I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate; we are discussing integral parts of policy for the key regeneration of towns such as Fenton and Longton in my constituency. Both towns have high streets and markets that rely on increased footfall to secure their future. That means unlocking derelict brownfield sites around our towns for more housing that residents need, attracting new businesses into empty units, and improving facilities and the sense of destination for visitors.
Retail sales have been falling and high street stores have been closing. First, from out-of-town retail parks, and now from online retailing, our town centre are increasingly feeling the squeeze. Online now makes up just under 20% of retail sales, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics. That percentage will likely continue to increase, and the high street needs to adapt if we are not to lose these important centres. It must be helped to adapt by the policies of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Last week The Daily Telegraph reported that one in three shops that close in the current market will not reopen as shops in the future. It is clear that our town centres can no longer be so dependent on retail to survive as they once were. It is essential that we attract new and innovative uses; we need to see more people living in our town centres and a range of different businesses moving in to fill empty spaces. It would be fantastic to see these properties, many of which make up the rich and historic fabric of our towns, brought back to life. There is a high demand for small and medium-sized business units, and there is no reason why these properties could not be converted, especially for new start-up businesses and footloose digital businesses. We must incentivise property owners to convert their premises to alternative uses, and remove the barriers and restrictions that currently exist. Our use-based planning system needs to be aware of these trends and be flexible in response, not getting too bogged down in restrictive use categories that threaten the future of our high streets. Why should we not relax class uses on all our empty town centre properties? The perfect plan cannot be the enemy of the demanded good. That also includes flexibility for temporary and pop-up ventures.
We also must see the investment that is so vital for the future of our town centres. In a property market such as that of Stoke-on-Trent, with many Victorian town centre properties in a poor state of repair, owners may find themselves investing more in converting and renovating than the property is actually worth. This is where it is essential that our bid to the future high streets fund for Longton is successful. Prior to the announcement of this fund, I lobbied Ministers in Her Majesty’s Treasury to create just such a fund, directed at our town centres. Our bid for Longton must receive some of this funding, and I urge Ministers to throw their weight behind it. Without future high streets funding, many properties in the town centre are likely to continue to remain derelict and the town centre will continue to decline.
It is also extremely important that we see stronger towns funding directed at towns such as Longton and Fenton and across my constituency. These are parts of the country and communities that have previously felt left behind but that have huge potential to blossom, with the right support. These towns must be given the chance to thrive again, and to be the beating hearts they once were. Perhaps they will no longer be the bastions of retail they once were, but there are so many other exciting possibilities. That might mean more pop-up art installations or performances, fringe festivals, or have-a-go activity weekends. For example, this weekend the iconic Gladstone Pottery Museum in my constituency will host the ninth annual Longton beer festival, which is certainly an event that I look forward to participating in.
Longton’s visitor economy used to be sufficiently robust to support three hotels in the town centre, but unfortunately that is no longer the case. So much is still unique and different about our town centres, and if that was lost it would leave our communities much worse off and damaged. That is why the Longton heritage action zone is so important, to preserve what is historically unique and to make best use for the future. Increasing the footfall in our town centres and recharging our tourism economy is a key aim of the heritage action zone that Stoke-on-Trent City Council is taking forward with Historic England. The council is refurbishing the old town hall as a local service centre, and the fantastic Victorian market hall is also receiving investment, including new public toilet facilities.
We also see private investment coming into Longton, with a number of new retailers having set up recently, and the Exchange shopping precinct has invested in the refurbishment of the main retail complex, which will help to bring much-needed increased footfall into the town centre. We must continue to build on such successes.
The old town hall in Fenton is being brought back into use, thanks to the owner, Justin Meath Baker. A whole range of new businesses are moving in, and the local centre is due to relocate there soon. In addition, planning permission has recently been granted for a £17 million mixed community housing development right in the centre of the town, alongside the £8 million new build scheme that is already under construction for sheltered housing. Like many cities, Stoke-on-Trent is attractive to people who increasingly value town-centre urban living, and we have, of course, six historic market towns to choose from.
Although period properties are attractive for residential use and create a real sense of place by saving historic architecture, the upfront cost of converting historical buildings to residential use, or of modernising much of the Victorian terrace stock, has often unfortunately proven too costly. In low-value markets, sales for more than the property value can often be realised. The wider context of a high-supply, low-demand Victorian terrace market has previously undermined confidence in the market for building specific types of new housing more suited to the 21st century. There can be an imbalance: we see high demand for certain types of housing locally that currently is not being met by the local market. For example, Stoke-on-Trent is probably the only city in the UK of its size that does not really have a strong, functional private rented sector apartment market. We need more developers to take the risk, because we do have the demand for flexible styles of living, what with two universities and one of the largest hospitals in the country.
The council has been doing some excellent work to disrupt the market, to tempt new types of housing development into the city and get brownfield sites developed. When developers do progress sites, those sites now under development have seen high rates of sale, with properties on new build sites throughout the city selling much quicker than was initially expected. We must do more to help to meet the growing demands, and especially to see the redevelopment of the brownfield sites in and around our towns that suffer from the additional costs of previous industrial use. There is no justification for demand to be suppressed. We must give the market the confidence to invest in housing products such as PRS and executive homes, which investors would not always be willing to do in markets such as Stoke-on-Trent.
In 2015, Stoke-on-Trent City Council secured housing zone status, making it one of 20 pioneering authorities outside London. As a result, the council has worked with developers to activate schemes on stalled sites to deliver new homes. Not only is this enhancing the local housing offer, but it is boosting confidence by testing and proving the market for such homes. I would like to see much more dedicated funding available for a broader range of developers who are dedicated to bringing empty retail space into residential use. That could really help to meet local housing needs. There has been an unwillingness for the private sector to take the risks needed where the market is untested and of lower value, so market-making measures are needed to help to de-risk development. I very much welcome the engaging approach that the Department has taken to confronting such challenges, and hope that we see that approach continue.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is a key ministry not only because of its funding but because of what its policies can enable and facilitate forward-looking local authority leaders—like our fantastic new council leader in Stoke-on-Trent, Councillor Abi Brown—to achieve locally. The work we have done in Stoke-on-Trent has seen Conservatives top the poll in the local elections for the first time ever, doubling the number of Conservatives on the council. I congratulate every single one of our new and re-elected Conservative councillors in Stoke-on-Trent. We need to continue to develop our proposals and to improve our communities, so that we see the city move forward.