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It is right to reflect that the high street will always evolve. It will never be what it was, and it will of course be different in the future. But that does not mean that we should just give up and accept that decline is inevitable. The types of spaces that are often talked about are bespoke spaces. It might be possible to reuse a single shop front, but how it is possible to reuse a whole shopping centre that was built to be a retail core?
The Government’s agenda of only supporting independent traders massively underestimates the impact of anchor stores such as Debenhams or Marks & Spencer, which bring footfall through a town centre. How can it be right that companies such as Amazon can have very clever accountants to hide their profits away from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—which cleaners in their factories would not be able to do, by the way? How can it be right that Manchester airport’s warehouse distribution centre pays half the business rates of Debenhams in Manchester city centre? Where is the fairness in that system? If the Government really want a future for town centres and high streets, they really have to address that issue.
The Minister for the Northern Powerhouse and Local Growth, Jake Berry, was right to thank local government, but I am afraid that it will be beyond ironic to many that these thanks came from the Minister who has lorded over austerity and who tries to ignore the fact that the last 10 years have been under a Tory Government, whether in coalition or not. I am afraid that it is not good enough for him to disown the last 10 years as if they had never happened.
Most councils have done a fantastic job to survive. It has been the hard work and leadership of local councillors that has meant that many areas have not just been about decline, but have been offered hope. Council officers have worked so hard to ensure that public services can be delivered. But while thanking them, maybe we should give consideration to the fact that there are more than 900,000 fewer council officers today than there were in 2010; they have been sacked and sent out the door because councils do not have the money to pay them. That is the reality on the ground.
When we were told that austerity was over, I do not think that anybody really expected that we would go back to 2010, but nor do I think that anybody expected the cuts to go even deeper even faster, and that is exactly what will happen under the fair funding review. I challenge the Minister—if he is so confident that that his fair funding review is well thought through and genuinely fair, and that the evidence base is robust and can be tested, what is there to hide? Why not place the data in the Library by the end of the week, so that every Member of this Parliament can hold the Government to account?