a few years ago, and we discovered that, in the large retail sector, it takes £150,000 worth of turnover to support one job, whereas the comparable figure for small and independent retailers is £100,000. So, small and independent retailers are much more likely than large ones to produce employment. They are also much more likely to be used by people locally, and the value stays within the local community rather than being exported to a national centre elsewhere. They are also of much greater value to the community in terms of social cohesion as well as retailing.
Some 10 years ago, I was approached by the Independent Retailers Confederation at an event here in the House, and we had further discussions. I then tabled an early-day motion relating to retail crime and under-age purchasing, which highlighted the fact that although those issues apply to all retailers, they present a bigger challenge and have a greater effect on small retailers than they do on the large multiples. I know that some Members take a proprietorial—almost parental—interest in their early-day motions, e-mailing and writing to everyone to ask them to sign them. I take a much more hands-off approach, however; I table them and send them off to find their own place in the world. So, I submitted the EDM with only my name on it, but within a week, it had attracted about 88 signatures.
I spoke to some of the Members who had supported my motion, and it became clear that although there had been an all-party parliamentary retail group for many years, there was a strong feeling that its work did not reflect the interests of small and independent retailers. I am not criticising its work at all; I think that it is a valuable adjunct to the work of the House and the interests of its Members. It is fronted by the British Retail Consortium, which is an estimable organisation that does a good job of representing its interests. However, the consortium effectively represents large retail traders and multiples. That is perfectly legitimate, but the idea that it represents small and independent businesses is just plain wrong. We need only to look at its membership lists to discover that fact. It includes some online businesses that have no trading premises, but, apart from those, its idea of a small trader with only one outlet is Harrod’s or Fortnum and Mason. They are not small retailers, by anyone’s definition.
We then formed the all-party parliamentary small shops group. I am particularly indebted to the hon. Members for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) and for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), and to Mr Evans, now the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, as well as to Danny Alexander, now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and to my hon. Friend Nia Griffith. We undertook to establish an inquiry, along the lines of that of a Select Committee, into the future of the high street. It was the first report of its kind, and it attracted a lot of attention. We made a number of recommendations, most of which were ignored. Some, however, were enacted, and some were partly enacted. There is, however, a wealth of information, material and advice on the future of the high street, of which Mary Portas’s report is just the latest. There is also the all-party small shops group’s report from seven years ago and reports from the Evening Standard and various community groups and academic organisations. I hope that the Government will take long-overdue action and relentlessly pursue a policy in the interests of retailers of all sizes and the communities that they serve.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Jones on showing great leadership through his work on the all-party town centres group and in securing this debate. The group goes from strength to strength under his chairmanship. I also congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on allowing this debate to take place, because hardly a constituency in the country is not affected by this issue and there is hardly a high street not in need of improvement and enhancement.
Many Members have referred to their own high streets and constituencies, and I shall be no different because I represent the market town of Dartford, which, despite a planned regeneration project, has to contend with all the difficulties that every high street in the country has to deal with. However, I also represent Bluewater, which is one of the largest out-of-town shopping centres in Europe, so a special range of challenges affects the local area.
I have found that high streets do best when they adapt to changing times and offer something different from out-of-town centres, but that difference can be part of their strength. That is often overlooked by high street managers. Out-of-town shopping centres and high streets are not the same but offer alternative experiences. We should not lose sight of the differences between the two, and so we should not approach them and their needs in the same way.
Many hon. Members have mentioned the report written by Mary Portas, and there is much to commend in that report, but I disagree with some aspects of it. Sadly, Mary Portas is very disparaging about out-of-town centres, yet that negative approach is misplaced. She asserts that out-of-town centres have a negative social and environmental impact on the areas where they are situated. That is simply not my experience. I am not sure what negative impact they have on the environment in which they are situated. On the social impact, in my experience, they have a positive, not a negative, impact on the local area. When I visit Bluewater shopping centre, I see families enjoying meals out, cinema visits and socialising with others. This is a good thing for the local area and is part of the positive social impact that Bluewater, for example, has had on my local area.
I am glad to hear about the families enjoying themselves at Bluewater, but does my hon. Friend not agree that if they are enjoying themselves there—or, indeed, at Cribbs Causeway or other out-of-town shopping centres—in the way that he described, it means that they are not doing so in the town centres?
Yes, but I do not feel that it is an either/or situation. Many families can enjoy both the high streets and the out-of-town shopping centres, but in different ways. Very often, out-of-town shopping centres can be destinations that people enjoy.
I invite my hon. Friend to the Harvey shopping centre in Harlow. It is a wonderful shopping centre integrated with shops in the local town centre. Does he not agree, though, that the answer to his conundrum is to have a level playing field, as I mentioned earlier, so that high streets have the same rights as shopping malls and out-of-town centres?
My hon. Friend extends a kind invitation but he need not have because I have visited Harlow shopping centre many times. It was a very pleasant experience, but I do not agree with the assertion made by some—not by him—that we can make high streets better by making out-of-town shopping centres worse. That is simply not the case. We need to ensure that both shopping destinations are vibrant.
Does the hon. Member think that although the high streets might offer certain qualities and a particular type of shopping experience to shoppers, they also need the prices and the bargains? I do not do any of the shopping—my wife does that, and she always looks for the bargains, as I am sure is the case with every hon. Lady in the House.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. People will always be out bargain hunting when they are shopping. My wife is exactly the same, but there is also a place for quality in the marketplace.
Let me make some progress. Mary Portas has said that out-of-town shopping centres are responsible for job displacement. Bluewater shopping centre employs some 15,000 people. I simply do not accept that that number of people lost their jobs in the local high streets as a result of Bluewater opening. If these assertions are incorrect for Bluewater and north Kent, I presume that they do not apply elsewhere either.
In many ways, the success of many our out-of-town shopping centres helps to highlight what is needed in our high streets. In short, high streets can learn from out-of-town shopping centres. High streets need to become attractive, safe locations for people to spend their time, day or night; they need to be attractive to families and to people who will want to spend quality time there.
Does my hon. Friend agree that as much as anything else, town centres must remain accessible and that planning authorities have too much of a tendency to force change in transport systems, like imposing one-way systems or parking restrictions? In so doing, they are often limiting the town centre; they want to force a retailer to pay just because it has come into the town.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Of course town centres need to be accessible. Perhaps the most popular way of achieving that is through car parking provisions. This is how shoppers want to do their shopping; if they have heavy shopping bags, they might not wish to use public transport, however good it is.
It is essential that high streets offer more than just shopping. Too many high streets look the same and offer the same as each other, so they need a diverse range of attractions. High streets are facing an increasing range of challenges. Yes, the economic downturn has hit the high street hard, and it continues to do so. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton said, internet shopping has also had an impact. High streets that offer something different can often flourish. Farmers’ markets draw people into the high street and continental food markets are also extremely popular. Ensuring that there is a permanent residential population in the town centre is important, too, in order to avoid high streets looking like ghost towns after dark. Having an effective town centre forum or chamber of commerce working with local councillors and planners can help to ensure that ideas and plans are thought through before they are implemented.
What I welcome in Mary Portas’ report is her support for a team approach to high street planning. I also support her suggestion of tackling the number of empty shops we see in the high street. We should not single out banks, which she suggests we should, but should target all retailers on this issue. Her report suggests that councillors should be given the power to tackle situations where, as Dame Joan Ruddock pointed out, there is a problem with the number of betting shops in a particular area. I disagree with Mary Portas, as we should not single out betting shops; we should adopt the same approach to all retailers and prevent any one kind of retailer from monopolising a particular street or particular part of the high street.
In conclusion, the future prosperity of British high streets is one of the biggest challenges the country faces. There is no simple solution to the problem. It seems, however, that with innovation, team work and an understanding of the needs of the people, high streets could once again flourish in this country.
Order. Given that a number of Members wish to catch the eye of the Chair, I shall now reduce the time limit to five minutes. I want to ensure that everyone can contribute, so I ask Members to exercise some restraint in interventions. Members who wish both to intervene and to speak will be placed lower on the list. Let me reassure Members that I want to treat everyone as fairly as possible.
We all want our town centres to be successful, and to provide employment and high-quality goods and services for the local community. In my constituency, more than 5,700 people are employed in the retail sector, but, like other town centres, Stockport is facing the challenges posed by changing shopping habits. One of the challenges is undoubtedly the growth in internet sales, which currently account for 12.2% of all sales. Some estimates suggest that e-commerce accounted for nearly half of the retail sales growth in the United Kingdom between 2003 and 2010, and we have seen a dramatic increase of more than 500% in “m-commerce”—sales over mobile devices—in the past two years.
In every town centre the well-known retail brands have a presence, and, together with independent retailers and markets, they have been the face of the high street in town after town. However, it is becoming clear that because of changes in shopping habits, retailers are going to need fewer shops. Some big names have announced that they are considering whether they have the right number and size of stores, including Arcadia, the owner of BHS, which is examining the future of 260 stores.
I believe that the challenge is for retailers to harness the power of the internet in ways that can benefit them and stop the decline of town centres accelerating as some well-known brands pull out. A growing school of thought believes that the internet, and specifically the evolution of multichannel and social media, provides a significant opportunity for the future success of our towns and cities. The good news is that about a fifth of all internet transactions in the UK involve some in-store research, so internet shopping does not mean that people are abandoning the high street.
Analysis by Experian has revealed that one in 10 consumers use their mobile phones or “tablets” in stores to check the price of goods elsewhere before deciding whether to buy, and that nearly 31% of the UK population now fall into the category of multi-channel shoppers: those who use the internet, trips to stores, price checks on mobile devices, and advice from friends and their “virtual” networks to decide whether to make a purchase. It is clearly not as simple as shoppers deserting the high street for their computers or mobile devices. Indeed, a factor identified in the same report is the frustration with online shopping that is driving consumers back to the high street. The report states that 60% of online shoppers have expressed frustration about the arrival of deliveries while they were out, and that 50% have received products that they did not consider to match the online description.
It is for those reasons that many high street stores are offering more flexible “click and collect” purchasing, which enables customers to shop online and collect in stores. The number of non-food retail purchases to which that applies is expected to increase from a fifth to a third by 2020. Some companies are also encouraging customers to browse online in kiosks in their own stores, or are providing showrooms where customers can browse and receive specialist advice. All those factors are attracting shoppers back to the high street, and are providing opportunities for retailers who get their strategy right to survive.
Big names with collection points and web kiosks that have embraced the internet could in future provide an attractive anchor for town centres, and draw people into the high street. That in turn could increase investment in town centres, and enable each town to develop its own unique offer of, for instance, markets, independent specialist shops and cultural attractions. That, as Mary Portas says, is the key to high street success.
Absolutely, and the difficulty that retailers currently face is partly due to the consequences of the wider economic conditions. I also agree with Mary Portas that it is important for town centre partnerships to work together to meet the new challenges, and for councils to provide access to shopping and adequate parking. Innovative retailers can harness the power of the internet and e-commerce to change the way in which they do business.
Does my hon. Friend agree that local authorities need show stronger leadership and come up with more innovative ideas, such as Medway council’s card that gives people discounts when they use local facilities such as restaurants and theatres?
I entirely agree. In a debate before Christmas, I talked about a unique offer in Stockport that combined discounts at cultural venues and in shops. Locally, there is a lot of similar innovative thinking about how we might attract people back into our town centres.
In October 2011 a well-known retailer opened a store without any stock. Customers select their product on iPads for delivery to the store or to their homes. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills research published alongside the Portas review noted that this was
“an innovative use of bringing the internet to high street”.
Another big retailer has also reported “strong multi-channel” sales growth and plans to extend web kiosks in small stores to give access to a wider range of products, and a further influential company said that the success of its “click and collect” option had been so great that it planned to double the number of collection points in its stores. That is good news for town centres and it illustrates the fact that we should not see internet shopping as a threat—it can be harnessed to bring vibrancy and shoppers back to our high streets.
Like many people, I shop on the internet but also enjoy the social aspect of shopping in my local town centre and Stockport market. Like many of us, I do not want to lose the socialising opportunities that a vibrant town centre and market can offer or the sense of being part of a community that they provide, but nor do I want to lose the convenience of shopping online in the evening. We need to get the balance right for both to thrive nationally and locally. That is the challenge facing us all in reviving and developing our town centres.
Order. As so many Members are seeking to catch my eye, I shall reduce the time limit on speeches still further if there are frequent interventions. I hope colleagues will heed that warning and try to restrain themselves.
I welcome today’s debate and the opportunity to discuss this most important issue. When thinking about my contribution today, I was reminded of the following headline in The Guardian in 2009: “Empty, unlet and unloved: the new British high street.” Over the past few years, we have become very aware of the demise of our high streets. Challenging economic circumstances, stretched consumers and a new breed of large out-of-town shopping centres and supermarkets are all part of the problem, but we in central and local government must also shoulder some of the blame. Above all, we must take the problems seriously and act now to halt the damage already done. I therefore welcome the independent Portas review and its recommendations on the future of our high streets. The findings seem sensible and offer a pragmatic, systematic way forward.
When choosing where to shop, many people become flippant about the struggle our high streets face. I, too, am guilty of that. We do not automatically associate our shopping transactions with the survival of the high street. We think someone else will shop there or use its services. That attitude needs to change.
My constituency of Edinburgh West is a collection of communities close to a major city centre. Corstorphine is at the heart of the constituency and has what would probably best be described as a traditional high street: linear in appearance and with all the usual amenities one would expect, including a butcher, a baker—but no candlestick maker—hairdressers, dentists, estate agents, charity shops and pubs.
Does my hon. Friend agree that another facility we would expect to find on our high streets is a branch of a bank? However, in my constituency Barclays has closed its branch in Rhayader high street and HSBC is going to close its branch in Presteigne. Such closures pull our high streets still further downwards. We should let banks know that we expect them to respect the communities they serve.
That is an important point, but we can hope that that problem will be addressed by the welcome widening of competition through Virgin Money, the Co-operative Bank and others opening on our high streets.
High street businesses and the services they provide would be missed if they were to go, but the majority of people still do their shopping at the Tesco Extra, or other superstore, down the road. It has parking, everything is under one roof and for some products it is more competitively priced. I fear that many high street shops do well because of an older generation for whom they provide a social amenity. That is worrying for their future.
The high streets in Kirkliston and in Davidson’s Mains, which are also in my constituency, are surviving but they are arguably not thriving. People can walk to the shops and businesses, which are friendly and provide a focal point for the community, but not many new businesses are moving in; growth has stalled, it would appear. But in another area, South Queensferry, the high street is bustling. Why is that? It is because it is a completely different entity. It is a tourist attraction, where small independent shops are found alongside well-respected one-off hotels and restaurants. It has a clear strength and is playing to it. In the other areas, it would be a positive step if the local communities, authorities, planners and business leaders were given the opportunity to talk frankly about the direction in which they should and could move.
The Portas review makes 28 recommendations, covering many things that I do not propose to discuss in any great detail. All of them are important parts of the solution, but the experience in Edinburgh shows that the solution for each area—each separate high street—will be different and will need different elements of all these suggestions and many others if there is to be success. Local involvement will be key to delivering that. In England, the focus will be on the national planning policy framework, but in Scotland I await the national planning framework 2 monitoring report from the Scottish Government to see whether progress will be made.
Finally, I wish briefly to discuss new technologies, which were mentioned by the previous speaker, and their role in the success or decline of our high streets and town centres. The growth of online shopping has often been associated with the decline of familiar high street names—
Woolworths and HMV, to name but two—and I cannot argue wholly against that view. Indeed, Interactive Media in Retail Group forecasts from last year suggested that high street spending would drop by 2% over Christmas while online spending would increase by 16% and that 25% of seasonal shopping would take place online, with 12% being made via a mobile. Some 58% of large stores now have mobile websites; m-commerce is beginning to have a huge impact.
However, modern technology is not always the enemy. In the more rural part of my constituency, residents and business owners face cripplingly slow broadband connection speeds. I am campaigning for improvements, because not only do residents have a right to fast, reliable internet connections, but businesses need them in order to flourish and grow. I have been contacted by numerous business owners who say that the poor connection slows down card transactions in their restaurants, that without a website that they can update quickly and easily their business suffers and that any subsidiary online shopping facilities are limited because of the poor provision. If the connection could be improved, the online might not always lead to off-street sales.
The key to saving our high streets lies in allowing them to diversify to meet diverse demand. In some areas, such as South Queensferry, this will be achieved through tourism, whereas in others, such as Corstorphine, it will occur through meeting local needs. I believe that this Government are willing to work with local communities, authorities and businesses large and small to turn the tide. It is a refreshing and very welcome attitude.
I welcome the Portas review, which is well researched. It makes 28 excellent recommendations, many of which I agree with. Portas mentions out-of-town supermarkets and shopping centres. My constituency has not had any of those for 15 years; it has had town centre supermarkets and town centre shopping centres, which are a lot better than those out of town. However, in Prestatyn, in my constitutency, Somerfield and Tesco each owned half of one such site, and I believe that some of the supermarkets have land banks. These are not so much about developing their own stores as about keeping other stores out, and that issue needs addressing if we are to develop town centres. Where town centre developments are coming, the time scale should not be 15 years; it should be a lot shorter. When these town centre shopping centres are built, the impact on the local community should also be assessed. While there is a lot of building, disruption and road works, the Valuation Office Agency should be proactive and should give businesses the forms to apply for a rate reduction. This should not be left to happenstance or accident.
Let me also pay tribute to Tesco. When it said it was going to establish stores in my constituency, in Prestatyn and at the Cathco site in Denbigh, I wrote and asked whether it would take 50% of its employees from the dole register, and it agreed. There can be some positive benefits. If companies are developing near the town centre, they need to be integrated as far as possible with the town centre, with lots of coach parking that will benefit not just the shopping centre but the high street, too.
My constituency is blessed with a long-established market in Prestatyn. A market has just been established in Rhyl by a man called Ray Worsnop without a penny from the public purse. He set it up, he made mistakes but it is now up to 50 stalls strong in the centre of Rhyl high street. When someone is trying to establish a new market there are often tensions in the community. As Mary Portas says, we should establish markets and even car boot sales in the town centre.
As the hon. Gentleman says, the Portas review is very important. It mentions America and France, but not good practice in Northern Ireland. One example of that is the chamber of trade working with the council to provide financial incentives, such as reduced car parking charges and a transport system that brings people from the edge of towns to the centre.
I absolutely agree. We should look not just to England but to England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and beyond. If best practice is out there, let us bring it back to our high streets. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
Markets, as Mary Portas said, will be integral, but how do we establish new markets? What are the lessons to be learned? She also mentions the social aspect of town centres. In Rhyl, we are trying to bring the town alive. The piazzas and public performance areas are empty. Young children who have trained for the children’s eisteddfod go down to Cardiff to perform, but do not perform in their own high street. We have a folk club, a jazz club, a music club and an operatic society: they should be doing public performances. There should be dwell time within a town centre, so people can sit, listen and talk. That is what Mary Portas is saying and we should be listening to her. In Rhyl and Prestatyn, which are seaside towns, we have promenades. The word “promenade” means “to walk”. We do not do enough walking or socialising. We are all on this treadmill of work, work, work and work. We need time to relax and we should be relaxing in our high streets—[ Interruption. ] Especially in Rhyl.
Mary Portas also addresses the issue of empty shops, and a lot more can be done. Empty shops and derelict properties bring a bad image to a town. In my home town, Rhyl, about six or seven derelict properties were filmed by national TV crews over 20 years. A sign outside one of the properties had been altered so that it read that it was Rhyl’s biggest receiver of stolen goods—nothing had been sold there for 20 years, but the TV cameras would come along and pan across the sign. I went up a stepladder with some black paint and painted it out—two years later, the building was demolished. It should not be left to the antics of a maverick MP to blot such things out; it should be done by the local authority.
Agreements are already in place; councils have section 215 powers. I believe that Hastings council is one of the best in the country in this regard, and I urge other hon. Members to look into it. It sent me a full pack that said exactly what our councils could be doing. Section 215 action can be taken against derelict properties that bring the neighbouring properties into disrepute. Those measures are already available, but they are not being used. Compulsory purchase orders should be used and the whole procedure should be streamlined.
There are many excellent suggestions. Mary Portas also mentions providing a disincentive to landlords to leave premises empty, especially when children’s groups, local artists and voluntary groups are looking for places to use. It is much better to see a light on in a building and actors performing, painters painting or children gathering together, than to see windows shuttered and covered in Billy Smart’s circus posters, seagull faeces and all manner of detritus. Empty shops should be converted into something positive for the community.
I shall be brief because a large number of hon. Members are trying to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, and because I suspect that a great many of them, including Chris Ruane, want to say the same kind of thing and are generally in agreement with the excellent Mary Portas report, to which I shall not refer further except to say that I broadly support most of its 28 proposals.
Hon. Members with an idle moment or two might find it amusing to look at my first-class website jamesgray.org, which was done not by me but by others, where they will find among other things, very wickedly, a video clip of my maiden speech. If they watch that they will see a fresh-faced, dark-haired, slender and keen young fellow speaking from these very Benches some 15 years ago.
This is what happens when someone represents North Wiltshire for 15 years. In that speech, I went to some lengths to address some of the issues that we are talking about, namely that my constituency had a number of small market towns surrounded by beautiful rural countryside, and how we could prevent that countryside from being built on. That shows both that nothing changes and, I hope, that I have done a reasonable job of living up to my promise and preventing developers from building all over my beautiful constituency.
My constituency provides a case study of these issues; indeed Mary Portas or others might want to use it as a case study or it could be part of one of her pilot studies. We have a variety of market towns, some of which have more flourishing high streets than others. The most famous of those high streets, internationally, at the moment is that of Royal Wootton Bassett, where we have a superb community spirit. Why do we have that spirit? Because Royal Wootton Bassett has a flourishing, vibrant high street and no out-of-town shopping. There is a very good Sainsbury’s, which is 100 yards away from the town hall at which we all stood in silent remembrance of our passing fallen soldiers until very recently.
Equally, in the town of Calne, we have a first-class supermarket right in the town centre. In Malmesbury so far we have no out-of-town shopping, but in the neighbouring town of Chippenham, which is just outside my constituency, there is a large number of out-of-town shopping centres and I am afraid that Chippenham high street is not as vibrant and great a place as it once was. I expect that my hon. Friend Duncan Hames, who I think will be speaking in a moment or two, will seek to explain why that should be.
This is not just about shopping, it is also about housing. Chippenham is currently looking to expand by 4,000 or 5,000 houses. This very afternoon, people in Trowbridge at Wiltshire council’s headquarters are considering a strategic way forward for areas such as the Birds Marsh estate, which is just outside my hon. Friend’s constituency but in my constituency. I very much hope that they will listen to local people, some 600 or 700 of whom have said they want no further expansion of the town of Chippenham into my constituency. The same issues apply elsewhere. We have to keep our high streets vibrant by preventing developers from spreading out into the countryside.
That brings me finally to a very interesting case in point—the town of Malmesbury. At the moment, two applications are in place, one from Waitrose and one from Sainsbury’s, to build out-of-town shopping centres outside Malmesbury. They claim those centres would provide x hundred new jobs, and of course they might, but in reality they would be jobs that currently exist. They claim that Malmesbury would benefit under section 106 agreements because there would be buses from Sainsbury’s car park into the town centre and there would be a staircase from the Waitrose up to the town centre. They say, “There would be all sorts of benefits for the people of Malmesbury. Aren’t they lucky to have us, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, coming to build in the town?” But, no, we are not lucky at all. Waitrose and Sainsbury’s are going there for one reason only: to make a profit for their shareholders out of selling groceries to passing trade. That is of no benefit whatever to the town of Malmesbury, and I very much hope that the local authority, when it considers this matter, will turn down both applications—from Waitrose and Sainsbury’s.
Malmesbury has a vibrant and superb high street with a great community, which is not dissimilar from that in neighbouring Royal Wootton Bassett. If we allow the building of two new supermarkets on the outskirts of the town or of housing, which has also been threatened around the outskirts of Malmesbury, we will land up with urban sprawl of the worst possible kind and with a reduction in the vibrancy of the high street, which would become similar to those in one or two other towns in our area. I appeal to the planners who are sitting in Trowbridge this very afternoon considering these matters to realise that if we allow developers to build on greenfield sites, that is precisely what they will do because they want to build on greenfield sites. Only by preventing them from doing so will we force them to build in our town centres, to redevelop brownfield sites and to redevelop and add vibrancy to our town centres.
Given the time available, I shall deal with just two or three issues, in particular what can be done generally. VAT is a big issue and Members have already talked about how we could improve business rates. We should consider how we can do more to encourage the private sector to invest in town centres and high streets, by being proactive with councils and in the local community. We also need to look at some of the laws and regulations in terms of what could be done better to streamline compulsory purchase and to promote fairer competition between small and large retailers. Although supermarkets get a lot of criticism, they provide many jobs, as the likes of Morrisons, Asda and Tesco do in my constituency. Indeed, Tesco is about to open a new superstore and we also have a major distribution centre. In Widnes, those companies are all in the town centre and add to it, although there is an impact on some other shops.
The situation is different in Runcorn.
The hon. Gentleman talks about getting more private investment into town centres, with big and small retailers working together. Does he agree that business improvement districts, such as the one we have in Truro and Falmouth, are an excellent mechanism for doing that?
I completely agree that it is important to get small and larger retailers working with the local community and the local authority. I should also like reinforcement of the powers of councils to stop too many takeaway or betting shops setting up in town centres, which is a problem in many areas.
I want to compare two towns in my constituency: Runcorn and Widnes. With a chemical industry heritage, Widnes has done particularly well. The town centre has been turned around, and there are a number of large supermarkets; in fact, Asda moved from an out-of-town site to the town centre. There has been good development of land in the area to promote such initiatives, which involve leisure as well as retail. We have a cinema and a bowling alley and an ice rink is coming. Widnes has done well to attract retailers and other investors to the town centre.
A key factor in attracting people has been Halton borough council’s deliberate free car parking policy. It has also ensured that car parks were built. As other Members have said, it is nonsense to try to rule cars out of town centres; people want to use their cars and we should encourage them to do so, while of course improving public transport links to our town centres and high streets.
In Widnes, there has been some impact on local retailers and a number of the older businesses that were there when I was growing up are there no longer, although Geddes bicycle shop still provides the same excellent service for the community. However, other shops have been set up in the town centre to serve niche markets and that is an important factor.
On the other side of the river is Runcorn, whose town centre has not done so well, despite Halton borough council’s excellent investment in development. One of the problems, and perhaps a lesson for the future, is that when Runcorn new town was set up, some individuals decided that we needed a new town centre a mile or two away from the existing one. It is called Runcorn shopping city, and although it is not a great success it had an impact on the traditional town centre. That has been a major problem, so when new towns grow in future and there are developments with significant numbers of houses we should learn the lessons from what happened in Runcorn.
The council has not had the success it wanted, so a year or two ago I took the initiative and set up a working group involving local residents and retailers, the chamber of commerce and the local authority. We explored how we could work together to bring developers to Runcorn town centre to try to regenerate it with more shops and retail. That means, as has already been said, that we need more people living in the town centre.
In Runcorn, we are particularly blessed with waterways, such as the Bridgewater, Mersey and Ship canals, so there is an attractive area to be developed in the town centre. There is great desire for that among my constituents, but great frustration that nothing has happened. The town centre is typical in that it has been harmed by other developments that have taken place over the past 10 to 30 years. Supermarkets have not been built in the town centre, but away from it. The town has many attractions, and that is part of the issue. We have to build on a town centre’s strengths. We heard that town centres should not all be the same, and should not all look the same, and the way forward is niche shops and a different type of design, building on an area’s strengths. In Runcorn’s case, the waterways can make it an attractive place to live, shop and eat.
Those are the sort of things that we must explore for our town centres in future. Involving the local community is crucial, and if we can develop residency and housing, that will bring people to the town centre, so that it does not become a ghost town at certain times of the day or night. I believe strongly that the Mary Portas report introduces many good ideas. Some powers already exist for councils to use, but we should look at how we can further improve powers to level the playing field and make it easier to develop those areas and bring in extra investment.
I would like to speak about a modern, British high street success story, rare as that is. Despite the obvious challenges facing the retail industry, the proactive approach in Chester in the past few years has resulted in resounding success. Our high street is the epitome of what towns and cities across the country should aim to achieve.
As many Members will be aware, Chester is a beautiful, historic city with a long history as a market town. Like every other part of the country, we face a threat to our traditional economy as a result of increased competition, internet shopping and out-of-town retail parks. Over the past three years, however, Chester’s high street has beaten the recession, and the statistics speak for themselves. As the Portas review highlights, excluding central London, high street footfall has fallen nationally by about 10% in the past three years. In Chester, however, we have had three years of consecutive growth, and our high street vacancy rate is similarly outperforming the rest of the UK. Compared with the rest of the country, Chester has proved to be remarkably resilient.
In the foreword to her review, Mary Portas speaks of the complex web of interests and stakeholders involved in the health of a high street, noting that many of those parties simply fail to collaborate or compromise for the greater good. Her solution is to put in place a town team to provide vision, strategy and strong operational management for high streets.
Does my hon. Friend agree that success and resilience are the result of empowering local people to make the decisions that will affect their local area, and in towns such as Romsey that is exactly what should happen when there is an out-of-town planning application for a Tesco store?
I cannot speak for Romsey, but in Chester, that is exactly what we have done. That approach was identified by the Conservatives when we took over the council in 2007, and resulted in the creation of Chester City Management, a body of local stakeholders, independent of the local authority, whose sole focus is on bringing footfall to the city. Many of the areas highlighted in the Portas review were identified by Chester City Management as the key to future success.
I should like to focus on one of those areas to showcase the way in which a little ingenuity and flexibility can make a significant difference to footfall. Town centre car parking, as we have heard, is vital to the economy of any city or town centre. Car parking that is too expensive, or a lack of car parking, has just one effect: to discourage people from visiting town centres, encouraging them to travel to out-of-town shopping centres instead. In Chester, we had year after year of inflation-busting increases in car- parking charges. Car parking was treated as a cash cow rather than as a tool to help local business. When I took over as the executive member responsible for car parking on Chester city council in 2007, I was all too aware of the detrimental effect of limited, high-cost parking on our high street. Along with the city centre manager, Mr Stephen Wundke, I thought up and launched Chester’s free after three scheme, offering free parking after 3pm every day in three of the city’s major car parks. The scheme was specifically targeted at local residents to encourage them to visit the town centre after school pick-up or work. Unlike Derek Twigg, the local Labour party did not like it and claimed that the reduction in car parking income would mean higher council tax and that residents would end up subsidising visitors to the city.
To give my hon. Friend a further example on the same point, this very day my own council, which we took control of from the Labour party last May and which introduced free car parking, has been criticised by the Labour group for daring to reduce its income from car parking. In our area free parking, as my hon. Friend described in Chester, has increased footfall substantially.
Absolutely. My local Labour party complained not just about that, but about the extra cars that were coming to the city. But despite Labour’s objections the free after three scheme was launched. It was supported by a huge publicity campaign in the newspapers and adverts on local radio, backed and funded by local businesses, and it was a huge success, seeing a massive increase in footfall in the city after 3 o’clock. Three years later it is still free after 3 in Chester, and footfall is now up by 23%. Free after three has been copied in towns and cities across the country, and it has even made its way into the Portas review, on page 27, as a model of best practice for others to follow.
In Chester, we have worked harder and smarter than most to keep our city and our high street vibrant. It is a credit to the local authority and organisations such as Chester City Management that we have been able to beat the national trend. It just remains for me to extend an open invitation to all right hon. and hon. Members and people outside the Chamber: if they wish to see first hand a thriving and successful high street, they are all very welcome to come to Chester, put their hands in their pockets, spend their money and enjoy their visit.
My constituency covers the towns of Hyde, Stalybridge and Mossley, as well as some smaller localities, all with their own high streets. The people in these towns care very much about the future of their town centres and high streets, and they are concerned about the decline that they have seen. I welcome the chance that we have today to discuss the Portas review.
Over the past year I have been working closely with local businesses, particularly in Stalybridge where the decline has been the fastest, to try to find ways of supporting our town centre. I welcome the support and inspiration that that report has provided. The review points to many of the concerns that have been highlighted by people I have spoken to in Stalybridge, such as fewer reasons to visit the high street and limited parking when they do. It presents a number of measures that could attract shoppers back to the high street in greater numbers. I want to say immediately that I support very many of the ideas contained in it.
Creating strong identities, providing greater strategic vision and ensuring that towns have a range of outlets and opening hours that match the needs of their customers are among the sensible measures that could be used to make a real difference. The acknowledgement that it is not just about retail is crucial. In addition, the review contains specific proposals, such as reclassifying the use category of betting shops, and suggesting measures that could rid our town centres of the blight of empty and derelict buildings—things that I very much support. However, it is important to recognise that a number of elements in the report would require significant investment, whether that is reduced business rates or free parking. It is difficult in the present climate to see where those resources might come from.
Today I want to share with the House some of the challenges faced by traders in my local towns. For those Members who have not yet been lucky enough to spend time in Stalybridge, I shall say a little about it. Stalybridge is a former mill town which has the Huddersfield narrow canal running through it. It has benefited in the past from regeneration to open up that canal and the area around Armentieres square. Many of the former mills have been transformed into loft-style apartments by companies such as Urban Splash. It has a population of over 20,000 with a range of incomes and housing, from social housing to properties currently on the market for more than £1 million, so it should be able to support a decent town centre.
In the past the focus has been on the night-time economy, leading some people to dub us “Staly Vegas”, but on its own the night-time economy is too limited a vision to sustain a thriving high street and town centre. Stalybridge has good transport links to Manchester and Leeds, and it could be an ideal choice for those seeking a leisurely cappuccino by the canal or an afternoon browsing in the shops.
Does the hon. Gentleman, whose constituency neighbours mine, agree that one of the problems is getting people into and out of town centres? I am sure that he does, as we are having a joint meeting on Friday to discuss roads. I have spent many hours on Mottram road trying to get into and out of Stalybridge. We have a joint problem with roads and access that is further cramping the town centres of Stalybridge and Glossop in my constituency?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I agree with his comments. In this case it is not just about traffic going through Mottram and Hollingworth in my constituency, but about how we can open up the asset of the Peak District national park in his constituency, which would be very much to our benefit.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you could spend a pleasant afternoon in Stalybridge, given its location and amenities, but unfortunately alongside our picturesque canal there is currently a burnt-out health club, which is an eyesore, and a once thriving pub that is now boarded up. Frankly, it looks a bit like a bomb site. There is an empty former police station and a former NHS clinic nearby, and an increasing number of shops on the high street are empty and shuttered up. As a result, few people now think of a visit to our town centre as an afternoon out.
Derelict buildings are a blot on our townscapes. Landlords are often reluctant to maintain their buildings or sell them, particularly if their value has fallen, and the powers to force those owners, who might not even live in this country, let alone the community, to take any action can be cumbersome and difficult to enforce. I have been working with my local authority to try to rectify the worst cases, particularly the burnt-out health club, but I recognise that it is very difficult, and that we are asking local authorities to incur significant liabilities at a difficult time, which they are not always in a position to do.
I am pleased that the Portas review recognises the detrimental impact that empty properties can have and calls for an exploration of further disincentives to prevent landlords from leaving units vacant. Removing empty property rate relief from landlords who fail to invest in their properties, or fining those who keep a significant proportion of their portfolios empty, are both measures that should be looked at. Dealing with derelict buildings would make a real difference in Stalybridge, and I would be keen for my town to pilot any scheme that would help. I suspect that I will not be the only Member making that request today. Indeed, this is such an important part of the review that I believe that it could have gone even further.
As has been mentioned, parking is a significant factor in the health of our town centres, particularly when supermarkets and out-of-town developments can offer free parking. The review’s solution is to suggest free parking schemes. Appealing as that might sound, we must recognise the reality that many local authorities are struggling for resources and, if they were simply forced down that route, might choose to sell off their car parks instead.
Our town centres could have a very strong future. The report recognises that retailers change but there is still a role for town centres if we get the offer right. I welcome the opportunity to discuss it today. I would like the Government to tell us how they will take forward and implement the report. I hope that it can be used as a springboard for communities such as mine to take a lead in designing their town centres in future.
I am grateful for being called to speak, and I compliment my hon. Friend Mr Jones on securing this important debate. The number of Members present indicates how important this matter is, not only to us but to our constituents.
I shall start by outlining the situation in my constituency. Sherwood comprises a number of small former coalfield towns with high streets and market areas. They are all are under enormous pressure, but those individual towns face very different challenges and vary greatly in their approach to them. In summary, there is no silver bullet that will solve individual problems, which have to be sorted out at local level, and many different challenges have to be addressed. Some of those challenges affect all the towns and are similar wherever we go. Many Members have talked about the rateable value of properties once they become empty, and the challenge of how to put pressure on landlords to let them.
Landlords have a role to play, however, because when they are approached by individual retailers about empty properties, the rent that they want to charge and the length of the lease that they want to offer on shops can sometimes be an enormous challenge to anybody wanting to start a small business. Somebody who has not run a shop may want to dip their toe in the water, and then take the big leap and start their own business, but if they approach a landlord who wants an extraordinarily high rent and a very long lease, they can find it daunting to commit themselves to that process and sign on the dotted line, knowing that they might expose not only their business but their home and other assets. So landlords have a role to play.
Local authorities have a role to play as well. Members have mentioned parking schemes, and it is worth reiterating the impact on someone’s decision-making process of the cost of parking a vehicle. They may want to buy just a newspaper or a pint of milk and think, “Where am I going to do that?” If they have to pay 50p to park their car to buy milk, they will choose somewhere free of charge, rather than somewhere where they have to pay almost the price of the bottle of milk to park before they can buy it.
I compliment the councils local to me that have taken the trouble to abolish parking charges so that residents can make that choice, but we have to understand why charges are in place. In my constituency there are places where, once charges have been completely removed, other residents use the spaces to park and ride into the city of Nottingham, blocking up car parks and preventing shoppers from using them.
There is also an enormous emphasis on consumers. Many Members have mentioned supermarkets located close to a high street, but they will not be successful unless consumers make use of them by going in there and spending their money. Consumers are very good at saying, “We want our high street to be successful,” but sometimes they talk the talk and do not walk the walk: they use supermarkets rather than supporting their high street. Consumers cannot have it both ways, however. They have to make use of the high street and ensure that they support the shops in their community.
We also need to look at the physical size of the high street. In certain towns it may be possible to convert some properties from retail to residential use and thus shrink the high street, to make a more concentrated area of shops, where we can address their quality, fill the empty ones with shops from the periphery and allow for the residential use of the peripheral properties. That would have the knock-on effect of taking the pressure off the green belt around our towns, and we could include residential areas on our high streets.
I am grateful for having had this opportunity to speak, and I encourage my constituents to go out and make use of their high street. The strapline for this debate should be “Use it or lose it”.
I congratulate Mr Jones on securing this debate. The future of the town centre and the high street is a subject that probably affects every constituency in the country. I shall take this opportunity to describe my experience of town centre development, because ever since I became a Member at the 2007 Sedgefield by-election, the future of Newton Aycliffe town centre has been an ongoing issue. In fact, my first Adjournment debate was about the town centre and the problems that it was facing.
Newton Aycliffe was one of the first new towns established under the New Towns Act 1946, and work on it started on June 28 1948. William Beveridge was the first chair of the Newton Aycliffe development corporation, the first row of shops in the town was built in 1952 on Neville parade, and construction of the town centre itself began in 1957.
In those early years the town centre was seen as a bustling environment with thriving shops, and everybody of a particular age in Newton Aycliffe has fond memories of it, but then, in the 1960s, things began to stall. The planners could not make up their minds about the future direction of the town and its predicted population, and as a result hesitation stepped in. There were plans for a new town centre, which were eventually rejected.
In 1963 Lord Hailsham’s report on the future of the north-east predicted an increase in the town’s population, but because of hesitation and a poor decision-making process, it took 12 years from the Hailsham report and the consent of a Secretary of State before a few shops were built. In 1974 a leisure centre was built. By the 1980s the town’s biographer, Garry Philipson, said in his book “Aycliffe and Peterlee New Towns” that there was
“indecision and consequent lengthy delay regarding the new towns’ target population and, subsequently, the form of town centre redevelopment.”
The delays and setbacks have continued into this century, but I think that we have started to turn the corner over the past three years. About 10 years ago Tesco built a store about 500 yards from the town centre. Today that is taking £1 million a week out of the town, which has a population of about 28,000. People might comment on the superstore’s hold on the town centre, but everyone still seems to use the shop.
The town centre is still making progress. The old dilapidated health centre has been demolished, Wilkinson has opened a new store, and the row of shops in Dalton way has been demolished. That will make room for a new Aldi supermarket, which will be built and opened in the course of this year, adding welcome competition for Tesco. The leisure centre is to become the site of a community hub with a new library, newly configured health provision and a community space. The structural monstrosity known as “the ramp”, which links the centre’s two floors and the car park is to be dismantled, and a row of shops near the leisure centre is to be demolished, creating a thoroughfare. That will open up to the outside world a town centre that currently seems enclosed and uninviting to potential customers.
For the residents of Newton Aycliffe, the history of their town centre has been laced with a good dose of frustration. In the past few years I have experienced that frustration myself. To bring a halt to the delays and ensure that progress could be made, my predecessor arranged for the planners, developers and other stakeholders to sit down around the same table to thrash out their problems at the beginning of 2007. That was the first time that those people had sat down together in the same room to work out the problems.
There have still been frustrations. For example, before planning could be agreed for the Aldi store, a stopping-up order had to be in place on a footpath. That process could not run concurrently with other planning issues, but had to happen sequentially, which caused unnecessary delay, given that the path has not been missed and the process was holding up economic development and job creation. The planning regime does not need wholesale reform, but some common sense must be applied when implementing the existing planning regime.
Even with the best will of the developers, planners and stakeholders, the bureaucratic nightmare generated by the utility companies was a problem. The gas and electricity companies would arrange to sort out problems on the building site of the new supermarket and then knock back the date. They found pipes that they did not know were there. I have spent many phone calls to the utility companies trying to get them to stick to the plans. Some Members might argue that such incompetence is the preserve of the public sector, but I can guarantee that it is not.
I believe that we are now turning the corner in Newton Aycliffe. I say to my constituents in the town that although they might walk through the centre and think that things are not happening, they can rest assured that they are. We look forward to having a prosperous town centre in Newton Aycliffe.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Jones and the Backbench Business Committee on securing this timely debate. It gives me an opportunity to speak about ongoing town developments in Bracknell, which I celebrate and support. I will talk about those developments, Bracknell itself and make some personal suggestions of what might enhance the town and make it more sustainable.
Bracknell is geographically at the heart of Berkshire. More than 100,000 people live in the Bracknell Forest borough. It is surrounded by some relatively affluent areas. Consequently, a town centre development is a viable proposition. The Work Foundation last year named Bracknell, jointly, the location likely to recover best during the economic recovery. It has a growth sector in technology, with 11 of the 15 biggest software companies in the world based in or near Bracknell. However, the town centre itself needs development. It is fair to say, and a widely shared view, that the centre of Bracknell does not look its best. It has long needed a development plan, and one has long been in the pipeline.
I am very pleased to say that although the majority of town development plans were being shelved because of the economic downturn at the time I was selected as a candidate in 2009, one of the four that were not was for the development of Bracknell. It is ongoing, and one has only to come to Bracknell to see the first stage of it: the Waitrose store that was opened recently. It is 36,000 square feet—a massive store—and we are extremely pleased with it. We have a long association with Waitrose, as its distribution hub for the entire country is in Bracknell. Indeed, it is the largest private employer in my constituency. There is widespread belief that the first store there will lead to others. I gather that a couple may be in the pipeline, to be announced soon, which would lead to further stores.
Of particular interest to the people of Bracknell is Winchester house, widely referred to as the old 3M building, although that great company has now relocated to another part of Bracknell. It is a big building in the middle of Bracknell and not particularly attractive, and I gather that a planning application will be put forward for its demolition and its replacement with new residential units and leisure and retail facilities. There is also planning permission for a £2 million transformation of the Princess square shopping centre frontage.
In the next couple of months there will be a presentation by the Bracknell regeneration partnership announcing the next stages of the town development. Originally it was going to be a £1 billion development to happen in one go, but economic reality means that it has been broken down into a series of developments. I have every confidence that it will be completed by the end of this decade.
I have my own suggestions. First, if there is one thing that we have learned in the past 10 or 15 years, I hope it is that consumption is not everything. I would very much like to see some culture in the Bracknell town development. I believe that feeding the soul is just as important as feeding the stomach, and I should like to see a theatre or cinema there. One has only to go a couple of miles to South Hill Park to see a wonderful arts centre. I am not suggesting for a second that it has not got wonderful grounds, but it is remarkable that a centre that is struggling for funds cannot be tied into the town centre development. I would certainly support that. There is also an absence of a museum celebrating Berkshire life. There is a long history of royal links and so on in Berkshire, and if a Berkshire museum were to be set up, I believe it should be centred in the county’s geographical heart, which is Bracknell.
Bracknell is going places. It has always been an economic hub, and I have every reason to believe that it will strengthen its position, particularly with such outstanding town development plans. The local borough council is to be congratulated on its leadership, as of course is Bracknell regeneration partnership, which is co-owned by Schroders and Legal and General, which own the great majority of the land. We need to ensure that the plans are sustainable, so we need to consider public transport, perhaps including links with Crossrail. The town’s sustainability and its contribution to the long-term health and happiness of all my constituents are of paramount importance to me.
The main high street in my constituency was rocked by the riots on
The impact of Westfield in Stratford has been dramatic. It has even affected the high street chains in Mare street, as they have bigger stores in Westfield to which people go for the wider choice of products that they can offer. Often, people use local shops for convenience during the week but tend to go to the bigger shopping centre at weekends when they have time to choose their retail centre.
The council and its partners in the town centre forum have been proactive in running events and activities to address that decline, such as ice rinks and personal appearances by celebrities and sports stars, but such things cannot be done on a weekly basis and do not help on their own. There are long-term plans, including for an outlet store offer to build on the success of the Burberry outlet store, which is a well visited international shopping space in Hackney—for those hon. Members who are keen to get a cheap mac, it is in Chatham place. Mare street also has the only Marks & Spencer in east London, so it is a shopping centre that has many things to offer, including independent stores such as Mermaid Fabrics, Argun Printers and Stationers, and others.
Some of the improvements that Mare street needs can be led or supported by the private sector, but local leadership, which takes many forms, is needed. Additionally, the council is looking into pedestrianisation and support for businesses to improve their retail offer very much along the lines of what Mary Portas outlined in her report. With the Hackney Gazette, I have launched an award scheme for local shops to encourage them to up their game. Local residents will vote for their favourite shops in a number of categories.
Planning powers, particularly in respect of bookmakers, are a big issue. Hackney has more bookmakers than any other London borough, and we need a change to the law.
My hon. Friend will know that I have a private Member’s Bill that establishes a separate use class for betting shops. It is due in the House on Friday. Does she agree that if the Minister chose to let that Bill through and provide it with time, we could solve the problem of the proliferation of betting shops on our high streets?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. I hope the Minister is listening to the debate and to the support on both sides of the House for that private Member’s Bill, which will make a difference.
I have focused on Mare street, but in the time remaining I want to touch on some of the other high streets in Hackney. Three main markets sum up Hackney: the Ridley road market, which is a traditional fruit and veg and general market, is in the constituency of my hon. Friend Ms Abbott; the Hoxton street market, where you can buy three pairs of knickers for £1, should you so wish, Mr Deputy Speaker; and Broadway market, which I also recommend, where a loaf of bread costs about £2.50, but is very nice. As hon. Members may gather, each market represents a different aspect of my constituency.
Broadway market, which is on a small street off London Fields, is an example of what can be achieved with local determination and drive. Traders and residents took matters into their own hands and established a Saturday street market in 2004. It has been a great success for local businesses and created an attraction for visitors. Andy Veitch of the traders and residents association told me recently that they like to think of the market as more friends, less frenzy. That pitch sums up some of today’s debate. We want Hackney shopping centres to be friendly and welcoming places to shop, which is a different offer to the out-of-town malls, particularly Westfield.
Broadway market began a customer survey at the end of last year because traders and residents there are aware that they need to keep up the best of what they are offering, particularly in this recession. They are also aware that they need to work together. They are fearful that a new Sainsbury’s Local will open nearby, but they are proud of what they have achieved, maintaining a mix of the low-cost, useful shop, and niche shopping with a thriving café culture. One local delicatessen employs 27 local people, which is quite different from some of the metro stores that open.
Hoxton street market is in the most southerly part of the constituency. It has not been thriving, but with a vibrant businessman newly working with the council, we hope that that will change. It is early days, but I am hopeful. I put on record my respect for Councillor Philip Glanville of Hoxton ward, who has done an awful lot to get that moving.
Tesco has been mentioned a number of times, and I cannot speak about retail in Hackney without mentioning it for two reasons, the first of which is that it was in Hackney’s Well street that the young Jack Cohen started out in 1919 with a market stall, selling a few days later the first branded tea—Tesco tea. Secondly, Tesco now has stores across Hackney, including a large one in Morning lane and one in Well street. Not all residents are happy about the number of Tescos, but that makes it an important player, even in a borough that prides itself on its independent shops.
I was heartened when I spoke to the manager of the Well street store. He made it clear to Tesco headquarters that he did not want a fresh meat counter in his 2012 revamp because there is a good and well-used local butcher outside his door. Of course, the desire to support local businesses is not entirely selfless—Tesco and other big retailers will benefit from an environment that attracts shoppers—but it is important that businesses work together, which they often do not do enough.
I have not had enough time to mention Chatsworth road, but there has been great local innovation there too; or the Shoreditch Boxpark, which has become a shopping centre because of an innovative approach by the council—containers have small shops in them on short-term leases to allow retailers to experiment.
The Portas review is important, and I wish to highlight a few key points. Regeneration led by businesses works best. Too many of one type of shop is not good. In Hackney, we have too many bookies and money shops. We have quite a lot of £1 shops too, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington has a 98p shop in her constituency—ever the discount in the recession. We need more local control, but that needs to be well thought through to avoid perverse outcomes, and we need to harness technology rather than see it is an enemy. We should encourage local websites and local linking of the internet with local shopping.
Before I entered the House, I spent 15 years working in the retail sector for three of the biggest names on the UK high street. I welcome the Portas review, for it contains many valuable points. It has taken us away from the traditional debate, in which it was said that the demise of the UK high street is down to out-of-town supercentres and supermarkets. The report identifies salient points, and it is a credit to the House that we have focused on them today.
In the time allowed, I do not want to go over ground that other right hon. and hon. Members have gone over—I want to move on to some fresh territory—but I wish to highlight the importance of landlords, particularly for small independent shops. Far too often, people who want to have a go and set up a shop face long-term leases of five or 10 years—added to the cost of rent, shop-fitting and staff, such leases become a deterrent. I appeal to the Minister and landlords: let us encourage flexibility and short-term lets.
In recent years, we have seen the trend of pop-up shops, where people are encouraged to take up a three or six-month lease agreement. Far too often, such shops sell fireworks or Christmas trees. I encourage landlords to be far more imaginative and to give people who want to have a go the opportunity to succeed or fail.
The hon. Gentleman might be interested to hear that a scheme for young people was set up in a derelict shop in Hoxton street. In order to do that, the property needed a shop front. It is now the Monster
Supplies shop, where people can buy jars of snot and eyeballs. It attracts a certain type of visitor—it is very popular at Halloween—but is that a good example of what he is talking about?
That is a very good example. I never thought that Fylde or Lytham St Annes would have anything to learn from Hackney, but perhaps in this case it does, and I suggest we do so.
When shops are left empty, they are far too often left in an appalling state. As Chris Ruane, who represents Rhyl, pointed out, they are left with posters on windows or boarded up. That does not make them good neighbours, so I encourage local authorities to use all the powers at their disposal—we perhaps need additional powers—to force landlords to leave empty properties in a state that makes them good neighbours and not an eyesore for the community.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as well as encouraging landlords, we need banks and finance houses to help small businesses? People who want to start small retail businesses cannot provide the security that banks require. We need to alleviate the difficulties with banks to encourage people into entrepreneurship.
Our friends the banks of course have a role to play, but I wanted to focus on landlords, because, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees, bank support for small businesses has been well covered in previous debates.
One sensitive item—I wish to be as non-controversial as possible—is the role of charity shops. Charity shops take up a disproportionate number of shop units in many high streets. I would not wish to decry the role that charity shops have to play—the income raised by them is important, particularly for small, independent, local charities—but perhaps now is the time to review some of the considerable benefits that are given to them.
Landlords often prefer to sign a lease with Oxfam than to take the risk with an independent retailer. The security of Oxfam versus the uncertainty of a start-up independent can distort the local market. Also, charity shops do not have the bigger costs that many retailers face. The biggest cost for any retailer is the one that walks through the door on two legs—namely, the staff. Charity shops often trade on the generous support that they receive from volunteers. Given that backdrop, I do not think that it would be wrong to put the support that we give to charity shops on to the table for a timely review, to see whether we need to move past that.
It is also worth pointing out that charity shops do not always sell stock that has been donated by members of the public. We often see items for sale such as books that look brand spanking new. They might have dropped out of a major retailer’s chart and, rather than being sent for pulping, they might be sold on at nominal cost or donated to the charity for resale. Oxfam has more shops selling books than Waterstones, and that imbalance needs to be addressed.
I want to mention briefly the importance of carrying out trials. Several Members have offered their high streets as hosts to trials today. I must advise the Minister that, when he picks towns in which to carry out trials, he should remember that no two high streets are the same. A seaside town is very different from the suburb of a city centre, which in turn is very different from a rural market town. It is therefore important to pick a wide cross-section of perhaps 20 or 30 town centres for the trials. The amount of money needed to be invested in such trials would be negligible, because, if they were done properly, the private sector could become involved. I urge the Minister to look at one of the recommendations in the Portas review, which relates to getting the major chains and supermarkets involved.
In 2007, I won one of the few awards that I have won in my life. It was the IGD/Unilever social innovation award for work that we had done in a town called Huntly in the north-east of Scotland. We were opening a supermarket there, and the independent butcher and baker in the high street were under threat, but if we can get the major retailers involved in the right way and at the right level, they can be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. That can also help to mitigate some of the costs.
Like other Members, I would like to offer up a town in my constituency to take part in a trial. It is the town of Kirkham. In it, there is a lady who runs a bookshop. She also sells ice cream and runs a tearoom in the shop. As the leader of the retailers in the town, she would be willing to lead a pilot scheme. If we want to send a signal that Britain is open for business, I cannot think of a better way of doing it than getting our high streets open for business.
In common with Members on both sides of the House, I welcome the Mary Portas review. I want to talk specifically about one of its recommendations, which pertains to betting shops and the planning regulations that apply to them. I want to talk about the scourge of betting shops, partly because I have campaigned on the issue for some time and partly because they are a particular issue in Hackney and other inner-city areas. Unless people live in an area such as Hackney, which has seven or eight betting shops on one high street, they cannot understand the scourge that the proliferation of those places represents.
We have seen a surge in the number of betting shops over the past decade, particularly in inner London. I think that there are now 90 in Hackney, which is three times the national average. That is why I am glad to have this opportunity to address the House on the subject. There are nine betting shops on Mare street alone. On that street, next to the historic St John’s church, we have a beautiful 19th century town hall, on which millions have been spent on renovation. It had been leased to the Midland bank since the 1930s, but in the 1990s the council sold the freehold to the bank—now HSBC—which promptly sold it on to Coral the bookmaker. That is the pitch that we have reached in the inner cities: that heritage building is now a bookmaker’s.
Let me say something about bookmakers for the benefit of Members who do not know much about them or who do not go into their premises. In many cases, they are the equivalent of casinos, with highly addictive fixed-odds betting terminals. Often, there are many of these in one shop. Members might say, “Well, it is people’s choice if they want to place a bet. Why is she being so prudish?” I have no moral objection to betting shops; my objection is to their proliferation. As I have said, there are between six and eight on our high streets, and children might have to pass four or five of them on the way from home to school in Hackney.
I also object to the predatory nature of the betting shops in the inner city. As I have said, there are eight or nine on Mare street, and nine on Green lanes in Harringay. Betting shops put nothing back into the community, and they add no vibrancy. The pattern of new betting shops opening within the M25 shows that they have targeted the poorest areas with the highest unemployment and poverty. There are three times the number of betting shops in Newham as there are in Richmond. What could be more predatory than that? The people who can least afford to bet are being tempted by four or five betting shops in a row. Furthermore, hundreds of public order offences are committed outside betting shops every week, contributing to low-level social disorder.
I have campaigned on this issue for many years. I have written to and met Ministers and council leaders, and I have tabled early-day motions. The problem is one of planning. Betting shops fall within use class code A2, which covers financial services. That means that it is possible to turn banks and building societies into betting shops. It is even possible to switch the use of restaurants and takeaways. The Gambling Act 2005 does not give local authorities any real scope to limit the number of betting shops. Year after year, my own Ministers wrote back to me saying that they believed that local planning authorities had strong planning powers available to them to control the development of betting shops. That was not true; it was clearly the line that officials took, but it was not true.
I very much welcome Mary Portas’s recommendation No. 13, which covers the planning regime for betting shops. It is headed: “Put betting shops into a separate ‘Use class’ of their own”, and I support her when she says:
“I also believe that the influx of betting shops, often in more deprived areas, is blighting our high streets.”
After many years of campaigning by local residents, and of local authorities finding themselves caught between angry residents and a Government who claim that authorities already have the necessary powers, I suggest that now is the time, following the trigger of the Portas report, for Ministers to give local authorities the power, in this one respect, to give the high streets back to the local communities and to end the scourge of predatory betting shops in some of the poorest communities in our country.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Jones on securing it. I do not think that I have ever taken part in a debate in which snot and knickers have been mentioned, so I look forward to reading Hansard tomorrow.
I welcome the Government’s review—it was long overdue. Let us face it, the problems of town centres are not a new thing: they have been occurring for some time. We need to create vibrant areas that are exciting to visit and in which social gatherings can be held. It is therefore important to deal with this issue. Mary Portas’s analysis is a good one. Shopping has changed, as have our habits. Where we go to do our shopping has also changed. There is much to think about in the report, and there is much in it that I support, although there are other bits with which I have a few issues.
I think that we are all in danger of simply repeating our maiden speeches today, because we are all, quite rightly, talking about our own constituencies. I shall do the same. The name of my constituency does not fully describe the area I represent, because I represent not only the town of Pudsey but the many other towns and villages around it. I want to talk about two examples today. In the Farsley and Calverley area of my constituency, there is a large out-of-town shopping centre, containing one of the biggest branches of Asda as well as one of the biggest branches of Marks & Spencer. It has had an impact on the towns of Pudsey and Farsley, because people travel out to the site.
Local enterprises are trying to get people back, however. Pudsey Business Forum, for example, has an excellent Shop Local campaign newspaper. It has also printed its own bags and held lots of events in the town. Recently, we were delighted to welcome back Pudsey bear at a Children in Need event, which was superb.
A local councillor in Farsley, Andrew Carter, should be congratulated on working closely with shopkeepers who are putting on street events to encourage people to come along. The church is also getting involved in the community. Many of the towns that I represent are old mill towns, and far too often mills have been knocked down and new houses built on them. In Farsley, encouragingly, two mills are renovating their buildings to attract businesses. One has all different types of businesses, including high-tech businesses, but the other is considering attracting retailers so that it can become an exciting place to visit. That is really good.
Another part of the constituency, in Guiseley, Horsforth and Yeadon, has been helped by the fact that the main supermarket, Morrisons, has built on the high street, which has encouraged people to go through the town centre on their way to do their weekly shopping. There are many lessons to be learned there, because we have changed our habits.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many supermarkets act as hubs within towns? For years, my area has had a Tesco in town, and people do their shopping in town and finish in Tesco. People now do weekly shopping, not daily shopping.
I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman. We can see the difference. The town centres are still struggling—these are difficult times—but the fact that there is a major supermarket on the high street encourages people to do their weekly shopping there and then have a look at the other shops.
In many constituencies, parking is the big problem. Far too often, in the towns that I represent, from early in the morning through to fairly late at night, commuters take up the parking spaces that would otherwise be available to shoppers. In fairness, councils are trying to deal with the problem by introducing shorter-stay parking.
My hon. Friend is making some powerful points. Is there not a big issue with the loss of parking in certain areas because councils are looking to retail their assets and use parking assets to fund council projects? We are losing parking spaces, which is having a big impact on town centres.
I concur. It is important that where there are limited parking opportunities, we do everything possible to ensure that the parking is right for the area. I am delighted that my areas are now introducing time limits. I have one problem with a supermarket in Guiseley, however, that has caused huge problems by not working with the council. I hope that I can use this debate to encourage it to do so.
Finally, I want to talk about empty shops. My hon. Friend Mark Menzies had a go at charity shops. As someone who used to work for a charity, I found them an invaluable source of income. In some cases, they can bring life and vibrancy to a town centre—it is important to say that—although it might not always be desirable. In Armley, people have used their shops as centres or beacons of art, as a result of which they have not remained empty and unattractive. That has encouraged people to go along and have a better shopping experience.
It is good that we are having this debate, because it shows that we are in touch. MPs get criticised all the time but we are in touch with what is going on and we care about our town centres. We were once described as a nation of shopkeepers, and long may that continue.
I commend Mr Jones for securing this timely debate. It is clear that there is concern about these issues across the House. The problem has come to a head recently because of the wider economic climate, but it is important to remember that this is not a new problem—it predates the recession by a number of years. There is evidence in my constituency of town centre decline stretching back at least 20 years. There is no single cause; instead, a malign constellation of circumstances combined to erode the viability of independent and family-run shops.
The trend towards larger supermarkets and out-of-town retail parks is undoubtedly the key underlining issue—others have alluded to it—but it is not the only one. As others have mentioned, there is the growth in online retail, changes in demography and working patterns in local economies, people commuting to work, less time to shop and changing tastes. I can also think of a range of long-standing family businesses where proprietors have reached retirement age and found no one else in the family willing to take it on. In the current climate, it is difficult for newcomers to get into the market or take on that kind of commitment, even if they can get the finance, which is a major challenge.
Turning that around is a challenge not just for national or local government; it also involves traders and, perhaps most importantly, our role as shoppers and citizens. If we want thriving town centres, Governments and local authorities need to work together to play their part. We should not, however, dodge the dominance of the large supermarkets and its consequences. There is no doubt that they are hard to beat on price and range and that they offer free parking and many other things that people have mentioned. Furthermore, those who think that supermarkets are the closest thing to Dante’s third circle of hell can now order all their shopping online and get it delivered.
That is all very well but small shops cannot compete on price and range of goods, or provide free parking. Those of us concerned about the demise of our town centres need to put our money where our mouths are, use our shops and not do all our shopping in one shop. If we do all our shopping in the large supermarkets, they will quickly become the only places where we can shop.
It is important to consider alternatives. People have come up with lots of good suggestions today, but in my constituency the small business bonus scheme, introduced by the Scottish Government, has provided a lifeline in recent years to smaller, independent shops. Shopkeepers in my constituency have told me in no uncertain terms that their business would not have survived the past three years had their rates bill not disappeared. Furthermore, the small business bonus is arguably a huge incentive for new businesses and entrants to the marketplace because it reduces start-up costs and mitigates some of the costs associated with a new retail business.
The £60 million town centre regeneration fund introduced in Scotland in 2009, with cross-party support, has also played a part. We have seen projects across every local authority area devised by local stakeholders. They have enabled communities across the country to improve the appearance of their facilities, make them more accessible and create more than 1,000 jobs. Local authorities have a particular responsibility to push forward regeneration, to take action on parking charges, which others have mentioned, and to ensure that planning decisions do not undermine town centre regeneration.
It is important that local authorities enforce the planning conditions that they place on big supermarkets outside town. Mark Menzies mentioned Huntly. That was a great scheme in theory—it is not in my constituency— but in practice there has been much controversy because planning conditions placed on Tesco have not been enforced by the local authority.
May I point out what happens when local authorities try to challenge big companies, such as Tesco? We are talking about small local authorities taking on a multinational company, the legal department of which is often bigger than the local authority so it can take the local authority to court and win. That is part of the problem.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the challenges and pressures on local authority legal departments. As citizens and shoppers, we have a chance to address that.
I would love to but I am conscious of the time and of the fact that lots of other Members want to speak.
Some towns in my constituency are doing well and managing to swim against the tide, largely because the supermarkets are in the town centre. However, it only takes one or two attractions in a town, whether civic or shopping attractions, to make it an attractive place to shop. That has a knock-on effect for everybody. Although many local trade associations feel that they are swimming against the tide, many are doing the right thing and trying to become more attractive to shoppers: many are selling online from their shops, trying to compete with other online retailers, and trying to develop niche markets. They are also working with other traders to raise the profile of a town and make it an attractive destination.
We must recognise that although shopping patterns have changed, retail might not be the only option for our town centres. Banff in my constituency has an exceptionally high concentration of listed buildings. Shopkeepers face eye-watering repair bills in maintaining such buildings. They often cannot perform the renovations they would like to do, and their signage can be limited. It is a bigger issue for the wider community when buildings fall into disrepair or disuse, so we need to look at how to turn businesses, residences and offices back into housing in some cases.
I have been encouraged by all the great ideas that have been suggested in today’s debate. I shall certainly take some of them back with me, but I do not think there is one magic solution or a one-stop shop on this issue.
As the 21st speaker and one of the motion’s proposers, I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Jones on the quality of his speech and on all his excellent work on the all-party group for town centres. I declare my interest as a member of Kettering borough council.
I know that I have fewer than five minutes to cover the four high streets in the Kettering constituency: Burton Latimer, Rothwell, Desborough and Kettering itself. The three A6 towns of Burton Latimer, Rothwell and Desborough are all small town centres, all different in their ways. Burton Latimer has a supermarket, a mini-supermarket, a variety of small shops and a successful farmers market once a month. Rothwell has a variety of small shops as well as a mini-supermarket and a growing reputation for niche and specialist shops as well as attractive places to eat. Desborough is a former Co-op town where the Co-op supermarket has been around for many years, but the Co-up itself has restrictive covenants on a large number of small shops in the high street, which I would contend has been to the detriment of the town centre. Two supermarket chains are now bidding to build supermarkets in and near to Desborough—Sainsbury’s on an edge-of-town site and Tesco on a town-centre site—and it is fair to say that the town is split on which of those should go ahead. Kettering borough council has the unenviable task of making the decision on that—next week, I believe.
That brings me to the town of Kettering itself. It is the No. 2 retail town in the county of Northamptonshire after Northampton. It is fair to say that Kettering town centre excites a lot of local comment, favourable and otherwise. In fact, Kettering town centre has weathered the recession extremely well. In August 2009, 88% of the town centre’s units were full, which has increased to 90% where the national average is 86%, so Kettering is bucking the trend.
It is also fair to say that there are many myths about Kettering town centre. Local people believe that Kettering borough council sets the rents on all the local shops, when it is really up to the local landlords. There is, of course, a big contrast between Kettering, where there are many local landlords of shop premises, and neighbouring Corby, where there is one landowner in the town centre. It is a lot easier to get things moving in Corby with its one owner than in Kettering with its many. A £5 million Government investment has gone into the new marketplace in Kettering, with new developments in Market street and the Horsemarket. With all this public sector investment, the prospects for the town centre are good.
Now for the bad news. Just down the road, outside Rushden, there is a proposal for a major out-of-town development. According to the local Evening Telegraph, this site, which is 224 acres, will be the location for 20 leading UK retail chains, including a large Marks & Spencer, a cinema, a leisure centre, a garden centre, a hotel and a new lake marina. One of the major investors in Kettering town centre has written to me to say:
“From the plans we have seen and negotiations that we understand they are having with traditional ‘High Street’ retailers, we are convinced that should a scheme of this nature go ahead it would seriously curtail our ability to invest in Kettering town centre and attract new vibrant retailers to the town…we are concerned that a development of this nature would have a seriously detrimental impact on town centres throughout North Northamptonshire”.
In my view, the Rushden Lakes development would be a disaster for Kettering. It is completely against policy 12 of the core spatial strategy for north Northamptonshire, to which all the local councils signed up. I would like to take the opportunity provided by this debate to urge the Government to call in this application once it is registered with East Northamptonshire district council and to turn it down. If the development goes ahead, it will have a seriously detrimental impact on Kettering town centre—as I said, the No. 2 retail centre in the county of Northamptonshire.
I am pleased to be called to speak, and I want to cover supporting town centres and the important issue of parking. I congratulate Mr Jones on sponsoring today’s debate.
Too many valley town centres are in decline in south Wales. With the closure of Woolworth’s a while ago and Peacocks today, important cornerstones of the high street are fading away. Let us hope that Peacocks is quickly rescued.
On parking, as Mary Portas says, there are good environmental reasons why we should not use our cars, but if town centres do not accommodate the car at a reasonable price, shoppers will not be tempted to them. Furthermore, I have in recent weeks gained an insight into how a bad parking machine at a key town centre spot—at Ebbw Vale in Blaenau Gwent—can help to undermine shopping. Following a new private operator taking over the running of a car park there, I witnessed a large number of penalty notices being issued to blue badge holders, taxi drivers and others, which has swelled my postbag and prompted much anger. Good value and easy-to-use parking matter.
In my Beckenham constituency, it is not just parking that is the problem. It is the fact that trying to get into the car parks is made more difficult by road works that go up, go down, come again, go again and come again. It is sometimes just appalling. There should be much more planning of how road works are instituted and then stopped and controlled. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I do. Local authorities and utility companies need to liaise much better.
If parking becomes a problem, there is a danger that shoppers will stay away. What does Portas say about car parking charges? She warns councils not to see parking as a soft touch for revenue raising in cash-strapped times. The bottom line is that if we want to rejuvenate our town centres, we have to be sensitive to the needs of car park users. I believe easy-to-use and easy-to-understand parking systems are important, too. People should do the right thing, and pay and display. My constituents are both intelligent and compliant. However, the problems some of them have faced are illustrated by one clear example.
Following the arrival of a new parking operator, Excel, 29 disabled blue badge holders were issued with multiple penalty notices. It became clear to me that they were not to blame. Indeed, when they saw a new sign saying “normal conditions apply” and saw no signage in disabled parking bays, they thought that they could continue to park for free. Well, they assumed wrong, and they received penalty notices of £60 a time. After much advocacy, some are starting to have them taken back.
My experience over these last few weeks suggests that signage is important. If the signage is got right, people understand the rules and comply. When I identified the confusion and sought simplicity, I was not surprised to see that my request for a sign saying, “Everybody has to pay at this car park—24 hours a day, seven days a week” did not find favour. That makes me and many others think that some operators are using ambiguity rather than clarity to clobber motorists and boost their profits. If the signage is difficult to understand, the fine print is complex and the font is small, people will be confused—then penalty notices get issued and drivers stay away, so it is the high street that suffers.
Let me share some of the complaints I received. One local resident—I have plenty of similar anecdotes from others—said:
“The ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) camera is big brother at its worst, with the £60 fine…ridiculous for the ‘crime’ (this is how they make you feel)…These fines will put many people off going into town, as they will be too scared that they might get another if they make a mistake entering their registration number…I am not disputing the fact that you have to pay to park, just the way this company is bullying people who have innocently been caught out”.
Since the onset of the rash of penalty notices and local controversy, I have engaged in protracted correspondence in an attempt to secure fair play for local disabled drivers. As a result, I have learned that when penalty notices are issued—partly, in my view, as a result of poor signage—Excel profits considerably. That cannot be right. Last year a £100,000 bonus was paid to the company’s only director, Simon Renshaw-Smith, and in 2010 he paid himself a salary of £398,947—nearly £400,000. Nice work if you can get it.
All that has led me to conclude that independent regulation and appeal services are required to ensure that fairness for drivers is given the priority it deserves. I hope that I have made clear in my focused contribution that parking is an important issue, and that getting it right will help to achieve our overarching objective: the creation of busy, dynamic and regenerated town centres.
I, too, congratulate my colleague and hon. Friend Mr Jones on securing this important debate.
Two town centres define my constituency. Ealing and Acton are part of the same borough, linked by the Uxbridge road and sharing parts of the same community. They are very different in themselves, but a walk along either high street demonstrates that both are experiencing a noticeable decline. Both have been chilled by the effect of Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush. But we are lucky, because help is on the way: Crossrail trains will stop at both Ealing Broadway and Acton main line stations, which should kick-start a renewal. The potential is there, provided that we are ready to take advantage of it.
A regeneration programme continues apace in Acton, including work to completely revamp the town hall, a huge but empty building which has cast a long shadow over the high street for far too long. Work is also being done to refurbish the nearby South Acton estate. Encouragingly, just off the high street, Churchfield road is responding admirably. It has a parade of shops, cafés and restaurants that create a buzz and the incentive to shop locally for a new generation of residents.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of Acton high street. We do have a Morrisons right in the middle, and I agree with my hon. Friend Stuart Andrew that it provides an invaluable service, sitting at the heart of Acton and even providing car parking, but smaller shopkeepers along the high street complain of a toxic combination of rising rents, increased business rates and dwindling footfall. Clearly none of that is good for their business, although I believe that the local government funding proposals will help.
Ealing was once described as the queen of the suburbs, although the crown sits a little awkwardly these days. The town centre around Ealing Broadway is nothing like it once was: it feels tired. Yet there is much to build on. The centre retains its own distinctive character, which is appealing. It has a strong, mixed community, including young people who often choose to go on living there even when they have left the nearby parental home because it is a good place to be. It has great transport links, and also generous green spaces. Haven Green, Ealing Green and the common are just a few minutes away. Most interesting of all, it has a large vacant site up for sale right next to Ealing Broadway station. If properly developed in tandem with Crossrail, that could be the elusive silver bullet to get Ealing town centre back on track. However, it is a big “if”.
The Arcadia site has been the source of much friction and disappointment in the community. The last owners had their plans turned down by the inspectorate, and then went bust. We are all desperately keen for the site to be sold off as a single unit by the administrator, but so far no developers have turned up with the right money. We must hope that someone does soon, because otherwise it may be broken up, which would be a tragedy.
What are the magic ingredients for a successful town centre? A strong community who are prepared to support their local shops and play an active part locally; good shops providing everything that the community requires, and perhaps a decent department store as a magnet; decent pubs, cafés and restaurants to provide a buzz. Businesses are more likely to locate themselves in lively town centres where there are also good transport links. In Ealing, the Arcadia site could provide all that, but it should not be just about shopping, important though that is. Obviously housing is an inevitable component of a new development, but can we please ensure that it does not all consist of box-sized flats for singletons? Some at least must be decent-sized family housing which will help to build the community for the future.
Town centres should provide their communities with other activities as well, such as arts, fitness centres, libraries, street markets, and open spaces for socialising. There should also be a decent cinema. Ealing, of all places, does not even have a cinema, and has not had one for years. We have been hoping that the old cinema will be resurrected by its owners, Empire, but we are still waiting.
The Mary Portas report makes some interesting recommendations. It suggests that there should be more business improvement districts, plenty of convenient parking —especially at weekends—and a more flexible relationship between landlords and tenants. Perhaps most important is the suggestion that local people should become involved in neighbourhood plans. Obviously there are more such recommendations, but thank you, Mary Portas.
I welcome—at last—Government proposals to repatriate a large percentage of the business rates to local authorities. That is what we need if we are to redevelop the relationship between councillors and their local businesses and, hopefully, allow a new flexible relationship to flourish.
There is so much more that could be said. Our town centres, especially in constituencies such as Ealing Central and Acton, are essential to the life of the community. Governments can help, local authorities can enable and businesses will drive the regeneration, but local communities must be central to the vision.
I did not really intend to speak in the debate, but I have found it interesting to hear many of the views that have been expressed. I believe that we have been given a genuine opportunity to explore a number of different issues.
There is clearly a considerable amount of consensus about what needs to be done, but when I listened to some of the comments about cars and parking, it occurred to me that we ought to be careful what we wish for. I was slightly alarmed when a Member suggested that there should be no objection to people parking their cars in pedestrian zones in order to nip in and fetch their milk, bread and newspapers, because I think that that would be a hugely retrograde step. People do not buy things from shops when they are inside a car; on the whole, they buy things from shops when they walk past them and are interested in them. My constituency contains the historic Royal Mile, where shopkeepers have complained that if parking outside their shops is not allowed, they will lose business. In fact, that is the opposite of what actually happens. There are some fascinating shops in that stretch of road, but I never see them unless I am walking past them. It impossible to see what is on offer in their windows without having the opportunity to stroll past them.
Many Members have pointed out that people need to be able to park reasonably close to shopping centres. Of course we do not want to price people out of places, but we also do not want to prevent the kind of atmosphere that generates trade and business and makes a place pleasant to be in. I do not want to walk through a pedestrian zone knowing that the next minute someone is going to be up my backside with their car because they want to stop and buy something.
It is interesting that so many Members on both sides of the House have recognised the importance of public expenditure as a way of making town centres better places in which to be. However much people want the private sector to come up with all the money, it has not done so in the past. As was pointed out by Dr Whiteford—the other Scottish Member who has spoken today—when Governments invest money in improving the quality of town centres, they make them places to which people want to come. I do not think that it is good enough to say that a town centre will be improved if there is no good public investment to prime, and make possible, the kind of private investment that we want to see.
There is another point, which I do not think anyone else has mentioned today. In one part of my constituency, which is a regeneration area, members of a community group are setting up a community development trust. They want to open a local café, to be run on commercial lines. They do not want it to be a cut-price place—they want to make it a destination of choice—but they need capital, because without it the project will not work. Yes, it will be a social enterprise, and we hope that they will make a profit that they will be able to invest in their community, but they are finding it difficult to get it off the ground. Lots of warm words are uttered about how good such ideas are, but community trusts and social enterprise also need money behind them in order to get going. The public sector has an important role to play in supporting the private sector in that regard.
My next point may not be particularly consensual. The primary reason why so many shops are currently closing down is that there is simply not enough consumer demand. No matter how good an idea someone might have for a charming shop with high-quality goods, it will not work if people cannot buy them. Portobello is a seaside area of my constituency. Many interesting shops open there, but then close very quickly. Demand is key.
Lending is clearly one part of the problem, especially in relation to starting and then expanding a business, but there must also be a market for the goods; there must be people who can come along and buy things.
The current economic climate is very difficult. No matter how many interesting ideas there are for improving the physical environment of shopping areas, if people do not have the income—and for the first time the financial position of people in work is deteriorating—we will continue to see a decline. As I have said, economic growth is key.
May I welcome my hon. Friend to the House? I do not think that cutting back in the way that cuts are being made now has been a success. We can be accused of being over-reliant on public sector employment, but we must not take that away too quickly.
Recently, some constituents of mine came to see me because their small shop had experienced a sudden downturn. That was a result of private sector, not public sector, employment factors. They had relied on people in the financial sector in Edinburgh coming into their shop to buy a newspaper or some sweets, and they were going under because that market had gone; the people they had relied on were no longer there. No matter how hard they worked and how many hours they stayed open, they could not make that business work. As I have said, economic growth is the key factor.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in this important debate. As has been said, our town centres provide more than a place to do business; in many ways they are the focal point of our local communities.
The community spirit and character of my constituency of Gosport is perhaps best represented by our bustling twice weekly market days in the town centre. The market offers an incredibly diverse range of goods, from sophisticated garden ornaments to truly enormous thermal underwear. It offers the chance to pick up a bargain, but it is also a great social event; people almost always see someone they know and have a chat. The retail shops are busy on market day as well, as it is almost the only time when shoppers are attracted over on the ferry from Portsmouth.
The contrast with normal days on our high street is stark, as it is suffering from a severe bout of depression at present. The number of vacant shops in Gosport now stands at 18. Fortunately, that is nowhere near the worst number of vacant premises in the country, but an inactive high street can demoralise a town and ward off potential investors. Gosport would make a perfect pilot town for the Mary Portas proposals. It has all the necessary components for a winning town centre: a world-class marina, a spectacular waterfront location, a thriving market and, above all, a dogged perseverance, which is so vital in the current economic climate.
Those advantages are, however, counteracted by the disadvantage of being on a peninsular surrounded on three sides by water. As a result, we do not have a particularly wide customer catchment area, and, sadly, a few rogue shops do not help the shopping experience either. For at least the last three years the post office on Gosport high street has been in a state of permanent refurbishment. With pipes and wires everywhere, it is more akin to a building site than a fully functional retail environment. That can only have a negative impact on the fortunes of the high street and undermine the overall perception of Gosport town centre as attractive and economically healthy.
The importance of regenerating the retail sector in Gosport cannot be overstated, as it accounts for almost 15% of total employment and is crucial to the resurgence of our local economy. The slow demise of the high street has occurred in stages over a number of years, with independent retailers being replaced by large chain stores, which then suffered a downturn in their own fortunes as a result of the growth of out-of-town shopping malls and the rise of internet shopping.
However, a British Council of Shopping Centres report has revealed that some internet shoppers are being driven back to the high street by frustration with delivery times and goods failing to live up to product descriptions. We often see successes when areas have come full circle, with independent traders offering a unique or more efficient service slowly resurrecting the high street, and often doing what the internet does but doing it better.
It is also crucial to learn lessons from shopping centres that are doing well. Stubbington in my constituency bucks the national trend, with unit occupancy rates of almost 100%. I put that success down to free parking, easy access to the shops and a large number of independent retailers offering goods and services that cannot be found locally anywhere else. Furthermore, business owners have engendered a real sense of community; I always love attending the annual carol concert organised by the local business community and voluntary groups. Such events help foster a sense of togetherness. However, the council has recently been consulting on introducing parking charges for the area. I hope that the 6,000-signature petition and strong campaigning by the local Conservative councillor—as well as my speech today—will encourage the council to ensure that that crazy idea is dropped.
I understand very well that business, like life, is not always plain sailing. Where businesses in my Gosport constituency are continuing to thrive, that is a testament to their hard work and the support of the entire community. Sadly however, for every success story there is always another business that is struggling to make ends meet or being forced under. I therefore welcome the work Mary Portas has done in looking at the future of our high streets. Without further intervention, we run the risk of undoing any progress we have already made.
I commend the Government on putting high streets at the heart of the new national planning policy framework, and I look forward to their response to the Portas review in the spring. If the recommendations are endorsed, I hope that they will go a long way towards improving the health of our high streets for many years to come.
Until recently, Chippenham council was at the forefront of a community-led plan to realise the potential of its town centre.
The efforts were led by Chippenham Vision on behalf of Wiltshire council and were hailed by the chief executive of Action for Market Towns as
“beacons of localism in practice.”
Sadly however, I have to report that that progress has stalled following a council planning committee decision to approve the massive expansion of an edge-of-town Sainsbury’s, which prompted the resignation of the hugely committed Chippenham Vision chair, John Clark. The town has lost—albeit only temporarily, I hope—an impressive advocate.
Such supermarket developments can only be a drain on town centres—in this case not only in Chippenham, but in nearby Corsham too. That is in direct and stark contrast to the Government’s stated intentions. Last month I sought and received the backing of the decentralisation Minister, my right hon. Friend Greg Clark, for the “town centres first” policy. He clearly stated that the Government’s commitment to it
“with all the tests that it requires, is firm.”—[Hansard, 5 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 15.]
The evidence from Chippenham suggests that the Minister’s words are not being heard.
We are not alone in facing the prospect of substantial out-of-town supermarket development. Property consultants CBRE reported last month that over 40 million square feet of new supermarkets are already planned for this year. It appears that “town centres first” simply is not happening out in our constituencies. We must address this in the national planning policy framework. There must also be a robust test in respect of qualifying for the presumption in favour of sustainable development; local councils must not adopt a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to planning policies, as Wiltshire recently did.
That is what we face in Wiltshire’s draft core strategy, which my neighbour, my hon. Friend Mr Gray, referred to in his speech. It is set to conform to the old unlamented south-west regional spatial strategy. Despite the fact that that never came into legal force, council planners choose to claim that it is necessary for their local plan to conform to it now. Their report to the council’s cabinet this week states:
“Until the full provisions of the Localism Act come into effect through secondary legislation, the Pre-submission Draft Wiltshire Core Strategy needs to be in general conformity with the Regional Spatial Strategy for the South West unless new up-to-date evidence indicates otherwise.”
I had thought that this Government had done something about that, because as far back as July 2010, the decentralisation Minister was good enough to confirm to me on the Floor of the House that he had issued guidance to inspectors saying that they should consider unadopted regional spatial strategies as immaterial. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Robert Neill is welcome to intervene on me now to give Wiltshire councillors that guidance, ahead of their imminent decision, and confirm that their officers’ instructions on this matter are simply wrong. If he does not do that now, I hope that he will manage at least to cover the point in his speech.
The future of town centres lies not in rolling them back to the way they were decades ago, or even in maintaining them just the way they are today, but in giving them the freedom to redefine their role according to local strengths and opportunities, and then in ensuring that the public bodies in the local area co-operate with that ambition.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we also need something to shift the balance from edge-of-town and out-of-town retail to town centres? That could be some form of small business relief, which does help to tilt that balance. We have done some of that work in Northern Ireland and I am sure that other parts of the United Kingdom could benefit from tilting that balance, to give small business people and small retailers in town centres a bigger advantage. At the moment, they suffer because out-of-town shopping centres have an unfair advantage.
We do need to tilt that balance. That has been the thrust of my speech, and I think that the planning system has an opportunity to do that for us.
Melksham, in my constituency, is to benefit from a central community campus hosting a leisure centre, a library and a youth centre. The council’s original intention was to locate the campus out of town, but the decision was reversed as a result of vigorous campaigning by the local community, including local councillor Jon Hubbard, and Melksham Without parish council. Local people are not short of good ideas for the future of the communities that they make their home. One tool that people and their councils can use to help their towns is the bottom-up process established by the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, whereby residents, together with their councils, can put proposals to central Government for action to promote or protect thriving local communities. I note that a quarter of the recommendations in Ms Portas’s review are ideas that have come forward as proposals under that Act. Unfortunately, it would seem the process has been put on hold, and we are still awaiting the regulations that will get things going. They are required by the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Act 2010, and I hope very much that we shall see them soon, so that people and councils will be able to get involved.
As we have heard in this debate, pernicious parking charge hikes, along with people ignoring the “town centre first” policy, the insistence of councils on conforming to the old regional spatial strategies, and edge-of-town, edge-of-bypass development will guarantee that it is easier to move things out to the perimeter than to regenerate town centre locations. Over the longer term, reinvigorating town centres requires innovative ideas about what their future role should be. The future of our market towns should not lie in being dormitories with hollowed-out cores which send commuters out into large cities but have no life of their own. That is not sustainable socially, economically or environmentally. As we have heard, there is no shortage of ideas as to how we can approach this challenge, and Parliament must ensure that the planning system listens to and reflects the ideas of the communities who will have to live with its decisions.
This debate is extremely timely, as many of the issues that have been raised are of great relevance to my constituency, where a potential large development on the outskirts of Carlisle is in the pipeline. We have a well-supported city centre, with a large number of shops, both national and local. The pedestrian city centre is very attractive and well used, and it often holds continental markets during the year. There is reasonable access to the centre for buses and cars, although that could be improved. In general, the city centre is considered to be vibrant and well-supported, and to have much going for it. Vacancies in the city centre are few at the moment, although I accept that there are a larger number of vacancies in respect of secondary shopping and that we may need to address associated issues. I, like many people in Carlisle, want to see the city grow and develop while retaining a vibrant and popular city centre.
The area does have a major development opportunity on the horizon. The local football club wants to relocate its stadium from the centre to the edge of the city, but to achieve that it needs to have an enabling development to make the move financially viable, and that undoubtedly means some sort of retail park. This is a major economic opportunity for the city: we would have new football facilities and supporting facilities, which would be very welcome; a large number of jobs would undoubtedly be created; and there would be a further and improved retail offer. However, there are potential consequences for the city centre that are in line with the thrust of this debate. We have to ensure that our city centre continues to survive and, indeed, thrive while not preventing other development elsewhere. Getting the balance right is crucial for Carlisle and, as has been made clear in this debate, for other parts of the country.
Before I put forward some ideas, I wish to make a few simple points. First, we must accept that we cannot fight against the tide; internet shopping is here to stay and it is likely to grow. Often we cannot prevent developments on the outskirts of cities and, again, we must accept that they will take place. We also have to recognise that no one size fits all; different parts of the country have different problems requiring different solutions. The Portas report raises a number of issues and I support many of her suggestions. I am less sure about others, but we should embrace those that are worth while.
We must fundamentally acknowledge that town centres and high streets cannot stay the same; they must change, innovate and develop new ideas. So what can be done? Many things can be done, but it is local leadership that will matter. I am talking about local leadership creating local solutions. Councils have to take an active and leading role. The development of business improvement districts is a real opportunity for councils. In many respects, councils should treat the city centre as a metro-centre or a shopping centre, and they should be proactive in managing their centre. Planning should be flexible and, crucially, councils should make sure that the city centre is an attractive place to which people want to come. Councils, as well as businesses, must also be investors in the city centre.
However, we have to accept that change will take place: we may have to encourage more residential property in and near the city centre; some parts of the country should embrace tourism—Carlisle should certainly do so; and we may have to accept that there will be fewer shops in the city centre, although there may be more cafés, restaurants and so on. Access is also crucial, and this relates not only to cars, which many hon. Members have mentioned, but to buses and other public transport. The overall goal must be to offer an improved experience, be it of tourism, shopping or something else in our city centres.
Many of the solutions lie with local government, but I wish to discuss one solution that central Government can be involved in, which is providing for standardised commercial leases for terms of up to five years. Basic lease clauses that are accepted across the industry would be enormously beneficial for traders. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that rent reviews should be “market rent only”, not “upwards only” and not retail prices index-related. That would give confidence to the traders in city centres and could improve our city centres. We already take that approach towards agricultural leases, so I see no reason why we cannot do the same for commercial leases. I believe that city centres do have a future and we just need to make it happen.
Hon. Members from both sides of the House have spoken eloquently about the strength of some of the local high streets in their constituencies across the country and about what those high streets and town centres contribute to the economies in the communities they represent.
In my constituency, there is a small town by the name of Yarm, which lies on the south bank of the River Tees. It is in the old north riding of Yorkshire and, by accident of local government reorganisations, it has found itself in the borough of Stockton-on-Tees. The town has a vibrant high street, a range of independent shops and a strong community. In 2007, the BBC Breakfast show voted it the best high street in Britain—an accolade of which it is very rightly proud. To the great concern of local residents, however, the borough council has decided to interfere in business that is rightly otherwise seen to be that of Yarm and its community.
There has been a long-running debate about parking and traffic through Yarm. That is a problem faced by the town and the solution, which is universally agreed on, must ultimately be one or more long-stay car parks, providing long-term parking provision for the town and freeing up spaces on the high street for trade and visitors. Despite that long-running discussion, however, the borough council has decided to push ahead not with a long-stay parking solution but with the introduction of parking charges—at this time of all times, when national reports specifically recommend free parking as a strong prerequisite driver for successful high streets. The borough council in Stockton risks choking off the growth and success of one of its most successful market towns and local economic drivers because it is failing to listen to what the community in that town says that it wants and needs.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a Labour council is driving forward parking charging proposals against the wishes of local people and the community, to the detriment of the economy in the town of Yarm, which I am proud to represent.
In that case, will the hon. Gentleman have a word in the ear of his fellow Conservatives on Gloucestershire county council, since they held a public consultation on imposing parking charges in the Montpellier shopping district of my constituency and, despite the fact that nobody supported the idea, imposed them anyway?
My hon. Friend is very lucky, because his council has held a consultation. We have had promises of consultation from Stockton-on-Tees borough council, but what have we had in reality? An independent survey was commissioned, the results of which are clearly and demonstrably flawed. For example, it overestimated the value of the economy of the town by a factor of three. The flawed survey was then presented to the town council, which sat and listened to the findings and made its observations. It was told, “Thank you very much, but the report has already been written and this counts as consultation in our book.” Consultation for Stockton borough council, it seems, means deciding what to do and then telling people about it, not seeking their opinions and input to develop a policy that has local support.
Sadly, the proposals and the report went through Stockton borough council’s cabinet in December, just before Christmas. What is happening now? Good hard-working local councillors in Yarm and surrounding communities have signed the necessary forms to have that decision scrutinised. Andrew Sherris, Mark Chatburn and Ben Houchen, who are the borough councillors in Yarm, and Phil Dennis, a borough councillor for the neighbouring town of Eaglescliffe, joined forces to call in that decision so that Stockton borough council would have the chance to look at it again, to think again and to make a decision that better reflects the needs of the community that the council is supposed to serve.
In addition, a row has been running in the local paper; I am sure that everyone will be greatly surprised at the thought that the introduction of parking charges would excite a bit of a row in the local newspaper. Specifically, one of the borough councillors, Mark Chatburn, raised his concern at the lack of consultation before the proposals were pushed forward and Mike Smith, a cabinet member, came forward and attacked that idea, saying that there had been lots of consultation and that the council had consulted over an extended period of time. All I can say to that cabinet member, as someone who has followed this case closely and has talked to Yarm’s borough and town councillors, to traders and to residents, is that they do not feel that any meaningful consultation has taken place at all. Had it done so, I can guarantee that Councillor Smith would be getting the message loud and clear that the council’s proposals are not the right step for the future of that town.
Last Thursday, there was a public meeting in Yarm to discuss the proposed changes. About 250 members of the public came along on that cold night to attend the meeting, to make their concerns known and to discuss the proposals. I attended, and so did Yarm’s town councillors and borough councillors. Borough councillors from neighbouring communities also came along on a cross-party basis—well, on a coalition basis, I suppose, as the Liberal Democrats turned up, as did the Conservatives, but the Labour party did not send a representative—[ Interruption. ] And the same is the case in the Chamber right now. More significantly, despite a request from town and borough councillors and from me personally to the chief executive, Stockton borough council refused to send a representative to that public meeting. It refused to listen to the concerns of the people it is supposed to serve and represent.
You will have gathered, Mr Deputy Speaker, that this is a matter of great concern to my constituents, particularly those in Yarm and the surrounding communities, to which much traffic could be displaced if parking charges were introduced. It is a matter of concern not just because of the plans being proposed but because of the way in which this is being done, because of the high-handed and arrogant manner in which Stockton borough council is driving forward proposals without any consultation, against the will of local people, and because of the way in which officers on the council, such as Richard McGuckin, who heads the highways department, are listening solely to the cabinet members who control what they do and implementing those decisions against the will of local people. People in Yarm, a successful and vibrant market town in my constituency, are losing confidence in their borough council. They feel that they have not been listened to and that their views have not been properly taken into account and they are worried that the decisions being taken now by others who are not representing their views will have a long-term detrimental impact on the communities in which they live.
We have an opportunity, when the proposals go back to scrutiny on Thursday and are then, we hope, referred back to Stockton’s cabinet for the decision to be reconsidered, to change the situation and to put things right. In the light of Mary Portas’s report and of parking’s importance in securing the long-term success of our high streets and town centres, I want to take this opportunity to ask Stockton borough council to think again and to warn the cabinet members that if they do not, the people and traders of Yarm will not forgive them.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Jones, on securing this very important debate. In my constituency, all three towns—Camborne, Redruth and Hayle—have faced challenges on the high street and, two years ago, before the last general election, I organised a local conference to discuss some of the issues. Conscious that such events are often attended primarily by councillors and local government officials, I walked through all the town centres and went into every single retail shop to discuss their concerns.
Let me outline the three key areas that repeatedly came up. The first was that the term “town centre regeneration” had very negative connotations for a large number of small retailers. The reason for that was alluded to by my hon. Friend Glyn Davies earlier, and it is the disruption that regeneration can cause, of which local authorities often do not take enough account, whether the regeneration involves pedestrianisation or the introduction of one-way systems. In Redruth, for example, the local authority was going to resurface the main car park in the town, but to keep down costs it decided to do so progressively in between other jobs. As a result, it took six months to sort out the main car park in the town, which had a hugely detrimental effect on footfall and trade. The town has struggled to recover. First, we must apply the precautionary principle of “do no harm” if an authority is going to embark on regeneration.
The second major issue to come up was car parking. I disagree with what Sheila Gilmore said earlier: most small retailers recognise that the single biggest reason why they cannot compete with supermarkets is that supermarkets can offer free car parking. I always remember the managing director of one of our large retailers saying that if a survey is conducted of the public, they will say that they want a picture postcard high street with a fishmonger and a butcher, but when it comes to how they vote with their wallets, 97% do their grocery shopping at a supermarket because they want to open the boot, load everything in and go home. We need to consider the issue of parking and I want to see local authorities using their retained business rates to try to offer some free car parking.
The third issue was business rates. It is a crying shame to see small retailers with new business that have sometimes been set up for only six months—who take huge pride in their shops and did not need mentoring by other retail experts or training as they knew what they were doing—find that the rigidities of the business rate system means they go backwards, losing money month after month, which is not sustainable. I think we need to look at ways of making our business rate system more flexible so that we can give more breaks to new businesses that are doing a good job and that, given the time, could achieve so much more.
Much has been said about the report by Mary Portas. I want to pick up on an issue that was touched on by my hon. Friend Gareth Johnson regarding recommendation 20 about the problems caused by banks. I disagree with his comment that we should not pick on banks. I think we should, because the issue is not about the banking estate and their high street branches, but about properties that they have repossessed, often in a trigger-happy way. We need to look at ways of making it harder for banks to repossess businesses, perhaps by requiring them to get a possession order from the courts before being granted possession of those businesses. That would give the courts the ability to take into account any proposals that banks or receivers have to bring those businesses or shops back into use quickly.
The final issue I want to address concerns the Local Government Finance Bill, which will commence its Committee stage tomorrow. The Bill provides that in the hierarchy of liabilities, a mortgagee who takes possession of a residential property will become liable for the council tax. That is a very important policy, which we should consider extending to business rates on commercial properties. This is a grey area at the moment, but I understand that as a general rule once banks have crystallised their charge on a property and taken possession, they are no longer liable to pay the business rates on it. If we made them pay those business rates, it would create an incentive for them to rent out such properties or, indeed, not to foreclose on businesses in the first place. No doubt the Minister will take some of these suggestions on board and we might consider some of this in Committee.
I, too, begin by thanking my hon. Friend Mr Jones for securing a very popular, as well as important, debate. [Hon. Members: “On this side.”] Indeed.
All too often, attention is given to our big urban centres, with insufficient attention being paid to the hundreds of towns across the country where most of our population lives. I represent three fantastic towns—Warwick, Royal Leamington Spa and Whitnash. The debate is very timely not least because I will be interviewed by BBC Coventry and Warwickshire tomorrow morning about what will take the place of the police station, the fire station and the courts in Warwick now that they have been lost. The excellent report we have been discussing will give us a basis for some answers.
Towns are smaller ecosystems than cities, and as a consequence they are more sensitive and require greater care and special consideration. I believe that all Members can agree with the main aim of the Portas report—to craft a “town centres first” policy approach to development. Town centres are key. They are at the heart of our communities and are the backbone of our local economies. Independent retailers, of which we are fortunate to have many excellent examples, find it difficult to compete with large out-of-town developments, and this can have a massive impact on other parts of our local economies.
This is not just about retail. When town centre businesses and shops leave or close owing to a lack of footfall, it can make towns look less attractive, which can reduce other income streams such as tourism. The cumulative effect can be that community amenities are significantly affected, creating a general sense of malaise. So this is not merely about keeping a few shops on the high street: it is about how we create vibrant, dynamic and sustainable town centres fit for the 21st century.
We need to remember that town centres and high streets are not the same thing. Town centres are more than just a selection of shops. They are centres for community organisations, public services and important local amenities. They require equally as much care and thought and should not be ignored. Town centres are like any natural habitat. When biodiversity falls, the ecosystem becomes weaker and more prone to collapse. Likewise, when we focus too much on purely retail issues in our town centres, we weaken rather than strengthen them. If we allow our town centres to continue to be too expensive for other sectors, we will limit their potential. People are not merely shoppers. They are sportspeople, music listeners, theatre-goers and seekers of new experiences. The Danish architect who is credited with transforming Copenhagen has said:
“If you asked people twenty years ago why they went to central Copenhagen, they would have said it was to shop…But if you asked them today, they would say, it was because they wanted to go to town.”
It is also worth remembering that town centres depend on the loyalty of local people, and we need to ensure that those people have as big a say as possible. I welcome the fact that the Portas review plans to campaign to get people involved in their neighbourhood plans so that we create town centres in which people feel they have a say.
I know that you will not mind, Mr Deputy Speaker, if we return to Wales for a few moments. I want to deal with the twin issues of rates and planning, particularly as they apply to coastal towns, which depend heavily on tourism, and especially towns that fall under the national parks planning regime, which has a significant bearing on their ability to undertake economic activity.
Let me deal first with rates. Tenby has a population of about 5,000 in winter and about 50,000 in the summer, but the ability to negotiate the rates is extremely limited. As a consequence, in the winter shops close, businesses reduce their output, boards go up in windows and people are laid off. That is avoidable, and I make a plea to the Minister. Taken over a short period, the withdrawal of rate relief, albeit predicted and albeit that businesses know about, can reach ridiculous heights. For example, in local towns such as Narberth in my constituency, figures have reached as high as about 250%, with the consequence that businesses are winding down, shops are closing and people are being put out of work. I suggest to the UK Government and, indeed, to the Welsh Assembly that there must be a neater way of deploying transitional rate relief and a better way of accounting for the fact that seasonal variations in seaside towns can be absolutely huge. Why not have a system whereby rate relief can be more carefully applied in the lower winter months and made up when cash flow might be better in the more buoyant summer months?
The second issue I want to address is planning in national parks. I know that my friends in the Pembrokeshire Coast national park will be suspicious about what I am about to say. I should like to quote one example from the town of Tenby, where a very viable local estate agent applied to take over high street premises that had previously been an unviable pizza parlour. For some strange reason to do with enhanced national park planning policy, the application was turned down. A boarded-up shop that employs nobody and engages in no economic activity remains in the centre of that important town, whereas the alternative would have been to have the lights on in those premises for 364 days a year with six or seven people working inside. There would have been a sense of life and energy returning to an otherwise dormant part of the street, but the only excuse that the national park planning authority could come up with was that the application was outside “policy”. Surely, in such circumstances the answer is to change the policy.
If we want towns such as Tenby to be regenerated, if we want economic activity and if we want people to be encouraged to go into town in the quieter winter months, organisations such as national park planning authorities have to be flexible. Their policies must reflect today’s economic climate and they must point in the direction of the restoration of prosperity rather than getting too hung up on outdated planning issues. I hope that there are two particular audiences to whom the Minister will address his responses—national park planning authorities, particularly in coastal areas, and the Welsh Assembly Government, who occasionally glance in the right direction when it comes to these issues. However, more often than not, particularly with a Labour Administration, the emphasis has been contrary to the interests of high street regeneration rather than complementary to it.
I thank my hon. Friend Mr Jones for securing this important debate. I have to say in all sincerity that it is with great sadness that I rise to deliver my speech facing a sea of green Benches, which is particularly pertinent when we consider that the city of Wolverhampton is among the highest for the number of empty shops. If this is not a vital debate, I am not sure what is; but so be it.
The essential point has already been made. Town centres are not just about retail; the high street is at the very heart of any community. Many Members have referred to their constituencies. Following the riots, and in view of the fact that we have such a high number of empty shops in Wolverhampton, I conducted a survey of small shops and businesses in the city centre to find out why people do not shop there. I was surprised by the No.1 reason—chuggers: people who fundraise, perhaps aggressively. Again and again, shoppers said that the aggressive tactics used by some street fundraisers leave them feeling harassed and intimidated. I was disappointed to learn that people were being discouraged from visiting Wolverhampton city centre and I called for action to address the problem.
In Manchester, there is an agreement between the city centre management company, CityCo, and the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association, a self-regulating body that monitors face-to-face fundraising. They have found a balance between fundraising and leaving people in peace to shop. It is important that that fine line is drawn.
Although I support the incorporation of local communities in decisions about their areas, efforts need to be made to facilitate the process, so I welcome the Government’s local initiatives because that is where the solutions to many of the problems will lie. I should also like to offer the Minister some guidance on trust and clarity over tax-incremental financing, which is an issue for the developers of city centres. We have to go back to basics. If we are to see regeneration, we cannot look at the old model whereby development was funded only by bank lending; we need to look at partnerships between local authorities and businesses.
The important word is trust. Be it a local authority or a business, they need to trust each other. If, as has happened in Wolverhampton in the past, a developer wants to take a city forward and a local authority is promising this, that or the other but they get to point X without delivering anything, there is a breakdown in trust. If we are to have effective development and management in these difficult economic circumstances, it is vital that trust is at the core.
Time is pressing and many colleagues have already spoken about parking. My hon. Friend James Wharton made a pertinent point about local communities when he spoke about Yarm. In all my travels, not just in my constituency but up and down the country, I have noticed that there are parts of our country where there are social issues and challenges. Southall high street, Soho road in Birmingham, Melton road in Leicester or even Dudley road in Wolverhampton are in areas where there is deprivation, but there are no empty shops on those high streets. I do not know why, but I believe it is because they are centres and hubs for their communities. We need to harness that in retail development and construction. We come back to the original point: town centres and high streets are at the very heart of our communities.
Much has already been said so I shall concentrate on two issues, time permitting. The first is my constituency. Many Members know that the town of Enfield, which is at the heart of my constituency, has a recent history, sadly, of being caught up in the riots. It has been fraught with that difficulty and the current economic climate that faces so many of us.
The wonderful “I love Enfield” campaign, which was started by Fast Signs, one of our local businesses, immediately after the riots tore through the high street, is a prime example of how local businesses, close to their community, are entirely in touch with the individuals and locations for which they provide services. Subsequently, our local Labour council started a “Love your high street” campaign, which I was fully behind, to try to bring traffic to the high street. It is thus all the more baffling that the council has persisted in introducing a steep hike in parking charges, including for Sunday parking, that is causing economic distress to traders and frustration to residents and is penalising churchgoers. It is not acceptable. As one of the local businesses said:
“If the council…are serious about regenerating town centres…then they need to consider one of the most simple ways of encouraging people to stay and shop in their community.”
At the heart of that is parking.
Since its election, Enfield’s Labour council has sought to force through drastic changes to parking regulations throughout the borough. Its initial proposals to increase parking charges, in some cases by more than 100%, and to increase the number of charging days to include Sundays and bank holidays, have created a difficult climate for local businesses. The changes faced massive opposition from residents, traders and our local newspapers—The Enfield Advertiser, which has launched a campaign, and the Enfield Independent. Despite that, the cabinet member for environment, Councillor Chris Bond, still claims that “fairness” is “at the heart” of the decision. However, as the Emma Claire hair and beauty spa salon says:
“All we constantly hear from our clients is that they no longer wish to shop or use our facilities due to the excessive amount of parking charges that Enfield council has implemented.”
It is worrying that Enfield council has refused to explain where the extra income generated will be spent. The cabinet member for finance, Councillor Andrew Stafford, claims that it will be used “to gain additional revenue” for the council’s coffers. I question that judgment, because the guidance for the Traffic Management Act 2004 stipulates that merely raising revenue should not be an objective of parking charges. I support the campaigns by residents and newspapers to try to overturn the decision. The council must withdraw its plans, cancel Sunday parking charges, repeal the increases and help, not hinder, Enfield’s shops and businesses.
The issue is not all about parking, but we have heard consistently across the House that it is a problem that faces everyone. Our high streets will benefit in future from a long-term strategic view of how to take on our present-day challenges, but I fear that there is disconnect between landlords, retailers and local authorities in achieving a strategic view. To face the challenge for the future, a long-term, investment-led and holistic strategy will be needed that will drive people—with relief, I believe—away from their computer screens and internet shopping. If they see their high street become a destination of choice for social and cultural events, and not least for shopping, we can help to promote our town centres. In Enfield under the Conservatives, between 2002 and 2010, there was a commitment to expand the shopping precinct, and they moved the library and the museum. Now we can take things a stage further. Recently, even volunteer dance groups have appeared in the streets of Enfield, making it a good place to do business and I invite all Members to come and see what a great job our retailers are doing.
My constituency town centres—I suspect like those of many Members—have been subject to the development of supermarkets without any real control or the involvement of local people. In Bishop’s Waltham, when Sainsbury’s recently gained permission to build a supermarket, there was enormous turmoil in the community, and a “them and us” situation was created: half the community was for the supermarket, half against. I thought that I should do some work on PPS4, the regulation that allows unplanned, out-of-town supermarkets and retail outlets to be constructed.
By luck, circular 02/2009 requires any proposal for an unplanned out-of-town supermarket to be reviewed by the Secretary of State, so that he can see if he wants to call it in formally. Records were available for two years, so I could see exactly how many unplanned supermarkets had been granted permission and how many had been called in by the Secretary of State. The answer was that 146 unplanned out-of-town or edge-of-town retail stores had been given permission, and one had been called in. The simple lesson, for me at least, is that supermarkets are extraordinarily well resourced, powerful and practised, and they get what they want. In short, the local plan is not really an effective tool to restrain that undue competition for many of our high streets.
It is time to put people back in charge. Not all high streets are equal, and the quality of high streets varies hugely. However, some are truly more than the sum of their parts. They are the hub of the community; they are a forum for social interaction and a draw for tourists; they are a marketplace for local products, and a safety net for vulnerable people, particularly the elderly. People notice when certain people are not there, and shopkeepers are aware of those who need looking after. High streets can be heritage centres, and the value of those externalities is simply not contained in models such as PPS4—the method previously used to grant those permissions.
If we consider the needs of social services and GPs, as well as the delivery costs to new markets of businesses that are displaced, those are all costs that the models do not price and do not see. We need to do something about that and let communities decide. Local plans and notional neighbourhood development plans do not allow communities to turn around and say, “We do not want a supermarket here.” I believe that they should be able to do so, but there must be a high hurdle. There must be overwhelming community buy-in for the proposal, and we must ensure that there is competitive pricing in that community so that the less well-off are not marginalised. We must demonstrate that the local jobs that would be created are strategically important. If we put all those hurdles in place, is it not right that local people should be able to say no? If they can convince their community that they do not want a supermarket and that they have something special, should they not be able to turn around and say, “Stay away—we’re happy as we are”? I think very much that they should be able to do so.
I propose to the Minister that that should be included in the new national planning policy framework. When the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government looked at the issue and wrote a report on the NPPF, it agreed that it was a reasonable idea and it is included in the recommendations. I hope very much indeed that Ministers will consider that carefully and, yes, with high hurdles, ensure that people who live in valuable communities that they do not want to change have the right to say no.
I thank my hon. Friend Mr Jones for securing this important debate. I work closely with him on the all-party parliamentary group for town centres, and I value his input tremendously. I thank the Backbench Business Committee, too, for granting the debate.
Town centres mean a lot to me, because they should be a reflection of a town’s character. That has emerged powerfully today in many speeches. A town centre should be a place where families go to relax and be together, where people can pass the time of day and enjoy themselves, and where consumers can shop, eat, relax and be entertained. As many of my colleagues have debated, it is about so much more than shopping: that is how town centres should work. In short, town centres should be welcoming environments where we all want to go. That is what they should be, but are they? The answer, with a couple of exceptions that have been made clear, is no.
I said that town centres mean a lot to me, but I should have said, given that many of my hon. Friends have taken the opportunity to discuss their own town centres, that Eastbourne town centre is particularly relevant. A few days before the general election, I talked to some independent traders in the town centre. As we have heard from many other Members, they had been fed up for a long time about the way in which the town centre was going, and how town centres generally were going. They were fed up, too, with politicians promising things and not delivering and so on. I spoke to the chap who chairs the Eastbourne independent traders group, and I said to him, “I give you my word, if I am elected, come what may, I will be down to see you the day after the election.” To this day, I remember a look in eyes of, “Oh yeah, I won’t see you for dust.” Sure enough, after the election, with only two hours’ sleep, I was down there at midday to say hello and to promise him that I was going to roll up my sleeves and get involved.
One of the first things I did in Parliament was to join the all-party parliamentary group. I am now vice-chair, and it is something to which I am strongly committed. I set to work on Eastbourne town centre. Unlike my hon. Friend, I did not have a great deal of expertise in that area. My background is in business development, not town centres, and I discovered the complexity of trying to get something done in town centres. It is really hard: one has to deal with planning, business rates, and byelaws. In Eastbourne, we have an astonishing number of byelaws that make it very hard to set up a street market—the sort of thing that would make a real difference.
Hopefully, the difference this time is the enthusiasm and commitment that I have shown, along with my local council. It was not always the case, but it is now a can-do council. I said that we had to get a good street market in the town centre, which would act as a catalyst or engine to get things going. The council said that there were a lot of byelaws but—and this is different—it said, “We will do something about it, Stephen.” Previous councils, whatever their political persuasion, would just say, “It’s too complicated. We’re not going to do it.”
It took a year and three quarters, but it has been through cabinet. In Eastbourne town centre, opposite the shop where I spoke to that independent trader, there will be a street market in late spring or early summer. It is a start, but as we have heard today, so much of this is about the drive and commitment shown by the Portas review, the coalition Government and the Prime Minister. As an Opposition Member said, this is an old issue that has been around 20 or 30 years but, finally, there is a chance that something will be done. I hope that that is the case because, to be honest, we all know about the state of town centres for the past 20 or 30 years. They have consistently become worse and, with some honourable exceptions, there has not been any real change or improvement.
We are all responsible—politicians, planners and the public—because everything has changed with the internet and the complexities of shopping today. This important debate—I really think that it is important—offers an opportunity so that, in a few years’ time, we will look back at
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr Jones for securing this debate and to the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. I pay tribute to Mary Portas for the hard work, passion and imagination that she put into her report.
We have heard about the challenges that town centres face from out-of-town food stores, retail parks and the internet. Poor town planning has also played a role in the decline of town centres, whether in granting planning permission for out-of-town stores in the wrong places on inappropriate terms, by making town centres inaccessible and difficult to reach by car or public transport, or by doing little to prevent the rise of “same street” syndrome and clone towns throughout the country.
To halt that decline, town centres should be able to compete on a level playing field. We have heard about the importance of retaining the “town centre first” policy. Moreover, Mary Portas points out that the high street can be a hard place in which to trade. We need to make it easier, with fewer rules, regulations and restrictions, and a more balanced tax and rating system.
As for parking, in some towns, such as in Lowestoft in my constituency, the council, working with town centre shops, has put in place more customer-friendly car parking arrangements. However, the Government still need to do more.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what Gloucester city council has done, which is to reduce parking charges to £1 an hour, is exactly the sort of proactive work by local government that we need to help revitalise interest in our city centres?
I welcome that intervention, and I agree. Councils across the country are doing what they can, but the Government can do more. They should look at how parking at out-of-town stores is assessed for rating purposes. As a chartered surveyor, I do not believe that the current valuation approach truly reflects the value of that car parking to out-of-town retailers and the rateable values should be raised, with the additional funds generated being used to reduce car parking charges in town centres.
With rates, councils should be provided with more discretion over the discounts that they can offer, ratepayers should be able to spread their payments over 12 months rather than 10 months, and the anomaly whereby business rates are increased annually in line with the RPI, rather than the CPI, must be corrected as soon as possible.
Another challenge that needs to be addressed is the fact that there is a lot of unused space in town centres, both at ground and upper levels. We need to make it easier for that accommodation to be put to alternative uses, such as much-needed dwellings, doctors’ surgeries, gyms or other community uses. The use classes order, which for so long has acted as a straitjacket, should be relaxed and local councils liaising with local communities should have more discretion about what activities should be allowed.
In Kirkley in Lowestoft in my constituency, Desmond does not have a barrow in the marketplace; he has a superb coffee shop, with unique decor and a “Hancock’s Half-Hour” collection to rival the BBC’s. An episode is played at 10 am each day. Desmond wants to expand to provide hot food, but at present he cannot do so, as his use would be in the same use class as a kebab shop. That issue needs to be addressed.
Many town centres, including Lowestoft, are blighted by unkempt and dilapidated buildings that discourage people from going there. Councils should be given more compulsory purchase order powers to address such problem properties, and they should be able to serve empty shops management orders.
I agree with Mary Portas that markets should be encouraged. Markets were the procreators of town centres and they have an important role to play in their future. People like browsing around a marketplace. Markets bring people into a town, they provide an opportunity to showcase products or skills, and they give entrepreneurs the opportunity to get their foot on the first rung of the ladder that can lead to running their own business. Across the country, there are too many rules and regulations, too many hoops to jump through, before a market can be set up. Those need to be removed, and to be replaced with a presumption of favour of the right to trade.
Out-of-town parks have a major advantage over town centres in that they are in one ownership, subject to one management regime, with one common purpose. In the town centre there are many players and many stakeholders, with different goals and objectives. We need to help them come together to work as one to promote town centres, as they are doing in my constituency in Lowestoft, Beccles and Bungay. Business improvement districts, for which preparatory work is currently taking place in Lowestoft, can help as well, as can Mary Portas’s proposals for town teams.
In conclusion, Mary Portas’s report has highlighted a problem that is faced across the country, and this debate has helped move the discussion forward. I look forward to the Minister’s summing up and I urge the Government to respond to the report as a priority, so that we can all get on with the important task of bringing life and prosperity back to the country’s high streets.
I should declare an interest. I own commercial properties in Greater Manchester and I was a shopkeeper for 20 years. I had clothes shops and hairdressing outlets around the Greater Manchester area. For years I have been watching the decline of town centres, and I agree with more or less everything that I have heard from both sides of the House today about the state of our high streets and town centres.
Our shopping habits have changed, and we must recognise that. The internet has been a revolutionary step forward and, as we can all agree, it has good points and bad points. There is more choice on the internet, but the disadvantage is that people cannot hold, touch, see or experience the object unless it is in a showroom. Many town centre shop owners have said that they have become showrooms for the internet market. I know that many suppliers and manufacturers have taken measures to stop certain sales taking place over the internet, but the internet has had a large impact on town centres, as out-of-town shopping has on all our towns across the country.
The good points are that those huge shopping centres provide security, diversity and more choice—but most of all, they offer free parking. They are accessible from the motorways. More often than not they are on bypasses that have been created because every town centre in the land has been pedestrianised. Correct me if I am wrong, but most town centres in this country have been developed through the centuries, most of them in Victorian times, as thoroughfares or crossroads where traders met and markets, and later towns, developed. For the life of me I cannot understand why every major town centre in the UK has been pedestrianised. Cars have stopped going in. The whole infrastructure of a town centre was based on traffic going through, in and out. To compound things further, what did we get in some, if not most, councils? Parking wardens. Private parking wardens—a way of raising money.
Let me tell it like it is. Where I am from, I still have commercial properties. If I nip into the local town or go to visit my children, I park, and I then have 30 minutes. By the time I have walked into the town centre, which has now shrunk, it is time for me to go back. When I get back, more often than not I have a parking ticket. That discourages people from going into town centres.
Look at what has become of our town centres. As one hon. Member said, they have become the home of charity shops, fast-food outlets and betting shops. A plethora of shops service retail industries. The large high street clothing shops—the Nexts and the Marks & Spencers—will not set up in a small town any more because the units are too small. We now have to look at the planning system. Over the past few years many town planners, rightly or wrongly, have been planning on the outskirts of the town. A bypass road has been built round the pedestrianised town and the situation has been self-perpetuating.
We must start thinking about the future of town centres. The circumference of the town centre will shrink, and the outer shops will more than likely become housing. The town planners should recognise that if we are to attract larger businesses into the town centres again, we must redevelop and create units that will house their current requirements, instead of what happened when town centres were built up, in some cases hundreds of years ago and in other cases as recently as 50 years back.
To sum up, we should re-open some of the pedestrianised towns where applicable, and we should start looking seriously at how to attract businesses back into the centre of towns. More than anything, we should try to work out a better system of parking. Free parking areas would be preferable, but in this day and age I know that that would be almost impossible. Thank you so much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for letting me speak in this debate.
I have the pleasure of representing a seat with three town centres, Alfreton, Heanor and Ripley, and there are various other high streets. I could go on all night and list them, but probably the three biggest are Codnor, Somercotes and Langley Mill. It will not surprise anyone who has heard the debate to hear that they all face the challenge, to varying degrees, of empty shops and an over-supply of charity shops, take-aways and betting shops. This seems to be true of the whole country.
I was slightly concerned by the local council’s report on the retail industry in Amber Valley. I first read the part about the most successful town in the constituency, Alfreton, which shows that in some parts footfall is below the national average. I thought, “That’s a bit of a problem, but hopefully we can find a way to fix it.” I then read the part about the weakest of the three towns, Heanor, which shows that footfall there is one third of that in Alfreton, which already has a problem. That shows the scale of the problem we face in that part of Derbyshire. Because of the history of old mining communities, there are many small town centres between one and five miles apart servicing 20,000 people, and the old diverse shopping mix, with people walking into town to use the shops, is history. That is no longer how we shop.
Before we look back to a golden age of town-centre shopping, we should think about what we do when we get back home on a Thursday evening at half-past 9 after leaving this place and find that there is no food in the fridge. We go down to the 24-hour Asda and do our shopping there. I am then busy all day Friday. What do I do at the weekend? I go to the supermarket. Those of us who know that that is wrong try to find the time to shop in local shops, for example by going to a local butcher rather than the supermarket. I have found that one of the privileges of being an MP is that I get to convince my girlfriend that we cannot go to the Meadowhall shopping centre, but we have to shop locally instead. According to the Portas review those huge shopping centres offer a great and enjoyable experience, but I am not sure that that is what I have found.
Understanding the problem is easy, but finding the fix is not. I do not think that the fix is for my local council to have to decide tomorrow night whether it wants to sell land on the edge of Ripley to another supermarket. I do not know who is bidding or how many bidders there are, but I do know that having a second supermarket will not help in a small town that is already struggling. The shopping centre might have a pharmacy, an optician, a mobile phone shop, an electrician —you name it, they have it these days—and the town centre already has vacant shops. It has three pharmacies, an optician, a Currys and other electrical shops, all of which will be under direct threat from a second supermarket, never mind the fact that there are already two supermarkets in the town centre that are themselves struggling.
We have to send out the message that if we are trying to save our town centres, we cannot add extra out-of-town shopping that reduces the footfall that town centres desperately need to attract. The council’s report states that we might need another supermarket in the Alfreton area in 2026. I look forward to catching HS2 to that supermarket in 16 years’ time, but in the meantime I am not convinced that we need it.
It would be remiss of me not to comment on parking, which is a long-running local issue. Our parking charges are actually quite low: 50p an hour is a typical rate. With the amount the petrol costs to get to the car park, I wonder why those charges are such a concern, but clearly they are, especially for the convenience store that has reopened in Heanor market place—I pay a huge tribute to Mr Patel for that. His problem is that there is a Tesco store down the road. If I want to buy a pint of milk I can park there for free, but if I want to buy it at his shop I have to find the change, find the machine and pay the 50p, and if I accidentally stay longer I get the privilege of a £25 fine. Finding a solution to that problem is key.
The most encouraging thing about Mary Portas’s review is that she did not try to take us back to the golden age of the 1950s or claim that this is just about getting all the shops back. She recognised that we have to do something different, and find different uses to get people using town centres again, whether that is a social use, a health use or something else. The challenge for all of us, and for our councils, is to find something that will work for each town centre, and find a way of making it happen. If that means shrinking the shopping area and moving shops to a viable area, rather than having them too spread out, or if that means finding other uses and allowing empty shops to become restaurants or café bars to try to get that footfall and find a viable use, that is the way forward, and that is what we need to do.
Liberal Democrats believe that community politics should be at the heart of what we do. Decisions that affect individuals should be made at the lowest practicable level and, when it comes to our high streets and town centres, local communities should be given as much power as possible. That is why I welcome the Government’s commitment to protecting our high streets.
The independent Portas review, although not perfect, is a significant step towards undoing the centralising powers that were introduced by the previous Government. Key measures such as business rate reforms, town teams, the general power of competence and neighbourhood plans will enable local people, through their council, to make decisions about their own areas and that affect their own lives. There is much more that can and should be done. As the Portas review identified, the more powers local people have to control their own lives, the more likely they are to create a thriving community, and a thriving community is the bedrock of a successful economy.
In Cambridge, I am fortunate to have an extremely successful city council, headed by Councillor Sian Reid, who is fighting hard to protect our town centre, our local market and our local high streets. We have been doing this for years, so we are more than ready to identify where Government reforms are working and where they will not deliver as expected. However, the story is not all good. This year, Tesco is due to open its 13th store in Cambridge. Despite the best efforts of Sian Reid as council leader, Catherine Smart as deputy leader and myself as the local MP, we have simply not been able to find any legal means by which we can prevent supermarkets from opening ever more new stores on our high streets, even when there is significant opposition from local people. That means that supermarkets in general, and in our case Tesco in particular, will have a very large market share in one place.
The problem is not Tesco itself. It and other supermarkets play an important role and people do choose to shop in them. The problem is supermarket dominance. There are a number of problems. First, there is a stranglehold on competition. A successful economy, both locally and nationally, is based on diversity and people’s ability to innovate, adapt and provide the services that people want. What can be done about the supermarket monopolies? The answer is not very much. It is perfectly legitimate under existing rules for a supermarket to have a reasonable market share across the country but a complete monopoly in some towns and high streets. The result is lack of choice for consumers, which is bad for the community and the economy. Breaking these monopolies up is not anti-free market; it is fundamentally pro-fair market and pro-community.
Secondly, local areas retain more money when it is spent in independent and locally owned stores. Local owners are more likely to serve their communities because they live there too. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister spoke yesterday about the need for the Government to support worker-owned enterprises. In the same vein, local planning powers should enable locally owned stores. When shops are opened by consent, with the support of local people and under the ownership of local residents, the economic and community benefits are huge and we should support that.
Many of these trends are likely to get worse. We have a housing problem in our country and need to build more housing, but as these new neighbourhoods are formed, we must ensure that developers, when they lease or sell their outlets, take into account independent retailers. I have been told that some developers will sell units only to companies that are prepared to buy 10 or more outlets, which squeezes independents out of new neighbourhoods entirely. For these reasons, I have been working closely with city councillors to see how we can better represent the interests of our constituents by supporting local stores. Local government must be able to influence whether new stores are chains or independents and whether they are small or large outlets, because that is want people want it to do.
One approach we tried was to see whether planning applications could take account of the diversity of shops in a town centre. The push by Cambridge city council became known as the “Cambridge amendment” to the Localism Bill in the House of Lords, and I spoke in favour of it in this place. The Government, however, did not accept that case, but they did suggest using local “use classes” to enable local people to control their high streets, which seems a perfectly reasonable proposal. It would mean that local people could determine that supermarkets are in a different category from small shops and that when shops merge, that would change the class. It would empower local councils, but we have not yet heard from the Government how those proposals would work and the details, despite letters from myself and the leader of the council. I ask the Minister to respond as soon as possible. It is not just about opposing supermarkets for the sake of it. We need to ensure that we have variety and diversity.
We also need to ensure that there is transport. I have been fascinated by the comments made about the need for more cars. There is lots of evidence that improving the walking environment increases retail footfall by
30%, as a study in Exeter has found. People who walk in shopping areas and cycle there or take the bus and train spend more money because they have access. We have to promote sustainable travel. I call on Ministers to look at how we can empower our local communities and give them the powers they need to ensure that we have vibrant centres.
I would like to join the long list of Members who have congratulated my hon. Friend Mr Jones, who has carried out an exceptional role in promoting our town centres and high streets. I was very proud to co-sponsor the call to get this debate through the Backbench Business Committee, and we have been proved right that this would be exceptionally popular and justify the full six hours.
I am particularly interested in the issue, both as shopper, when following my fiancé round and carrying the bags. I support my local town centre and am the vice chair of the all-party parliamentary group for town centres, retail and small shops. I have set up a retail forum in my constituency; I support our excellent local bid company in Swindon; I invite retailers such as Lord Wolfson to visit and pass judgment on our town centre; and I grew up in a family of shopkeepers who modelled themselves on the “Open All Hours” sales technique.
Nationally, the last few years have been tough on high streets, with consumers wielding less disposable income, high-profile retail failures leading to large numbers of empty shops, the growth of out-of-town shopping centres and the continued boom in online shopping. For example, this December saw an 18% increase on last December in such shopping, and one in 10 consumers now uses their phone in-store to check the price of goods elsewhere.
For all those fans of Swindon—I know everybody loves Swindon—I must say that even we have had challenges. Over the past five years, there has been a 22% fall in footfall, and the number of empty units is up to 17%, but there is much hope on the horizon.
Turning to the excellent Mary Portas review, I, as her unofficial official No. 1 MP fan, am a great supporter of it, and for me the key recommendations included, very importantly, the need for a town team. We have the Forward Swindon company in Swindon, because developers and retailers want a single point of contact. Out-of-town shopping centres have a single point of contact, and that is what is needed on our high streets. It is important to empower bid schemes, which are essential for creating events, for marketing and for representing traders—for creating that reason to visit and for making the particular town a town centre. I wish the company in Swindon all the best in the referendum to get a second five-year term. I am sure it will.
It is very important to promote the national market days. We all say that we would like more markets in our constituencies, but the challenge is the lack of market traders, so I am delighted that today New college in my constituency and the Blunsdon indoor market have agreed to work with me to give business students the opportunity to man stalls on the market for free in order to get real-life experience.
My hon. Friend has drawn on several things happening in his town of Swindon. Does he agree that they demonstrate that town centres, high streets and markets are not just centres of economic activity, but the beating heart of many communities?
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent intervention. That is right.
By giving young people the opportunity to get real-life experience on the market, we may find that they become the next generation of market traders or, even, shop retailers, and they create the independent retail outlets that give our town centres unique character.
Many hon. Members and hon. Friends have discussed the importance of business rates, and I welcome the fact that we are giving greater powers to local authorities. As with all things, there is a limited amount of money, but I hope that if they target anything, they will provide incentives for start-up businesses and, perhaps in particular, young people’s start-up businesses.
Parking has been mentioned several times, and I am delighted that Swindon has been praised in the Portas review, because its local council took a brave decision—opposed by Labour councillors who seemed hellbent on abandoning our town centre—to introduce a £2 flat fee for four hours’ parking. That reversed the fall in footfall, we had a 10% increase and, crucially, dwell time increased, too. In fact, one café reported a 30% increase in takings, so where, previously, people went into town just to do their banking, now they stop off in a café to refuel and, then, carry on to do some serious spending, which is a real boost for our local economy.
It is right to highlight the need for town centres to be accessible, attractive and safe, and I was delighted to see the £20 million parade redevelopment in Swindon, and that the council has invested £2.8 million in the public, open space in the town centre. It is also important to recognise the transition between the daytime and night-time economies, and with the plans to introduce a late-night levy I suggest that the units paying the levy have a say in how it is spent, as they understand the night-time economy.
The exceptional sign-off rule for all new out-of-town developments has also been highlighted, but we had a town centre Marks & Spencer, and the company planned to build another store on the northern orbital, at an out-of-town site. A deal was struck, however, whereby it would refurbish the town centre store first, so it remained the anchor, destination store.
On affordable shops, it is important to secure the next generation of independent retailers, and I fully support the need for several small units as the entry point for those new businesses.
I fully agree with the comments about doing everything we can to tackle the number of empty shops, and I am delighted that our Brunel shopping centre has reduced its vacancy rate to just 4%, partly on the back of cheaper parking and partly on the back of pushing landlords to make the units useful.
In the light of many comments that we have heard on the Floor of the House today, did my hon. Friend just say—did I hear him right?—that cheaper parking has helped to deliver success at his local shopping centres? It would be useful if he clarified that point.
Absolutely, and I know that my hon. Friend highlighted a campaign on parking in his speech. Footfall had fallen by 22%, but following the reduction in car parking charges it has increased by 10%, and dwell time has increased significantly, benefiting local businesses.
For all those fans of the various Mary Portas TV programmes, page 43 of the report touches on another area—the need for retailers also to step up to the mark, particularly in customer service and by offering something different. We will not stop supermarkets or out-of-town shopping centres, and arguably we should not have to, because it is up to the market if people choose to go to them, but there is an opportunity for retailers to offer something better and different.
There are two examples in my constituency. The Bloomfields deli in Highworth opened when people said that it was absolutely mad to do so, but because it offered unique products and exceptional customer service it has thrived and opened a further two stores. The Forum clothes store has been trading for 17 years and seen off all sorts of national chains, which have come and gone as fashions have changed, but by building on customer service and offering products that are not immediately available elsewhere it has remained standing much longer than the main competition.
All is not lost, and there is much positive work to do. Members, the Government, local authorities and retailers have roles to play, and I very much hope that, with my promotion of Mary Portas at every opportunity, we in Swindon will have an opportunity to secure our status as one of the pilot schemes, because we are all behind it.
I shall take a slightly less supportive position on the Portas report than my hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson, who just made a very effective contribution to the debate.
I recognise that our local communities want to retain their high streets and town centres, and ultimately it is in their hands: they will determine where they shop. My hon. Friend Nigel Mills pointed out the attractions of supermarkets because of their all-embracing services at almost every hour of the day and night, but we certainly have to do something to restrict out-of-town developments and to retain the vibrancy of our town centres, because that is what the people who we represent most certainly want.
My constituency boasts in Barton-upon-Humber a very good market town, and in Cleethorpes itself the main shopping centre on St Peter’s avenue boasts not only the MP’s constituency office, but a lively and excellent selection of shops. Another town in my constituency, Immingham, has a reasonable mix of shops, but it, like other places, is desperate. It wants Tesco as part of its regeneration, and I am pleased to say that it is almost about to happen, but we have to recognise that point.
I do not have time to touch on all the recommendations in the Portas report, so we can take it as read that I support most of them, but the town team recommendation envisages
“a visionary, strategic and strong operational management team” and, having served on a town team as a council representative for many years, I have to say that we struggled because of over-regulation, difficulty and the lack of funding—even at that time, with lavish support from the regional development agency, which achieved almost nothing. Town teams are fine, but nothing will happen without the driving force of a local authority, because it controls planning, traffic movement and car parking.
Much has been said of car parking. Of course, we would all love to see zero charges, but the reality is that car parking provides a net income. I wrestled with this matter when I was a member of my local authority’s cabinet, where car parking had a net income of £1.25 million. Yes, that can be reduced. North Lincolnshire council, which is another authority in my constituency, has brought in some imaginative ideas and encouraged growth.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when councils get the power to keep any increase in their local business rates, we will soon see whether they are convinced that by reducing parking charges, they can generate extra business rates and therefore extra revenue? Cutting car parking charges might not be a lose-lose game, but rather a win-win game.
My hon. Friend has made the point that I was just coming to, so I will skip a few points. However, we have to recognise the difficulties that local authorities face in this regard.
Recommendation 15 of the report talks about an “affordable shops” quota in large new developments. That idea sounds fine, but the businesses that would be drawn to such developments are probably those that are currently in secondary shopping areas, such as the long parades of shops that most towns have, where many of the shops are boarded up or are used as charity shops. The recommendation might lead to more decay and dereliction in those secondary areas. We must consider the knock-on effects.
Overall, the report is to be welcomed, if for no other reason than that it has generated a lively debate in the House today, with excellent contributions. That will feed through into our local communities, where the debate will continue.
While I have the opportunity, I will put one point to the Minister again. We hear much about the regeneration of our cities, which are indeed engines of economic growth. I ask him not to forget the provincial towns, many of which are a long way from a major city. There should not be too much concentration on cities at the expense of the many provincial towns in my region, such as Grimsby, Cleethorpes, Halifax and Huddersfield.
That is a challenging question. The reality is that we have been trying to revitalise our towns. As I have said, I served for a long time on my local authority. I was also a member of the Local Government Association’s urban commission. We had countless presentations from highly paid consultants on how this could be achieved, but many of the ideas fell flat because there was not the support of local communities.
The report mentions reinvigorating high streets with market traders. In principle, that is fine, but I remember being the councillor responsible for allowing that to happen and there was a mass uprising among existing shopkeepers, who immediately came to me saying, “I pay my rates and my dues and you are allowing these people to drift in, many of whom have no connection with the town and the community.” It is a difficult balance to achieve.
We have to recognise that the success or failure of our high streets and town centres relies ultimately on the customers. It will be determined by the market forces. I want to see our town centres and high streets thrive with imaginative ideas from local shopkeepers, but ultimately the customer is king. Past Times went into administration a day or two ago; we must hope that high streets do not belong to times past.
That was a powerful concluding statement from my hon. Friend Martin Vickers, who laid out the complexity of the situation.
The truth is that over the past six decades our policy on market towns and high streets has been an astonishing failure. Government after Government have tried almost everything. They have played around with parking and with rates, and they have changed the planning regulations. The result has been a catastrophic disaster. We have gone from 43,000 butchers in 1950 to 10,000 in 2000. We have gone from 41,000 greengrocers to 10,000. The number of fishmongers is now a fifth of what it used to be and the number of bakers is a quarter of what it used to be.
The question is, what do we do? We first need to be tough and serious in recognising the problem. The problem is not simply that out-of-town retailers are large, muscular bullies. First, their growth reflects the fact that it is more convenient to locate a business out of town. It is, of course, cheaper and easier to set up out of town. A shop can have night time deliveries, the rates are much more transparent and it is easier to develop a retail space that suits the retailer. Secondly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes said, customers are selecting out-of-town retailers for their shopping. Thirdly, we need to acknowledge that although out-of-town retailers have had a disastrous impact on our high streets and market towns, they have had a very good impact on the products in our shops. When my neighbour first moved to Penrith in 1955 from the United States, the only way in which one could buy olive oil was to go to the chemist and buy it in a bottle of about 25 ml for medicinal purposes.
So what are we going to do? As everybody has said in this debate, we need clearly to define the value of towns and high streets.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in addition to providing a broader range of products, the supermarkets that he refers to have brought the benefit of reducing the cost of living for many people by reducing the price of basic essentials and the general grocery bill?
I agree absolutely. That is why the argument that we have to make is not an easy one. We have to make it because everybody in this Chamber—indeed, everyone in this country—believes deeply in the value of our high streets and market towns. It is not an easy argument to make because in terms of price, market competition and, fundamentally, choice, it is difficult to continue to defend the high street. In order to do so, we need to reach for more imaginative arguments.
We need to explain, above all, the value of public space. The great thing about any high street or market town is that it offers somewhere that is different from the workplace and the home: a civic space in which one interacts with other people. The point of it is not simply a shopping or retail experience, but those innumerable miniature encounters and exchanges of advice and wisdom that create the warp and weft of a community. That is a huge capital resource that we rely on when we talk about the big society, when we look for voluntary activity or when we fight for our local assets, such as in Penrith where we are fighting to save our cinema. We need that local identity and it is conveyed primarily in our lives through the experience of a town or high street.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the ambience and experience of the town centre is extremely important? The town centre manager in Nuneaton has a strong track record of putting on entertainment such as Punch and Judy shows, theatre shows, mini opera companies and brass bands. Does my hon. Friend agree that such things add to the ambience and experience when people go to our town centres?
Absolutely. Of course, that is a central insight of this debate: a town centre is not simply about a shopping or retail experience, but about a much broader community experience that can range from puppets to the visual elements and even the aesthetics. One reason that Appleby in my constituency is such an appealing place is its architecture. The extraordinary asymmetry and symmetry of our red sand stone, the castle on the top of the hill, the Moot hall and the market cross create something that it would be impossible to replicate in a modern retail space. Those things are not about shopping.
The other important point from Nuneaton is local leadership, which is what we need to represent a town centre and compete with an incredibly able retail manager at a Tesco or Waitrose. That is why we should look again at local democracy and elected local mayors. If we ask why a French town is vibrant and able to say no to a local supermarket, whereas in Penrith a Sainsbury’s appeared even though I reckon 90% of the community opposed it, we realise that a great deal of that is due to the lack of a local leader and champion, the elected mayor, who can say no.
We can also do an enormous amount to support councils by getting rid of regulations and ensuring that if, for example, Penrith wished to challenge the supermarket, it could be confident in the judicial review process and confident that the planning laws would suit it. There could perhaps even be insurance if it were defeated, so that it did not feel horribly financially exposed.
Finally, and most importantly for Conservative Members, we must understand that this is a fundamentally conservative campaign in the best sense of the word. It is not about a grand vision of central planning and rationality, or a notion that some expert in a capital, or in Tesco’s headquarters, can define exactly what is required for every community. It is about taking what is already there—our historic inheritance. It is often an inconvenient inheritance for parking, rates or the space for shops, but we can make something of that history and tradition. Above all, we can have not simply shopping but a sense of the warp and weft, the interaction and the human spirit of community that once made us proud to be called a nation of shopkeepers, which will be difficult to retain without any shops at all.
I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Jones for securing the debate and ensuring that the Backbench Business Committee listened to his remarks. The depth of the conversation that has taken place today has clearly indicated the leadership that he demonstrated.
Before I go any further, may I declare an interest? I still have shares in a company that I set up some five or six years ago, which deals in giving advice to property developers on how to manage public consultation and on ensuring that they get their political messages across. I suspect that in the next five minutes I will demonise myself as being responsible for an awful lot of the problems that have occurred. Some of the people with whom I ended up working were from supermarkets and food retailers, so I have some understanding of what they do.
First, I wish to talk about Plymouth, which is the largest urban conurbation west of Bristol. It is a low-skilled and low-wage economy, and as Members know it is the home—or I should say a home—of the Royal Navy. My constituency runs south of the A38 and from the River Plym to the River Tamar. It has a city centre in it, and I am uniquely a very strong urban Tory. I therefore hope that I can talk about the impact of what is happening.
We were badly bombed during the war, and a lot of the property in the constituency is now beginning to look a little shabby and needs work doing to it. However, we do have a university, which is a key part of ensuring that regeneration takes place. I would be grateful if the university considered how it could include some retail activity on its premises, because there are major implications for the city in July and August when the university has gone down.
There is a proposal by English Heritage to list the city centre, which I do not think is a very clever thing to do. All that will do is put the whole thing into aspic and discourage the growth of the retail sector.
I am interested by what my hon. Friend says about universities and students. In my constituency we have a large university in a town of 50,000 people. Does he agree that when councils and shop builders plan town centres and retail offerings, it is important that they think about not only the student market but, as he says, a year-round market? They have to appeal to both students and non-students for the whole 12 months.
I fully agree, and licensed premises are also incredibly important. We now have more licensed premises in Plymouth city centre than there are in the whole of Liverpool, which is quite a striking fact given that the population of Plymouth is about 250,000 and Liverpool’s is significantly bigger. There has been a tendency for local authorities of all political parties in the area to move the culture of Union street, of which those who know Plymouth will be aware, out to Mutley Plain and the Barbican. That has had real implications, including for the local police’s work to maintain law and order. We need a much more balanced approach.
When I was working commercially—Members will be delighted to know that I am not any more, although I do have an interest in my own business—I was aware of how defensive some landowners could get about looking after their stakeholdings. They wanted to ensure that if there was development, it would not affect their commercial interests badly. There was one city in the south of England where we did a lot of work, and I had a client there who owned about £40 million of assets in the town centre. He had great difficulty in talking to the local authority and getting it to work with him to develop his part of the town. It became a very big problem, and it ended up with the local authority trying to get his land by compulsory purchase order, with all the implications that went with that. It is very important that local authorities should not try to be developers by proxy, because that is a disaster. It has delayed the regeneration of that town by a significant time.
Will my hon. Friend comment, on the basis of the professional expertise that he has just outlined, on the suggestion that we heard earlier that the abolition of the upward-only rent review might benefit the regeneration of our town centres?
We need to do everything we can to encourage as much footfall as possible in town centres. If I were a retailer, I would want people passing by to come into my shop. One thing that I learned at a very early stage when I got involved in the whole business of development was that planners liked to have one anchor store at one end of the town and another at the other end. I think that is quite a positive story, because people end up walking from one side of the town to the other and doing their shopping in the small shops in between.
I am very keen to ensure that town centres are the major places in which we encourage investment, but we must understand that in so doing we put up rents and some smaller shops cannot operate. We need to encourage people to set up niche businesses, such as bakers, butchers, fishmongers and so on.
We must ensure that we deliver a master plan approach. When development is taking place in our towns, we need to look at the sites and get the local community involved in making the decision on what they want there. There must be community benefits. When I gave advice to developers, including Sainsbury’s, I would always say, “When you are looking at your campaign, you have to consider what consumers and electorates will think is in it for them,” which means developing good community consultation. We have worked hard on that key aspect in my constituency.
Conservatives have a good story to tell. After all, Nicholas Ridley introduced the planning process in the first place, and John Gummer, as Secretary of State for the Environment, introduced the concept of planning policy statements—we are now on PPS 4, which is on ensuring that stuff goes into the town centre. We have a good story to tell, but there is further to go. I very much encourage my right hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that the Portas report is used and implemented.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Jones on securing this debate on this vital subject. It is an important day for town centres around the country, but it is also a very important evening for Macclesfield Town football club, who are playing a well deserved replay at the Reebok against premier league Bolton. [Hon. Members: “What’s the latest score?”] Nil-nil. We will win yet.
I welcome the Government’s decision to set up the high street review and congratulate Mary Portas on her exceptional work and on producing an action-oriented set of recommendations. Most of all, I pass on my thanks to the shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, and businessmen and women around the country who work tirelessly day in, day out, to put our high streets at the heart of our communities. They do so very capably, particularly in Macclesfield.
Macclesfield is an historical and energetic town, nestled beneath the hills of the Peak district. It has real character and an independent spirit. In Georgian days, Macclesfield was the world’s biggest producer of finished silk, and the town continued to thrive in prosperity for centuries after, but in recent years the town centre has suffered from the opening of the Trafford centre and the Handforth Dean retail park, and the uncertainty of future plans for the town centre that were stalled by the credit crunch. By its own successful standards, the town centre felt tired, and in 2008 or 2009 there was a growing appreciation that something had to be done.
The response from the community was terrific—positive and action-oriented. I am particularly keen to share that experience and hope that it is of interest to colleagues and those who might be listening, just as we are keen in Macclesfield to learn from other communities.
We have learned through our efforts in regenerating and revitalising the town centre that the key ingredients are belief, confidence and building momentum. A critical milestone for us was re-establishing the Barnaby festival in June 2010. Barnaby was a centuries-old tradition that had fallen into decline, but it was completely reinvented and resurrected as an arts and culture-led festival by the community, for the community.
Barnaby was a huge success and led other community entrepreneurs to establish a monthly treacle market. That market, which again is run by the community, for the community, has gone from strength to strength.
As confidence has grown, more events have followed. There was a programme of events to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the Macclesfield town charter, and last December, as if from nowhere, a schedule of events called the “WinterFest” helped drive footfall across the whole month. That was vital at that critical time of year.
To build that momentum, it was vital that we sought to engage stakeholders more fully. We needed to get local businesses, community groups and the council together, so we created a business breakfast. It was not so much a “town team” as the Portas report describes, but more a good old-fashioned town hall meeting. In engaging those businesses and community groups—about 120 come out every couple of months—we have created a real agenda for progress.
We have created our own brand identity—by the community, for the community—and an economic forum. That really is our “town team” as defined by Mary Portas. However we define it, that partnership, and—dare I say it?—that coalition has helped to create and strengthen our initiatives to help to take the town forward.
The creation of the economic forum led to a whole-town vision, which has helped to create the confidence for local businesses to invest. Wilson Bowden is considering a town centre development in Macclesfield—one of the few being considered across the country—and Tesco has expressed an interest in dramatically increasing the size of its edge-of-town unit as well as its town centre Metro store. My message is similar to that of my hon. Friend Mark Menzies: at these moments in the life of communities such as Macclesfield, it is vital that national retailers and developers show that they are going to be part of the solution, rather than exacerbating the problem. It is vital that they show commitment and energy in supporting the community, just as so many other stakeholders are doing, up and down the country.
In my remaining 10 seconds, I would like to say to the Minister and to Mary Portas that Macclesfield stands ready to take part in one of the pilots. We think that we would be a leading light in culture and heritage-led regeneration—
I was born and brought up in Dudley. Dudley has been somewhat disparaged this evening, but I want to tell colleagues that it used to be the place to go. For me, Cranage’s coffee shop was the place to hang out. For my mum, it was Cook’s or Beattie’s department stores. However, following the closure of a huge local steelworks called Round Oak, Government subsidies were used to create a new shopping centre called Merry Hill on that site—with free car parking, of course. Merry Hill sucked the lifeblood out of Dudley. Cook’s was lost, but Beattie’s stubbornly hung on for many years. It was a family firm determined to buck the trend and keep the town together.
Today, as the MP for Solihull, I have fought, along with my party and local residents, against an Asda superstore being built on precious parkland on our high street—the Stratford road in Shirley. We lost. The Conservative-led council forced the decision through. We are about to find out whether we are right to believe that the Asda will suck the lifeblood out of the small independent shops on the high street, or whether the developers are right in saying that it will attract more people who will magically spill out on to the high street and create more footfall.
Now the Conservatives are planning to introduce car parking charges to Shirley for anything longer than a 30-minute stay. That is crazy. It will mean that the hard-working shopkeepers will be starved of business because people will be unwilling to pay the charges, especially when there is free parking down the road at an out-of-centre Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s. Councils should be looking for ways of encouraging people to use local shops, not discouraging them from doing so. I have big worries that this will be the last straw for Shirley.
That is what is happening now, but what of the future? Do we have to march inexorably down this road? Are the town centre and the high street doomed? Tonight we have heard many facts about the decline in trade and in the number of high street shops, but I do not think that they are doomed. There will always be a need for town centres. They are not just places to get commodities; they are venues in themselves, incorporating restaurants, entertainment and places to meet up with friends, to socialise, to browse and to be seen. Touchwood, in the centre of Solihull, is an excellent example; it demonstrates how a good shopping centre can thrive.
A recent Experian report identified that frustrations with online shopping are driving consumers back to the high street. Deliveries can be slow or even non-existent, and the goods often do not match the online descriptions. When we go shopping, we can see exactly what we are getting, and have the instant gratification of being able, in most cases, to take our purchases home with us.
The high street must respond to changing consumer expectations and offer a great experience to shoppers. On the whole, business improvement districts have done well in concentrating on that, and they can do more. I have been banging on for years about local communities’ need for empowerment in relation to the design and character of their shopping centres. Developers who come in with a “we know best” attitude could be in for a fight, as was the case in the Shirley development.
I support the Association of Convenience Stores’ sequential test to ensure that all sites close to a town centre are considered before out-of-town developments are allowed. Both the ACS and the Portas review support a presumption in favour of town centre development, and I totally agree we should have a “town centre first” principle in the national planning policy framework.
As for parking charges, out-of-town centres clearly have a competitive advantage, and I support the idea of councils being given new tools to raise revenue specifically to support access to, and the regeneration of, high streets. Given that business rates can now be repatriated to local authorities, I am sure that a way can be found for that to be done. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and we must find a way to even up the playing field so that all retailers have a fair chance to get a fair market share.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Jones on securing this debate, in which it is a great privilege to speak. I represent Llandudno, the second most popular shopping centre in north Wales—unfortunately, the most popular one was the subject of a hymn of praise from my hon. Friend Stephen Mosley. However, Llandudno is a very attractive shopping centre, mainly because it has retained its character as an old Victorian seaside resort. Llandudno is known as the queen of Welsh resorts, and that is still very much the case. The credit for that has to go to Mostyn Estates, which owns the freehold of a large percentage of the town.
That is why I am so concerned about certain aspects of the Portas report. There are many good things in it, but when a landlord is willing to work extremely hard to retain the retail centre in Llandudno—Mostyn Estates works extremely hard and constructively to do that—it is of concern to read comments in the report stating that landlords with vacant spaces must be further encouraged or possibly penalised. We have an issue with empty property rates relief lasting only three months for retail premises, and I would be loth to see Mostyn Estate’s ability to support the development of retail in Llandudno damaged by a further penalty for having empty properties. They are often empty not because of any failure by Mostyn Estates to market them properly, but because of economic circumstances.
I shall try to explain that in detail. I spoke recently to the chief executive of Mostyn Estates, and he made the important point that when a small business looks to locate in a retail centre, it will have a certain amount of money available for rent and rates. In Llandudno, the rates are so high that the rent paid to Mostyn Estates is often lower than the rates that the same businesses pay out. Time and again, Mostyn Estates has been willing to reduce its rents to keep a tenant in place even though the rates have not been reduced. I am concerned, therefore, about that proposition in the report.
I am also slightly concerned about the tendency in this debate to view the supermarket chains as a danger to the retail high street. Yes, that can be the case, especially if the development is out of town, but Llandudno has seen the development of retail parks and centres within walking distance of the high street, and some footfall has gone from the supermarkets to the high streets. Yes, the centre of gravity within the town has changed, but the town has retained its attraction to shoppers.
I was taken by the speech from my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, who highlighted the fact that a town centre must be more than just a shopping centre; it must be a focus for public engagement and enjoyment of life. In Conwy, another small town in my constituency, that is exactly what we have seen. Some 10 or 15 years ago, Conwy was on its knees, yet an enterprising local butcher, as it happens, decided to invest significantly in developing his local shop, which resulted in the business going from strength to strength. Indeed, Edwards of Conwy, the maker of the finest sausages in the United Kingdom, recently won a major contract to export its produce to Malaysia, in addition to supplying all the supermarkets.
That investment is important. It created the feeling in Conwy that they could develop and revitalise the town as a shopping centre by highlighting the food offer. In Conwy, we now have wine shops, delicatessens, restaurants, high-quality hotels and, to crown it all, the food festival every October, which is a huge success. In other words, Conwy has decided to reinvent itself as a destination.
When we consider the future of the high street, it is important to recognise that we cannot fight the tide of history: we cannot fight the fact that people now buy from Amazon. Before Christmas, I went to the Llandudno post office and was struck by the number of parcels from Amazon. We cannot fight that type of development, but we can offer something completely different. We can say to people, “Come to Conwy. Come and shop in Conwy. You’ll see something completely different offered by small, independent retailers who will sell you something that you will not see anywhere else.”
So I have two examples in my constituency of where we have seen the ability of a good landlord, in Llandudno, and innovative local retailers, in Conwy, to make a real difference; and yes the supermarkets can contribute to footfall in high streets, but they can also be a danger. In Llanrwst, another small town in my constituency, there is a proposal for a Tesco store. The one comment made to me by a shopkeeper was: “Why can it offer to build a school or swimming pool for the local authority? If I did that, I would be accused of taking advantage of the system.”
I add my name to the list of those congratulating my hon. Friend Mr Jones on securing this important debate and I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on arranging it. At this stage of the debate, there is little left to add to the excellent contributions of so many hon. Members, particularly of my hon. Friends. I want to highlight one or two of the concerns I share with others for my Mid Norfolk constituency, but as we move to the close I want to focus on some of the positives, as I believe there are a number of reasons for being positive about the future of our market towns, particularly our rural market towns.
Mid Norfolk is not an affluent constituency. We are not part of the celebrated Norfolk triangle, and we are not part of the “gold coast”; Burnham market is a long way from my constituency. Our average income is about £17,500 a year; we have four market towns and 114 villages. Many of the problems described today are all too evident as one travels in Dereham, my capital, the ancient heart of Norfolk. We have recently seen the closure of Chambers, the celebrated and historic store. I was recently delighted to receive a petition from the town’s residents to the Co-op, asking it to change its decision to close.
In Wymondham, home of the great abbey and the place of Robert Kett’s rebellion, I have the pleasure this Friday of chairing a meeting at which 400 residents are due to come to talk about the town’s plan, as it faces an application from Asda for a development in the middle of the town. There is a huge appetite to discuss issues around sustainable development, facilities for the young and the old, and ensuring that we have a genuine long-term plan that looks at the needs of Wymondham over the next 20 years—not just for Wymondham either, but for the surrounding villages that rely on it, too.
In Attleborough, zoned for development under Labour’s regional spatial strategy and to be doubled in size with 4,000 houses, the challenge is to come up with the right level of growth that can provide the infrastructure levy that will fund the bypass we need, while keeping Attleborough as the beautiful market town in which people want to live and work. In Watton, the heart of the Wayland valley, there are huge pressures on the high street, with closures of traditional stores and huge local concern that the town centre is losing its viability.
Why, then, am I optimistic? After several decades in which our town centres, in the words of my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, have been “woefully badly catered for”, I believe that we have serious grounds to be optimistic. First, because people care—and such care has been demonstrated today in the level, strength and depth of opinion voiced in this debate, while our residents also care, as evidenced by the 300 or 400 people due to turn up on Wymondham on Friday evening.
Secondly, I am confident because around the country there are inspiring examples of enlightened local council leaders, town councils, residents associations and, indeed, of best practice, which have shown that it is possible to combine the one-stop shop convenience of an out-of-town supermarket that people with busy lives need with the heritage, community and authentic local community experience of a well run and well organised town centre. These things are not beyond the wit of man.
I am confident, thirdly, because of the Government’s measures, including the Localism Bill, community planning measures, the big society, the emphasis on the rebalanced economy, the localisation of business rates and the support for small business generally.
Fourthly, I am confident because the public themselves are showing in their retail habits a growing demand for the local, the artisanal, the authentic and for an increased interest and involvement in the retail experience seen as an authentic part of the community of which they are part. I am confident, fifthly, because of the measures on broadband.
In my Mid Norfolk constituency we might have been neglected by successive Governments for 30 or 40 years, but if we put all these measures together, along with the investment in the Cambridge-Norwich railway line, in the A11, in rural broadband and in science at the Norwich research park, I would submit that our area is on the cusp of a renaissance—a renaissance that we describe and seek to promote locally through a project called the Norfolk way, a renaissance of small businesses coming back to the countryside in converted barns and converted turkey sheds, empowered with globally competitive information technology and trading between the hubs of Cambridge and Norwich.
If we can have a vibrant rural economy, we will have a chance to have vibrant market towns. For no one are those market towns more important than for the people trading in the rural economy. I close with the suggestion that we can be optimistic provided that we take the energy of today and channel it into the enlightened policies of tomorrow.
I join others in thanking Mr Jones for securing the debate.
The real added value of high streets is their importance to our communities. Our high streets are literally at the centre of town life, and are a vital part of our towns’ identities. One of my first campaigns after I was selected as the candidate for my seat was a fight against proposals to close local post offices. The loss, or downgrading, of local services such as post offices in our town centres has taken away many of the reasons for people to come into the high street rather than travelling to out-of-town shopping centres. That has had an impact on high street traders who were already facing significant challenges as a result of changing shopping habits.
Cradley Heath in my constituency has recently had direct experience of the difficulties faced by local high streets. Three years ago, a large supermarket was built on a bypass going past the town centre. It is almost as if everything, from the positioning of the store to the road layout, had been designed with the express intention of taking as many people as possible away from Cradley Heath high street, and the effect on local traders has been enormous. Had Sandwell council acted with more care, there could surely have been an alternative that would have kept trade from supermarket shoppers in the town helping high street traders. That is a lesson that must be learnt for future development.
We need to find ways of making town centres more attractive so that people want to be in them, and to take advantage of the things that they can offer and out-of-town centres and online stores cannot. We have seen that in the town centre of Halesowen, the largest town in my constituency, which grew from being a market town after the war to being a “border town” at the edge of the Birmingham and black country conurbations. That had an effect on the town centre, which found itself facing strong competition first from Birmingham city centre and then from the new Merry Hill shopping centre that was built in the 1980s. Familiar local names disappeared from the centre, to be replaced by chain stores and empty premises.
In recent years, however, Dudley council, the chamber of trade and other partners have worked to turn the town centre around. A new bus station has been built next to the main shopping area, there is an indoor market plaza to help small traders to set up in the town, and there have been initiatives such as Halesowen in bloom. None of those constitutes a “magic bullet”, but each helps to make shopping in Halesowen a more pleasant experience. The results can be seen in an increased footfall in the town, and in reports from local businesses that things really do seem to be picking up.
We need to find new ways of giving people a reason to come to the high street. We should consider initiatives such as town centre loyalty cards to retain business in our towns. We also need local authorities to exercise more flexibility to ensure that town centre premises do not remain empty for too long, and we need Government help to make that possible. In December, Halesowen police set up a “cop shop” in a vacant shop in the town centre, offering crime prevention help and advice to Christmas shoppers. It brought together other public services and agencies, and proved very popular.
More such initiatives would be possible if local authorities were able to offer business rate holidays, or similar support. Although councils have legal powers to do that in many instances, the financial cost prevents it from being a viable option. Councils that offer business rate relief in such circumstances still have to pay the money to the central fund although they are not receiving the revenue from the rates. The Government’s proposals to allow some or all of the revenue obtained from business rates to be retained locally could be used to allow more discretion in the way in which local authorities offer business rate holidays and other reliefs. I hope that the Government will consider that as they develop their proposals in the Local Government Finance Bill.
At their best, town centres such as Halesowen make shopping more than a purely commercial transaction. We should be proud of the work that is being done to enable high streets to compete in an age of Amazon and eBay, but we must also continue to look for new ways to make our town centres more attractive. That means a partnership between local and national Government, local businesses and the wider community that will enable local solutions to address local challenges.
I welcome the Government’s commissioning of the Portas review. I look forward to seeing its recommendations being put into practice and action being taken to help put our high streets at the very heart of our local communities.
I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Mr Jones, on stimulating a lively, interesting and largely well-attended debate. We must support our town centres. If we do not, we will witness their demise, and the economic, environmental, retail and community value of those centres will be lost. Anyone who has visited the United States, where there are fewer planning controls than we have had in the UK, will have seen many towns with holed-out centres where there is little life or activity, but also with a doughnut of development all around of large-scale retail shopping centres.
My constituency has fared rather better than most in relation to the recent changes in town centres. The Association of Convenience Stores states that the average level of vacant shop units is 14%. The situation in Rugby has improved, however. The vacancy rate was just 3% in 2007. It then rose to between 8% and 10% at the peak of the recession in 2008. Since then the proportion has fallen back to 6.25%. That compares very favourably with the national average.
As elsewhere, there have been recent shop closures in Rugby as a consequence of difficult Christmas trading, but I pay tribute to our progressive forward-thinking council. It is aware of the problem and has taken action to deal with it, including through adopting a flexible approach to planning and introducing “moving in” grants of up to about £5,000, which often go to smaller independent businesses. The total spend on that has been £70,000 over three or four years, and it has been an effective investment.
This is a national problem, however, and we all must consider what to do to halt the decline in high street retail. It is important to understand what is happening in retail. Many Members have referred to the influence of the internet and have rightly stated that we cannot fight the power of the internet. According to the House of Commons Library, just 3% of retail purchases were made on the internet in January 2007, but the internet now accounts for 12% of UK retail trade.
Local communities have two options. With a decline of 12% in retail trade, it is clear that the number of retail outlets and the amount of retail space must fall, not necessarily by the full 12% but certainly to some extent. Alternatively, the population in the local area must grow. I am delighted that Rugby is taking the latter approach, with a substantial development of 13,000 homes about to start on the Gateway site as well as development due for 6,200 homes on the Mast site.
There are many reasons why communities should embrace new housing. Our young people need homes, and the new homes bonus provides an income stream for local councils. New housing also supports our existing town centres. Communities should not complain about the decline of their town centres if they do not accept more housing where that is possible. In areas where new housing is not possible and town centres shrink, properties at the edge of the town centres should be able to be used for retail—indeed, many of them were originally developed for retail use. We must react fluidly in order to adapt to times of growth and decline.
Communities should also develop their independent stores. Rugby has a very successful independent sector in the Regent street and Albert street area, and The Rugby Observer report on Christmas 2011 trading highlighted the success of independents in Rugby that give great service and flexibility in the range of products they sell. As elsewhere, chain stores did badly. I believe that people are now bored by the uniformity of multiples, and independents offer something different. We need more support for independent retailers, especially as that would effectively be backing winners.
That was recognised in the Mary Portas review. She visited our town and said in her report that she had been very impressed with the “champions of change” she met in Rugby. They were not managers of national multiples, but independent entrepreneurial traders. They must be encouraged. There is much good news and much that can be done, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the debate.
Colchester’s Daily Gazette today reported that the parent company of three shops in Colchester—Peacocks, Bon Marché and Past Times—had gone into administration. I know that they are national firms, and my hope is that buyers will be found and the businesses will continue, because they are an important part of the retail mix and they employ local people. Indeed, it was at Past Times that I bought a poster that said “Keep calm and carry on”, and I trust that that is what will happen. However, it is not all doom and gloom. I am told by those who know about these things that Colchester has fared better than most places for retail sales. Indeed, our department store, Williams & Griffin, one of those great local stores that is now part of an independent group, has plans to expand its floor space by 50%.
Colchester High street is the oldest high street in Britain. It is built along the Roman road, which goes back to the time when Colchester was the first capital of Roman Britain. I am anxious to ensure that Colchester does not become part of clone town Britain. National Government and local government have parts to play in that, along with local initiatives, both individual and collective. The Government need to be careful about expanding further out-of-town shops and other moves in that direction.
A local initiative that I wish to promote is one that I call “centurion’s walk”, which is to involve just over 100 small, mainly locally owned independent stores, all built on top of the Roman wall in the southern part of the original Roman city of Colchester. In addition, the East Anglian Daily Times has a “shop local” scheme and the East of England Co-operative Society sources from local suppliers; that is very successful and I certainly recommend it. One way in which the national Government could help is by having a scheme where the first 500 square feet of retail space is free of business rates; I would like the Portas report to be adapted here. The money could be reclaimed by a levy on out-of-town supermarket car parks. I do not see why that could not be done.
Park and ride is vital for Colchester and for many other regional shopping centres. Unfortunately, Essex county council, which is responsible for this, has not provided one single park and ride facility for Colchester, yet Chelmsford has two and Ipswich, over the border in Suffolk, has two. Our principal competitor towns, Ipswich and Chelmsford, have been provided with park and ride, but Essex county council has not provided the same for us. Colchester is the only part of Essex that is not Tory, and I suspect that that may be the reason why we are being discriminated against.
On localism and sustainable communities, my hon. Friend Peter Aldous quite properly drew attention to the number of empty floors above shops, and it is important that we try to use those wherever possible. I also pay tribute to the Essex chamber of commerce and the Association of Convenience Stores, which are battling in this area. This is not just about the high street, because our neighbourhoods, suburbs and community centres are involved.
The Federation of Small Businesses has drawn attention to the Portas review’s recommendation that the Government should consider whether the business rate system can support small businesses and independent retailers better. I invite the Minister to look at my suggestion that we can help smaller shops—community shops and village shops—by giving them a business rate holiday. I would also like to mention indoor markets, because they have a lot to commend them. Keep Britain Tidy, too, points out that its awards scheme is a way of encouraging local pride in our communities. Finally, I wish to mention our good friends at the British Retail Consortium, who say:
“it is essential that Local Authorities across the country work with retailers, cultural and heritage organisations, landlords and other local stakeholders to maximise the inherent advantage of an individual area’s local heritage”.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker, as we are about to have—and are having—a very important debate. In my constituency a number of small towns are all demonstrating the importance of localism. Stroud, Dursley, Berkeley, Painswick and others are all effectively manifesting what is necessary through the provision of strong local leadership and the delivery of sophisticated outcomes, because people know and understand what happens in their local areas. That is one of the strengths of localism, which is reinforced by the activities of chambers of trade, which should also be saluted in this project. A good chamber, it seems to me, is one that knows and understands the shops and so on in its high street and works hard to generate collective activity in generating business and in interfacing with the local authorities and other agencies. I salute such chambers.
We need to drill down on several issues, one of which is the night-time economy. It seems to me that it is really important to recognise that there are different phases in the high street timetable, one of which involves what happens after the shops close. The restaurants, pubs and cafés generate more activity, which is linked to what happens in the shops. It is important for all our smallish communities—that is what I am talking about from the vantage point of my constituency—to think in terms of the night-time economy. Some years ago we had a seminar about that subject in Stroud, at which pub closures, the impact of night clubs and the absence of restaurants were all mentioned, but over the last few years all those factors have begun to point in the right direction for a lively night-time economy in Stroud. I pay tribute to people who think in those terms.
Another aspect of the question that has come across quite forcefully in the debate, and rightly so, is the fact that we are not just talking about shops, although they are very important. We are talking about, for example, the cultural life of a high street. In Stroud, Dursley and Nailsworth, farmers markets generate a lot of business and activity. They have made an impact in my constituency in delivering extra verve in high street life. It is valuable for such activities not just to be started but to be seen to thrive. It is vital that we think beyond the normal expectations of people who think about high streets and go into new areas and new opportunities. Farmers markets definitely fall within that category.
I also want to talk about unused houses and flats above shops in our high streets—an important matter in terms of our attitudes to housing. If we can get people to participate in and live in their community, that is great, and we should consider how we can encourage shop owners and owners of general commercial properties on our high streets to make better use of the properties, and the floors above the shops that we all walk past. If all of a community—shop owners, shoppers, residents, café and pub owners and so on—is part of a multi-dimensional high street, we can start to get a strong nucleus of useful influence that can work towards developing the high street.
I welcome the report we have discussed tonight, and the Government’s enthusiasm for promoting high street activity. I salute the very strong work in my constituency, in the towns I have mentioned and in others, which demonstrates that some really good results can be produced in high street and town activity.
I particularly relish the opportunity to speak in this debate because it really is the hot topic in my constituency at the moment, and it is nice to see that it is also such a hot topic in so many other constituencies. There are two reasons for that in my constituency, the first of which is that we have a very successful high street in Lindley, north of Huddersfield, which I shall talk about in a moment. Secondly, like many other colleagues in the Chamber, we have worries about a proposed out-of-town supermarket superstore.
My constituency is one of the biggest in the country. I have 81,000 constituents, but only one major supermarket —a Morrisons in Meltham, which heavily overtrades. It is incredibly busy, particularly at 5 o’clock on a Saturday evening. It is just up the road from where I live. There are a couple of medium-sized Co-ops and a sort of Sainsbury’s Express in Salendine Nook. The supermarket companies have identified that situation and both Tesco and Lidl are looking to come into the outskirts of Holmfirth.
Holmfirth is the “Last of the Summer Wine” town from the BBC television series, which is home to Compo, Foggy and Cleggy—not that Cleggy of course, but the one from the television. It is a very popular tourist destination and a lovely market town, but Tesco is looking to situate a big new store 0.7 miles from the outskirts of Holmfirth and has put in a planning application to do so. Many people are very concerned about that and there was a protest by traders in Holmfirth over the weekend when they boarded up their shops to show what the place could look like if Tesco arrives. There are also big transport issues to consider. However, there could be positives if Tesco comes, such as 175 jobs and greater accessibility to goods at a reasonable price. At the moment, a lot of people go to superstores on the other side of Huddersfield.
There are big concerns about having an out-of-town supermarket, but on the other hand, as Mary Portas noted in her review, local shops can be successful if they specialise in specialism, experience and service. That is shown particularly well on a very successful high street in Lindley in the north of my constituency, which is a lovely little community and is very busy because the big hospital, Huddersfield royal infirmary, is in that area. I would like to name some of the different types of business on a little street called Lidget street which really demonstrate Mary Portas’s point about service, experience and specialism. We have Concepts Beauty and the Forget Me Not Trust children’s hospice charity shop, which is a local charity shop to which people feel very close emotionally. We have Garry Butler’s top quality butchers, Hartley’s confectioners, Branch One food emporium, the Bubble and Squeak deli, Lindley Fine Wines, Pure Occasions of Lindley, the Hair Room, Soor’s of Lindley, the Saddle pub, the Caspian gallery, Wagstaff’s Shoes and Eric’s restaurant and bar, which uses local produce. There is also a pharmacy, the local library, Sugarcraft Creations’ wonderful sugar craft to go on the top of cakes, Cosy Kitchens, an opticians, the Dress for Less discount store, Lindley Spice, Carl Livesey’s butchers, the Children’s Book Shop, Lindley’s café and deli, and the Number 10 bar and kitchen—how appropriate is that? That is a fantastic range of local shops that are locally owned and offer that kind of service, experience and specialism.
Linked to that area is a wonderful community spirit because people organise a superb Lindley carnival in the summer and there is the Lindley Christmas market in the first of week of December when the thoroughfare is closed, everyone comes out on to the street and all the shops are open, offering mulled wine and mince pies. Those local shops really engage with the local community and are something to behold. There is also two hours-worth of free parking—something that has been mentioned very much in this debate—in a major car park at the end of the street. People can also park up and down the street in bays and quickly pop into one of those wonderful local shops to make quick purchases. That is exactly what a community needs. High streets can be successful if they follow that kind of model and I think that all hon. Members, including myself, need to encourage our constituents, ourselves and our families to shop locally and support these wonderful local shops.
The whole debate so far has reminded me of when I was waiting to make my maiden speech, listening to potted descriptions of every town and city in the country, learning a lot about geography as well as politics. I shall now do roughly the same thing, talking from a city perspective about my Bristol West constituency, which covers the whole city centre and the shopping centres of Broadmead and Cabot Circus in the regional capital of the south-west of England. The constituency is also a patchwork of distinct neighbourhood shopping centres and high streets, bookended by Clifton village and Stapleton road, with the unique areas of Park street, Whiteladies road and Gloucester road running through the middle. Gloucester road may not be the oldest high street in England but it is certainly the longest. It has been argued in many media outlets that it is the greatest high street in England, with 2 miles of independent shops.
In the 1990s, as you will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, as a fellow Bristol Member, our city centre faced great challenges from out of town, but it has fought back. Bristol city council worked in partnership with the private sector and we have a new shopping centre, but more important, thousands of people now live in the heart of the city of Bristol. I do not think it has been mentioned in the debate that we need more residents in town and city centres. I certainly endorse the recommendations in the Portas report for town centre teams and for a presumption in favour of town and city centres in the planning regime.
High streets, whether in cities or towns, certainly face multiple challenges; indeed, as has been said, they are at crisis point. Rationing of parking spaces has been referred to. Control of crime is another issue, as is the switch to online retailing. Every time I make my traditional Christmas visit to the Montpelier Royal Mail sorting centre, I am struck by the sheer number of Amazon parcels of the books and DVDs my constituents are buying.
The other major threat to all our high streets and locally owned businesses comes from the large national chains and multiples. Supermarkets have been mentioned many times during the debate so I shall not say too much more about them, but I am probably the only Member in the Chamber who has experienced a riot in his constituency caused by the opening of a branch of Tesco. It took place over the Easter and royal wedding bank holidays in April last year. I certainly do not condone the antics of those constituents, but I very much share their frustration. Large businesses do not work with the grain of local opinion. It was not that people did not want a Tesco; they just did not want another Tesco in an area where the brand was already at saturation point.
There are also national chains of bars, restaurants and cafes. They use their lawyers and large planning departments to circumvent local authority planning decisions. In my constituency, we have an example involving Costa Coffee—a brand owned by Whitbread, the brewers—which has opened three outlets in Bristol; in Gloucester road in my constituency, in Clifton Down and in Westbury village in the neighbouring constituency of Bristol North West. The company has flouted the decisions of Bristol city council; Costa’s managing director wrote to me to say that Costa was “re-energising and revitalising” high streets and
“regularly complements independent retailers…to offer a wider range of choice.”
That sort of banality infuriates local residents when they think they cannot work with the system to get what they want. We certainly need to reform the planning system to combat uniformity and promote diversity.
As a fellow Bristol MP, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman and I hope we might work together to share our experiences of local high streets. Kingswood high street is a valuable part of my constituency. Does he agree that if a planning application for a major store is rejected, there should be a breathing space and the large store should not be allowed to re-enter the system straight away?
The other flaw in the planning system is that when permission is refused by a committee of local councillors, the applicant goes ahead and opens the business because they know that an appeal will take a long time. That is a loophole that Costa has certainly exploited and it needs to be blocked. We need to reform the planning process, but we must also reform local government finance.
The use classes have been mentioned many times. Surely, it is common sense that the A1 retail use class cannot apply equally to Tesco, Sainsbury’s and all the other retail multiples and to Mrs Smith’s corner shop; none the less, that is how our planning system works.
What we need is to let go so that we have more localism, so that local councils, whether Bristol or South Gloucestershire, are sufficiently granular at the local level to micro-manage what they want in their high streets. If they do not want any more supermarkets or chains, they should be able to say so emphatically, and there should be no ambiguity in the classes of use to allow the large companies to drive a coach and horses through local opinion and local democratic decision making. Local communities could then promote the shops that they want, and democratically elected councillors could block the sharp practices of the large multiples.
Finally, finance has been mentioned a couple of times. The uniform business rate needs to be reformed so that local councils can offer waivers to businesses that they wish to attract to an area. Gloucester road has shops with most uses, but it does not have a book shop, so perhaps a rate incentive would attract a book retailer to the area. Business improvement districts have made a huge improvement to Bristol city centre, but I would argue that any shopping centre would benefit from a BID in which landlords are incentivised to take part as well. That is a key recommendation of the Portas report, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and which I have thoroughly enjoyed endorsing in this debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Jones on introducing this debate. I have decided to make a speech because, having heard many colleagues wax lyrical about their shopping centres, I have to tell the House quite firmly that the finest shopping centre in the country is in my constituency of Southend West at Leigh-on-Sea.
There have been many, many reports before, and all hon. Members know what the problems are: it is the solutions that challenge us. This morning, my hon. Friend Mark Pawsey and I were at the Olympic stadium. Indeed, we both ran round the stadium and did the 100 metres in under nine seconds, so Usain Bolt should be worried. We then went to Westfield shopping centre. Having been born in the area, I found it all very impressive, and we were told that Stratford has a better Westfield than west London. I looked around for elderly people, and thought, “Where do they go?”
When I was Member of Parliament for Basildon, we had the biggest covered shopping centre in the country. I have enough enemies without naming a particular supermarket, but in Basildon, we started off with one giant store. We ended up with another giant store, and a third one at the other end of the town. I had a terrible row with the then chairman of that supermarket, because not only did it sell groceries but white goods, and it then decided to have a post office in-store: it was completely out of control.
We were told that we had the so-called biggest covered shopping centre in the country, but we were then told that Gateshead had the biggest covered shopping centre. Then the honour went to Lakeside, then Bluewater. It goes on and on and on. As the former chairman of the small shops group, I want to make a plea for small shops and for older people. I worry where older people, who do not shop online at Amazon and so on, are going to shop. They cannot go round the supermarket; they cannot go to the big covered shopping centres. In Leigh-on-Sea, we have an absolutely brilliant range of small shops. Indeed, my predecessor, Paul Channon, used to take Princess Margaret to shop in the local shops, which are still there today. It is a wonderful village atmosphere.
It is all very well and good Members coming to the House saying how marvellous small shops are, but this is the toughest time that I have ever known for businesses, let alone small shops. If we do not use them, we will lose them. We must all be realistic: in this day and age, it is down to price. For older people, it is great that we still have these little shops, where the shop owner has the time to swap stories and listen to people talk about their aches and pains and the rest of it. I worry that with the increasing Americanisation of the UK, if we are not careful, the whole country will be run by one rampant supermarket, and we will end up with all these covered shopping centres.
Having represented two constituencies, I am in a good position to judge what happens. Given the lead that my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton has taken today, I am sure the Opposition spokesman and our excellent Minister who will respond to the debate will have all the solutions. I hope we will not just park the issue and leave it at that one report. Each Member of Parliament who has local stores should lead by example and shop locally. We must remember that if we do not use it, we lose it.
We have changed the way we shop. Fifty years ago mothers in Beckenham and other towns in my constituency went to the shops daily to get the food that they needed for their families. Many more people lived in town centres. Today mothers and fathers normally get their week’s food at one time. Supermarkets provide the family living essentials. They do so at the lowest price possible and they are open all hours. Internet shopping offers unbeatable value.
High streets cannot compete with that, so all our high streets must think about how they change. I am slightly disappointed that the Mayor of London’s outer London fund has not given additional funding to my constituency, but I am very pleased that Bromley has been given another £5 million to help redevelop its town centre, as it is the major shopping centre that many of my constituents use weekly. Beckenham high street caters for local people from Copers Cope, Kelsey and Eden Park, Shortlands and Clockhouse. Our high streets must be designed with that in mind.
I shall end by making a few points, many of which have been made earlier. We need to make town centres places where people want to go, not just to shop, but to socialise and simply be there. I agree that parking and parking charges are a problem that needs to be addressed, but in my constituency people sometimes drive 30 minutes to Bluewater because of the free parking there, and it costs them a tenner in petrol.
Pedestrianisation is a two-edged weapon. I like the idea of shared space for vehicles and people together, and I want buses to go down Beckenham, West Wickham and Hayes high streets, bringing people in and out of the town centres. I like the idea of calming traffic but not stopping it, but pedestrianised town centres and high streets can be lonely and dangerous places at night. Cars passing sometimes help to mitigate the threat.
Beckenham, West Wickham and Hayes are ideal places for niche shopping. Everyone wants a mixed retail experience but now much of what we shop for is in supermarkets. I want to see reduced business rates and rents, if possible. These will help small businesses make a decent offering. I am glad that the Government are considering keeping back a portion of business rates for the local community.
As a society we must have decent and vibrant town centres. They are under threat and of course we are trying to do something about that. I am glad that we have had the opportunity to debate this matter today and I thank my hon. Friend Mr Jones for securing an important debate. Finally, I must place on record a personal lack of interest. As hon. Members might expect, shopping does not float my boat very much. In fact, I detest it.
I begin by congratulating Mr Jones and the Backbench Business Committee on securing the debate. I must say that I am in completely the opposite category to Bob Stewart, because I am an avid shopper, which is why I am particularly interested in the debate. Unfortunately, I seem to have passed the shopping gene on to my daughter, who occasionally seems to think that she is personally responsible for keeping some of the retail sector in Durham afloat—something I am sure many parents recognise.
The huge number of hon. Members who took part in the debate—54 in total—shows that the topic is relevant to many constituencies. I will not be able to mention every contribution, as just listing the Members’ constituencies would probably use up most of my time, but I will comment on some of the points that were made. I think that all hon. Members who spoke, right across the Chamber, were tremendous advocates for their town centres and high streets, whether they were celebrating their successes, particularly in these difficult times, or arguing strongly that the challenges they face need to be addressed.
A few issues stood out in particular. Almost all Members who spoke mentioned parking and the need for a level playing field with out-of-town developments. That was sometimes coupled with a concern that out-of-town shopping centres had perhaps expanded too much in recent times, with an adverse effect on town centres, although I think that there was more debate about that. There was also some unanimity on the need to amend use class orders, particularly so that there is more flexibility on change of use. A number of hon. Members were keen to see more community involvement in shaping town centres and high streets, particularly in order to get greater diversity and to have an offer that goes beyond retail and includes leisure and social facilities. Many Members celebrated the advantages of markets, including indoor markets, and wanted them to increase in a number of towns and cities.
Several Members mentioned the need for more flexibility in rents and rent setting and business rates. In particular, they stressed the need to give local authorities more of a say in the level of business rate that should be applied and even to give a business rate holiday if that seems appropriate, as part of a package of measures, for regenerating particular areas. We know that changes to the business rate regime are coming, and the Minister might comment on that when he sums up.
There was a great deal of consensus about the fact that the Portas review is a very good thing and that the Government need to respond to it more quickly. I congratulate the Government on commissioning the Portas review and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills report on understanding high street performance, carried out by Genecon, which went alongside it and provided us all with a lot of valuable information for our contributions to the debate.
There has been much consensus throughout the Chamber, but I am perhaps going to break it for a few moments, because, although I acknowledge that many of our high streets have struggled for several years, there is no doubt in my mind that the actions of this Government are making things much worse, particularly in disadvantaged areas. The downturn has hit our high streets hard, and, although thousands of jobs have already been lost in the retail sector, many more are at risk. We heard yesterday of yet more job losses in the sector throughout the country, and every day and every week more retailers seem to be going out of business.
Let us be clear about how serious the situation is. The latest shop vacancy report, compiled by the Local Data Company, found that town centre vacancy rates in Great Britain stand at 14.3%.
My constituent Liz Howard, of the Curiosity Bookshop in Runcorn, has raised several issues with me, not least those of unfair competition with supermarkets and of parking, but one issue in particular is derelict and unused buildings—some that have to be knocked down and others that are still unused. That is an area of real concern, so I hope that the Government will act upon it to improve the situation.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I will turn to empty shops in a moment.
Void rates are another real issue, especially in secondary shopping areas, but the most recent wave of closures and the downsizing and retrenching of the retail sector are clearly causing a problem even in primary shopping areas.
There is a set of challenges for the high street, and that is not to mention the difficulties caused by the rise in internet shopping and by out-of-town centres.
Does the shadow Minister acknowledge, however, that internet shopping can be immensely beneficial to small, high-street shops? For example, in our constituency, the John Norris fishing supplies shop makes £12 million of sales over the internet but only £1 million through the door—and that allows it to keep going.
I do accept that point, which my hon. Friend Ann Coffey made very well earlier. Nevertheless, the internet is, I think, an additional challenge for high streets and town centres.
I say all that not to talk down our high streets, however, because, as several hon. Members have said, the town centre or high street in their constituency is weathering the economic storm. I say it to demonstrate the extent of the problem, because not all town centres are thriving and we have to be clear about the action that needs to be taken.
In government, we had a strong “town centre first” policy, but even with that policy there was recognition that more needed to be done to revitalise high streets, so there is a particular challenge for this Government. They need to do more to bolster consumer confidence, as their austerity programme—cutting too far and too fast—coupled with their VAT hike last January has squeezed incomes, reduced consumer confidence and led to further job losses on the high street. In a YouGov poll last year, four fifths of retailers said that the VAT increase would undermine sales.
The Government have so far also ignored the recommendations for a stronger “town centre first” policy, and they need to think about amending the draft national planning policy framework to reintroduce the sequential tests for town centres, because we really need that to encourage more town centre development.
That is not the case if offices are taken out. Of course we all want more localism, but the Government also have to attend to their economic policies, which are damaging our high streets and town centres.
There are other issues that the Government need to address, such as business rates, the need for local flexibility to tackle unemployment, the lack of credit for small businesses and whether property values are artificially inflated in some areas. The big challenge is to respond positively and quickly to the Portas review. We welcome the review, not least because it champions high streets and town centres as community hubs where social, leisure and retail activities can take place. People are passionate about their town centres and want them to thrive.
I hope that we hear from the Minister how he will strengthen the “town centre first” policy. He will know that a number of large retailers, including the John Lewis Partnership, have said that the sequential test as it stands simply is not strong enough.
I am pleased that the Portas review touched on use class orders, which have been raised by many Members. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman for campaigning on this issue, in particular for a separate category for betting shops. I wish my right hon. Friend Dame Joan Ruddock well with her private Member’s Bill, which is trying to put a change in use class orders into legislation as quickly as possible. We must be careful to ensure that if use class orders are changed, they are accompanied by safeguards, so that there is not abuse and misuse of the new guidance. For example, local communities do not want a change in use class orders that makes it easier for fast food outlets to be set up.
Empty shops are a particular issue. We urge the Government to follow through with the recommendations of the Portas review, many of which reflect the policies that Labour championed and carried out in government. We introduced the empty shops initiative, which enabled councils to pursue innovative uses for empty shops and reinvigorate high streets. For example, vacant units could be used for cultural, community or learning services, rather than be left empty. We hope that the Government will introduce such a policy as soon as possible.
It is important that we spend a bit of time thinking about how we redevelop high streets. We need to give councils more tools to do that. We want a more proactive use of compulsory purchase orders. That is mentioned specifically in the Portas review and it needs serious consideration. We also think that her suggestion of an empty shop management order could be pursued.
We are keen to see the town teams that Mary Portas recommends. We hope that they are active and vibrant local partnerships that work closely with business improvement districts. They should also work closely with the local community to make neighbourhood planning a reality. It is important that neighbourhood plans cover town centres and that every effort is made to involve local people in drawing them up. A number of hon. Members have made the point that if life is to be put back into town centres, particularly those that are failing, the involvement of the local community in shaping them is really important.
I finish by saying that in addition to following through with the Portas recommendations, we want the Government to pay some attention to our four-point plan to save our high streets—cutting VAT, giving local people the power to put the heart back into the high street, repeating Labour’s empty shops initiative and promoting a fair playing field for our high streets.
I join virtually every colleague who has spoken in congratulating my hon. Friend Mr Jones on securing the debate—a truly inspired move—and the Backbench Business Committee on ensuring that it happened.
I have had the pleasure of sitting through most of the debate and hearing the many by and large excellent contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I have enjoyed it tremendously in the run-up to the Government’s response to the Portas review. Of course, the debate has very much been spurred by the Mary Portas report, which was undertaken after the Prime Minister personally asked her to go out, look at what was happening in our town centres and high streets and make a series of proposals to make things better. There are 28 proposals in all, many of them quite detailed and many of which Members have touched on.
It has been fascinating to weigh up Members’ representations. As one Member suggested, it has been like an afternoon and evening of sitting through maiden speeches, because every Member mentioned every town and village in their constituency. It made the debate much more enjoyable.
I should, as everyone else seems to have done, declare an interest—one Member declared a disinterest—by saying that 21 years ago last month, I started my own retail shop, a print business, so I have had some experience in retail and found out how tough it can be on the high street. Among the many significant problems that retailers have to overcome can be intransigence from local authorities, which, it has to be said, have until now had almost no interest in business in their area, and particularly in the retail sector. Why? Well, retail businesses do not vote, and the local authority does not get to keep their money. One of the most important reforms, therefore, which Mary Portas mentions in the report, must be the localisation of business rates. I am delighted that that legislation is now going through the House. Speaking as that small shop owner, I know that it will be of considerable help to many people. Alongside that, of course, local authorities will have the ability to provide a discount on business rates if they choose to. The legislation will make that all the more easy.
As I am speaking in this debate, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the wonderful town of Hatfield suffers greatly from the same problems that many Members have described. It was a new town, and so bright was its future when it was set up. Unfortunately, partly because of the situation that has been mentioned—the road and the cars were taken out of the town centre, and the life was sucked out of it—it has struggled to have a renaissance. As the Minister taking the response to the Portas review forward, I can assure right hon. and hon. Members that I have personal experience of a failing town centre that needs to be rescued. That is why I take many of the measures suggested in the review so much to heart.
Car parking was the No. 1 concern mentioned by Members in the 54 contributions. It is absolutely right, and in fact quite obvious, to say that in today’s society, when people either do not need to get into their car at all because they can simply click on something with a mouse to buy it or, if the option is available, as it now is in most parts of the country, drive to a shopping mall or shopping centre, an uncompetitive high street with high parking charges will always make a retail district suffer. It is absolutely essential, even in these incredibly tough times, for local authorities to appreciate that hammering the motorist visiting the local shops will not be the solution to the area’s problems, and certainly not to those of retailers. Everything comes back to the fact that in future, under the localisation of business rates, for the first time it will matter to local councillors that businesses survive and thrive, because the local business rates will be retained.
The second most-mentioned item in the debate was the Mary Portas concept of town teams. That is the idea that if people want to promote their town, they need to get together. That involves not just the usual suspects—the town centre manager and perhaps an interested local councillor—but everyone, from the retailers and landlords to the council, and most notably Members of Parliament, forming a town team and leading the debate. If I am enormously enthused about one thing in the debate, it is that so many Members—it must be said that I am referring mostly to Government Members, who have largely filled the House—spoke with enormous passion and made it clear that they intend to lead the debate in their local areas. That will do an awful lot of good.
Members, and particularly the shadow Minister, mentioned the “town centre first” policy. Government Members would be far more tempted to take lectures on different solutions for the town centre—or whatever this week’s soundbite is from Her Majesty’s Opposition—if Opposition Members actually attended the debate. There were significant periods when but one person—the shadow Secretary of State—sat on the Opposition Benches. I felt so sorry for him—he seemed so lonely—that I was tempted to join him. People in the country and retailers would take Opposition Members’ comments all the more seriously if they were expressed in this House.
Mary Portas has made many different recommendations and the Government have made a number of significant moves, including, for example, doubling the small business rate relief for two and half years to help small businesses through the Localism Act 2011; scrapping Whitehall planning guidance, which forced up parking charges in the past; changing the planning rules to allow councils to provide more parking spaces; and updating the licensing laws to give councils more power to tackle antisocial behaviour and, of course, the problems that came in with the 24-hour drinking laws.
I said that I would respond on the “town centre first” policy. We have focused on retail development in town centres. The national planning policy framework will be released by the spring. Roberta Blackman-Woods was quite wrong to say that it does not put town centres first, because it absolutely does. It is very clearly written, so I suggest she looks at the text again. We believe that town centres should be considered very strongly when making decisions. To reinforce that, the 2011 Act and the move towards giving local people the ability to make decisions, which was mentioned by more than one of my hon. Friends, mean that it will be much easier in future for local areas to prioritise in the way that they would wish to ensure that developments happen in the right way.
My right hon. Friend speaks with enthusiasm about the policies that the Government are introducing, but will he touch on the question I raised on the progress they are making to get rid of the regional spatial strategies and the old planning policies, which were forced on local areas by the previous Government?
My hon. Friend is right. Nothing did more damage to local areas than those hated regional spatial strategies. As everyone knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already written to local authority leaders and the Planning Inspectorate confirming that we will abolish those regional planning strategies. That letter was immediately material consideration, but we now intend to lay the orders from the 2011 Act, which will mean that they will finally be gone. I can therefore tell my hon. Friend that policies and proposals from the once-emerging regional spatial strategies should carry very little weight indeed in the minds of anybody involved in our planning system today.
I hope the Minister gets to the betting shops issue, which is not a party political one—I lobbied the previous Labour Government on it. Will he answer the question asked in the debate? Will the Government give fair wind this Friday to the private Member’s Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend Dame Joan Ruddock, which would radically change our high streets?
There were many detailed recommendations in the report, and I am looking with great interest at the one on betting shops. I sense the impatience that has been expressed today for a response to Mary Portas’s recommendations, and I can assure hon. Members that they will not have to wait terribly long to find out what our response will be. We have promised to deliver it by the spring, and we absolutely intend to do so; the hon. Lady will not have to wait very long at all—and I can confirm that I mean spring 2012.
We intend to provide a very energetic response to the Portas review. The Government like what she has said, and we have already started to implement a number of her recommendations. I will be coming back to give greater detail on the other items that we have not so far covered, but we have a generally positive attitude towards the report. It is also true to say, however, that in order for her recommendations to work, it would not be sufficient for us simply to put in place all 28 of them. Hon. Members and others should not expect a universal recovery in the high street simply as a result of such action. Retail is much more complex than that, and we need to get to the heart of the reasons that it has suffered so badly.
Hon. Members mentioned the fact that there are two essential factors. The first is the growth of the internet, as recognised by Mary Portas. The second is the growth of the out-of-town shopping stores; again, the report recognises that factor. Both those factors are here to stay, no matter what we do. No one can legislate to get rid of the internet, or to do away with the out-of-town stores. The advantages of the existing high streets therefore need to be played up. The first is the ability of people shopping in the high street to touch and feel products does not exist when they are shopping online, although they could still do that in an out-of-town store.
The second advantage is perhaps more significant. It is the ability to meet, communicate and enjoy a coffee with friends, and to go to other facilities that are based in the same location. Such facilities could include a local library or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton said, a theatre. The high street provides a sense of community and well-being that I will wager could never be provided by the out-of-town stores. They simply do not provide that sense of community and belonging that has been so vividly described by Members across the House today. I have visited many of their constituencies in my role as Housing Minister, and I look forward to visiting many of them again. We have been given a wonderful tour of the country today, and we look forward to seeing those high streets revived. The one pledge that will go out from the Government is that, in addition to implementing as much of the Mary Portas review as possible, we will ask Members from across the House to lead the debate and the renaissance in their constituencies in the months to come just as passionately as they have done in the Chamber today.
When I originally thought about applying to the Backbench Business Committee to hold this debate, I considered applying for a three-hour debate. However, my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone persuaded me to request a six-hour debate instead. I was persuaded, but I was concerned that we might not be able to fill up the time. I must have underestimated the concern and support of hon. Members for their town centres. It has been wonderful to hear some 50 colleagues make such profound and important contributions about their town centres. For once, I am glad to have been proved wrong. I am pleased that I managed to secure a full-day debate.
I must admit—this has been mentioned by several hon. colleagues—that I enjoyed travelling the length and breadth of the country with them, hearing the trials, tribulations and triumphs of hon. Members and their constituencies, town centres and high streets. Among all the comments, however, what really struck me was the passion of many hon. colleagues for their town centres. It is important now that we put that passion into meaningful action. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister listened intently to much of the debate, as did his colleagues, and I am convinced that he will—
Motion lapsed (