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The term “regeneration” does not mean much to people outside council planning departments, but the evolution and renewal of our town centres is vital to supporting communities and changing lives. Despite the name, my constituency contains four vibrant market towns: Chippenham, Corsham, Bradford on Avon, and Melksham. Each is wonderful, each is unique and each has its own challenges. Perhaps my biggest challenge as the local MP is fostering and improving those market towns.
I know that the hon. Lady attended the previous debate. Does she agree with me and others who spoke about the importance of high street banks in market towns such as those in her constituency and mine? The bank in Llangefni, for example, traditionally pulls people into the town to spend in shops and the market itself.
I completely agree. In Corsham, we have suffered similar bank branch losses, so I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point.
The fortunes of market towns nationally vary widely. Many are vibrant, fostering successful businesses and attracting tourists, and they are fabulous places to live. Others, despite massive potential, are being held back or struggle to adapt to the challenges of today. Market towns are stuck in a difficult position between the large urban areas, which are eligible for big city deals, the wider regions or powerhouses, as we have come to know them now, and the politically backed regeneration projects that most rural areas get and rural development funds. It appears to me that market towns often fall into the gaps and miss out. Something needs to change to help the areas that I and hundreds of other Members represent.
Perhaps there is scope for a specific mechanism to help such areas and enable them to benefit from some form of grant or initiative. An entire sector has apparently been left out. What I am really calling for today is a national and co-ordinated strategy that will help to bolster and safeguard our high streets and our communities. There is a real danger that, without careful consideration through the planning system, strong leadership by councils, a sense of market towns’ uniqueness and a co-ordinated approach, some market towns will become dormitory towns. The towns that I represent are in a wonderful location in terms of getting to London, Bristol, Bath or Swindon, so they naturally attract commuters. Now, it is up to us to ensure that in the long term they are vibrant places to live—that they have vibrant communities and vibrant town centres, and do not end up as dormitory towns.
The practical reality of many regeneration projects is that they require joined-up, thought-through, community-led solutions, and take into account the specific needs of each and every individual community. At a time when all government—particularly local government—spending is tight, it is understandable that local authorities focus their resources on statutory roles. Regeneration and a co-ordinated plan can easily be left on the back burner, but this is threatening the future of our towns nationally.
We must be more realistic about what Governments and local councils can do. Local councils have become much more responsible for town centres in the past few years, as I have seen in my area. That is part of the process of devolution for which the Conservatives have fought. However, we must give councils financial incentives to enable regeneration. Rather than headline-grabbing projects, I believe we must look for small wins that collectively will improve our town centres over time. The answer is found not in a single, simple solution, but in a co-ordinated approach by our town councils, our unitary or county councils, our national Government and our community organisations and bodies. To do this, we need some sort of strategy—a document that gives advice and shares best practice between areas.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and quite agree: the strategy should be diverse and take account of all the nations and the differences between them. Because each area is different, we need a means to share best practice and ideas so that people can see what will work in their local area. Often, local residents want their town to retain its unique community feel, with a wide range of independent shops bolstered by some big brands. The key is to maintain the right mix to attract customers while offering experiences and convenience that one perhaps cannot get online.
The uniqueness of independent shops is one of the best features of the UK’s market towns. It is clear that our communities care for their towns. The huge public response to the Portas review two years ago, followed by the competition for its funds, should leave us in no doubt about the importance that our communities place on their local high street and market town.
When I was a candidate, before I was elected, I ran a best shop campaign in a few of my towns and the response was phenomenal—far better than for any of my other initiatives—which showed the pride that constituents had for their area. I have lost count of the number of times that constituents have said they want to get a Marks and Spencer’s into the constituency, but independent shops are also important. In Bradford on Avon I am lucky enough to have a market town that is virtually all independent shops. I think it might be the market town in the UK that has the highest proportion of independent shops. I recommend that Members visit because it is quite an experience. Unfortunately, one of its shops recently closed. Tillions had been there for over 30 years. It was a family-run business with a great deal to offer our town. I hope that it will be replaced by a similar outfit, but every time such a thing happens it is disappointing. It is happening not just in Bradford on Avon, but in Corsham and the other towns I represent. It is indicative of the problem that exists up and down the country, which we need to tackle together.
Each time a favourite independent shop or café closes, we lose a small piece of what makes a community our community—it is what sets our town apart. We must march against the generic, bolster independent shops and support the diversity of each of our unique towns.
I am a huge supporter of local shops and I will be holding a “shop local” campaign next summer. Other areas have run such an initiative, which is designed to promote some of the fabulous produce and variety in a local area. I will also host a “Made in Wiltshire” event in the House of Commons and I invite the Minister to come along to experience the fine delights that we have available locally.
We need to work together as communities to promote our market town offerings, to market their unique selling points and to celebrate them. That is why the regeneration of market towns needs to be co-ordinated by all tiers of government.
The Chancellor rightly acknowledged the needs of businesses in relation to business rates, and I am proud that we are reviewing and overhauling the business rates system. From next year, a company occupying a property with a rateable value under £12,000 will pay zero business rates. I cannot exaggerate how much that will help local businesses in my area. A constituent who owns one of the shops in Chippenham has already told me that that policy means that he is keeping his shop open. That initiative has been proved to work towards bolstering and saving our market towns.
In my area, I have first-hand experience of business improvement districts. They have had great success in certain areas and have started to emerge as a useful tool for leveraging private sector investment to support town centres. Chippenham was an early adopter of a BID, but unfortunately it has been plagued by some negative coverage. That has taught me and our town many learning points. Communication needs to be better and businesses should be involved at an earlier stage.
I am a levy payer—although I am an MP, my shop classifies—and I saw the misconceptions among the business community around my shop and in the rest of the town. We need to take that forward for the rest of the country. If we develop a national strategy, those learning points could be part of that process.
Let us be clear. BIDs, like all the other initiatives, are not a panacea for market towns; they are simply one piece in the jigsaw for regeneration. I stress again that there must be multi-tiered co-ordination with a variety of processes.
When considering the future of our market towns, it is impossible not to think about new housing development. New housing needs to be used as a catalyst of town centre regeneration and, unlike the smaller-scale regeneration projects that I mentioned earlier, when it comes to housing, we need a broad, overall approach to deliver the greatest benefits for our communities. At present, particularly in my area, where there has been a lack of house building for over three decades, there has been a slightly piecemeal approach to housing, so it has failed to generate the development funds for regeneration for which our towns have been crying out for a long time. The situation has also left many local people unable to get on the housing ladder, which is one reason why Chippenham and all the surrounding towns have ageing populations at rates above the national average.
All too often, section 106 money has been unspent. According to the BBC, there is £1.5 billion of unused funds, which is something that we must avoid in the future. We must find sensible ways to ensure that housebuilding regenerates our town centres, boosts our local business districts and enhances our shopping experiences.
In Melksham and Chippenham, on a particularly large scale, urban extensions have been considered on a case-by-case basis. Over the last five years, the housing supply targets have been considered, but the piecemeal bits added on to our towns have not really helped our town centres or their future development. That is why I am delighted that we are moving towards national plans. I am trying to encourage our areas to adopt them and to ensure that there is a strategy in each area. No longer should we have building for building’s sake; we should be building for a co-ordinated strategy.
Wiltshire is crying out for strategic vision, and I invited the Minister to come to Chippenham to talk to me and my local council about how to make that happen as quickly as possible. It really is crucial for our area. We must make it easier and more attractive for people to live in and close to town centres. Living above retail premises is a very good idea because it allows people to shop, work and even live in one vicinity. The Department for Transport needs to be at the centre of plans for town centre regeneration because new roads, light railways, and new walking and cycle paths are all essential elements of that.
As I have mentioned the Department for Transport, it would be remiss of me not to raise again the possibility of reopening Corsham station. This is well over the sixth time—it is the second time today—that I have mentioned that in the Chamber. Its reopening is vital for my constituency, particularly the market town of Corsham and indeed the surrounding areas. Reopening this one station could have an impact beyond all imagination.
While I am making pitches for Government backing for local projects, I must mention Bradford on Avon. It is one of the most attractive towns in the south-west, but suffers from a potent mix of traffic jams, poor air quality and concerns over pedestrian safety through its narrow streets. I hope that Bradford on Avon’s town council and unitary council will invest in a study to determine whether they could implement a one-way system, which a survey that I conducted showed that the public were crying out for.
Both Chippenham and Melksham have been the victims of some poorly planned developments, as I have mentioned, and both towns need bold plans to bring in the new housing that is needed. That housing should combine with new parks, business parks and retail opportunities, and improved transport links, including better roads and trains to support the evening economy. There is a need for more healthcare services and more infrastructure so that we can move away from the threat of dormitory towns.
Many great local successes can contribute to a national strategy informed by ideas from the community. I have learned from representing my Chippenham constituency that the community is always active and engaged in how it pulls it together, ensuring the survival of the town. Chippenham now has purple flag status, which other towns in the area are trying to get. Melksham has won summer in bloom competitions for a number of years, and we have a host of community events from sci-fi festivals and comic cons to folk festivals throughout the constituency. These continue to be the lifeblood of our market towns. These are the sorts of things that could be among blueprint ideas in a national strategy that could be touted around the country for people to adopt. We also have a number of successful groups from street pastors to pub watches that ensure the safety of our market towns.
Winston Churchill said:
“We shape buildings and then they shape us”.
A system of empowered local councils and professional town plan management is the only way to ensure that our market towns adapt to the 21st century. We need to develop a national strategy that will support our market towns. The strategy should be multi-tiered, sharing best practice and crossing the divide between government and communities. I hope that, through the local planning system, through a bold approach to new developments within market towns, through enhancements and improvements to BIDs, by having even more high-street retailers in towns such as Chippenham, Melksham, Corsham and Bradford on Avon, and through investment in transport projects such as road improvements and the reopening of stations, we can ensure that market towns evolve to meet the challenges not just of today, but of tomorrow. I end by asking the Minister once again to address the question of a national strategy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Michelle Donelan on securing the debate. It is good to observe the passion that she brings to fighting for what she thinks is right for her area, which I visited recently, and her determination to ensure that it benefits from growth and opportunity. Both she and my hon. Friend Chris Davies, who intervened, have shown that determination to ensure that there are opportunities for our high streets. Given the importance of the issue, I am a bit surprised that the Opposition Benches are empty, but I will address them anyway.
I know that many Members work hard with partners in their constituencies—as my hon. Friends do—to keep town centres at the heart of our communities, and to overcome the challenges that we undoubtedly all face as consumer habits change. If high streets are to remain at the heart of our communities, they need to become more than just places to shop. They need to become vibrant and viable places where people can live, shop, use services and spend their leisure time, during both the day and the evening. We are determined to help our high streets, and committed to helping them. I believe that this is a critical time for our town centres, and I am dedicated to ensuring that local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and local partnerships of any type—including business improvement districts and, indeed, communities themselves—have access to the tools and powers that they need in order to transform their local areas.
We have made clear our wish to empower towns and cities to become real engines of growth, unleashing their full potential by placing the power to make decisions in the hands of those who know best what is needed: the people who live and work there. We are committed to supporting local growth throughout the country, and I am pleased to say that Wiltshire is no exception. We have announced growth deals worth £140 million with the Swindon and Wiltshire local enterprise partnership, and £16 million has been allocated to the Chippenham station hub to enhance station facilities. We expect that to unlock £16 million of private sector investment, and a further £2 million from local developers. The local enterprise partnership estimates that the station hub will create 600 jobs, both directly and indirectly, as well as up to 1,457 parking spaces and retail, commercial and housing development. The project will help to meet expected increases in passenger numbers, and a pedestrian link will provide improved access for people with direct mobility impairments.
There are other examples of growth deal projects in the Chippenham constituency. The investment of £8 million for the dualling of the A350 Chippenham bypass will deal with known and forecast congestion points, and there will be a further £2.5 million for the renovation of the Mansion House building in Corsham, which creates incubation space for businesses and teaching space for higher education courses.
As I know from my previous role as the Minister specifically responsible for these matters, high streets and town centres play an essential role in delivering such landscapes. They create jobs, nurturing small businesses and injecting billions of pounds into our economy. According to a report published in July 2015 by the Association of Town and City Management, town centres contribute nearly £600 billion to UK plc each year. That is why the Government have been so determined to back small and medium-sized enterprises, and why, in the Budget, we announced the biggest ever cut in business rates.
All that goes hand in hand with parking reforms and the lifting of planning restrictions to increase flexibility of use on high streets, making it easier for them to adapt to the needs of their communities, and providing additional rights. Research has shown that those measures are driving people back on to the high street, and that they are taking advantage of the way in which the digital age is moving things forward as consumer practices change. Many high streets are benefiting from that, and returning valiantly from the recession. Recent data have shown positive footfall trends in most locations, and year-on-year retail sales have increased for 37 consecutive months. That is the longest period of sustained growth since 2008. In the last year, investment in high street retail property jumped by 30%, and the national vacancy rate has fallen to a level that has not been seen since 2009.
While there is a lot of good news for high streets—and we should be clear about that, and build on it—I am aware that in some places, there are retail spaces that have seen better days. Government cannot and should not rest on their laurels. and I and colleagues are working hard to develop a range of support to help all high streets thrive. We are looking at what more we can do to strengthen the influence of, for example, business improvement districts over local decision making and service provision. High streets need the strong digital offer that the modern consumer wants, and we are taking forward that work to help them compete in the digital era.
We all know that car parking has an essential role to play in supporting viable communities, including high streets and tourist destinations, and I do not deny that I am personally very attached to the fact that we see footfall increase where parking charges are reduced and access to parking is easier. Local authorities should look carefully at that, and my experience is that the best way to bring more footfall to the high street is to reduce parking charges or, even better, introduce free parking. I am delighted that my Conservative-led council has recently done that in Great Yarmouth.
People are increasingly looking for more diverse “experiential” offers from their town centres that focus on a range of things like leisure, commerce and services. We no longer just go to our high street to shop; we go there to spend time and we may do some shopping while there. We have to allow the flexibility for high streets to change.
My hon. Friend is right to talk about housing, and I was delighted recently to visit at her invitation to look at what more we can do to make sure we are providing housing in her area and how this benefits our town centres. By increasing housing provision in our town centres, we achieve two very positive things that work at two different levels. Having more homes in town centres leads to increased footfall for town-centre businesses. At a secondary level, this is important because people want to be around town centres; they are generally good transport hubs and they provide good access to services and retail. Town centres are a good place to live, and it is good for the businesses to have people living there.
The starter homes land fund, launched in March, has highlighted the potential for housing-led transformation in town centres, and I encourage local authorities to bid for that fund and to bring more housing, particularly starter homes, into their communities and around our town centres.
I am keen to see new public and private sector partnerships developing, which will foster more local growth. Local authorities can use this as an opportunity to reconfigure the way they deliver public services and use their land and buildings in those areas. My departmental colleagues and I will be leading work to help deliver these new residential opportunities in the coming months, but I would like my hon. Friend and other Members here today to consider how housing can support our towns and high streets in our constituencies across the country.
In closing I want to touch on the great British high street awards. I am keen to continue celebrating the passion, commitment and civic pride found in high streets and town centres up and down the country. The 2015 awards were a great success, and the 2016 awards are a great opportunity for people to recognise and celebrate the great work being done in their local communities. I encourage people to develop opportunities and put forward entries, and I look forward to seeing entries coming in from right across Wiltshire.
We are committed to helping our high streets adapt to changing times, but we must be clear: there is no one-size-fits-all solution. That is why we cannot have a top-down approach; we have to make sure we give the tools and powers to every area to do what is right for them. Every town is different; from market towns to ribbon towns, we must make sure we address the local needs of each particular area, enabling them to decide for themselves what is best for their high streets and town centres.
But everybody must play their part, with local economic partnerships, councils, businesses, communities, business improvement districts, Ministers and local MPs working together to develop the vision and solutions for their areas. Through the great British high street awards, we have seen wonderful examples of this already over the last couple of years, and we all need to work together to tackle more challenges, which will be beneficial for those awards and for our high streets in the years ahead. We are committed to doing just that, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising this topic today.
Question put and agreed to.