High Streets — [Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 1st March 2016.

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Photo of Mark Menzies Mark Menzies Conservative, Fylde 9:30 am, 1st March 2016

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the future of high streets.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am delighted to have secured this timely debate as the Budget fast approaches. I am also pleased that hon. Members from all parts of the House have taken the time to come along this morning.

It is almost four years since Mary Portas published her review of the future of Britain’s high streets. Contained within were 28 recommendations for improving our town centres, many of which are yet to be implemented. I sought this debate not because I think that all the recommendations should have been implemented—I do not—but because the health of our high streets has not improved significantly in the past four years. It is important to highlight the challenges that shops on Britain’s high streets continue to face, to raise the profile of the issue once again, and to encourage the Government to take some relatively straightforward steps to alleviate the burdens that are threatening the existence of small, independent businesses across Britain.

I know that colleagues will want to raise issues particular their constituencies and to bring ideas to the table, so I will focus my remarks on several key points. The challenges faced by high streets are many and varied, including tough competition from online retailers and supermarkets, excessive parking restrictions and/or charges, and the proliferation of tax break-benefiting charity shops. Many of the symptoms are also causes of the steady decline in the fortunes of small, independent retailers on UK high streets. Equally, it is neither possible nor desirable to alter many of the factors that put these retailers out of business: for example, it would be retrograde in the extreme to prevent supermarkets from opening small stores or to somehow thwart customers’ choice to shop online. However, there are four measures that, if enacted, would have an immediate and positive impact on our high streets, shifting the balance back in favour of small businesses. In this wide-ranging area of debate, I will concentrate my remarks on those suggestions and make the case for taking urgent action.

First, charity shops should be reclassified under the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987 so that the local authority’s permission is required to change the use of a shop to a charity shop. Secondly, the mandatory rate relief for charity shops should be reduced from 85% to 50%. Thirdly, the sale of new goods in charity shops should be monitored and the restrictions enforced more effectively. Fourthly, business rates should be reduced and the system, which unfairly punishes property-intensive industries, should be simplified.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker Conservative, Worcester

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He will recall that in the last Parliament the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills carried out an inquiry on the future of our high streets and retail, and it recommended fundamental reform of business rates. With the Chancellor due to announce his Budget soon, does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital to reduce that burden on our city centres and high streets?

Photo of Mark Menzies Mark Menzies Conservative, Fylde

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The Treasury is always listening, so it will be aware of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee report and will have heard my hon. Friend’s comment. I am sure that the Chancellor will include such a measure in his Budget.

In the lead-up to the Budget, the Treasury is making encouraging noises suggesting that my point about business rates may finally be addressed. Although we must continue to apply pressure to ensure that business rates are made less onerous, the issue has been considered extensively, so I intend to focus predominantly on my first three points. Similarly, I have campaigned heavily over the past four years to relax Sunday trading legislation, but there is little point in raising the matter again today because the Government have included measures in the Enterprise Bill to devolve the power to relax such restrictions. The fact that local authorities will have the power to zone Sunday trading hours to help high streets and city centres over out-of-town retail parks is particularly welcome, and I encourage the Government to continue their endeavours. In that and many other areas, the Government have shown themselves to be willing to carry through necessary reforms, regardless of attempts by vested interests to sustain the status quo. I shall use this opportunity to encourage Ministers to act similarly on charity shops.

Napoleon famously said that we were a nation of shopkeepers. I wish that we were. In recent years, we have increasingly become a nation of charity shopkeepers, as high streets up and down the country have been filled with charity shops. There are currently over 10,000 in the UK, and their number increased by 30% between October 2008 and October 2011. In my constituency, the scale of the increase has been impossible to ignore: there are now 15 charity shops in St Annes and less than three miles down the road, in the centre of Lytham, there are nine more—with, I am informed, another two on the way.

Let me state clearly that I recognise the value of charity shops. Each shop raises thousands of pounds a year for good causes and serves an excellent practical purpose as a place for people to dispose of unwanted possessions in the knowledge that they will not be wasted. Equally, they provide a community space for local shoppers and volunteers, filling shopping space that in some cases would otherwise go empty. However, the question has to be asked: are we heading towards saturation?

Charity shops are not universally welcomed by shoppers or by other retailers, who can struggle to compete. As someone who worked in the retail industry for 15 years before being elected to Parliament, I not only recognise but welcome the competitive nature of the business. If there is no market for a shop’s goods, if it cannot attract customers and if it cannot make a profit, it must inevitably close. It is not the business of Government or any other institution to support a failed enterprise that has no future. The problem is that we are not even allowing retail businesses to attempt to attract customers or to try to make a profit; in fact, we are denying them the chance to open in the first place.

No potential future shopkeeper, all of whom should frankly be applauded for being willing to enter such a difficult industry, can possibly compete with a charity shop. An ordinary retail outlet will largely employ its staff. Over 2.7 million people work in over 270,000 shops across the UK. From next month, all those businesses will pay the majority of their staff at least £7.20 an hour, rising to £9 an hour by 2020. Those who want to set up a shop should be commended for providing valuable new employment opportunities for local people. In contrast, according to the Charity Retail Association, only some 17,000 people are in paid employment in charity shops. Before one even begins to consider the multiple and varied tax breaks on offer, charity shops work because they have an unpaid, volunteer workforce of around 213,000 across the country. When one considers that fact and the value we attach to making work pay in this country, I suggest that we agree—at least we should agree—that it is far better to have a business in shop premises than a charitable organisation manned purely by volunteers.

Again, that is not to say that charity shops are intrinsically problematic. They most certainly are not. The fact that charity shops are staffed by volunteers is actually a good thing. Many of us know from our own communities that charity shops often provide enormously valuable opportunities for a diverse range of people to come together, including those with disabilities and those who have been out of the workplace for a long time. The problem is simply that there are too many shops and the numbers are ever increasing. Shoppers on our high streets are suffering from a lack of variety as a result. Indeed, many charities are struggling to find volunteers because of competition from other charity shops. It is now time to enact solutions, rather than to merely consider this oft-diagnosed problem. That is why my first suggestion is that charity shops should be reclassified under the 1987 order, leaving only commercially operating enterprises in class A1 and enabling local authorities to prevent the saturation of high streets with charity shops.

As I have already outlined, Lytham and St Annes are increasingly saturated with charity shops. Local councillors are frustrated at their lack of power to prevent a further increase in numbers. Although I entirely agree that it is far better to have a charity shop than no shop at all, it is often assumed that a charity has taken out a lease because there is no competition from prospective businesses to move into the premises. That was indeed the case in many parts of the UK, particularly after the 2008 recession, but it is often not the case, particularly in affluent areas. In Lytham, a shop recently announced that it intended to move, leaving its existing premises vacant. I know for a fact that a local business owner would have been pleased to have the opportunity to move in and to make a go of setting up an enterprise there, with all the resulting employment opportunities and benefits to the local economy. Remarkably, however, competition for the premises was not the fair competition that I spoke of earlier, because it came from a charity shop.

No landlord thinking purely about the bottom line, as is to be expected, would choose to rent their shop to an untried, untested business that is forced to pay staff at least £7.20 an hour, with exorbitant business rates on top—not when they can reach agreement on a long-term lease with a charity. I know of cases in Lytham of leases being negotiated for terms of up to 10 years. Charity shops do not need to pay their staff, they do not buy the majority of their stock, and they pay at most 20% of the rates of other retailers. That is not fair competition; it is a complete distortion of the bargaining power of the two parties, which we have now entrenched in law.

Mary Portas stated in her 2011 review:

“start ups should be the number one priority when it comes to giving discounts. The business rate discounts that charity shops enjoy builds a disadvantage into the system that is causing a problem. Landlords are choosing the safe option of charity shops and small new retailers aren’t getting a look in. There will be no growth and innovation now or in the future if we don’t address this.”

Of course, if good landlords who cared about their local communities were a universal commodity, there would be no need for local government to step in. Clearly, however, we cannot leave landlords to self-regulate the complexion of our high streets. Powers must be given to local authorities to enable them to determine whether an area needs yet another charity shop, or whether to allow new businesses the opportunity to establish. If, after a reasonable period of time, no small independent retailer has come forward to take on a lease, it would be perfectly reasonable to allow a charity to take on the premises. The power would mean simply that local authorities could refuse to grant planning approval for a change of use from a shop to a charity shop.

Recently, action has been taken to streamline and to speed up the planning system in this area under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015. I see no reason why further swift action cannot be taken to make a relatively straightforward change to differentiate charity shops from other shops. I see no grounds that render such an approach unreasonable. A charity shop is clearly different from a commercially run shop in all the ways I have outlined. The law has built in the differences. I would therefore give short shrift to any claim that a change in classification would give cause for judicial review. That would be a base excuse for a Government to use if they wanted to avoid taking such action. Ultimately, our commitment to localism was a large reason why a Conservative Government were elected last May. It is important that the Government carry through on our commitment and allow local people to develop high streets that work better for them.

I will speed through the rest of my recommendations as they are far less controversial and have been suggested widely before; also, I am conscious that several other Members wish to contribute to the debate. The second proposal that I urge the Government to adopt is to reduce the mandatory rate of relief from business rates from 80% to 50%. The idea is not new and it was proposed as a positive way to level the playing field between charity shops and other businesses in a Welsh Government consultation which was completed in July 2013. The consultation was supposed to form the basis of discussion between the devolved Administrations and the Government, but no outcome has yet appeared. I make the proposal again in the hope that the Government will carefully consider implementing it.

As the Welsh Government report makes clear, the professionalism and commercial focus of the charity shop industry has increased markedly over the past 20 years. As a result, the detailed recommendation was that the amount of rate relief available for larger charity shops occupying premises of higher rateable value should be restricted to an upper rateable value limit of £36,000; all charity shops should receive 80% rate relief on the first £12,000 of the rateable value; charity rate relief should be reduced from 80% to 50% on the next £24,000 of rateable value; and for rateable values in excess of £36,000, business rate relief should fall to zero, but in tiers. All charity shops would therefore receive some rate relief from business rates, but the amount of relief they received would be reduced in stages. Those seem to be perfectly sound, well thought through proposals—made, it is worth mentioning, by a Labour Administration—especially when set in the context of a proliferation in the number of charity shops.

I also want a change to the way in which rateable value is calculated for charities with more than one premises in the same town, in order to avoid a loophole in the system. It is right to question whether charities should receive the same rate relief on their second or even third premises on the same high street; if they did not, there is no cause to believe that charity shops would be forced to close as, lest we forget, they have little to pay in overheads and should be paying virtually nothing in stock costs. Equally, such a measure would incentivise the foundation of charity shops in smaller premises, favouring smaller, often local charities over what are now, frankly, large national chains. The results of such changes can only be positive. They would level the playing field between commercial and charitable operations, and put some extra money in the hands of Government. Given that, I cannot imagine why it has not already been done.

The Welsh Government consultation also recommended the introduction of my third proposal: to enforce and monitor more effectively the extant restrictions on the sale of new goods in charity shops. If charities are found to be trading in new goods, particularly in areas where commercial shops are selling the same products, relief from business rates should be reduced or even removed. Again, powers should be given to local authorities to enforce that effectively.

In Lytham, of the 71 shops in the town centre, 69 sell a range of goods that the nine charity shops also stock, including cards, clothes, books, pictures, artificial flowers and general domestic goods. Inevitably, some of those goods have to be new. I do not advocate charities being prevented from selling Christmas cards, for example, or certain other new products that have long been associated with fundraising initiatives. I recognise that many charity shops sell only a limited amount of new goods and that roughly 85% of goods sold in charity shops are from donations. However, some of the larger charity shops in particular are making considerably more than the average 6.8% of income for which the sale of new goods in UK charity shops supposedly accounts.

As charity shops, especially those belonging to large national chains, become increasingly professional in the way they market and sell goods, it is important to restate the principle that only businesses paying full business rates should be allowed to compete with one another. Only businesses should be allowed to purchase stock to sell, while charity shops should endeavour to have close to 100% of sales in donated goods. As the number of charity shops increases, so does the amount of competition between them. It can no longer be guaranteed that charity shops are abiding by either the principle or the law on the restriction on the sale of new goods. Not only should charities be reminded of their obligations not to undercut retailers that do not benefit from charity shops’ volunteer workforce or tax breaks, but those obligations should be enforced with powers given to local authorities.

On business rates, only yesterday the highly respected British Retail Consortium warned that the pressures of, in particular, higher wage costs as a result of the national living wage and the apprenticeship levy, coupled with the overall pressures that high street retailers continue to face, could lead to the loss of 900,000 jobs over the next 10 years. Of the 270,000 shops in the UK, up to 74,000 could shut, with the impact greatest in Wales and the north of England. If that dire warning is not sufficient to elicit a response in the Budget this year, I do not know what will.

For too long we have ignored the plight of small retailers and allowed exorbitant duties to cripple their ability to compete with online and large out-of-town retailers. There is still a place for small high street retailers. People enjoy shopping in their local towns and the variety that a multiplicity of retailers affords. It is not the case that small shops are obsolete. Retail is an industry overburdened with taxes and red tape. The Government recognised that and conducted a review of business rates last year. Now, however, it is time for action. Clearly, some form of property tax will continue to be imposed on retailers, but it would be a welcome relief to all businesses if the Government capped the national multiplier now. Rateable values must be assessed with greater frequency, with open market valuations made more sympathetic to retailers. The whole system must be simplified, with all reliefs and exemptions kept in particular review.

We have a real opportunity not to sustain high street retailers artificially, but to lift much of the pressure from their shoulders. If the Government are going to impose—as they are right to do—a national living wage, they must ensure that the tax burden is lifted in a corresponding fashion. Also, we want more people in work on a better wage. If retailers are forced to close in great numbers, neither of those objectives is fulfilled.

I could cover many more points, but I am sure that other speakers today will do so. My plea to the Government is to take action on business rates and to address the unequal balance between charity shops and small retailers. For too long, both Conservative and Labour Governments have been reluctant to tackle these issues, and they have intensified to the extent that no action is no longer an option. My constituency does not need another charity shop. Local people want small businesses to be given a chance to succeed and, in future, I hope that they can.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Defence) 9:50 am, 1st March 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. May I congratulate Mark Menzies on securing today’s debate? I will take a slightly different tack as I reflect on my local high streets across York—not necessarily in the centre of York, but more in the suburbs.

I am proud to represent what is now Britain’s best high street, Bishopthorpe Road—affectionately known as Bishy Road—in York. The journey it has been on is really quite an inspiring story. Back in 2005, when the old Terry’s factory closed, morale in the community was really hit. We also had the closure of the local post office, and Bishy Road, outside the city walls, was feeling the pinch. What has happened since has been the result not of Government action, but of community action. That is the important story that I have to tell, although retailers tell me that Government action could help their cause.

For example, business rates are really hurting local businesses’ ability to be sustainable. Therefore, my message to the Chancellor about the Budget would be to look at how business rates can be used to regenerate the local high street—which would be essential to assist small trainers to sustain their businesses, because we see so many businesses spring up, only to disappear within 12 months or so—and how business rates can be used to bring life to the community. High streets should not just be about commodities, but should be very much at the centre of the community.

Next week we will also have the important decision about Sunday trading. We know that if trade is moved out of our high streets and into the supermarkets, that will have an impact on the small traders who are trying to make their way. We also know that 91% of shop workers oppose the Government’s proposals.

The other vital point—one on which I agree with the hon. Gentleman—is about planning. It is really important that we do not have control by the landowner, but that councils are given the powers to determine who resides in the high street and to enable the community to grow on the back of that. It should not just be about landowners having the power any more; it should be about handing that power back to communities to shape their high streets if we want to see them at the centre of our communities.

I want to come back to the story of Bishy Road and say how fantastic it is. Under the visionary leadership of Jonny Hayes, a local trader on the street, the traders were brought together, not to compete but to co-operate. They formed the Bishy Road Traders Association to market together under a common identity, not as individuals vying for a space in the market. They created the strapline “I heart Bishy Road” and put it out across the city. And yes, they are all separate businesses, ranging from places to eat and buy produce to a bike shop and stores that sell just about everything under the sun, but they work together. That is the secret of Bishy Road: they identify with the community; they are a community—a community of traders serving their local community. Service is at the heart of their message. Knowing that all will benefit from people visiting Bishy Road, they work together in that collaborative way, because as people walk up and down, they are most likely to drop into one or two of the other premises on the street.

The local community is at the heart of the Bishy Road vision, so the traders identify themselves with it. They are involved with the local school. During the floods, the Bishy Road traders were at the heart of the rescue operation, trying to get people out of their homes and keep them dry, as the floods were just off the Bishy Road high street. There is such a strong relationship now: the street has a family feel. People want to come and experience that, not just from the local community but from across the city. It is about a sense of belonging, supporting and pulling together, working together for the local community. The traders had the vision and the community is behind it. It is very much about the traders giving something back to the community and creating that sense of working together.

The third successful element of Bishy Road is that it is at the heart of community events. That started with a day when they decided to try to get people out of their cars and get them walking, so they closed the street. Since then we have had event after event. We were very fortunate to have the Tour de France come through Bishy Road at a pace and, since then, the Tour de Yorkshire. Bishy Road has been a real focus of community activities, to the point where 10,000 people came on to the street to celebrate as a community with a street party. Bishy Road now even has its own Christmas lights, which puts money back into charities in the community. It is a fantastic story—a vision set out by the traders that has brought the area and the community, which was feeling the pain from the closure of the factory and from other commodities, to life again. This year’s floods have really shown how the community now works together as a complete unit.

But it does not stop there: in York it is spreading throughout the city—this is the great story. Again under strong leadership, Micklegate—which is within the city walls, with a different mix of traders and residents—is now pulling together to create its own identity and community. That will come to the fore as it starts marketing its identity this year.

Fossgate, another section of the city, has a footprint in the night-time economy in particular, but also in the daytime economy. It is a really pleasant area now to walk down. Back in the olden days it used to be where the prisons were, but it is now a fantastic place for people to go to in the night-time and choose a venue to eat, drink and enjoy themselves, and it has its own identity. This area of the city was particularly hit by the recent floods. While it is a thriving community, it is also struggling. That is why I say to the Minister that it is important that we get on top of what happens to small businesses when they flood and, when it comes to their insurance, ensure that we have a Flood Re scheme for the small business community.

It does not stop there either. Next in our sights is Front Street in Acomb. Once a thriving local shopping community in the ’70s and ’80s, businesses then started to struggle and either moved to out-of-town shopping centres or were hit by business rates. National chains then moved in, which broke up the sense of community. However, I am pleased to say however that there are plans. There are three bookmakers on the high street and a money shop—it does not have that sense of identity at the moment—but plans are afoot, and they include charity shops. However, instead of seeing charity shops as the enemy, we should very much see them as part of the community. Therefore, the important thing is working together as a community—that is the secret—and not necessarily marking out the different types of businesses. That is harder with national chains, because they have other interests to pay attention to, but if we can get them to pull together into that part of the community, there will be more of a sense of building up the high street.

On Front Street in York, we have the Gateway centre—it is a local church, but it is also the hub of the community. It has its own café, it is where the food bank is and it provides debt advice, family support and community activities. There are so many opportunities in Acomb to create another expression of community, building on those footprints to make communities feel like home again. Front Street is using events to bring the area to life. We have Acomb Alive and the Acomb dance, arts and music festival—the ADAM festival—where more than 50 acts have performed on the high street, which has wide pavements and is ideal to build that community sense.

We have some unique opportunities across York. Since the floods, we have also seen independent traders right across the city pulling together to say, “What about our row of shops?” It is important not just to focus on the city centre, but to centre our shopping centres in our communities and pull people together. What I would say to colleagues from across the House is: why not come and visit York? Come and visit Bishy Road and talk to traders to see exactly what their experience has been. They would love to share their story and see their footprint.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Defence)

I can see that someone is raring to come up to York.

Photo of Andrew Stephenson Andrew Stephenson Conservative, Pendle

I would love to visit York and am delighted that the hon. Lady is making such an eloquent case for her local high street, which was rightly recognised in the Great British High Street competition 2015. Perhaps she would also pay tribute to some fantastic Lancashire towns, such as Colne, which was a finalist in the market high street category and sadly lost out to another Yorkshire area.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Defence)

The hon. Gentleman is obviously proud of his community, but I have to say that taking the prize was an honour for our city, so if anyone is on their way to Lancashire, I would say make sure it is via Yorkshire first.

To conclude, we have opportunities to learn from each other. Not everything is built on Government policy—it is important to capture the spirit of the community—but we have an opportunity with the Budget that is coming up. Therefore, I urge the Minister to urge the Chancellor to address the issue of business rates, also to look again at planning in his own Department and make sure that communities have a say in their high streets, so that they belong to them and can revive the local economy.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

We will start the winding-up speeches at half past, and four hon. Members want to speak, so I hope that they will recognise that a bit of self-discipline is required.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 10:01 am, 1st March 2016

I have heard of competition on the high street, but here there seems to be competition between high streets. I congratulate my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell on making a persuasive case. I can almost see her on one of those 1930s rail posters, saying “Come to York, to Bishy, and live.”

Were any Member who is here today to stroll down to Westminster station, hop aboard the District line, take the scenic route to Ealing and alight at Ealing Broadway—at Haven Green, where many a scene from the “Carry On” films was made—and then to hop on the E2 bus, they would come to Pitshanger Lane, which won the Great British High Street award for best high street in London. In every shop and retail premises on the lane, there is a letter from the Minister, signed personally by him, congratulating us. I have tried to take some credit for it, but the credit goes to the organisers and the local council, to the Pitshanger Village Traders Association and the three active local councillors—particularly Lynne Murray and David Rodgers—and also to John Martin, from the local estate agents, who has done so much work for it.

The important thing is that a massive change is happening in high streets, before our eyes. Throughout the 1980s barns on the bypass seemed to be the thing. We had planning policy guidance almost encouraging people to move out of the city centre. We had inward-looking malls that did not encourage any interaction. They did not encourage people to walk through but were inward-looking, defensive and negative. They are not fit for purpose any more. Those malls are usually too small—people need bigger retail space—and not specialist enough. What is happening in the high street today is dramatic, and it is almost a case of the Government needing to follow behind the change, which is happening organically. There are many things that the Government can do, which have been mentioned by Mark Menzies. I appreciate that I should not refer to him as my hon. Friend, but he is my friend, and I am grateful to him for raising the matter.

There are things that the Government could do to encourage things that are already happening in the high street. High streets are specialised, with more high-end, quality smaller retailers. In my part of the world we have butchers and bakers and the marvellous Pitshanger Bookshop, which has managed to survive despite the depredations of the internet. If the major internet book suppliers paid a little more tax, there might even be a level playing field; but such shops survive. There is also more pedestrianisation, and it would be marvellous if cycling were encouraged. We have a lot of empirical data about high streets and if there is one thing we know about pedestrians and cyclists it is that, although you would not think they would be major purchasers, they are. That is why we need public transport and a different sort of high street. We also need housing on the high street. What is wrong with emulating Pitshanger Lane, and having housing in the high street itself—getting totally away from the inward-looking mall and the barn on the bypass, and into something more organic, structured and accessible, from which it is easier to operate?

I would not be a member of my party were I not to mention in passing the potential horror and devastation that the relaxation of Sunday trading laws could bring. It is an appalling proposal, which I hope all right-minded people will immediately oppose. [Interruption.] I hear Jim Shannon vociferously commenting. When the Sunday trading laws were relaxed at the time of the London Olympics we gained all the empirical evidence needed to show that retail sales declined in and around the area. We could see it happening. Oxford Economics calculates that we will lose 3,000 jobs if we relax Sunday trading.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

The Association of Convenience Stores carried out a survey of chief executives, and asked how they would use the powers if there was a relaxation: 52% said they would use them to support out-of-town shopping centres as opposed to high streets. Is not that a disgrace and something that highlights the intrinsic danger of the proposals for our high streets?

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I am grateful for that point, particularly as when the hon. Gentleman was Lord Mayor of Belfast he was a proud champion of the retail sector, in a fairly challenging environment. I entirely agree, and we should perhaps give the Association of Convenience Stores credit for the detailed briefing it has circulated, which provides a great deal of evidence.

The business rates situation will never satisfy everyone. People will always want zero business rates for themselves, and 100%-plus for their competitors. We must calculate on a more subtle, sensitive basis, because at the moment our approach is too broad-brush. Local authorities should have more freedom and a greater ability to encourage people by giving holidays, to help them come into an area. That was brought dramatically home to me in August 2011 when we had riots in west London. How could the local authority and the Government encourage traders to get back on their feet? We did a lot, and to be fair—though it sticks in my craw to say so—the Mayor of London stepped up to the plate. We all came round together on that occasion, with the Mayor’s relief fund, but would not it have been wonderful if the local authority had been able, without suffering a capitation cost, to provide the opportunity for people to go back to the high streets on a rate-free or rate holiday basis?

I have said that the high street is changing; there are premises on the high street nowadays that we would simply not have recognised previously. There are showrooms for online providers, which I never thought I would see. There are places where people can deliver and collect parcels. I am not a great customer for fine clothing but it is quite good to be able to pop into a shop to see what a suit looks like. In my case obviously any suit would be an improvement, but it is good for people to be able to see the goods and not just to have their order whispering through the ether on the internet.

I have a couple of things to ask the Minister. First, I ask him to look at the high street in its totality and not just from the point of view of business rates and charity shops, important as those issues are. Will he consider it from the point of view of transport? The second thing that any trader I talk to on my patch mentions, after business rates, is parking. We must address that issue. I apologise, because I appreciate that York and Fylde have powerful cases, and powerful advocates to make them, but the problem in London is horrendous. Stop and shop schemes and other developments like that are very important. The issue is one on which the Minister, for whom I have a lot of respect, needs to do some cross-departmental work with the Department for Transport, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and various other agencies, to pull things together.

We also need relaxation of the use classes orders. At present, the variation that local authorities have been given has not been effective. Local authorities do not have the ability to use the old classifications they could use before; and the consequence is a proliferation of a particular sort of trader. As the former leader of one of the largest councils in London, Mr Chope, you probably know more about this than I do; however, I understand that there are restrictions on funeral parlours and off-licences, but no general restrictions. Why cannot the local authority have some input into the range, type and style of premises opening on the high street? I have no objection to having 29 cappuccino bars in the high street—but frankly it is 27 too many. I am not sure that we need them. I appreciate that the flinty-eyed, hard-hearted Adam Smith devotees on the Government Benches might say, “Let the market decide”—that is fine, but I think the market can work with the state and the council on this, in everybody’s interest.

I want to see the continuation of what is, in fact, a renaissance of the high street. I want to see that not only on Pitshanger Lane, which is a wonderful place that I would advise anyone to visit, but on Greenford Avenue, Greenford Road and Yeading Lane. I want to see it throughout my constituency and throughout the country, from Fylde to York and everywhere else. To do that, we need the chance to take it seriously.

The renaissance of the high street has not been easy. It is the result of a great deal of work from a lot of dedicated councils and councillors and, above all, local people, local traders and the local community. They need a little bit of help and encouragement. We are looking for a bit of fiscal generosity in the Budget, in order to encourage the people on the high street who are holding the line at the present time and enable them to expand and extend what is, after all, an absolute miracle; it is not only a renaissance. Look at the modern high street: it is a sight to behold. When looking at the modern high street, we must look at it in Ealing.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire

In Skelmersdale, we would love a high street. There are plans for a town centre development that currently consist of just one building, yet the owners of that building are fighting tooth and nail to stop the development, despite 90% of the retail spend going outside of Skelmersdale. Does my hon. Friend agree that sometimes the protection of individual interests, as in that case, damages the wider benefits for all residents and the community? The town and its community should come first, and we need extra help to make that happen.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

If I have learnt one thing in my many, many years in politics, it is to never comment on internal Skelmersdale matters; that has been my watchword. Fortunately, the area is represented by an excellent Member of Parliament, and I have every confidence in my hon. Friend’s analysis.

I will close by making one last request: will the Minister consider the reinstatement of the retail rate relief scheme, which provided relief to all businesses with a rateable value of £50,000 or less? It was a good scheme that everybody supported, and it was very helpful. I thank the Minister for his work, particularly on the Great British High Street competition. He is something of a legend in Pitshanger Lane, and he can have a free cup of coffee in many a premise there, but I ask him to consider the reinstatement of the retail rate relief scheme.

Photo of Simon Danczuk Simon Danczuk Labour, Rochdale 10:12 am, 1st March 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank Mark Menzies for securing this important debate. I was not going to comment on charity shops, but I thought he made some extremely interesting points on them, some of which I have made in the past.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary small shops group, I regard these issues as very important. The high street plays an important part in the economic, cultural and social make-up of our communities. However, one of the single largest challenges that those on the high street face is the business rates they currently have to pay. That tax is completely out of touch with the economic reality, particularly in places such as Rochdale, where some businesses are paying bills that are three times their rent.

In the 2013 autumn statement, the Chancellor introduced business rate relief for a two-year period between April 2014 and March 2016. For the first year, that provided a discount of up to £1,000, which then increased by an extra £500. The scheme provided some much needed relief to more than 900 businesses in Rochdale, and it has had a tangible positive effect. Without it, some shops would have definitely gone under, and the total relief in Rochdale has been just more than £1 million.

I welcomed that proposal with open arms when it was announced, but it needs to continue. Unfortunately, businesses will be receiving a letter outlining that that support is to stop after 31 March 2016. I believe that that is a big mistake. Many of those benefiting from the relief have used it to invest in their shops and employ more staff. The money does not get diverted through some obscure offshore account; it gets spent in our communities, where it has a direct positive impact.

Rochdale has been leading the way with its own bespoke business rate relief scheme for new start-ups. In the first 12 months, the scheme provided an 80% rate relief. For the next 12 months, new start-ups were given a 50% reduction. Rochdale is now looking to extend the scheme for a third year and roll it out in the constituency of my hon. Friend Liz McInnes.

The scheme has provided much-needed support for constituents such as Dale Nugent, who runs Rochdale Mobility, a shop selling wheelchairs and mobility scooters for the disabled. Under the scheme, Dale has been paying business rates of just £2,000 a year, on top of his rent. However, that is set to end in March, and with the Government withdrawing their relief support, he will now end up with a business rates bill of £8,000 a year. That could put him out of business. Dale provides a vital service for many disabled people in Rochdale. His customers cannot just pop to Oldham or Bury as easily as other people. He is a good, friendly business owner; his customers like to pop in and have a chat with him, but because of the Government’s failure on business rates, his vital business could be in jeopardy.

The council tax relief scheme only provides a temporary fix and is limited in terms of helping to fill empty shops on key streets. We need a radical reform of the rating system. I support the recommendation from the Association of Convenience Stores that all small businesses should be removed from the business rates system completely. That would have two tangible effects. First, it would allow small businesses to increase their investment in their business, increase growth and thrive in their community. Secondly, it would reduce the current pressures facing the Valuation Office Agency and create a more efficient scheme for business rates collection. I would also like to see the ability for local authorities to vary their rates upwards as well as downwards, which they can do now. They could then, for example, increase rates on out-of-town sites and use that increase to offset rates on the main high street.

The hon. Member for Fylde made a number of important points about charity shops. We are set to see the complete devolution of business rates to local authorities. If local authorities are not given more freedom to set business rates—perhaps increasing them for charity shops or other shops—and to regulate the high street, the devolution is not really fair or adequate in terms of giving local authorities the powers they should have if they have the burden of carrying business rates. That is an important point. Another proposal that I believe would help the high street is reducing the periods between revaluations of business rates, which has already been mentioned. Five years is far too long, and three years might be more appropriate.

Finally, let me finish by saying that I do not agree with relaxing Sunday trading laws at all. There is no cultural, social or economic argument for it.

Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Opposition Whip (Commons) 10:17 am, 1st March 2016

I am delighted to be able to speak in this important debate, secured by Mark Menzies.

As far as I am concerned, high streets are only going to survive as long as the shopping experience they offer is better than the one offered elsewhere. To me, that experience includes an element of convenience, such as affordable close parking, which hon. Members have mentioned, and a variety of shops within easy walking distance of one another. There is also a social element to the experience, as the cafés, bars and pubs that are also part of our high streets are places where people can meet and relax. The important thing about our high streets is that we get a personal service. We have face-to-face interaction and we get to know our local shopkeepers.

Retail is a competitive business, and it is no business for the weak-hearted. Most independent shops such as the ones in my constituency—in Cockermouth and Maryport, for example—are run on modest finances, and they make their owners a living rather than a fortune because margins and profits are tight. Government policies aimed at supporting and reinvigorating our high streets need to focus on reducing the cost burdens on retailers. We have talked about business rates, but the Government need to increase the opportunities for business owners to invest in and expand their businesses.

The two town centres in my constituency that I would like to talk about briefly are Cockermouth and Maryport. Maryport has a wonderful town centre, with fantastic examples of Georgian and Victorian buildings. It has a lovely harbour and a proud Roman history, and I would like to invite everybody to come to the blues festival held there in the last weekend of July.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

We’re going to be busy, aren’t we?

Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Opposition Whip (Commons)

We certainly are.

Despite all that has happened in recent years, Maryport still struggles. It has some excellent independent shops, but it also has a lot of charity shops, which have been mentioned, and too many empty units to be the thriving centre that it deserves to be.

Last time I was there, a local shopkeeper said to me that she was fed up with people thinking that her shop was a charity shop, because there are too many charity shops in the area where her shop is. Specialist independent shops are the anchor of our high streets and are a key factor in encouraging people to come in and shop there, and that also includes local pharmacies. We have an excellent local pharmacy in Cockermouth called Allison’s, which is really concerned about some of the Government’s proposals on pharmacies, so if that could be taken into consideration, I would be grateful.

We need to look at the significant increase in internet shopping and the impact that that has on our town centres. Town centres can compete by offering the great shopping experience that I have talked about, but internet companies really do need to pay the same taxes, so that they do not have the different profit advantages that they currently have.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker Conservative, Worcester

On that point, does the hon. Lady agree that the Government could, in their reform of business rates, alter the balance of the burden between category A high-street retail and warehousing? All those internet companies need warehousing and delivery to get their goods to market, but category A high-street retail currently has a premium, which belongs in the 1960s rather than in the 21st century.

Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and I completely agree.

Cockermouth also has a beautiful high street. It is well known for speciality shops and art galleries, and its tree-lined Main Street has a statue of Lord Mayo, who was formerly the MP—he was later assassinated, so I am hoping that history does not repeat itself.

What would I particularly like the Government to do? The first thing, as we have said, is to make sure that business rates do not discourage small, independent shopkeepers. I was therefore also disappointed, as other hon. Members were, to hear that the retail rate relief scheme is not going to be continued beyond April this year.

Cockermouth chamber of trade and commerce has talked about the business improvement district schemes. It wanted to set one up and looked into it, but were advised by Allerdale borough council that the costs of administration meant that only shops with a rateable value greater than £11,000 would be included. That cut out most of the shops in Cockermouth and meant that it was just not feasible, so it would be good if the Government could look at how smaller independent retailers are able to participate in a BID scheme to help to improve the local shopping experience.

Finally—I will wind up, because I know another hon. Member still wants to speak—I make a plea to the Government about business insurance. I am sure that everyone here is aware that Cockermouth flooded terribly just before Christmas. That was the second time in six years. Main Street was also completely dug up in 2014, mainly to do with the drainage work that was needed following the previous floods, so flooding has had an enormous impact there. Some shopkeepers there have already said that they are not going to re-open, partly because of the stress, but a lot of it is to do with the lack of insurance. Others are privately telling me that they cannot do this again. If we do not sort out insurance for shops in relation to flooding, and particularly for small independent retailers, Cockermouth Main Street as it is now will disappear. That cannot be allowed to happen. It would be a crime, so I urge the Minister, please, to talk to me about this in the future—I would be really appreciative if he did.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality) 10:23 am, 1st March 2016

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Chope. I congratulate Mark Menzies on bringing this important issue to Westminster Hall, and I thank him very much for giving us all an opportunity to participate. This issue affects each and every MP across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It affects my constituents, and we all care about this issue.

This is a very exciting time for my high street in Newtownards. As we speak, workmen are literally outside my office there, digging up the old and bringing in the new, with the new public realm scheme in the town. Stephen Pound has had the opportunity to see that at first hand.

At this stage, I commend the chair of the chamber of trade in Newtownards for her work. She is a lady called Leigh Nelson, whom the hon. Gentleman and I both met. We know the hard work that she puts into the chamber of trade. She employs 16 people in Specsavers. The town of Newtownards is resurgent with growth and there are very few empty shops left now; it is a success story. I understand that the figures show that in the past couple of years, Newtownards town has been one of the busiest towns in the whole of Northern Ireland, and again, that is down to the local, indigenous small and medium-sized enterprises there, such as Wardens, Knotts, Kells and Excel.

Some Members have talked about online shopping, which our high street has adapted to. We have ensured that we have made the changes, and Excel in Newtownards is a supreme example of that. It has a lovely high-street frontage, which attracts many people in, but it has also adapted its business to being online, the work on which is done in the back of the shop and in a warehouse elsewhere. That business came from nothing, but that one shop now has online sales in excess of half a million pounds from across the whole world, from as far away as China, the United States, Hong Kong and Malaysia. That is where the business is going, and it is a tremendous success story.

At the same time in Newtownards, we also have multinationals making up the numbers, and it is not the other way round. Hon. Members have referred to balance, and it is so important to get the balance right in the high street. If the balance is right, multinationals can continue alongside the small shops, which can and should continue. Giving the right support to high streets across the UK will help hard-pushed, home-grown talent to showcase their best on our high streets.

Turning to coffee culture, the hon. Member for Ealing North referred to 27 cappuccino coffee outlets—we do not have 27, but we have a lot more than we used to have. We now have a coffee culture in Newtownards that we did not have before, and there is a coffee culture in many towns. I have often said, as the hon. Gentleman will know, that I wonder how they all survive, but they bring people to the centre of the town—we do not have the weather for it, but if we did, we would be the Riviera of Northern Ireland. We have the coffee culture, however: in the centre of Newtownards, there are something like a dozen coffee shops, whereas at one time, there were perhaps two, so that is an example of how things can be done better.

Many of these matters are devolved, as the Minister will know. We have been involved in the Living Over The Shop scheme. That fantastic scheme enables the shops below to be utilised for their benefit to the high street, and at the same time, encourages people to live above them. We can take action in relation to that to ensure that high streets grow.

Our job is to mitigate all the push factors that are pushing people out of town centres and high streets and to enact support for the high street to get people back again. We have to address the issue of better and more affordable parking, as we have in Newtownards, where we have free parking just off the edge of the town. That attracts people to park and do their shopping, and it costs £1 for five hours, so what is happening there is quite good. Comber, Ballynahinch, Saintfield, Killyleagh and other major towns in the area also have some benefits in that respect as well. We also have to address the unsightly appearance of an empty shop front; that does not bring in any rates and is only part of the problem.

I will quickly touch on Sunday trading, as other hon. Members have. I spoke about this to the Minister beforehand, as I did to the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise last week. A number of Government Members are opposed to the measure as well, so the Government should be wary of bringing forward legislation that will not be universally supported by Members of Parliament in all parts of the House. Next week, we will have the opportunity on, I think, Tuesday—and perhaps Wednesday as well—to debate the matter. Sunday trading will not increase sales on the high street. It will displace trade to large, out-of-town retail parks and shopping centres. The current Sunday trading laws are a valued compromise and are supported by two thirds of the general public.

My hon. Friend Gavin Robinson referred to the fact that 52% of local authority chief executives said that they would help large shopping centres and out-of-town retail centres and supermarkets before high streets. Sixty-four per cent of local authority chief executives are concerned about the confusion that devolution of Sunday trading will cause consumers. This change has been thought of, discussed and deliberated on, but it is not the answer. Do not change the laws on Sunday trading. If the Government do, they will regret it. I say humbly and gently to them that they should not pursue something that they will lose on in the Chamber. If they lose on it in the Chamber, next Tuesday will be their day of reckoning when it comes to this issue.

We are elected by normal, everyday people, and it is normal, everyday people who are affected by this. It is the local butcher, the local baker, the local mum popping into the café before the school run and the local builder popping in for his morning tea. The high street is the hub for communities, and it simply cannot go away. It is up to us and all those in Government, at each and every level, to do everything we can to ensure that the high street not only continues to exist, but comes roaring back like the lion that it is—and indeed, the lion that it could be.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities) 10:30 am, 1st March 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank Mark Menzies for securing this important debate. It is important to recognise that the Government cannot do everything to fix the high street, but they can help to ensure that the conditions that allow it to flourish are put in place, whether that involves business rates, insurance, transport or encouraging the community to take ownership.

What the hon. Gentleman said about charity shops was interesting, but I do not agree with everything he said. Going into the details of what they are selling and doing might end up being more burdensome. We must be careful to ensure a balance between big national charities, which provide opportunities for volunteering and other jobs, and small, community-based charities, which may also want shops on the high street to sell their wares and produce their products.

I want to talk about some measures that the Scottish Government have put in place to help to support businesses and the high street, and to create conditions for small businesses to flourish. I agree with Rachael Maskell that high streets should be at the heart of every community. They are not only a place to shop, but a place to meet where valuable social interaction takes place. I am lucky to have in my constituency not only Glasgow’s amazing and vibrant city centre, but several smaller local high streets, most notably Argyle Street in Finnieston and Victoria Road on the Southside. I also have the High Street, which is the historical old part of Glasgow. I am proud to have located my constituency office just off the High Street, because I firmly believe that we should locate to high streets whenever we can.

The Scottish Government, who have embedded the “town centre first” principle and worked with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on that commitment, have said:

“Government, local authorities, the wider public sector, businesses and communities put the health of town centres at the heart of proportionate and best value decision making, seeking to deliver the best local outcomes regarding investment and de-investment decisions, alignment of policies, targeting of available resources to priority town centre sites, and encouraging vibrancy, equality and diversity.”

That is a significant step, because so many public bodies in our country exist in local areas and can form the anchor of town centre strategies. As Stephen Pound said, cycling and pedestrianisation are important to make a greener business community. If people do not have to take cars into town centres and can get to them by public transport or cycling, it is better for everyone because they become greener and more attractive.

The Scottish Government’s approach to our high streets is the town centre action plan from November 2013. It is a long-running strategy and part of what the Government do. Investment has gone into ensuring that action supports the revitalisation of town centres and assists local action—the hon. Member for York Central mentioned this—to support smaller businesses and organisations in the community to do that.

The hon. Member for Ealing North referred to the importance of housing in our town centres. The Scottish Government have set up a £4 million town centre empty homes fund and a £2.75 million town centre housing fund, both of which help local communities to bring life back to town centres. The hon. Member for Fylde may be interested to know that they include Irvine and Ardrossan, which have seen great benefits from those funds, because people have started to come and live there and are therefore using local services. That will have a positive effect in regenerating the towns.

The Scottish Government have also introduced the regeneration capital grant fund, which is significant and has seen great benefits across communities in Scotland. They asked what was wrong with a community and what they could do to support community action and regeneration in the area. In my constituency, the historic Barras market has had investment of £1.4 million, as part of the Calton Barras action plan to bring derelict floor space in the area back into use. Empty shops and buildings in our town centres may become a blight on the area, but Government action to pump-prime and invest in those areas can bring underused places back to life. The Telfer gallery is a great example and is bringing artists’ studios to the heart of the Barras. It is a great opportunity to bring in new people and different types of businesses to improve and enhance what is there already.

The hon. Member for York Central made great mention of the community leading the change in regeneration. In Scotland, we have taken action as part of the town centre action plan to encourage charrettes. The Scottish Government provides up to £20,000 to support charrettes, which are led by community organisations. Most recently, east Pollokshields charrette was led by the local community council and featured a series of workshops on various aspects of community life, housing, facilities, transport, safety, leisure and other community amenities. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Bill Fraser and others on the community council who have driven the change and made it a central part of their plans for the local community. They are leading on this, and it is important that community organisations, individuals and businesses feel that they have a role in changing things, because that is when things works best.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I apologise for my southern ignorance, but I am not familiar with “charrette”. Will the hon. Lady explain what it means?

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities)

I do not think it is a Scottish word. It is a process by which community organisations come together to discuss their future plans for an area, which then become part of the planning process. The community starts on that and builds it together, which is a positive way of doing things.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities)

It seems to be working quite well. It is fairly new to Scotland, but communities have really embraced it. It needs support from local councils and other people, but it is worth doing.

Hon. Members have stressed the importance of business rates in the mix of encouraging community development. The Scottish Government have also accepted that. The fresh start relief was introduced in 2013 and gives occupiers of shops or offices that have been empty for at least a year a 50% discount on their business rates for 12 months. Other reliefs include new start relief of up to 100% to owners and developers of new build empty properties for up to 18 months to encourage speculative development and investment, and to help to increase the supply of new premises for businesses in communities. These reliefs are provided on top of the small business bonus scheme, which has been excellent in Scotland.

Simon Danczuk mentioned business rates and removing them for small businesses. The small business bonus scheme applies to businesses with a rateable value of £35,000, with a scaled relief system up to £35,000. If the rateable value is under £10,000, no business rates are payable, which is really good for small businesses, particularly in these difficult times, and has been a great success in encouraging small business development. Across Scotland, the small business bonus scheme delivers rate reductions for 100,000 firms, with 46% of rates bills removed or reduced. Councils in Scotland also have the ability to reduce rates through the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, so greater flexibility is provided.

The Scottish Government are moving towards a review of non-domestic rates to make sure we are supporting investment and growth in Scotland. The Scottish Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that town centres and high streets across the country are hubs of innovation, community cohesion and social interaction.

Hon. Members today have referred to opportunities to offer something different for our town centres, not just malls, to which the hon. Member for Ealing North referred. There has to be a range of different things, whether coffee shops in Strangford or jazz festivals and Mary Portas. Different things are going on in different parts of the country. There are many different opportunities to offer something different from the large malls, with a bit of additional value to make town centres somewhere that people go to and, more importantly, spend money in. The Government have a big role to play in creating the conditions for that to happen.

Photo of Liz McInnes Liz McInnes Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 10:38 am, 1st March 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. It is also a pleasure to be asked to sum up such a good debate and to follow Alison Thewliss, who made useful points about what happens in Scotland. I thank Mark Menzies for securing this debate. It is important because, after all, we all have town centres, high streets and markets in our constituencies, and they affect us all.

The hon Gentleman referred to the Portas review, which I am very conscious of. I remember my days as a local councillor when we all got excited about applying for funding. There was a lot of competition to be a Portas town. Sadly, the impact of the review seems to have fizzled out, which is a shame. As the hon. Gentleman said, there were 28 recommendations, many of which have yet to be implemented. The important point is that the Portas review was a pilot scheme, and normally one would expect action after a pilot scheme. Mary Portas has expressed her own dissatisfaction. She told The Mail on Sunday last year:

“It seems Government isn’t really serious about getting behind the small businesses on our high streets. I really am very frustrated.”

I share her frustration. It was a good scheme. I would like the Government to pick up on the scheme and address some of her recommendations. She made good points about various things, which, according to the speeches made today, are being done almost despite the Portas review—they are being done independently.

The hon. Gentleman talked about charity shops. I am a little concerned about making charity shops the villain of the piece. I think it is better to have a shop that is occupied rather than a shop standing empty on the high street, and charity shops do serve that purpose.

Photo of Mark Menzies Mark Menzies Conservative, Fylde

I want it to be clear for the record that I do not think that charity shops are the villain of the piece. My point is that where charities, often large national charities, can use their market position to force out independents and prevent them from entering into lease agreements and so on, because they are always offered 10-year leases, it is an uneven market. Charity shops have a very valuable role to play. I just want local councils to be given the power over classification.

Photo of Liz McInnes Liz McInnes Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, which brings us back to the point that local councils need to be given the power to decide what goes in their high streets—a point that nearly everyone who has spoken has made.

Demos did a report in 2013 called “Giving Something Back”. It found that charity shops boosted local businesses and helped to combat unemployment, with more than 80% of the volunteers saying that they were using their shifts to gain retail experience as a path to paid employment. Charity shops also address social isolation. Many staff said that the shops acted as a sort of community centre. Charity shops do have lots of benefits. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me on those points. I accept that perhaps it was the wrong choice of words to cast charity shops as the villain of the piece but, as with most things, there are advantages and disadvantages. It is up to councils to provide some balance, and I hope the Government will enable them to do that.

Several hon. Members mentioned the non-renewal of business rate relief. That has been a big issue in the borough of Rochdale—the borough that I share with my hon. Friend Simon Danczuk. He raised the issue of business rate reliefs. The leader of Rochdale Borough Council, Richard Farnell, has said:

“Almost 1,000 shops in Rochdale will be hit with a £1,500 bill because of the government’s sly move to axe business rate relief for retail premises—sneaked through in the autumn budget.”

That could force several small shops, particularly those already struggling, out of business.

Rochdale, like Cockermouth and York, suffered the floods. Many of the small businesses had only just been set up because of the excellent scheme pioneered by Rochdale Council to reduce business rates for start-ups—many of the shops had not been there very long. People can imagine the demoralisation. I went round the day after the floods, and the shop owners were in tears. They just stood there, surveying their ruined stock. They had been trading for only a few months. Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Workington (Sue Hayman), have made the point again and again about Flood Re applying to small businesses. I would appreciate a response from the Minister on those points. In order to keep our high streets viable, it is important to enable businesses to get a reasonable level of insurance against floods.

My hon. Friend Stephen Pound gave us a great verbal tour along Pitshanger Lane. He also highlighted the problems of inward-looking shopping malls and out-of-town shopping. I am sure that everyone would agree that those are real issues for the vibrancy and life of our high streets.

I have talked about the business rate relief issue in Rochdale. One innovation by Rochdale Council has been to provide three hours of free parking in the town centre. Again, that was a Portas recommendation.

Photo of Liz McInnes Liz McInnes Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

The Minister agrees with me, which I am pleased about. The point has been made several times that Government cannot dictate to councils how they run their high streets, but they can certainly enable. That could involve giving some assistance to councils and sharing best practice on how to provide free parking without losing out on the funding needed to maintain the car parks. I am sure we could all share best practice in that respect.

My hon. Friend the Member for Workington talked about the social element of our high streets and town centres. That is an important aspect of the issue. This is not just about shops, but about cafés, pubs and bars. Many comments have been made about coffee shops, but they do provide a focal point, a social hub, where people can meet. We need to recognise the new model of high streets: they are much more than just a retail experience.

I want to touch on Sunday trading. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North made the important point that we had a pilot during the Olympic games, when Sunday trading laws were relaxed. That took business away from small shops and did not increase footfall. The same people were spending the same amount of money, but just over longer hours and in the bigger shops, rather than the smaller shops. I therefore reiterate the warning that tinkering with Sunday trading laws is not the way to revitalise our high streets. The Association of Convenience Stores is against it, 67% of the British public support our current Sunday trading hours, and 91% of shop workers are against any relaxation of the laws. Additionally, it was not in the Conservative party manifesto. I think this is an issue that the Government should hold back on. It will not be a popular move.

Jim Shannon, who unfortunately has had to leave the Chamber for a meeting, talked about the combination of high street retail and online shopping. Our high streets are constantly changing. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North referred to shops becoming showcases for internet shopping. We have to accept that things are changing and we need to modernise. Government policy needs to change to reflect that and we need to give councils the powers to enable our high streets to survive and thrive.

As I said, the impact of internet shopping has been referred to. It was mentioned on the radio this morning that people now have less stuff than they did several years ago. That is due to the digital age and the fact that we do not need so much stuff—we have reached peak stuff. With that in mind, I invite the Minister to respond to what has been a very interesting and lively debate.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government) 10:48 am, 1st March 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mark Menzies on initiating this important debate. It has been an extremely good debate, and I thank him for bringing this matter to the House, because it provides an important opportunity for me to set out the Government’s vision for the future of our high streets and town centres. I am passionate about our high streets and town centres and how important they are to local communities and local economies. This is a critical moment for our town centres, and I am dedicated to giving local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and local communities access to the tools that they need to transform their local areas.

High streets and town centres play an essential role in facilitating the creation of jobs and nurturing small businesses. In fact, a recent Association of Town and City Management report showed that town centres contribute nearly £600 billion to UK plc each year. The Government have taken significant action to support town centres to drive growth. Since 2010, we have helped to create more than 360 town teams, and given more than £18 million to a number of towns. That is on top of a range of steps including supporting the phenomenally successful “Love your local market” campaign.

We have introduced a package of important financial reliefs for small businesses, such as a £1.4 billion package of small business rates relief. We are now reviewing the future structure of business rates. That all goes hand in hand with reforms on parking and the lifting of planning restrictions to increase flexibility of use on high streets, making it easier for high streets to adapt to the needs of their communities. Additional rights now support click and collect, which has not been the enemy of the high street as all had feared. Rather, research is showing that click and collect is driving people back to the high street.

News shows that high streets across the country have fought back valiantly from the great recession. Recent data show positive footfall trends in most locations, and year-on-year retail sales have increased for 33 consecutive months—the longest period of sustained growth since 2008. According to recent statistics, the national vacancy rate is now at a level not seen since December 2009.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

On that point, has the Minister done any research on the impact of the relaxation of the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987, to which he referred in passing? I have not seen any beneficial consequences but I am interested in whether any analysis or work has been done that could be shared with the House.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I have a number of points to cover but I will say, very quickly, that the relaxation is showing benefits, particularly where redundant offices are being converted for residential use. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, that is now an important part of the high street. Areas that do not want to go along with the relaxation of planning regulations can invoke an article 4 direction if they so wish.

I am keen to continue celebrating the passion and commitment found in high streets and town centres up and down the country. We have recently celebrated the success of the Great British High Street competition 2015, and have been bowled over by the quantity and quality of the entrants. This year, applications almost doubled as more than 230 high streets applied. I hope that figure will more than double again for next year’s competition and I am looking forward to seeing lots of entries from across the country.

I hope that a number of hon. Members here will promote their local areas. We have had a healthy spirit of competition in the Chamber today. It is good to see Lancashire against Yorkshire. It is not necessarily the war of the roses but many of our local areas competing, which is healthy. Examples include Bishy Road in York, which was the winner of this year’s competition, as Rachael Maskell mentioned. By working collaboratively, local traders have turned around an area that was once run down and suffering from chronic vacancies into a community hub where local people now shop, meet their friends and tweet about how great it is to go to the famous street parties. That is great news. As I understand it, the traders are even looking into developing a community app to allow people to browse their shops and see whether their friends are nearby on Bishy Road, which is a fabulous idea.

Public reaction to the Great British High Street awards has been absolutely incredible. Nearly 200,000 people voted in the competition and there were more than 30,000 tweets about it, which shows just how much people value and care for their local high streets.

While there is a lot of good news for high streets, in some places retail spaces that have seen better days remain. The Government cannot and will not rest on their laurels, and I am working hard to develop a range of support to help high streets thrive. I strongly believe that we have reached a crossroads for high streets and town centres. We need to act to make them fit for purpose for today’s consumer.

My vision is for high streets to be vibrant and viable places where people live, shop, use services and spend their leisure time during the day and in the evening. The Government aim to promote mixed high streets with a stronger range of retail and leisure and, crucially, more residential opportunities.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker Conservative, Worcester

The Minister is making an excellent and reassuring speech. He mentioned the residential opportunities—the opportunities to live around our high streets. Does he agree that more could be done to support the “living over the shop” agenda, ensuring that we convert more of the empty space above shops into residential accommodation?

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As usual, he makes a pertinent and important point. It is certainly something that I am looking into currently. The Government are helping people to achieve their dream of home ownership as Government-backed schemes have helped more than 200,000 households to buy their homes since 2010. High streets and town centres are great places where many young people may well want to get on the ladder to buy their own homes, and it is an important use of the brownfield sites that many of us have in our constituencies.

I am working with retail leaders and the sector through the future high streets forum to deliver a range of initiatives to support high streets. Together with my co-chair, Simon Roberts of Boots, we will be leading work to help high streets to restructure and become more responsive to today’s consumer. John Walden, the chief executive of Argos, is helping the high streets to digitise and we will be looking at ways to help high streets to learn from the finalists of this year’s Great British High Street competition.

In addition, we are looking at what more we can do to strengthen the influence that business improvement districts have over decision making in our local areas. We have consulted on changes to private parking to encourage people to drive to their local shops without fear of being hit by unfair penalties. I will soon be announcing the outcome of that work.

We are extending Sunday trading hours to help meet the needs of local businesses and communities, and to help them compete as shopping habits change. Online sales continue to grow at a significant rate and we want local retailers to have the flexibility to adjust their hours to enable them to compete.

I do not have time to cover all the points in the debate but I would like to cover some of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde made a pertinent speech in which he mentioned charity shops. Charitable organisations play an important role in all our constituencies and bring in about 200,000 volunteers who work in our communities. I hear what he says about business rates relief for charity shops. The Government have no plans to change that but we are looking carefully at all business rate reliefs. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will report back in the Budget. My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde made an important point about new goods and ensuring that charity retail relief is not abused. He made some sensible comments and there is merit in looking into that.

Hon. Members made a number of points about business rates, and I am sure they have all those comments on the record. The Chancellor will be delivering a Budget shortly and I am sure that the Treasury will have listened intently to today’s debate. The hon. Member for York Central made some important points about Bishy Road including on the importance of strong local leadership, and on local areas creating an identity and offering something that the internet and out-of-town shopping cannot offer. That is important and we all need to understand that local areas need to do that.

A number of other questions were asked and I will, perhaps, write to hon. Members about a number of them. It is quite obvious that this is the latest in a series of debates that shows the importance of high streets and town centres to our local communities. It shows the enthusiasm that hon. Members have for our town centres. I will take away a number of the points raised today because it is a fact that the Government are committed to town centres and high streets, and to looking at ways in which we can help local areas to improve their town centres and high streets for their communities.

Photo of Mark Menzies Mark Menzies Conservative, Fylde 10:59 am, 1st March 2016

I thank the Minister for his response.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).