I extend my thanks to Liz Twist for obtaining the debate and introducing it so well, and to the other hon. Members who have taken part. I shall probably echo their comments, although obviously I will give mine a flavour of Northern Ireland, because I always do—or, specifically, of my constituency’s main town of Newtownards.
At a time when it is easier and quicker to buy online, I am thankful that the high street in Newtownards is bucking the trend and thriving. That is due in large part to a council that wants to be involved and helpful. It co-operates with the local chamber of trade, which is forward thinking and absolutely invested in the future of the high street. Rather than staying the same and trying to hold on to what is there, it is focused on moving with the times. The benefits are clear. I had the opportunity of a meeting with the chamber of trade about six weeks ago. The members have an interesting vision for the high street; it is about the shopping experience. It is more than just shopping online as some people do, but it is also more than just going to the high street.
In my constituency, those over 55 have a certain level of disposable income, so the high street and traditional shops are well utilised; but the chamber of trade vision is that there should, at the same time, be a shopping experience for families. David Hanson mentioned that idea. The vision is about having somewhere for the children to go, green and attractive areas in the town, and a bit of coffee culture. All those things make the experience of going shopping more than it would have been in the past, in my younger days. What is exciting is that the chamber of trade and Ards and North Down Borough Council have the same vision. It is important to encourage that when we can.
There are shops that have a face on the high street and an online service as well. We must look at different ways of doing things. An advantage for some of the shops on my high street is that they do probably 60% of their trade on the high street and 40% online. They do business online across the whole world—in the United States, the far east, Canada and Africa. Their products are attractive in those places, and they find avenues to sell and be promoted there.
People have busy lives. My parliamentary aide works until 5, collects her children and brings them home to begin to make their dinner at 5.30. They eat their dinner, have story time and their bath, and then they are in bed for 7.30. She then is faced with the dilemma of whether to go to the shopping centre and run into Asda, or to sit in the comfort of her home and order things online. Late-night opening in shopping centres used to be busy, but now people have an option. Local businesses miss out when busy people go for the easy option of shopping online and ordering from Tesco or Asda. All those shops now do home deliveries.
The easy option may not be safest option. As the debate on electrical safety yesterday highlighted, online retailers do not have the same safety scrutiny as physical shops. That should be a consideration in any retail strategy, as was emphasised in the half-hour debate yesterday led by Carolyn Harris. We need to remind people that going down to the high street on Saturday can be much more fulfilling than scrolling down an online list. As trade changes, with more online sales, it is great to see the plans for our local high street to adapt. I have invited the Minister—I think we are waiting for a date to be confirmed—to come and see all the good things I have been telling her about Newtownards. We look forward to meeting the hon. Lady on that day.
What does the shop in the high street need? It is important to have a better and quicker planning system for improvements, and to support fresh looks and entice more people. We are fortunate as we have had a Saturday market for 20 or 30 years, which attracts many people to Newtownards and its traditional shops. Newtownards is one of the better towns in Northern Ireland when it comes to choice, variety and cost—and all the things that are important in shopping. A mix of shopping and accommodation would be helpful for the evening and coffee culture. Indeed, in the past we had a scheme, the living over the shop scheme, that supported the provision of accommodation on the high street. The right hon. Member for Delyn mentioned it; I did not know he had been the Minister responsible, but I am pleased that it was his initiative, and I am deeply grateful to him. I promoted it over and over in my time on the council and on the Assembly—and only today do I know that he was the man who brought it forward. I thank him on behalf of my constituency. It is so important that empty space is used in a good way, and that was a way to utilise it very well.
The business rates have to be revised. Many stores in the town need assistance, as their rates are truly a significant part of their bills. The ministerial visit will enable the shopkeepers in the town of Ards to highlight the wonderful things that are being done, and to make some input into how Government can restore the high street and encourage online businesses to have a face on the high street. We are indeed fortunate in Ards that the centre of town has wide variety, with many different types of businesses from clothes and shoes to opticians and solicitors. There are areas of redevelopment such as the South Street Precinct, which is providing approximately 100 jobs. That is among the things I would like the Minister to see.
Many stores in our town centre are doing a great trade online. Ards is holding its own, but now is the time to take steps forward and to secure the future of the town by adapting and moving with the times. Retail strategy needs to include all of the things I have outlined. I believe that we are on the precipice of greatness, with many high street businesses wanting to keep their footprint, but moving online. Now is the time to make some input into the situation, with a fit-for-purpose UK-wide retail strategy.