I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend.
Disposable income is one of the big issues. Online sales are also a big issue. The cost of shops and rent and business rates is certainly another, as is the impact of out-of-town shopping, which employs many people in my constituency. Many of my constituents work at Cheshire Oaks in the constituency of my hon. Friend Justin Madders, but that does not hide the fact that big, out-of-town shopping centres are dragging people away from smaller towns. In many towns, the loss of Government offices such as the local DWP office or the local post office and doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries stop the footfall going through towns, which presents a challenge.
This year, we have seen a 2.4% fall in the number of staff employed in the retail sector. That does not sound like a great deal, but 74,000 people who were employed at the beginning of the year are now not employed in the retail sector. Vacancy levels in town centres are now at 10%, the highest for four years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon mentioned, some big key employers in many of our areas are folding. I want the Government to recognise that shops are a generator of economic value, so we need to look at what we can do to support them. My hon. Friend mentioned the USDAW’s “Industrial Strategy for Retail”, a blueprint of ideas that are worth discussion. I hope the Minister will focus on some of those ideas, and see whether they are applicable to Government and the devolved Administrations.
I have a couple of points that I want to throw into the mix. First, we need to look at how we can support the maintenance of key drivers of footfall in town centres. That means the Government need to look at supporting post offices, Government businesses and doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries in town centres. They need to ensure that we have an offer in town centres that brings people in because, as has been said, town centres have to be places of destination as well as places of shopping. We can do that by anchoring key Government facilities in town centres and by adding value to town centres through local council and local government support. For example, we can improve the built environment and plant trees and bushes. If shops are empty, finding ways in which the local council and others can use exhibition and display space to bring people in to make them places of venture is particularly important.
Like the hon. Member for Henley, I want to see integrated issues on planning and look at whether we can find ways to bring houses as well as shops into town centres. When I was honoured to be a Minister in Northern Ireland, I oversaw a scheme whereby we used space above shops for single people and newly married couples to live, ensuring they could use the town centre while also filling empty premises.
The USDAW strategy suggests looking at the online shopping tax. Tesco’s chief executive has indicated he wants to look at the potential for a shop tax. An online tax might be a 1% or 2% levy on online transactions, which could help to balance the initiative towards people buying in retail. I do not want to put the cost up for consumers, but it is worthy of consideration.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon mentioned car parking and transport links, which are extremely important, as is the issue of business rates. In my part of the world in Wales, we have a small business rate relief scheme that provides rate relief for businesses up to £6,000 of rateable value with 100% relief, and we have a high street relief scheme that supplies £23.6 million of rate relief for shops in town centres. That helps anchor and keep businesses in those town centres.
Finally, I will give some examples. In Holywell in my constituency, we recently lost all of the banks bar one, but, with the help of a company called Square, we had some potential in the town centre, where we enabled people to use machines for online transactions. That was provided free by Square to help support retailers in the town. We have had support through a range of activities, festivals, theatre and art groups trying to bring footfall into the towns. All of that is part of a retail strategy. It requires not just the shops but local councils, Government and private sector organisations trying to support a focus on retail, and not a drawing away from retail. I commend USDAW’s industrial strategy and recommend that the Minister look at some of the ideas. I look forward to her comments on things that have been raised today.