It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Richard Harrington on securing the debate. I will try and curtail my remarks to allow other speakers in.
Prior to arriving in the House, I spent 15 years as a Conservative party agent but before that, I spent 15 years in the retail trade. I worked, as it happens, for a small, family-run business that is still trading—successfully trading, I would add—so it is important to note that small, independent, family businesses can survive the onslaught of the big multiples. The retailer that I worked for was in the electrical retail trade, so it could say, in relation to Comet, for example, that it has seen off its competitor.
I do not want to dwell too much on statistics, but in preparing for the debate, I came across research by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Local Data Company, indicating that retailers with more than six stores are closing shops at a rate of 28 a day, and that there are 35,500 empty shop units in the UK—a national vacancy rate of just over 14%. Clearly, the financial situation is not favourable at the moment and retailers are finding it exceptionally difficult. The Government have done a great deal over the past couple of years on changing planning procedures. In that respect, they have helped by making change of use easier, and I am sure that some provisions in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill will also be beneficial.
However, the high street does not only require planning laws and deregulation. As has been mentioned by previous speakers—in particular my hon. Friend Peter Aldous—we must have a level playing field for high streets, out-of-town stores and online retailers, if the high street is to survive in anything like its current state. I would be reluctant to add additional burdens to existing businesses. I would rather look at reducing them, but we must look at evening up the difficulties. Business rates, as has been mentioned, are a particular burden on small shops. We have to acknowledge that, and I sincerely hope that the Government are looking at possible changes to taxation, business rates, and so on, which will level the playing field.
In my constituency, there are three major towns. Barton-upon-Humber, which is a relatively small market town, has a very good retail mix, with thriving local shops that seem to be able to co-exist with the local Tesco. In Immingham, they are desperate for Tesco to arrive, because that will switch the engine on for local regeneration schemes. Planning permission has been given, and that highlights the fact that out-of-town stores or incoming supermarkets can regenerate existing towns. Immingham is particularly unfortunate in that it has a very run-down shopping centre, and people are desperate for the arrival of the supermarket. In Cleethorpes, St Peter’s avenue and Sea View street are littered, as it were, with independent retailers. People can get everything from a cup of coffee and a sandwich to furniture, jewellery, and so on, and there are all the usual stores that used to make up every high street, such as the butcher, the baker and the fishmonger. There are models across the country of thriving high streets where, occasionally, some of the larger chains are mixed in.
The Portas pilots have been mentioned, and although I welcome the aims and objectives of the Portas review, I have reservations about some proposals. Obviously, I welcome the fact that the Government have taken on board the celebrity status of Mary Portas and used her to promote schemes that will help to regenerate high streets. Going back to the time when I was a Conservative party agent, our office was in Market Rasen on the high street, which is now a Portas pilot, but the fact that that office has closed and become a tattoo parlour may not help the Mary Portas scheme.
Some of the proposals are a little too simplistic. As a local councillor in north-east Lincolnshire, I was a member of the town team, which was mainly concerned with the Grimsby town centre, which serves Cleethorpes, Immingham and Grimsby, and we worked tremendously hard. We had a local businessman who had a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but we must recognise that the local council is a key element of any successful high street. It deals with traffic regulations, parking pricing regimes, and so on. North East Lincolnshire council, when I was the portfolio holder, had an income of £1.25 million from its parking charges. We cannot cast that out of the council’s budget and assume that it will provide the same services. Last week my hon. Friend the Minister was in Scunthorpe, which is part of North Lincolnshire council and has a very successful parking scheme that benefits local shopkeepers. It can be done, but I urge Members not to think that it is as easy as can be.
Finally, as has been mentioned, every town in the country has far too many empty retail shop units. We need urgent Government help to regenerate those and bring them into residential use.