They say that first impressions count. Often for our towns, the first impression that visitors will consciously draw is of the high street. Certainly, it is the high street that most often leaves the lasting impression of what a town is all about. It is key to the town’s character.
Strikingly, 72% of British adults surveyed by Nationwide Building Society went as far as saying that they judged the vitality of an area as a whole based on the high street alone. Some high streets are beautiful and thriving places, and there will be lessons to learn from them, but even some of those will be struggling against retail trends, not least in banking. That was the point of Nationwide’s survey, because it makes much of its commitment to maintaining a local branch network. Its marketing strategy is an informed one: 71% of people told Nationwide that they still feel that their own local high street is an important part of the community. However, 67% said that theirs had declined, with 62% saying that it had been neglected; 54% said that their high street has insufficient variety, and only 38% said that their local high street adequately fulfils their shopping requirements. More than a fifth—21%—would go as far as describing their local high street as a generally unpleasant place in which to shop. That is deeply disappointing, not least because these findings are from a January 2020 survey, almost immediately prior to the covid lockdowns and all the challenges that have come since, including post-pandemic inflation and Putin’s illegal war against Ukraine.
However disappointing the findings, they will not come as any great surprise to Members across the House. The state of our high streets is an issue that exercises us all, and is regularly raised by our constituents following the incessant move online and out of town. None the less, it will depress us all that the single most common word chosen to describe local high streets —and the only word picked by more than a fifth of respondents—was “sad”. The second-place word was “bleak”. This is not presented as a word cloud, but it is easily imaginable as one. The third most common word chosen by respondents when describing their local high street was “indifferent”. That is clearly not where we want to be, because the unique and localised character of our high street plays such a key role in defining the vitality of the surrounding wider communities. Nor does it give confidence to those wanting to visit or thinking of investing in our high street.
Fortunately, the survey results were not just a list of gripes. The survey went on to ask what people thought could be done constructively to improve things for the high street. The five key improvements that people want are: fewer empty shops, more big-name shops, more greenery, less litter, and better decorated shopfronts and signs.
I certainly recognise the picture that the hon. Member is painting. In Bristol we have 47 high streets and local centres. Some are thriving, but it has been very difficult to revitalise others. Bristol City Council has been very active, and some of the things he mentioned are within the council’s control, but others are down to the market. On addressing the empty shops, will he talk about what tools councils could use that would not cost huge amounts of money, to ensure that high streets can thrive in the way he would like?
I agree entirely that this is not just about local authorities. They play an integral and important role, but there are multiple stakeholders and partners —communities, businesses and property owners—that also play an important role. The importance of the Bill is in providing vision and focus through local authorities bringing together people and stakeholders in our high streets to come up with a plan of action to deal with some of these issues.
We must always pause to wonder whether a list of apparently quick and easy wins is indeed quick, easy and affordable to deliver. “Easier said than done” is often the narrative, but I fear that this has become an excuse for those who are avoiding taking difficult decisions and necessary action. Many of our high streets—for example, Market Street in Longton, a once bustling high street with many heritage buildings of iconic character—are now in a sorry state. Many owners are absent and take little or no responsibility for their property, in some cases deliberately allowing it to become derelict. I recently uncovered the fact that, shockingly, in the last 12 months, Stoke-on-Trent City Council has not issued a single section 215 enforcement notice against property owners who fail to maintain their properties. It is clear that action is needed.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. His Bill would require local authorities to designate at least one and up to three high streets. Does the definition of high street refer specifically to streets, or does it take in all the streets in the wider town centre area?
I will explain some of that shortly, but the Bill focuses on the core retail centre that is seen in many of our town centres, which may be one or more streets—a collection of streets.
The purpose of the Bill is to place a duty on local government to pause to consider properly what can be done, and to develop an action plan that can be delivered and that will work toward getting our high streets back on track. Retailers and big-name shops will come only where there is demand and the conditions are right—where footfall is generated and physical retail that is neither online nor out-of-town is de-risked. People still value high streets as a place for retail, but that alone cannot be the solution. They want the right mix of shops and leisure in the right public realm, with other attractions, such as a temporary events, to encourage footfall and dwell times. The mix needs to be got right for each high street.
The biggest risk that big-name stores will face is that of being accused by some of gentrifying a high street—quite possibly the same people who accuse them of betraying any high street they leave. Such is life, but we must not be daunted, because as we all saw in the news this week, the prize for getting it right could include the welcome return to the high street of Woolworths in its new iteration. I honestly do not think anyone could misconstrue the return of Woolies to the high street as gentrification —not without considerable bad faith, anyway. Plenty of us would champion its heartening reversal of decline. Sadly, the former Woolworths store in Longton in my constituency is in a very sorry state. The problem is not that it has not been reoccupied; it has been, but the occupiers after Woolworths have further neglected and detracted from the high street and now the store is empty again.
Most people are clear that they do not want high streets to be left in a spiral of decline, however “gritty” that makes them as urban spaces. They want the preservation of the historic fabric and character that a high street brings, alongside enhancements that make it relevant to the future and attract new and interesting uses. The reality of the decline of the former Woolworths in Longton is that the building has been raided more than once as a cannabis factory, with the raids taking place in a two-year period. At the time of the second closure in summer 2021, 1,500 cannabis plants were found and removed. Covid restrictions played a part in helping to conceal what was going on, and made people wary of going to our high streets, but even without covid, the building was a cannabis factory 22 months previously.
More recently, a boarded-up and abandoned takeaway on the other side of the road was raided for cannabis growing in the past eight weeks. That former takeaway has pointedly been reported in press coverage as being within sight of Longton police station. It is certainly my assertion that the police and crime prevention are key to preserving and enhancing the character of our high streets. Working alongside our excellent police, fire and crime commissioner for Staffordshire, Ben Adams, I have been delighted recently to secure safer streets funding, which will play a significant role in upgrading CCTV coverage in Longton, as well as enabling a number of other crime prevention measures such as gating off alleyways.
Our high streets need more footfall, not less, and more dwell time, not less. It is vital that people feel safe to visit. High streets need to be places in which people take pride and which they find pleasant to be in. The Bill is about bringing focus to our high streets, ensuring that local authorities think about the challenges they face and work with those who have an interest in our high streets to look at how we can begin to reverse their decline.
You will have noted, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I said, “Market Street” earlier, not “High Street”. At the risk of stating the obvious, my Bill is not intended merely to work from a list of those streets that are literally called, “High Street”. It seeks to require local authorities to designate a street as a high street for the purpose of the improvement plan. There is at least one designation, and up to three. Designations may be varied or withdrawn over time. It is not my intention that local authorities should be forced to designate an entire high street if one end is clearly different in nature—for example, residential—compared with the end of the street that is more traditionally for high street use. I make it clear that part of the intention is that adjoining streets can be included in the designated high street, or continuous streets with different names that form what is thought of locally as the high street.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work on this. I am interested in the point that he made about the broader town-centre area. My experience is that many adjoining streets can benefit from this kind of measure and, indeed, neighbouring shopping centres. I urge him to look at that and be as flexible as possible, as there is a risk of displacement activity and concentrating on a small area. I hope that he has thought about that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. I agree entirely that the side streets that make up the high street are just as important, and we do not want to see displacement. We want the whole area to be lifted and improved so that it attracts new uses to fill those empty spaces.
Local government should make the designation according to local circumstances, as long as an area is important to the local economy because of a concentration of high street uses. It is further specified that it should not include streets where the importance is considered to be derived principally from goods or services purchased in the course of business. High street consumer retail, including hospitality, is part of what makes the totemic importance of our streets. Defining high streets to the letter is impossible, and we must recognise their evolving nature and the need to attract alternative uses, which may not be primarily retail.
The Bill is not prescriptive by design. For example, one option would be to legislate for the definition of high streets based on the definition used by the Office for National Statistics in its pioneering and experimental work with the Ordnance Survey to map the location and characteristics of high streets in Great Britain. According to that working definition, a high street consists of
“15 or more retail addresses within 150 metres.”
That dataset aims to bound retail clusters using street names, while aiming deliberately to exclude retail functions such as retail parks, industrial estates and isolated shopping centres. By that definition, there are 6,969 high streets in Great Britain, of which 6,136 are in England. In London alone, the Office for National Statistics and Ordnance Survey map shows 1,204 high streets. More importantly, the west midlands has 604, including the sweep of Market Street, Times Square, The Strand, which includes my constituency office, and the pedestrianised Exchange shopping centre in Longton. Interestingly, it also manages to capture that part of City Road in Fenton, also in my constituency, that is primarily retail in character, while excluding the part that is not.
I am drawing attention to the ONS data work and the demo map on the Ordnance Survey website, because it may prove to be a useful starting point for local authorities. It also, of course, helps me to make the point that local authorities do not have to work from scratch on this. There is no intention to place an onerous burden on local authorities; the intent is to get local authorities to become familiar with the data and more proactive about the best practice for the improvement of local high streets, in collaboration with all those who have an interest in making our high streets the best places to be.
I rejected specifying the ONS and Ordnance Survey definition in the Bill, partly because it encompasses so many streets within its definition, and to designate and draw up improvement plans for them all would be onerous. That task could be managed, however, with the stipulation that only up to three high streets per authority can be chosen. That said, I note that local authorities across England have designated nearly 10,000 conservation areas, so there may be room for greater possibility in the designations.
More fundamentally, the ONS and OS definition does not quite encompass what I would think of as a high street in parts of the country, including in my home city. But I stress that it is a great starting point for designating purposes and for the consultees on designations and improvement plans. As the ONS said in the
“The closure of branches of retailers across many high streets has led to worries about the decline of retail on the high street, and in turn anxiety about how high streets will develop in the future.”
In this context, it is important that good data on high streets are available to monitor the changes and inform policy responses. The article goes on to say:
“It should be noted that this high streets project is very much a work in progress.”
That is reiterated in the
“We continue to develop our work which means that the data and results in this article are Experimental Statistics.”
At this experimental stage, it seems the right time to start a wider conversation with local government and local communities on which streets should be designated formally as high streets for the purpose of closer study, review and improvement plans. The requirement that at least one street be identified by each local authority ensures that every local authority will engage in this process, and the stipulation that only up to three can be designated at one time is designed to ensure that the task is not too onerous and is meaningful.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, but is the point of this Bill to support retail on the high street? If that is the point, what does he feel are the challenges from the internet and changes in the market? Does he believe that part of this regeneration is about bringing housing and people closer to the high street? Many towns will have reams and reams of offices and other spaces above the retail shops on the ground floor. We need to bring people closer to the high street in order to make it thrive.
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent point. He is absolutely right. While retail is an important aspect of this work, and we hope that this Bill will improve the retail environment on our high streets, it cannot just be about retail. The world has moved on, with online and out-of-town retail, and with the pandemic, which means that we must encourage alternative uses, such as hospitality, leisure and residential. As he says, many of the spaces above shops just lie empty and dormant. If we can encourage residential and business use of those spaces, that will really add to the vibrancy and vitality of our high streets.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent and very thorough speech. Does he share my concern that the whole concept of 15-minute cities has now been caught up in ridiculous conspiracy theories? What it is really about is the fact that we want people to be able to shop locally, to go out and enjoy leisure facilities locally, and not always to have to travel out of town or into the city centre. If we have thriving local communities, everyone can get what they need in their local community.
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, but I would say that it varies from place to place. Across the country we have various types of high street, in towns small and large, so it varies depending on the nature of the area and whether it is urban or more rural. It would depend on that right across the country.
As I say, there will no doubt be considerable pressure to designate a large number of high streets from the beginning of this Bill becoming an Act, but I fear that it would prove overwhelming and we should safeguard against this. I say that with a certain trepidation, because there are six historic market towns in the modern city of Stoke-on-Trent. The idea of designating more than three high streets is tempting, because each town has a high street that could, and indeed should, be designated at some point in a rolling process of improvements across the city. I accept that this may prove something to revisit at later stages of the Bill.
The eagle-eyed in the House will have noticed that, for the purposes of the Bill, high street uses mirror those already legislated for in part 10 of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023. This encompasses a good range of what would ordinarily be seen as high street uses by the general public and does not specify an exact number of retail addresses within a certain distance, as attempted in the ONS’s experimental definition.
Members will be interested to know that the ONS discovered what it calls
“one notable geographic feature in England” in what was otherwise a distribution of retail addresses on high streets across the whole of Great Britain that showed no clear pattern across the country. The English feature—this is germane to an English Bill—is that there are hub towns with a higher proportion of retail addresses on their high streets. Hub towns are those that are identified in the official rural-urban classification for England as being important hubs for the rural areas around them because they provide services, employment and businesses. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs includes towns like Stone and Cheadle, in north Staffordshire, in this category. There will be a need for improvement plans to be consulted on beyond the immediate town and rural areas that depend on high streets’ success in these hubs.
There is a great deal of data, and it is time for local authorities to use this to best effect and focus attention on preserving, enhancing and reviving our high streets. They should do this in concert with the communities they serve—both businesses and residential.
I wonder if the hon. Gentleman has considered the public transport implications of what he is saying, because he is making a very good point about hub towns and rural areas, and their connectivity to bigger towns or cities. In my county, one of the very important benefits we have is the existence of excellent bus services—Reading buses connect to neighbouring smaller towns—and I understand that there might be an issue in Staffordshire with the different level of bus provision. I wonder whether he would like to comment on the importance of public transport and its ability to help regenerate towns and cities.
I agree entirely that public transport is vital to many of our high streets and town centres, because connecting communities, whether urban or rural, is very important. In my area, the decline of bus services, which we have seen over a long period, particularly since the pandemic, has had an impact. I have been working to secure more investment into the area in order to address such issues, including through the bus service improvement plan funding, which has been vital in addressing that. In Stoke-on-Trent we have managed to secure £31 million of that funding, which will specifically address such issues. Across the country it is important to consider the impact of transport connections, whether bus, rail or other means, to town centres and high streets.
There are examples of work that is already underway and where such an approach has been taken under the high streets task force. There will be lessons for us all from those examples, including the warning that high streets will need to remain agile, which suggests that improvement plans need to avoid being overly prescriptive, as much as being non-existent. The task force has found that the most common recommendation it has needed to give for the development of a clear and compelling local vision is the need for “place activation”, alongside a compelling local vision and the requirement for more effective place marketing and branding.
In my own town of Longton we are starting to see things being turned around, thanks in particular to the proactive approach of Longton Exchange shopping centre, which has attracted new uses and new organisations such as Urban Wilderness, which is helping to develop a programme of creative activities and events. In addition, the levelling-up funding that we have secured is addressing sites such as the Crown Works, redeveloping that derelict Potteries site into new residential uses. I hope the Minister keeps his commitment to see Longton also benefit from levelling-up partnerships funding.
This issue is about more than just Government funding. As suggested by the high streets task force, such funding will not be enough to preserve high streets. As those of us with high streets in conservation areas already know, the requirement to preserve is insufficient to arrest and reverse deterioration. I was delighted that Market Street in Longton was included in the cross-city heritage action zone for the Potteries, which has subsequently matured into a partnership scheme in a conservation area. Although we have now started to see properties benefit from this grant scheme, it is frustrating that even with this dedicated national support from the Government and their heritage agencies, work on improving the street has none the less proved agonisingly slow. We had to contend with covid, of course, but even taking that into account is not enough to explain the delays.
It was surprising how little the city council knew about the owners of buildings that need repair and reoccupation, but also how blinkered it has proved to be about the severity of the danger than can sometimes be presented. One heritage building recently fell into the street and is still causing chaos, because an area of the street immediately before a major bus stop in the town centre has had to be fenced off. It is a wonder that no one was killed or injured. I had reported the building’s increasingly precarious condition to the city council several months before its collapse, and was not alone in doing so, and this is on a street where a Government scheme will make funding available to landlords to preserve and enhance heritage buildings and bring them back into use.
There is an urgent need to know much more about the physical state of our high streets and to liaise with owners and users to take things forward. Guidance and regulation from the Secretary of State are also important. I ask the House to note the role of Historic England, for example, in issuing guidance when designations and reviews of conservation areas are undertaken. I hope that the Office for Place, now based in Stoke-on-Trent, will have some role in this process, including for high streets.
It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the great deal of work by the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee on which we can usefully draw. The Government response of March 2022 to that Committee’s sixth report, “Supporting our high streets after COVID-19”, said:
“We want to create more vibrant, mixed use town centre areas which will attract people to shop, work and for leisure activities, ensuring they remain viable now and in the future. To do this we need a modernised and agile planning system—one which embraces digital technology, benefits communities and creates places in which people can take real pride.”
The result of that desire was the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act, to which this Bill is a natural progression and complement.
In their response, the Government draw attention to the various support schemes and initiatives that they have provided to assist with the vitality of our high streets. Indeed, there are initiatives from a number of Departments. We have seen the future high streets fund, the high streets heritage action zones and so on, but these funds require largely reactive plans to be brought forward, rather than the proactive improvement plans we need from local government that recognise the importance of high streets as beacons for their whole area. There is also a need to know more about those high streets and to have good working relationships with the owners of the buildings, in order to preserve and enhance those buildings.
It is incumbent on local authorities to get the basics right. Nearly all of the top things people wanted to see in the nationwide survey are, arguably, within the remit and powers of local authorities to deliver. Taking action on the quality of the public realm, with more greenery and less litter, along with appropriate design codes and enforcement against unsightly shopfronts, signs and street clutter, will help to fill empty shops. If it does not do so—say, where the landlord is particularly obstructive or unco-operative—there are now powers for rental auctions be to be required.
The Bill is about getting local authorities to use the powers that are now in place to get on top of the challenges and take action on the issues that are important to high street users or that bring in new uses, whether that involves the big names or the quirky and family-owned independent local businesses that people want to see. They should consider totally different new uses, such as creative and digital start-ups. To get this right, we need more than
“an exercise in dolling the place up with fresh paint that lasts about twelve months”,
which is how I have had one scheme—not in my constituency—described to me recently. In some instances, the local authority may need to get out of the way—for example, it could provide more flexibility by allowing more temporary event notices to be issued. However, without more detailed analysis than is usually in place, it will be hard to deliver the longer-term viability that we all want to see. A short-term, sticking-plaster approach frustrates us all, and it does not adequately achieve the Government’s own objectives.
With the Bill, we will see proactive reviews and improvement plans for high streets that get closer to the root causes of decline and bring forward the physical improvements and event programmes that are likely needed to activate places where feet will fall. I particularly want to thank the Minister for all his support and the Department for bringing forward the Bill. I stress to the Government the importance of implementing it as soon as possible. This is a Bill to reverse the decline of our high streets, and I commend it to the House.
It is a pleasure not only to follow Jack Brereton, but to support him in his endeavours with his private Member’s Bill. I appreciate his eloquent and considered contribution this morning.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I am learning very quickly that, on private Members’ Bills Fridays, there is a collegiality in the House and a reciprocity in contributions, so I am very pleased to speak, recognising that I am doing so on a Bill that extends to England only. I did not want to intervene on the hon. Member to make this point, for fear of ruining his flow, but there is a wider point to make that extends beyond the scope of these days and beyond the constraints of money resolutions and so on: for as long as online retailers are paying significantly less in rates, tax and other burdens from Government than our high street retailers, we will not allow those high street retailers to flourish. When Marks & Spencer is paying in one year what Amazon pays in 20 years, we can see the challenges that are before those who wish to take the best aims of the hon. Member’s Bill and revitalise our high streets.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to give local authorities the ability to designate not just one high street but up to three high streets—high street areas that go beyond one street, to put it another way—for this purpose. I represent the city of Belfast and when I think of our high streets, I think of Donegall Place, Royal Avenue and Ann Street, all of which are within our city centre and constitute a high street. All have had challenges in the last decade or so.
The historical Primark building, an old bank, had a fire that effectively shut down the entire centre and its connecting roads for around three years. It is a heritage building that was being restored, and the fire had a cataclysmic effect on the economy, on trade and on people’s ability to meet and mingle in our city centre, so I entirely recognise the points that the hon. Gentleman makes.
In recognising what Belfast’s high streets have to offer, I should note that none of them is in my constituency. We need to recognise the neighbourhoods in our cities. The hon. Gentleman reflected on that within Stoke-on-Trent, where he can see six potential neighbourhoods that could constitute high street areas that should receive attention.
Some of the briefings in support of the Bill have quoted the Institute of Place Management and its co-chair, Professor Cathy Parker, who recognises that, in over 40% of the towns visited in pursuit of the high streets task force, there is no real partnership or governance to deliver the transformative change that our high streets need.
I declare my interest as a board member of EastSide Partnership, which does not touch on our town centre but is very much of east Belfast. As a partnership, it is solely focused on regeneration in all its forms. As a constituency MP, I am very proud of the partnership’s work and of the small and singular contributions that I and many others have made over the years.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point. Whether or not it is through this Bill, meaningful regeneration can happen only if people have pride in the area they either live in or come from, and that generally comes from a knowledge or understanding of the area’s history and heritage. From his experience of being a board member, does he see that sense of history and heritage being used to drive regeneration in Belfast?
I do. First we need pride, commitment, passion and knowledge of what went before and what we want to achieve in the future. I want to share the beauty of the partnership in bringing all those strands together. The partnership was born from the need to tackle social deprivation and has become regenerative, but not in the traditional sense of simple physical regeneration.
As a partnership, we support business improvement districts and traders’ associations. Around the corner from my constituency office, work is happening on Belmont Road, Ballyhackamore and Newtownards Road. As arterial routes in my constituency, they all get support for their endeavours to make the best of their immediate location.
Within the broader neighbourhood, a recreational space spanning 16 km throughout the constituency, across three rivers, ties people together in an environmentally sustainable way that brings them out to mix and mingle. The Hub is in an area that was full of dilapidation, dereliction and social deprivation, and that was the target of much difficulty during the troubles. It has been totally transformed as an amazing civic space that celebrates C. S. Lewis, a son of Belfast who was brought up in my constituency and is world-renowned for his ability to write and speak theologically, as well as for being a professor and an author. It is a beautiful space and something that has completely transformed the area, which includes the Holywood Arches, which we are hoping to regenerate for business purposes.
At the bottom of Newtownards Road, there is a brand-new shared space—the Bridges doctors surgery—which is attended across the peace divide and which brings communities together for not only health, but physical regeneration through capital building and social investment funds. That delivers, on a neighbourhood basis, on exactly the aims of the Bill through shared experience, commitment and partnership.
At the other end of the constituency, in Ballybeen, round the corner from where I live, there is the second largest social housing estate in all of Northern Ireland—one that was blighted by the troubles. Ballybeen Square itself was full of dereliction until the predecessor of my hon. Friend Jim Shannon, Mrs Iris Robinson, totally regenerated the space in conjunction with the EastSide Partnership. It was done in a way that was connected with the local community. It provides a business hub, brings in council services and provides other community services, and it has transformed that area.
It is that passion and pride we have in our area and our ability to draw on our past, recognising not only the difficulties there have been but the vision and potential to deliver for our local people, that provide the elements for success. The intervention is absolutely right, and the point to highlight is that there are too few partnerships. Some 40% of towns need regeneration, and the high streets need to be reinvigorated. We do not need another committee set up for the sake of it. We do not do this because the high streets task force asked us to; we do it because we believe in our area and want to see it improved.
I share all that because I want to support the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South on his Bill, which will help to crystallise in a productive way the opportunity to reinvigorate high streets.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way. I was interested to hear what he said about the importance of preserving the history and legacy of our communities. On one of the longest high streets in my constituency—Church Road—which goes into the neighbouring constituency of Bristol West, hidden behind a Wetherspoons that has just closed we have an almost pristine art deco cinema. It opened in 1912 and was where the first silent films were shown. It has now become an asset of community value. The community is trying to buy it to turn it into a community hub. There are other people who are interested in turning it into housing. Although we have a great need for housing, having that as a centrepiece would encourage people to flock to Church Road to see that historical asset. I support what he was saying, because shops and housing are important, but those assets are important too.
I thank the hon. Lady for that contribution because it allows me to move from CS Lewis Square, up the Holywood Road towards St Mark’s Church in Dundela, Bunker Hill. That was C. S. Lewis’s church, and it has his communion cup, which was donated by the family. Smack bang in the middle is the old Strand Cinema, which is now the Strand Arts Centre. For eight years—actually, from before I was a Member of Parliament, so for 10 years—I have been banging my head against a brick wall in support of the Strand Cinema, which is a beautiful pre-war, art deco cinema. There used to be one screen, probably the size of this Chamber, and it has now been divided into four screens—the old balcony is a separate screen.
We just secured £4.09 million from the levelling-up fund for the full restoration of Strand Arts Centre. I say genuinely to Kerry McCarthy that if there is a connection we can make between the two—if we can share the plans and show exactly what they are doing and hoping to deliver in my constituency—I would be more than happy to share that with her.
All that comes through partnership, and it is the partnership element that I want to impress on the debate. I chair a subsidiary of our partnership, which is EastSide Tourism. It is all about encouraging people to visit east Belfast. When I was leader of our party group in the council, there was an opportunity to allocate £105 million for leisure transformation across the city. Through one political deal or another, I got £48 million of that for what is now my constituency. Part of that was used to restore the heritage baths in east Belfast, the old public baths where people used to go after a hard day or a week’s work in the shipyard. They have now been completely restored and integrated into an all-singing, all-dancing, state-of-the art leisure centre. You may remember the old slipper baths, Mr Deputy Speaker: there is only one tap, you get six inches of hot water, and you can put in as much cold as you like. If you want a long bath, it is going to be freezing.
That drawing together of a new, regenerative leisure facility and our old industrial past and heritage, through our tourism initiative and as part of the wider regenerative partnership within our neighbourhood, shows what can be achieved when we have the necessary passion, will and determination, recognising where we have been and where, as a community, we want to go. The Bill focuses, rightly, on high streets, but within our wider cities and spaces there are neighbourhoods and communities with a passionate desire to make their localities better than they are today, and that is what should lie at the heart of our aspirations for our cities.
I strongly welcome and support this Bill presented by my near neighbour and hon. Friend Jack Brereton to improve our high streets. There are four micro market towns in my constituency and one large village, and we are well aware that, particularly in the case of big unitary authorities such as Cheshire East Council, development plans need to be made in close partnership with local people and local businesses, because they know their communities best. Councils such as Cheshire East need to listen to local people, and need to listen to them more.
In 2010, a campaign to prevent the car parking charges proposed by Cheshire East Council, under a different leadership, was successful because the then leadership recognised the detrimental effect that they would have on towns such as mine. Unfortunately, just yesterday, the current leadership implemented the charges. “Controversial” is not really the word to describe what has happened. There was opposition from more than 8,000 residents in the consultation. Of 8,384 representations, 8,127 were objections, 127 were neutral, and just 130 supported the proposals. Could anyone say that Cheshire East Council is really listening to local people?
That is why the Bill matters. I would describe Cheshire East Council in this respect as tin-eared. Its plans are short-sighted, and potentially detrimental to high streets throughout my constituency. Cheshire East Council may be under funding pressures, but this is not the way to resolve them. Mike Muldoon, a hard-working and committed Sandbach councillor, contacted me this week—not for the first time—to say that such proposals would have a potentially detrimental impact on small restaurants, publicans, welfare outlets such as chemists, opticians and hairdressers, and shops and local businesses that enjoy the footfall of local people who can currently pop in and out quickly from their towns. At a demonstration in Sandbach, Councillor Muldoon spoke powerfully on my behalf about how wrong the charges would be. They would penalise local people— residents who come to shop and use facilities in their own town. They would harm small businesses, the lifeblood of our local economies, and stifle rather than strengthen the community spirit as people stayed away from local groups and events. They are also wrong because they would exacerbate parking on local side streets, to the considerable inconvenience of householders living nearby. My hon. Friend’s Bill would help such issues to be handled in a considered and planned way, rather than through what looks like a knee-jerk reaction to raise funds off the back of local people, high street customers and businesses.
I fully support the proposals in the Bill to ensure that towns have a thought-through regeneration plan which is based on local people’s priorities and put to local people for consultations that are actually listened to and meaningful. Too many consultations are held simply to tick a box to say that a consultation has happened. That has to stop. I look to the Bill to ensure that it does not happen.
I hope the Bill will also ensure that local authorities listen to local communities on other matters of concern in my constituency. One such case involves Holmes Chapel. Over many years, the parish council has produced thoughtful proposals on how to deal with traffic pressures in the centre, which are among local residents’ biggest concerns. Over those many years, I have supported the parish council and residents, and I pay tribute to all those involved in developing those thoughtful plans. It is vital that principal authorities listen to such proposals; the Bill would promote that ethos and, I hope, result in a change of approach to the dialogue that needs to take place in such cases.
Holmes Chapel Parish Council has proposed to introduce traffic-calming measures such as roadway markings and gateway features, and lower speeds on London Road, which passes through the village centre, to make it a better place for shoppers and pedestrians, many of whom are elderly. I hope that the principal council officers and others will listen and now actually implement the proposals the parish council has been making for many years.
We need to make sure that our towns and high streets are accessible. My towns of Alsager, Congleton, Middlewich and Sandbach, and the large village of Holmes Chapel, are all thriving and have many independent local businesses. We want to keep them that way, and access to our community centres is essential. To ensure better access in Sandbach, a wonderful market town, a request has been made for a pedestrian crossing on The Hill. A main thoroughfare into the town, The Hill is a busy road containing a mixture of residential properties and shops. It was thought that a crossing was planned, but I am told by constituents—I pay particular tribute to Sarah Bradley for her campaign, although she is supported by many residents in the area—that that is no longer the case and section 106 funds may be directed elsewhere. I urge the council to think again.
Bank closures are another issue, and I strongly support the campaign of our hon. Friend Miss Dines to save our banks. Our local communities are being debanked, which is making it very hard for local people, especially those who are elderly and vulnerable, for charities and cash businesses to access the banking facilities they need. For example, Alsager in my constituency had two banks and two building societies but now has none. Let us ensure that we have a local voice supporting local banking.
We must ensure that towns such as Congleton remain vibrant, which is why my hon. Friend’s Bill is so important. I am sorry to hear that Boots is closing the Bridge Street branch in the centre of town, and is focusing just on the branch in the retail park outside the centre of town, which has free parking. I wonder whether the plan to close is in the light of the car parking charges that are being introduced.
I will end there and leave it to other colleagues, I hope, to support my hon. Friend’s Bill, which I very much support.
If there is something that interests me—though not more than anything else—it is this issue. I am a firm believer that history, heritage and pride in an area are a central driver to regeneration. We can come up with all the policies in the world, but if those fundamentals are not there, there is failure. The emotional connection between the human being and where they live is central to our political life.
I am the very proud MP for Bury North, but I was brought up in another town in West Yorkshire that I will not name, which is part of my soul and who I am. People might ask, “How can that be?” but I am proud to say that. I will give hon. Members a clue: one of the reasons why I have been a season ticket holder at Huddersfield Town football club for many years is that it is a representation of an association with the pride, history and heritage of an area that means something to me. It was the first team to win the first division championship three times in a row in the 1920s.
As a young boy, when I shopped in the town where I was brought up, it was a place of wonderment. There were independent shops and it was thriving, full of cinemas and all sorts of other things. My heart bleeds now when I go there. I am not blaming anyone or trying to make a political point, but the centre is dying, and it never used to be like that. I wonder whether somehow we have lost the care and the feeling for a place.
In my own town of Bury we have secured levelling-up funding for the regeneration of the town centre. I have tried to persuade my local council that a building can be built in whatever shape, which might or might not be something, but people need to have an understanding of the history and how we have got here. I am asking my local authority to create signs, or something, that tell the story of Bury. A lot of people in Bury do not know their own story. If you do not know your own story, where are you going to go?
This is a really interesting debate, in which some interesting points have been put forward. My heart sank when Kerry McCarthy made the point about the art deco cinema. That is as important to regeneration as Marks and Spencer and Tesco. That is the thing that sparks people into life and gives that joint, collective, communal experience, where people go out, spend their money and invest in things.
My hon. Friend Fiona Bruce made a valid point about car parking charges—we could all discuss that separate issue for the rest of the debate. But the important thing is not that. I agree with every word that my hon. Friend Jack Brereton said. For the high street to be successful, the things around it have to be successful as well.
One of the things that I am proud of as a Member of Parliament is securing £1 million from the Minister’s Department to buy Gigg Lane in my constituency. When the issue was first raised about getting £1 million of taxpayers’ money to buy a football club, there was a bit of outrage. That football ground is the 12th oldest in the world, and it is less than a mile from the high street in the centre of Bury, but what does it do? It is the only place in Bury where 3,000 to 4,000 people come together every single fortnight. It is the ultimate footfall provider, and the costs and benefits for that million pounds involve not only how it makes people feel—Bury Football Club is back, as I am sure you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, and charging up through the league—but the preservation of a heritage asset. It brings people into the town centre to share experiences and to be interested in their town. It is an example of what we should do.
I was silently shouting when the hon. Member for Bristol East was talking. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will say, “Community ownership fund, community ownership fund,” because that was the exact means for Gigg Lane, but I can give another example. Gavin Robinson made a point about the levelling-up fund, but the latest round of the community ownership fund, which is how Gigg Lane was preserved, was also used to save the Co-op Hall theatre on the main street in Ramsbottom, a town in my constituency. This theatre is unique—one of only three in the country. It is an original 1870s co-op theatre where people went not just to listen to concerts, but to attend an anatomy class, for example. Whatever they wanted to do, they could go in there and do it.
The theatre has been laying untouched for 60 years on the top floor of a building in Ramsbottom. Nobody knew about it. While I cannot recommend highly enough the coffee shops, bars and independent retailers in Ramsbottom, if someone needs a reason to go there, it is an intact 1870s co-op theatre, part of the history and heritage of the industrialisation of the town. That is what regeneration is about. We need to link these things into what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has been talking about.
My constituency has the big town of Bury and the small town of Ramsbottom. We must face up to reality: without something dramatic in fiscal policy, the challenges for retail businesses in our high streets and towns compared with those for online businesses in terms of energy costs, rental costs—all those things—will prove too much for many businesses. We must think strongly about what our high streets will look like. I made this point to my hon. Friend, but we must find ways to make use of the empty buildings in town centres. In 2021, we introduced legislation—I think it was the class E regulations—to make it easier to turn shops and suchlike into residential property, and we must look at that. We cannot just have empty shops and empty spaces, because they present an opportunity for housing and regeneration to bring places back to life.
We have a free market economy—socialism hasn’t got us yet, Mr Deputy Speaker—and long may that be the case. The question is, “Can the state regenerate anything?” If it is our job to release the potential of individuals and towns and places, what do we do? As a Conservative, I believe in releasing burdens, whether that be taxation, regulation or whatever. That is what we do to allow people to make their own decisions, invest their own money, and regenerate high streets through their own endeavour and their passion for the area in which they live or to which they come. However, a hugely important part of this debate is this idea of heritage culture—tapping into something and thinking honestly about what the state can invest in that will get people off their settees, away from watching “Coronation Street”, away from all the other stuff, and motivate them to come and do something.
When we pontificate in this place, we forget that when people vote, they act upon emotion. People are not going to say that regeneration has happened. I put in a bid to the levelling-up fund in Bury for a flexi-hall. It is going to be great. But a flexi-hall is a flexi-hall—it is a building that hopefully we can do something with, and hopefully it inspires. But what really inspires is what my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East was talking about regarding the partnerships in Belfast and the theatre he mentioned. My hon. Friend Dr Mullan is about to speak, and I am sure he can give an example of that, as can the Minister. That is what matters, and that is how the Government can intervene. It is terribly unfashionable, but as chair of the northern culture all-party group, let us invest in things that inspire people, give them belief in their town and area, and give them shared collective experiences. If we as the Government and working cross-party can do that, those town centres will be regenerated.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend James Daly, and I agree with so much of what he has said and what other Members have said. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jack Brereton on presenting this Bill to the House. His speech laid out in detail the issues and challenges that we face, and he is proving to be a vociferous champion for his high street.
British high streets should be vibrant hubs of commerce and community life, yet many are now facing unprecedented challenges in the wake of evolving consumer habits and economic shifts, particularly after the pandemic. Too many retail units lie boarded up, and the Bill recognises that reality and takes a proactive approach to try to breathe new life into some of those critical spaces, alongside other Government action. The Bill is not merely about preserving bricks and mortar structures; it is about preserving the beating heart of our communities. Too many businesses have closed their doors, and as a result jobs have gone too, affecting families and individuals.
Let me say a few words about the town centres and high streets of Crewe and Nantwich. Nantwich in my constituency would commonly be regarded as the more secure of the two, which is probably true. Even in Nantwich, however, we have seen more vacant units than we would like, and we cannot take the success of any of our high streets for granted. As my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce mentioned, recent changes confirmed yesterday will increase parking charges in Nantwich and Crewe, which is going in the wrong direction. The council will probably lose more money if our high streets are not successful, and we need to encourage greater use of them, not make that even harder or more expensive for people. Even in Nantwich we have challenges, but there is no doubt that my constituents are particularly concerned about our town centre and high streets in Crewe. The history is a long and sometimes tortuous story. First there was a decision to construct a retail park within walking distance. That has seen businesses move and customers make use of the free parking near the big chain stores that we find there. Secondly, there was an ambition to build a new leisure and retail unit in the heart of town.
Again, I apologise if this is slightly controversial, but does my hon. Friend think that out-of-town retail parks are an absolute disaster? Because I do in terms of town centre regeneration. They serve no purpose, and the same product can be delivered in a much more harmonious and better way in towns where such shops have traditionally been.
We must recognise the jobs and investment that retail parks sometimes create, but there is no doubt that they lack on the added value we get when those retail units are placed in more diverse communities. Certainly, as I have seen in this case, there might be an argument for an out-of-town retail park, but to place a retail park immediately next to a high street and town centre has created enormous challenges for that town centre over the years. In part to try to rebalance that, the plan was to build a new retail leisure centre in the heart of town, right on our high street, but as others have mentioned, the definition of a high street can involve multiple streets that make up the high street, and we could also see a street further out nearer the train station as a local high street.
Unfortunately, that plan led to a long period of the town centre being a big boarded up space, then a demolished space. That dragged down the purpose and vibe of the town, which is not surprising. Unfortunately, market changes as that delay has dragged on have led ultimately to the decision not to proceed with that plan in the short term, and potentially never to proceed with it. At the same time, that allowed us to build a new car park and bus station, which will open this year and will help and benefit the whole town centre. But that leaves us with the pressing priority to make use of that now vacant and derelict space, as otherwise it will carry on dragging down the rest of the town centre. I hope we see rapid progress from the Labour-led council this year to get that space back into use.
The Minister will understand that when it comes to challenges facing Crewe’s retail sector and town centre it would be remiss of me not to mention the additional challenges that we face following the decision on HS2. That has always divided opinion in the House on its overall merits, but everyone would recognise that Crewe in particular would benefit from investment and regeneration. There are short-term challenges because of the accounting changes that need to be made. I have spoken repeatedly to the Government about that, and I am optimistic that we can find a solution. Going past that, we need additional investment so that Crewe can make up the loss, which we did not expect, on the back of the decision on HS2.
I do not want to be too negative, because there absolutely are positives for our high streets in Crewe. We have a £22.9 million town deal, and we have £14.1 million from the future high streets fund. Some of the things we will do with that money include a programme to get vacant units in Crewe back into use—exactly the kind of challenges we have been discussing—and landscaping work to make the journey in, around and to the town centre and its high streets easier. It will help to bring back into use buildings that are not smack on the high street—they might be slightly further out, such as the Flag Lane Baths community centre, which is coming on board, and a new boxing club on Mirion Street. All those things encourage people to come into town, and to the high streets. That creates footfall, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North said. We have a football club in Crewe which, as he said of his football club, brings a lot of people into the town. We have started to construct a history centre, which will provide additional public space.
All those things are positive, but we must do more. The Bill seeks to do something different to tackle the crisis. I have worked closely as part of the town board with Cheshire East local authority, and I have seen the benefits of an engaged local authority—we do not see that everywhere—so, even if I do not agree with everything that it has done or think that it is perfect, I have seen its effort and willingness to engage.
Every local authority should be engaged in that process. The designation aspect of the Bill acknowledges the unique character of each town and each high street, emphasising that a one-size-fits-all approach is not the way forward. By conducting comprehensive and periodic reviews, we can ensure that the distinctive needs and opportunities of each community are met. As for the specific proposals in the Bill and things that we need to be careful about, as we have heard, it is said that each area needs between one and three high streets. As I have said, there are a number of high streets in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, who shares my local authority, has several in her constituency. Across Cheshire East there are probably dozens of high streets. It is right not to say that we have to get going on every single one, but I would not want a local authority to choose, for example, the three rosiest high streets, with the best possible outcome already on the table. I hope that the guidance ensures that the selection of high streets gives some consideration to those that will be of most benefit in tackling the issues that we have discussed.
I want briefly to talk about vacancies and absent landlords. I welcome the work that has been done—I know that the Minister is passionate about it—on high street auctions. It is shocking, when we try to engage with landlords to tackle issues in Crewe, only to discover that they could not care less. We cannot get hold of them—the council cannot do so—or they might respond to one letter, but not to another. It is a free market, and people buy property. The state should be careful about designating exactly what it should do, but there must be limits for properties in locations of high community interest. We need to tackle that.
I want to touch on the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North about not thinking that this is all about freezing our high streets, or setting them in stone, or pushing back the tide. We have to accept that in the long run the retail footprint will shrink because of changes in online shopping. A smaller footprint is more sustainable in the long run, and we can think about replacements such as in-house living.
The legislation is an opportunity not only for inviting investment but for a firm political commitment to strengthening the fabric of our communities. It fosters political accountability and signals a commitment to the long-term wellbeing of our towns and high streets. I welcome its progress through the House, and I look forward to its becoming law, with benefits for multiple high streets across our country and our constituencies as a result.
I am inspired to say a few words in this debate, because I want to talk about my home town of Gainsborough, which is directly affected by this issue. Gainsborough is a traditional market and industrial town in north Lincolnshire. It is a small town that suffered from industrial decline in the 1970s. We had a fantastic scheme to redevelop the old factory right in the middle of the town, Marshall’s, which had been decaying for years. We turned it into a fantastic shopping centre, Marshall’s Yard—the whole thing is going really well. We also have Morrisons outside, and Tesco, which has been put up next to Marshall’s Yard.
That is all fantastic, but the problem is that it is sucking life away from the high street and the marketplace. A real issue for our town is that as we develop decaying industrial areas, or have more out-of-centre shopping centres, the inside of the town is decaying. It is a huge issue for all our towns. I have been fortunate enough to work with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my right hon. Friend Michael Gove, and to get £10 million in levelling-up funding for the Gainsborough South West ward, which is directly helping us. In an old town such as Gainsborough, one of the keys is to use heritage. We had many decaying shops, and we put a fantastic amount of work into creating beautiful new shopfronts, which lifts the whole area.
Another point I want to make is that in the marketplace—which, again, has slightly suffered from the fact that the trade is being sucked into Marshall’s Yard—cars are not allowed to park. In France, Italy or Germany, cars are allowed to park in the marketplace, which brings in life. I know we are not supposed to have as many cars in the middle of towns as we used to, but Gainsborough is not London; it is a small town. Bringing in more life is quite important.
To sum all of this up, the Government have to work very carefully with the district councils at a very local level. West Lindsey District Council has a good record of working with central Government to try to ensure that we get development into the town, but I wonder whether having a Mayor for Lincolnshire is going to make a great deal of difference. As the Minister well knows, I am quite dubious about that idea: we are going to have a Mayor of Lincolnshire—a large rural area—as well as a county council, district councils, MPs and Ministers all competing for attention.
I am also worried about the consultation, which all veers towards the idea that we have to have a Mayor. When the Minister replies to this debate—this is one of the reasons I am speaking today—I want him to convince me that when he imposes a Mayor on Lincolnshire, who will need to have a salary and will be based in Lincoln, he is not going to suck power and resources from the really local authorities, the district councils, which are doing all the hard graft to improve our high streets.
I congratulate Jack Brereton on his success in the private Member’s Bill ballot, and I am pleased to be responding on Second Reading of his Bill today. I start by thanking all Members who have taken part in the debate—the hon. Members for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Bury North (James Daly) and for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), and Sir Edward Leigh, who have all talked about their local areas. A couple of themes have emerged: partnership, people working together and the importance of heritage.
The purpose of the Bill is to place new requirements on local authorities in relation to high streets, as part of which—as we have heard—it allows councils to designate streets in their areas. The legislation has similarities to part 10 of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023, which allows local authorities to designate high streets and town centres for other purposes. This Bill, however, allows designation for the purposes of establishing improvement plans. We can all agree that supporting the future of our high streets needs backing from all levels of government, and local authorities certainly have an important part to play.
That is especially true given that it feels that in recent years people have been tolling the funeral bell for our high streets. In that time we have had the Government’s plan for the high street, the Build Back Better high streets strategy, and now the long-term plan for towns, but somebody walking through many of our town centres today would not know that. Unfortunately, it is all too common to see boarded-up shopfronts and closed shutters as fashion retailers, bank branches and countless small businesses on our high streets have been forced to shut up shop for good. Among those losses there have been success stories of individual shops and thriving high streets despite the odds, but it is hard not to look at the figures and think of decline.
Research carried out by the British Retail Consortium in 2023 found that 6,000 shops had closed for good in the previous five years. The sad truth is that the pain of losses is not felt equally. The BRC’s figures for April revealed that nearly a fifth of shops in the north-east are standing empty, compared with one in 10 in the south. Then there are the disparities between city centres and rural areas. Once again, the Government’s claim to levelling up rings hollow.
With these closures come workers losing their livelihoods and communities unable to access essentials. Bustling high streets are more than the sum of their parts; they are places where communities come together. That is why we cannot have any more business as usual; we need to be imaginative about how we make our high streets work for communities today. That requires careful planning. Labour has been clear that we want to see local authorities in the driving seat, giving local leaders the powers and flexibility needed to turbocharge growth in their areas.
In difficult circumstances, the differences that Labour councils have made in transforming local high streets is testament to that potential. The Bradford city centre growth scheme has brought 70 vacant high street units back into commercial use. In Wolverhampton, the council has plans to transform a derelict site into a food and entertainment venue in the heart of the city.
For local communities to succeed, they need the right tools. It is no secret that 13 years of Tory economic mismanagement have left local authorities struggling. This Government’s efforts to support high streets have involved a begging bowl approach that has pitted communities against each other, with old pots of money discontinued, packaged up and resold as new. Labour would put a stop to that micromanagement and empower communities to grow their local economies as they know best.
I recognise that there are challenges when there is a more public process for the allocation of funds, but I hope the hon. Member would accept that if her party was lucky enough to be in government, there would be a set pot of money. Even if behind the scenes her Government were making some tough decisions about who does and does not get it, they will not be giving everybody every bit of money that they want—unless, of course, Labour has further plans beyond the current £28 billion to ensure that every high street that wants money gets it.
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention, but this matter is about planning and giving local authorities powers to decide what is best for their own areas. There is a challenge.
We will scrap business rates and bring in a fairer system, which would reduce the burden on high street premises. We will tackle antisocial behaviour by introducing new town centre police patrols and putting an end to the £200 rule that stops shoplifting being investigated.
I am pleased that the Bill recognises the importance of local authority plans, and we will not be opposing it today, but a number of questions remain to be answered, and I hope that the Minister or the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South can answer them. For example, clause 3 makes the improvement plan a material planning consideration, but it is not clear by what mechanism those improvement plans would have to be taken into account when producing the local plan, as councils are required to do. Can the Minister or the hon. Member tell us how the provisions in the Bill align with neighbourhood plans? We have already heard an intervention about that.
I am genuinely interested, because the hon. Lady has criticised the Government, and a number of Members have pointed to examples where money, whether in Belfast or wherever, has been going specifically to projects linked to regeneration. She appears to be saying, “We do not believe in any of that. Our policy is simply to hope that the local authority will make the right decisions.” I can tell her that the Labour local authority in Huddersfield has been making the wrong decisions for the past 30 years. That is why the council and the town are in the state they are in.
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. As I said, I was interested to hear his earlier intervention on neighbourhood plans; that is one of the key things. We recognise the need to invest in order to make our high streets viable and lively, as many hon. Members have said, and I have already set out some of the steps that Labour would take to do that.
If we are to create welcoming, inclusive town centres that function as vital community spaces, those communities must have a say in their design. But to achieve that we need the return of a collaborative approach that empowers local authorities to thrive and play an active part. Labour has that vision, and I hope that the Government will adopt it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Jack Brereton on his success in the ballot and his sponsorship of this important and worthwhile private Member’s Bill. His unwavering commitment and efforts to champion our high streets, including those he mentioned in his remarks, has led to this matter being raised in the House. I thank other hon. Members for backing the Bill. I confirm that the Bill has the Government’s full support.
There are arguably few more visible barometers of a healthy local economy, local pride and quality of life than our high streets. I know that all too well from my experience as the Member of Parliament for Redcar and Cleveland. Like my hon. Friend, I am privileged and proud to represent the area where I grew up, but one of the reasons why I came into politics was that my area, my community, my town and my high street felt like places that had been forgotten and left behind by the incumbent political regime.
It can be hard for people who move around a lot, or perhaps those who live in a busy city, to understand what it feels like when a place we care about and where we have deep roots seems to have lost its way, as my hon. Friend James Daly said. I remember, when I was growing up, walking into Boro town centre with my mam and dad and hearing about Uptons. It is probably how my niece and nephews feel now when I talk about Woolworths—although, as was said, it looks like Woolies may be coming back.
Our high streets are not just places where people shop and access goods and services; they are the heart of our community life. They are places where people come together. Their success is therefore vital to realising our ambitions to level up economic growth and opportunity across the country, both economically and socially. That is why the challenges that our town centres have been facing in recent years need to be taken seriously.
Some town centres have weathered dramatic shifts in consumer behaviour and the legacy of the pandemic, but many have struggled. We have seen the collapse of major high street retailers such as Debenhams, and high streets that were once the soul of our communities are now blighted by low footfall, high vacancy rates and antisocial behaviour. The Government are committed to working with local communities to help turn that around.
The Bill will play an important role in that mission, alongside other Government interventions, as part of a broader strategy to help high streets recalibrate themselves back towards their communities. That includes putting billions into high street regeneration and renewal, including: a new high street and towns taskforce as part of our long-term plan for towns; measures to bring vacant properties back into use and make town centres safer through a crackdown on antisocial behaviour; a new £2.5 million high street accelerator programme bringing together businesses and community organisations to develop a long-term vision for revitalising high streets; and significant planning flexibilities to ensure that they continue to thrive as centres where commerce and community meet.
We know that every high street is different and that local areas are best placed to understand their own problems and find the right solutions through strong local partnerships on the ground. Those partnerships are often key to transforming the fortunes of our town centres. We want to support councils as well as local businesses and local communities and ensure that they have everything they need to succeed, so that wherever someone is in the country, they have a high street that meets the needs of their community and one that they can be proud of.
In that vein, may I commend my hon. Friend Mark Fletcher, who explained to me the need for investment in Bolsover town centre? I am delighted that we were able to award Bolsover £15 million of levelling-up funding in the autumn statement in November. I hope that Bolsover can use that funding and this Bill to improve its high street.
One of the most important ways we can make that a reality for more communities is for councils to use their powers in order to drive improvements. That is the aim of this Bill. We know that, for example, section 215 powers, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, which require land to be cleaned up when it is detracting from the surroundings, are not always deployed as well as they could be. That will only become more significant when the new high street rental auction powers are introduced later this year, which will further bolster the regeneration tools available to local authorities.
The Bill will require local authorities to designate at least one high street, and up to three, in their area and create plans to improve them, which should be published every five years. In choosing their high streets, local authorities will need to identify streets of specific economic, social and cultural importance in their area, assess their condition, and come up with plans to preserve and enhance them. Local residents, businesses, community organisations and others will rightly have a real say in those action plans, and the local council will be accountable for delivering them.
Picking up on the remarks I made in my speech, what can we do to ensure that councils are designating and putting the work into high streets that need it, rather than picking ones that are, thankfully, flourishing and perhaps less in need of attention? Potentially, councils could seek to avoid doing the hard work that we want to be put into these designations.
We will work with local authorities and, no doubt, Members of this House to establish the right guidance for local authorities in choosing their high streets. They will also be subject to consultation, which I am about to talk about.
The Bill will require councils to consult on which high streets are chosen, and we have heard some early pitches today. It is exciting to imagine the difference that this could make: fewer empty shops, more people visiting high streets and staying longer, and a boost to local pride and people’s quality of life. As I said earlier, different areas have different challenges, so the improvements we can expect to see will vary. The focus in one area might be on tackling antisocial behaviour, whereas in another it could be on creating more green spaces to rest and socialise.
The Bill will create a duty on local authorities to take into account high street improvement plans when exercising their planning functions, which goes directly to the question from the shadow Minister, Liz Twist. That will support the already strong protections for mixed-use high streets and complement the tools available to local authorities, such as the changes made to use class orders in 2020 to create the new commercial, business and service use class mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South. This brings together high street uses such as shops, restaurants and offices, and enables changes between these uses without planning applications.
The high street improvement plans will also reinforce measures in the national planning policy framework that require local plans and decision making to support town centres to adapt and grow over the long term. In addition, they will support the use of section 215 powers, requiring unsightly land or property to be cleaned up. We recognise that local areas will know best what their high street improvement plans should cover.
Will my hon. Friend comment on what he defines as a high street? Bolton Street, in my constituency, backs on to the East Lancs railway, which is in the process of making an application for £3 million to the community ownership fund. It is not simply about the shops on a high street; heritage projects and others in the immediate vicinity can benefit from Government money in driving regeneration as well.
We have already heard examples of how high streets could be defined from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, but I look forward to such an application to the community ownership fund. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North for his regular plugs for the fund.
Once the Bill has received Royal Assent, we will issue guidance on developing improvement plans. We would, of course, welcome any input on what the guidance should contain from hon. Members or other interested parties. We recognise that it takes time to implement plans and see their impact. At the same time, it is important that the plans are meaningful and that they will not be neglected and left to gather dust. We believe that five years for reviewing and, if necessary, updating the improvement plans strikes the right balance, allowing enough time for them to take effect while ensuring that they remain relevant and central to the renewal and reinvigoration of our high streets. This is very much about local residents, businesses and communities seeing visible, meaningful improvements, but we recognise that that must not come at the cost of overburdening councils that are already under pressure. We will therefore ensure that local authorities have the extra funding they need to deliver the measures in the Bill effectively.
As I said earlier, the Bill builds on the extensive range of support we are already providing to truly level up our high streets, with local people in the driving seat.
I was going to come to that, but my right hon. Friend has brought it to my attention sooner. He mentions the landmark devolution deal for Greater Lincolnshire and that it comes with a Mayor, but he fails to mention the three quarters of a billion pounds that comes with that deal. I can assure him that we are giving more power and funding to communities like his in Greater Lincolnshire, and I urge him to support the introduction of a Mayor, which will be transformational for Greater Lincolnshire.
We are giving local authorities more support to truly level up their high streets. That support means more money, and we are investing billions of pounds in high streets that are sorely in need of a helping hand to get back on their feet. That includes our £1.1 billion long-term plan for towns—I am grateful to the shadow Minister for plugging that in her remarks—launched in October, which will power ambitious regeneration projects across the UK over the next decade. Through the plan, each town will develop a long-term plan for regeneration based on the priorities of local people, and receive a 10-year endowment-style fund worth £20 million to deliver transformational projects, from boosting the look and feel of town centres to protecting local heritage, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, to cracking down on anti-social behaviour. The plan will also establish a new high streets and towns taskforce to provide hands-on support and expert advice on place making, planning and design.
Our new towns unit, which was announced last week, headed by Adam Hawksbee, the Prime Minister’s towns tsar, will ensure that local leaders have the control they need over decision making. This funding comes on top of the £2.35 billion we are investing through our town deals, £830 million in future high streets funding and the £4.8 billion being invested into communities through the levelling-up fund, unlocking the economic potential of communities across the country, like mine in Redcar.
In Redcar, £25 million of funding is being invested through the town deal in regenerating the high street, demolishing the old Woolworths and M&S buildings, and creating a new leisure facility on the high street, as well as rejuvenating our much-loved seafront. Down the road in Eston, some of the £20 million of levelling-up funding we received is being invested in regenerating Eston Square and the precinct buildings. Not long after I was elected, I was given a book about the history of Eston by the former councillor, Ann Higgins. In the book, there was a picture of Mo Mowlam, one of my predecessors as MP for Redcar, meeting residents and businesses at the old James Finnigan Hall to discuss the deterioration of Eston town centre. More than two decades and four Members of Parliament later, we are finally delivering on that.
The funding demonstrates to the people of those towns, and others like them across the UK, that we are keeping the faith with them and delivering on the things that matter most to them. As I updated the House late last year, we have so far invested over £13 billion through all our levelling-up funding streams in regenerating communities nationwide, delivering real change in communities like Bury. I am so pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North plugged the community ownership fund in the way he did. His constituency has benefited from £1.5 million of investment directly into communities there, on top of the levelling-up funding of £20 million for Bury market and the flexi-hall.
Communities in Crewe and Nantwich are benefitting from £37 million through the towns fund and the future high streets fund. I was surprised to hear from my hon. Friends the Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) about Labour’s new car parking charges. Sadly, Labour has done the same in Redcar, and I urge my hon. Friends to keep up their campaign on behalf of constituents and businesses in their communities.
I am grateful to Gavin Robinson for referencing the investment in his constituency, including in his cinema, and talking about the value of partnership working. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, whose Bill this is, mentioned the levelling-up partnership for Stoke. I assure him that, on top of the other funding that Stoke has already received, Longton remains part of our focus for the partnership.
Funding alone is not enough. To deliver real change, we are giving local people the power they need to make decisions on the ground about the future of their communities. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Act introduces high street rental auctions to drive forward regeneration through changes to compulsory purchase powers; provides more flexible pavement licences for businesses; empowers local people to tackle symptoms of decline by bringing vacant units back into use; increases co-operation on regeneration between landlords and local authorities; and makes town centre tenancies more accessible and affordable, helping to attract new businesses to these areas and supporting the creation of new jobs and growth to sustain prosperity in the long term.
We are also making it a priority to get the fundamentals right. Tackling the causes and impacts of antisocial behaviour is key to ensuring that people feel safe, which is why we are using our wider antisocial behaviour action plan, published in March 2023, to make the heart of our towns better places to be. Measures to tackle the visual markers of decline include reopening boarded-up shops, improving the look and feel of public spaces, and giving tired public buildings a lick of paint. This includes the high street accelerator programme that I have the pleasure of leading, which will bring together businesses, residents and community organisations to develop a long-term vision for revitalising their town centre. Each of the 10 pilot schemes we have launched in towns such as Oldham, Scunthorpe and neighbouring Stoke will receive funding of £237,000 over two years to set up the partnership, develop the vision and begin to deliver change.
We have introduced significant planning flexibilities, so that local decision makers can make better use of the buildings in their town centre and ensure that our high streets remain places of social and commercial activity. Permitted development provides the freedom to change more premises from commercial to residential use, so that much needed homes can be created on high streets and in town centres.
Whether we are talking about smarter use of planning levers, getting boarded-up shops back up and running, making our streets safer, or investing billions in our town centres, we are breathing new life into our high streets, with local leaders, local people and businesses who know and love their communities best driving the changes that they know are needed to make a difference. The Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South builds on these significant efforts, and we are proud to support it. Like him, I appreciate just how much it matters to communities of the kind we represent. For them and for communities right across the country, this is about delivering on the commitments we have made to level up growth, opportunity and pride. We are sticking to our plans and staying the course, commencing the measures in the Bill at the appropriate time once the Bill has Royal Assent, and ensuring that local authorities have the right lead-in time and guidance to designate their high streets and create their improvement plans.
I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing the Bill and to other hon. Members for their support and contributions during this debate. We are backing the Bill and backing our high streets. I commend the Bill to the House.
I am very grateful for the Minister’s kind words and for all his support and help in bringing the Bill forward. I am grateful also to all the hon. Members across the House who have shown their support today. We have heard some incredibly impassioned speeches, which just shows how much people care about their high streets and the towns, villages and communities in the constituencies they represent. Speaking for the Opposition, Liz Twist referred to local plans and neighbourhood plans, and I think it is right that the Bill is part of that, but it is about due consideration being given to certain matters in those plans. The Bill is not about stopping development that sits outside its scope—new and exciting developments coming to our high streets. It is just about giving due consideration, so I do not think having the matters set out in the Bill will have a major impact.
Turning to Members’ contributions, I particularly thank Gavin Robinson and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North for raising the importance of those heritage and cultural assets—building vibrancy, creating footfall, and attracting people to our high streets. I was also particularly interested in what the hon. Member for Belfast East said about there being too few partnerships. That is what this Bill is trying to address: the need to bring people together to have that governance and those plans to help address some of the issues in our town centres.
To my hon. Friends over the border in Cheshire, particularly to my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), I say that it was absolutely shocking to hear about those plans to increase and create parking charges in some of their town centres. I know that that will have a major impact. I have enjoyed visiting some of the towns in the communities that they represent, and I know that those plans will have a damaging and detrimental impact on them. A number of Members referenced the fact that we have many out-of-town developments with free parking. That will only further emphasise the move towards those out-of-town retail spaces and cause more damage to our high streets and town centres just at a time when we do not need it. I entirely agree with them and wish them well with their campaigns. I wish to thank all Members across the House for their contributions, particularly my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh, who also mentioned the impact of out-of-town shopping areas.
I stress that we have been working hard to get this Bill together. I hope that we can continue to work across the House to bring it forward and take it through the other place and deliver what will I think be an important piece of legislation to get our high streets back on track—to revive them and to bring people back into our towns and communities so that they can thrive once again.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (