It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend Richard Harrington on obtaining the debate, which is important.
I must declare an interest. My first job, when I was at school, was at the local greengrocer’s. I can make a fantastic stack of oranges and apples if given the opportunity, but time is probably too pressing. I also spent many years as a senior executive for major retailers—Safeway and Asda. While I was at Asda I was fortunate enough to move the business on, in its involvement with financial services, and to run its e-commerce and home shopping business.
It was incredible to see the degree of trust that people put into big retail brands, which was such that when the tsunami struck in December 2004 our website was almost crashed by the number of people who wanted to come to the retailer to work out how to respond to the challenge on the other side of the world. The retailers need to support that trust fully, and each needs to build a relationship with its customers. To do that, retailers must be better at adapting and more flexible in how they tackle the challenges and conditions around them. Let us not forget that Tesco started as a market stall, and is now taking on great media companies and trying to deliver movies and a cinema experience for people in their front room, at a click of a button, on their smart TV.
Retailers must be more responsible and more responsive to conditions in the marketplace. That means that they must embrace all the channels that are available to them. Too many have been too focused on bricks and mortar and have not thought about the opportunity that comes through the click of a mouse or, perhaps more importantly, about the integration of channels and how to appeal to changing customer needs across those channels. For example, the British Museum has a small physical retail presence, but a multi-million pound website with appeal across the world. In Macclesfield there is a fantastic business called musicMagpie, which some hon. Members will be familiar with. It engages not only in e-commerce, but in re-commerce. It recycles DVDs, CDs and computer games, selling them on through multiple channels including the high street. That recycling fits the need for greater sustainability and suits our times of challenging economics. We need to help retailers to realise that they must be more responsive.
Several hon. Members have highlighted the need for more flexible use of physical space by traditional retailers. That means that planning authorities need to think more creatively. A space that has had a certain use in the past need not in the future be linked to retail, but could be linked to residential or other uses, as my near neighbour Ann Coffey said. That process—making the use of space more flexible—is vital, and it is something for landlords, not just councils and planning authorities, to engage in. Too often their expectations are far too high, as my hon. Friend the Member for Watford said.
It is easy to try to get rates lowered, but it is also vital for retailers to think more effectively about how they engage the community. We were not able to become a Portas pilot—we wish Stockport well—but despite that we moved on to work out what else we could do. We created a forum called “Make it Macclesfield”, which is the town’s new brand identity, and there is a town team. We have brought life back to the historic Barnaby festival, celebrating the fact that we used to be the world’s leading producer of finished silk. Each month there is the Treacle market, which brings more people to the marketplace on a Sunday afternoon than we normally see on a Saturday morning. Winterfest and other events and community programmes bring countless more people in. We have created a plan for the whole town: we must consider the whole town, and not just retail. There is a plan for the silk quarter, to celebrate our silk heritage, for the heritage quarter, to celebrate our independent retailers, and for the marketplace, to bring everything together and enable the town to thrive and flourish flexibly.
There are challenges on the horizon, but the future may be brighter than the cynics believe if we can help retailers to be more responsive, use space more flexibly and get communities to engage better in the task of bringing town centres to life.