Town-centre Businesses in South Wales West

1. Questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Energy and Welsh Language – in the Senedd at on 5 June 2024.

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Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru


3. How is the Government supporting town-centre businesses in South Wales West? OQ61196

Photo of Sarah Murphy Sarah Murphy Labour 1:51, 5 June 2024

Thank you. We are providing £125 million of funding over three years to Welsh local authorities through our Transforming Towns programme. Our town-centres position statement, published last year, sets out the challenges facing towns in Wales and a series of interrelated, cross-policy actions to address those challenges.

Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru

Diolch. I recently met with the Federation of Small Businesses to discuss the current challenges facing town centres in my region. The recent closure of banks and anchor stores like Marks and Spencer in Neath, after almost a century, have been a huge source of concern for businesses and residents. I recently conducted a survey on how to try to ensure Neath town centre can be supported to thrive, and almost 400 people shared their thoughts with me, despite a majority unfortunately saying they currently have a negative view of the town. Almost all also wrote long lists of the things they like and love about Neath, from the historic market to the canals to the variety of independent shops, to places like Victoria Gardens and the Gnoll rugby ground, of course. Our towns are not short on talent and enthusiasm, but they do need support.

Business rates have gone up at the same time other costs are increasing, and people have less money in their pockets to spend. Things like what's going to be happening in Port Talbot are going to severely impact the amount of money people in Neath are going to have to spend in their pockets. So, what more can be done by Welsh Government to work alongside local authorities, businesses and residents to realise the potential of our town centres and support those crucial town-centre businesses?

Photo of Sarah Murphy Sarah Murphy Labour 1:52, 5 June 2024

Thank you, Sioned Williams, for that question, and also for conducting and sharing with us about the survey that you did with Neath residents. I will say as well about the Marks and Spencer closure, it is always disappointing when we lose one of these big retailers in a town centre. It's not just about the impact financially or even just the retail opportunities, but I do feel like there's a lack of confidence then that hits the community. They feel it very deeply, and this is an incredibly challenging time, as we know, for the retail sector and town centres. There are complex issues, because, as you said, there are lots of locations for a range of services, economic enterprise, employment and community all wrapped up in this, and this, in turn, we need so that we can increase the footfall for the shops.

We have invested significantly in the regeneration of towns, including our current investment of the £125 million grant and loans through the Transforming Towns programme that I mentioned. I know that, for example, then, in Neath the local authority has been awarded almost £29 million, and that's gone towards the leisure centre, the library, the cafe and the retail units. There's also the shared strategic vision for the retail sector, which has been developed in social partnership with the retail forum, who I've met with—that's trade unions and the retail representative bodies.

An investment through Transforming Towns must be underpinned by the best placemaking. I think that this is where it comes back to what you were saying, and why the survey was so crucial. It's the placemaking that really has to be at the heart, and it can't just be a tick-box exercise, and it can't just be a talking shop. I think that this is how it is across everywhere. The community have to come together and say what they want to see, but also, to be honest, it's also about the community buying into the fact that they then have to go into their town centres and spend their money there.

So, I really would welcome a further conversation about this, because obviously it would be good to hear how you feel that investment into Neath is going, and panning out, and being welcomed by the community, but also, honestly, to have a better look at some of those survey responses, which do sound fantastic and positive and hopeful, and that's what we want everyone to feel about their town centres.

Photo of Altaf Hussain Altaf Hussain Conservative 1:55, 5 June 2024

Great to see you as Minister. Minister, our town centres used to be the lifeblood of our communities, but they have had the heart ripped out of them by poor planning decisions and competition from large out-of-town developments with free parking. We need to encourage more people to shop local and to support excellent independent retailers. To do that, we need to reintroduce free parking in places like Bridgend and Porthcawl, as well as creating a level playing field when it comes to rents and rates. Minister, what discussions have you had with colleagues in local government about the steps they can take to regenerate our town centres and attract more independent retailers to these once community hubs?

Photo of Sarah Murphy Sarah Murphy Labour 1:56, 5 June 2024

Thank you very much to the Member for that question. Obviously, we do share in common some of those areas that you've mentioned, in my constituency as well, so I want to say that. But I think, as you said, it's about making sure that we are engaging with the local authorities who have had this investment from Welsh Government to see how it's being spent, and also to make sure that it's achieving the objectives that the whole community wants. I will say, though, there are an awful lot of local authorities who I know are using their money to provide free parking in the town centres, and this is often coming from the traders themselves who are requesting that, and I think that's very beneficial. 

I think also it's difficult for them at the moment with the budgets that they have, but I think that a lot of people see that as a positive. And also, there are many town centres at the moment—and this is going across a number of other portfolios—who are engaged in really meaningful regeneration plans. It comes back to what I was saying to Sioned Williams. As we know, it's really important, then, that the communities and traders all have a say in that. I don't want people feeling as if things are being done to them; we have to bring everyone with us. And there are so many things that go into making a town centre wonderful and excellent, and I think that many of the well-being goals that we also have set as a Welsh Government are playing into that, and I want to see all of that come to fruition with our town centres.

You did touch on business rates. This is something that is coming through. In response to your question about meeting with local authorities, I haven't had a chance to meet with them as a collective at the moment, but I will be, and this is something that I know that they'll be discussing with me further. We will always endeavour to do as much as we can to support our town centres and retail sector. Thank you.