I beg to move,
That this House has considered high street heritage and empty properties in conservation areas.
I am delighted to have secured this debate and to hold it today with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. Five years ago, I led a similar debate on town centre heritage action zones. At the time, it had recently been announced that Stoke-on-Trent would enjoy a zone that, while encompassing every surviving bottle oven in the Potteries, would focus mostly on Longton in my constituency, one of the six historic pottery towns that make up the modern city of Stoke-on-Trent, and home to the largest localised collection of bottle ovens.
Since the Clean Air Act 1956, the bottle ovens are no longer fired, but they are key to our identity as the Potteries, the authentic world capital of ceramics. They are the picture-postcard view—or, more likely these days, the selfie. As I said five years ago, the paradox of the international tourism market is that when people can travel anywhere in the world, they actually want to go to places that are unlike anywhere else on earth. Well, there is nowhere in the world like Stoke-on-Trent for bottle ovens, and there is nowhere in Stoke-on-Trent like Longton for bottle ovens.
The trouble is that if a bottle oven cannot be used for firing pots, what can be done with it? We have lost hundreds of them while struggling to find an answer to that question. The work of the HAZ in bringing together the owners of the remaining bottle ovens with local academics, experts from national bodies and the city council has been really positive in helping to exchange ideas and build a more coherent narrative for the role of historic ovens in our city’s future sense of place.
I am delighted that Stoke-on-Trent will be the home of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ new flagship arm’s length body, the Office for Place. I will say more about that later in my speech, but I note that its mission is to help councils to create beautiful, successful and enduring places. I have to say that our city council does indeed need help, and we must recognise that. There is a shortage of officers with the right skills in the field of heritage—a skills shortage that hampers councils of all political colours across the country. Historic England has experienced similar issues in filling highly skilled roles. It also hampers us as Members of Parliament when we need expert information that is just not there, whether for responding to consultations or bidding for additional funding.
For example, Stoke-on-Trent City Council recently ran a public consultation on the boundaries of each conservation area in Stoke-on-Trent. I responded to that consultation on the proposals for the conservation areas in my constituency, but time and again I was hampered because no character appraisal was available for the conservation areas within their existing boundaries. Such appraisals should surely be the basis for deciding what would be in character for any new boundaries to embrace. Where appraisals are available, they are sometimes decades old.
This really matters, because conservation areas must be meaningful; there must be some evident logic about what they are there to conserve. Optimally, in Stoke-on-Trent they will actively conserve and enhance the historic fabric of our city, with its unique character as the Potteries—the world capital of ceramics, and one modern city of six historic towns and numerous subsumed but distinct villages. An expert character appraisal is vital to determine how successful conservation areas are in achieving such an aim.
In the end, for this particular consultation I relied on my own appraisal from my years of being out and about and getting to know the character of each area and how areas are defined in the heads of local people. This is not necessarily how they appear to be defined in some cases, in which the areas defined seem to be aimed primarily at achieving convenient, bureaucratic tidiness.
There was a particularly ludicrous suggestion that certain out-of-character post-war housing in Fenton should be brought into the Albert Square conservation area. No explanation has been given as to why no character appraisal of any age is available for this conservation area, despite it having been declared in 1987. That really matters, because bringing someone’s house into a conservation area is so restrictive. If it is not obviously for heritage reasons, it looks arbitrary. This unpredictability as to what the council wants to achieve hinders necessary economic development.
Some of our current conservation areas are visibly in a very poor state. The focus should be on getting them into a much better state, rather than simply widening their boundaries or merging them for no good reason, other than perhaps to be seen to be doing something on paper that ticks the heritage box. But something on paper is not enough. Ultimately, both the enforcement action and the resources needed to address properties of concern have been insufficient.
Virtually no enforcement took place during the pandemic, and things have not got much better since. Effective enforcement action needs to be properly resourced, with increased use of section 215 notices. As the Minister will know, the Government guidance makes it clear that such powers should be used proactively, rather than just being complaint-led. Indeed, the guidance also makes it clear that authorities that use the powers proactively have been more successful in achieving wider regeneration benefits. The guidance says:
“Experience has shown that authorities that interpret the scope of s215 widely also tend to be more proactive and successful at using the powers to achieve wider regeneration objectives.”
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. This topic is close to my heart, and we can see from the Members present that the midlands and the Black Country feel strongly about heritage buildings.
Members may be aware of what happened to the Crooked House pub. With your indulgence, Ms Fovargue, I will bring up some of the related issues. On the role of local authorities in all this, my research has quickly established that it is voluntary for councils to maintain a register of heritage buildings—not all local councils do it. In fact, when councils do have a register, it is a document that sits on a shelf and can quite often be forgotten about. What does my hon. Friend think about making it compulsory for all local authorities to have a register of buildings that might tick the box for being of heritage value, and for that register to be reviewed annually or biannually to make sure it is maintained and up to date? Unfortunately, the Crooked House was not on such a local authority register.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. I very much agree that more should be done to document important historic buildings, because they are very emotive. That shocking incident in particular—the destruction of what was an important local historic asset in the south of Staffordshire—has had a massive impact on the local community. We have seen a massive outpouring because of the damage that has been done. I agree with my hon. Friend about the important role that local authorities should play when it comes to heritage and the maintenance of a designated list of the historic buildings within local areas.
Sticks like section 215 are sadly needed because sometimes even generous carrots, such as funding from the heritage action zone schemes and partnership schemes in conservation areas, are an insufficient lure. This is especially the case when it comes to absentee landlords, often overseas, who are interested solely in land value and are sometimes, I suggest, waiting for heritage buildings to get into such a poor state that they are able, or required, to demolish them, as we saw with the pub that my hon. Friend just mentioned.
We have actually had buildings falling into the street in Longton. The latest one, on Market Street, could have killed someone. I and others made multiple reports to the council about the perilous condition, but action was not taken until it was too late. The whole of Longton conservation area is on the heritage at-risk register, and is rated as very poor by Historic England. The whole of the historic Trent and Mersey canal through the city, including where it runs down the west of my constituency, is also registered as at risk. This is the cumulation of decades of inaction, under-investment, decline and a preference for tinkering at the edges. It has to change.
Where there has been a proper focus, such as on Trentham mausoleum in my constituency—the only grade I listed property in Stoke-on-Trent—the situation has greatly improved. There is now a clear path for getting the mausoleum off the at-risk register, on which it is now listed as being in a “fair” condition and described as “generally sound”.
Hopefully, the Office for Place will help to focus minds further. I certainly look forward to engaging with it and talking through where I think our sense of place in the south of the city is being undermined. I have done the same with Historic England and am grateful to that body for ensuring that parliamentarians are involved and informed. Having made the case to win funding from the Government, it is right that MPs play an important role.
I congratulate my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Stafford has a number of similar challenges, with heritage buildings being closed on my high street, which is why I campaigned for the Shire Hall to be reopened—the Government recently gave us £1.6 million to do that. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government must do more to regenerate and reopen these historic buildings in Staffordshire, and that we must invest and level up in the west midlands?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and commend the work she has been doing in the town centre to bring some of those buildings back into use; they have such an important role. I know that Stafford faces challenges similar to those faced by many of the high streets across Staffordshire and the country, so I very much commend the work that my hon. Friend has been doing to raise these issues and encourage new usage in Stafford town centre.
We have been working hard in north Staffordshire—in Stoke-on-Trent—to attract Government funding. It is good that levelling-up bids and, indeed, the bids for the restoring your railway fund require the sponsorship of MPs for local projects to win national funding. We often see a bigger picture and are able to raise the hopes and concerns of constituents at a local level more broadly. It seems to me that the bigger picture is what the Office for Place is really all about. The bigger picture I see is that ceramics is not just our past, but our present and our future. Industrial heritage properties give our city a sense of place, but it is manufacturing, of which ceramics is most emblematic, that gives our city its sense of purpose.
It is that sense of purpose that means that our place in the world is more than just a kind of permanent stage, or a film set for a period drama. Of course, it is excellent for those purposes too—from time to time—but we cannot live in a period drama, and particularly not a gritty one. I am sure that the Office for Place gets that and recognises the huge potential of cities like Stoke-on-Trent, which have grown faster economically than other areas in recent times. I hope it shares my excitement that the UK has overtaken France to be the world’s eighth-largest manufacturer. Industrial decline must be left as a fiction for the movies.
The renewed sense of purpose in the manufacturing of our world-class goods is key to levelling up our city, and the sense of pride that we take nationally in our manufacturing base helps to drive that purpose locally. We like the fact that people all over the world still place extra value on ceramic goods that have “made in Stoke-on-Trent” written on them. I emphasise to the Minister that it is important for her to think of her mission as levelling back up, reversing decline and restoring our heritage and skillset to where they belong, which is at the very forefront of international manufacturing, engineering and technology. It is that rooted sense of purpose that built what is now our industrial heritage in the first place.
If the Minister were to walk around the Longton conservation area with me—she is very welcome to do so; I invite her to join me—she would see that that sense of purpose is still there in part, just as our sense of place is still there in part, but that it needs to reach its full potential. In the Potteries tradition, there are fantastic manufacturers of ceramic wares, such as Duchess China 1888, which makes world-class tableware that can be bought in the House of Commons shop, and across the road from that firm we have Mantec Technical Ceramics, which makes an array of advanced, technical and specialist products.
The Minister will know, because I say it often enough, that the gross value added of the ceramic sector has doubled in real terms since 2010. Its revival, and the revival of our wider local economy, is keeping alive heritage buildings that would otherwise be in the same state that the Crown Works is sadly in, following the loss of the famous Tams business, which occupied it until the financial disaster of the last Labour Government saw it close.
The Crown Works is a landmark building that I have been determined to save from gradual dereliction and all-too-frequent arson attacks. I cannot thank the Department, or indeed the Prime Minister, enough for the levelling-up fund. It has enabled me to work with the city council and OVI Homes to get together a scheme to save this heritage asset by repurposing it as retirement housing, which will in turn mean greater footfall and more town centre living. Thankfully, we are now seeing actual delivery at the Crown Works, which is the necessary final step.
As MPs for Stoke-on-Trent, we have frankly busted a gut to secure much-needed funding for a range of schemes across the city. We have had to watch with frustration as covid lockdowns and inflationary pressures delayed so much of what we believed, and were promised, could have been delivered by now. I hope the Government will look carefully at what has been delayed and work with councils— a number of councils, not just ours—to adjust the timeframes for the delivery of projects that sadly could not be met for reasons that were totally out of our control.
I am particularly keen to get the accessibility improvements for Longton railway station finalised and under way. If we look at the visitor numbers for the Gladstone Pottery Museum, and then the numbers of passenger entries and exits at Longton, we see a correlation in the ups and downs. If we look at the visitor surveys, we see causation too, with visitors opting to take the train to Longton and walk up to the museum. Perhaps as much as half the passengers who have used Longton station recently have been visitors to the museum. Preserving the beauty of this cherished asset, even with all its warts—such as the recent saving of its rare sash windows from a bygone age of long-outlawed industrial practices—is integral to Longton’s wider success as a must-see destination and working centre of contemporary manufacture. It is a living destination, steeped in the full narrative of ceramics history.
By preserving our unique industrial heritage, we continue to attract today’s leading international ceramicists—practitioners who could base themselves anywhere in the world—to Stoke-on-Trent, as the authentic world capital of ceramics. However, Stoke-on-Trent, including Longton, is sadly also an area of multiple deprivation, and we had been running up a down escalator just to stay still—never mind advance—even before covid hit. The council tax base is the second lowest in the country after Hull, which poses significant challenges in leveraging restoration funds from the private owners of heritage buildings. Of course, the Government understand that, because they have granted us national funding to help, including funding to reinstate residential accommodation above shops.
The delivery of schemes is now key. The schemes will be sustainable if, alongside wider public realm improvements, they encourage people to use the buildings that are saved on Market Street, Commerce Street, and up to the Gladstone Pottery Museum, for interesting new business and residential uses. Currently, though, the pedestrian journey between the station and the museum is unacceptably poor. Longton station has steps, but not lifts or ramps, and the historic Victorian ticket hall is boarded up—the transforming cities fund is supposed to be unlocking it. Transport is not the Minister’s Department, so I will not rehearse my frustrations with Network Rail and the council with her, except to say that if she wants to see a case study of how delivery has been stymied by covid, by inadequate resourcing and skillsets and by the intransigence of other bodies, she could use Longton station as an example.
The Government are driving levelling up by enabling funding, but they have caught councils and other bodies on the hop because submissions for funding are often reactive to the funds and are not part of an active wider local agenda that is driven by a coherent sense of purpose. I get why that is—the Government want to deliver on national priorities for their own sense of purpose in levelling up—but many councils do not have local schemes that are remotely shovel ready and perhaps bid for funds without really knowing how they will deliver them if something goes wrong. Some councils are not resourced to meet the match funding requirements of some national schemes, and some lack the specialist officers or the time to deliver what is agreed, for whatever reasons.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly important point about councils not having the plans in place to move forward. In Rother Valley, for instance, the Land Trust had quite a detailed outline plan in place for Dinnington high street, so when the levelling-up fund went ahead we could bid for it, but other high streets in Rother Valley such as those in Thurcroft, Swallownest and Maltby do not have that outline plan; the council has not done it, which means it cannot bid for the money. Does my hon. Friend agree that councils should have a duty to put together outline plans for all our high streets—heritage and otherwise—to ensure that when pots of money become available, they can secure them?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We absolutely need that coherence. There are often many different pots of funding, but we need something to bring them together to increase the benefit—[Interruption.]
As I was saying, some councils are not resourced to meet the match funding requirements of some national schemes, while some lack the specialist officers or time to deliver on what is agreed, because of skills shortages or churn in personnel or for some other reason. The Government have been amazing in enabling funding to come forward for projects in Stoke-on-Trent and unblocking some of the barriers often presented by national bodies. It would be a tragedy if rigid timescales and problems at the council led to a failure to deliver what the Government have provided funding for.
Fundamentally, there needs to be a plan for enhancing the character of the conservation area in Longton that is deliverable and is delivered. There are several pots of money, and of course more money in those pots would be gratefully invested; I am thinking particularly of Historic England’s PSICA programme. There also needs to be a coherent plan for re-establishing a more obviously pedestrian-friendly town centre environment, especially along Market Street and the Strand, to link better into the big pedestrianised 1960s Exchange shopping arcade.
I am glad to say that, thanks to investment by the owners of the Exchange, some of the empty shops there are now being turned into small-scale units for independent retailers and potters selling their authentic local crafts. On Saturday, I was particularly pleased to see the opening of Keep It Local, a new shop selling products that are nearly all handcrafted by local artists and craftspeople. I wish it every success: we need to see more of that in our town centres.
Historically, Longton’s lower market square, which is now called Times Square, was joined to an upper market square by Market Street. That upper square is now all but lost to traffic flows, but when it last served its purpose it was called Union Square. I want to bring back Union Square with that sense of purpose to enhance the sense of place of Longton as a town centre.
Much of the current highway infrastructure is from overengineered and unsympathetic post-war traffic schemes and is detrimental to the surrounding historic town centre street scene. It appears to come from a mindset that Longton had a future as a place to drive through, but not to stop in. For many who do stop, the current poor urban environment, particularly the narrow pavements in places, dissuades footfall. That, in turn, dissuades future uses of many of the heritage buildings. There is none of the dwell time that we see in other towns that have ripped out the 1960s road configuration to make them places to be, not places to pass through. Decline has encouraged crime and antisocial behaviour. We have too many broken windows, and all that the broken windows theory predicts will follow, including the problems related to monkey dust that I have raised in a separate debate.
Future proposals for the reorganisation of the road layout, including through the as-yet-undelivered transforming cities fund, should pay serious attention to making a positive impact on the conservation area and encourage footfall along Market Street. We need to link our town centre together better, especially along Market Street and the Strand, bringing together the station, Gladstone Pottery Museum and the main retail centre. I am waiting to see what proposals the new administration in Stoke-on-Trent will come forward with once it has finished its process of re-evaluating the projects that it inherited mid-delivery.
It is not just the buildings of Longton that need their attractive heritage rediscovered; it is also the squares, the roads and the public realm. They need to serve people and to be places that people will visit, live in and work in, encouraging new uses and more investment. I hope that that is something that the Office for Place will be able to inspire, catalyse and advise on.
Alongside having the right permanent public realm, I suggest that one way to unlock development is to simplify the restrictive planning use categories. Face-to-face businesses such as cafés and independent shops like to set up where the public realm attracts customers and staff. Where possible, those businesses like to be in historic buildings that add to the customer experience. Developers know that, but they also know that planning use categories can be a minefield.
Giving a historic building new life through a change of use should not be overly difficult. It should not be hard to host a temporary event such as a music or theatre event. We need to look at where such liberalisation might be possible to encourage new uses in our town centres. I would like local authorities to be given powers to designate all commercial properties within town centre boundaries to class E, mixed use. That would make it far easier to attract new commercial uses and remove the bureaucratic hurdles caused by the need for change-of-use applications.
In summary, these are my key asks of the Minister. We need more investment in Longton’s local heritage, particularly from Historic England. We need more time to get on with work delayed by covid and inflationary pressures. We need greater focus on enforcement, with better resources, including skills that relate to the enforcement by local government of section 215 notices and the upcoming measures in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill for compulsory rental auctions and so on. We need planning rules on change of use to be freed up, especially with greater powers to expand category E use in town centres. We need to take a good look at how the Department can keep an overview of how the various pots of national money can be better co-ordinated into local schemes. It would also be appreciated if the Minister could give us any further information about the Office for Place, particularly on the benefits that it will bring to its proud home in Stoke-on-Trent and, from there, to the rest of the country.
With the right sense of place, driven by a rooted sense of purpose, we can turn our declining high streets and conservation areas around. Coherence, delivery and enforcement are key, as is an enticing mix of a quality permanent public realm and interesting temporary events. If the public sector gets that right, it will attract the right businesses from the private sector, with the dynamism to build and respond to a loyal base of local consumers and an eager market of visitors from further afield, levelling back up with new opportunities and bringing the living heritage offer back to life.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate on high street heritage and empty properties in conservation areas. I congratulate Jack Brereton on setting the scene with detail, information and evidence that encapsulates all our thoughts and puts on record what he wishes to see for his town.
It is a pleasure to see the strength of support from—I am not sure if this the right word—the Stoke cabal, who are all here. I mean that in a good way, because they have worked together very well and are a team. I have been impressed by them over the past few years, so I am really pleased to see everyone here and of the same mind. Jonathan Gullis will be coming to Newtownards, if God spares us until March next year. He will be my guest at a dinner, and I very much look forward to showing him a wee bit of Newtownards, so he will know for himself just what it is like.
I am pleased to see the Minister in her place. She has been in the vanguard, because she came to Newtownards last summer to see what it is like. We talked about her visit before she went and while she was there, and I know that she was in the Ards peninsula and in Newtownards town. She will understand well what I am going to refer to.
I am very proud to have an office in Newtownards town, which boasts a rich history as a market town. It is the major town in my constituency of Strangford. In 1605, Hugh Montgomery was granted the lands and set about rebuilding what was then known as Newtown; it was later expanded to Newtownards, because it took in the Ards district and the Ards peninsula, and that is the name that we have today. Official records show that the town was established in 1606. Montgomery built a residence in the ruins of the old priory, the tower of which remains, just off the main shopping street and its satellite streets with their smaller boutiques.
I have seen changes in Ards over the years, but I have also seen a commitment, from a Department that is not the Minister’s responsibility, to retain the high street’s heritage and some of the empty properties that needed extra attention. Newtownards became a market town, with the Market House in Conway Square constructed in 1770. The Market House is known today as the town hall, but the market still operates in the square every Saturday, come rain, snow or shine. It is very much one of the attractions of Newtownards, bringing lots of people into the town from not just the surrounding area but further afield. It is cosmopolitan: you meet people from all over the Province on a Saturday morning in Newtownards.
We have one of the few high streets to have bucked the trend. Of course, we have a shopping centre mall, but our high street is thriving—indeed, it won the high street of the year award last year and a bronze award this year. Kelly Tolhurst visited when she was a Minister, during the covid period, and we were all greatly impressed. Her engagement with the chamber of trade, businesses and elected representatives has left a lasting impression on us in Newtownards. Even today, she always asks how we are getting on in Newtownards; I always say, “Come back, and we will refresh your memory.” Hopefully, that opportunity will arise.
We have a rich blend of culture and couture, with numerous small boutiques and independently owned shops, which people from throughout Northern Ireland travel to and make the most of. The historic Saturday market has the oldest market cross in Northern Ireland. It was built in 1636, but destroyed by the Commonwealth troops in 1653. The present replacement building was finished in 1666—I am going back a few years there. Its conical roof was probably used as an office or shelter for the town’s nightwatchmen. Townspeople say that the cross used to flow with wine—it may still do so today—at the birth of a royal baby. That tells us a wee bit about the history. I know that all right hon. and hon. Members in this Chamber are, like me, committed to the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the royal family have a key role for us in that.
The market cross is the only surviving 17th-century example in Northern Ireland. The original cross resembled a similar structure in Edinburgh, being octagonal with a flat roof and was topped by a stone column some 20 feet in height, on which there was a carved lion. It is a rich piece of history in the middle of a thriving high street.
Carnduff Butchers, the only butcher in the town, employs some 45 people. There are bakers, shoemakers—yes, we have them all—and a variety of other shops. Warden Brothers, the biggest shop in Newtownards and one of the last independent stores, is 146 years old. It was established in 1877 and employs some 55 people.
These are all reasons why the right hon. Member for Rochester and Strood came over. She appreciated the abundance of variety in Newtownards town, and I know that the Minister will appreciate that as well. It has culture and modern shops, with something for everyone, all under the very energetic direction of the chamber of trade, led by its president Derek Wright.
However, as with most high streets, there are difficulties with some of the empty lots. We are fortunate that some of the empty lots are starting to fill up, as there is demand for properties in the town. I commend Ards and North Down Borough Council for running a scheme for the upkeep of those properties with frontage, which is so useful. That needs to be funded; I am ever mindful that how the streets in Newtownards and elsewhere in Northern Ireland are funded is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I know from our conversations that she has a deep interest in Northern Ireland, and these are things that we are concerned about.
On the funding that should be provided for these properties—especially for the listed buildings, additionally to the historic ones—I have a simple question for the Minister. I know she will come back with a positive response, as she always does. What engagement has taken place with the relevant Department in Northern Ireland to ensure that we can move forward together, sharing ideas and schemes perhaps, to maintain that cultural heritage in the high street that we so much wish to have?
Our high street is only as strong as the crowds who flock to it. Newtownards has much to offer, and the chamber of commerce and the local council must be commended. They have a strategy and they have a plan, but they must be supported to enable them to continue. That is what is needed from the Department back home in Northern Ireland, but also from this Government and from the Minister here.
I look forward to hearing what other hon. Members have to say. I am always encouraged by hon. Members who push for their towns in the way that they should, as I do for my town back home.
I am delighted to take part in this important debate and I congratulate my neighbour, my hon. Friend Jack Brereton, on securing it. I make no apology for the fact that Stoke-on-Trent is 100% represented in this debate, and that we dominate, because we are all incredibly proud of our city of six towns. It is always a pleasure to follow Jim Shannon, who always has something enlightening to say.
Conservation areas hold a special place in our hearts because of their historic and architectural significance. They are meant to be protected and preserved, yet empty properties in those areas threaten the essence of what makes our towns and cities special. The sight of boarded-up shops and decaying buildings has a serious impact on our collective sense of pride and identity. We need to encourage growth in these historic places and help our heritage assets to be more productive, unlocking their potential and making them more attractive to residents, businesses, tourists and investors.
In my constituency, conservation areas include the city centre, Hanley Park, our blue-green canal corridors and the old Spode factory, as well as the university quarter. Stoke-on-Trent is a city steeped in the tradition of ceramics. The Potteries has a rich heritage of craftsmanship and artistic achievement, which I am reminded of when I walk around the city centre and look up at the fine examples of architecture.
However, at street level many of those buildings house boarded-up shops and display the scars of antisocial behaviour and graffiti. Those structures, which in past eras would have been part of a proud civic scene, are now suffering neglect. High streets are important barometers of local pride. It saddens me when I see buddleia growing from the brickwork of those once-loved buildings. From Hanley Town Hall to the historic Bethesda chapel—a Methodist sanctuary that once accommodated up to 2,000 worshippers—buildings with a key purpose in times gone by now languish in need of a new purpose that respects their heritage but breathes new life into them.
Hanley features on the list of high street warning lights as one of the 100 towns where persistent vacancy rates have increased since 2015, so I am always pleased to see innovative ideas. For instance, the Potteries Centre in Hanley encourages pop-up shops for small businesses and welcomes community use to attract more people through its doors.
If we are to stop the decline of heritage buildings in our high streets, we must hold property owners to account when their properties fall into disrepair. Councils have a statutory duty to ensure community safety; when buildings are deemed unsafe, action must follow. Councils also have the power to offer discounted rent or easier lease arrangements on their own property portfolio to community organisations and charities. I believe that power should be used to stem the tide of empty buildings. In Hanley, I am particularly sorry about the Prince’s Trust move from its heritage building in Tontine Street. The Prince’s Trust provides a valuable resource to young people, so its departure from Hanley will mean that yet another building will stand empty and an important organisation will be gone from its city-centre base.
Injecting funds is not enough; if there is not community engagement and a bigger vision, well-intended investment in projects is far less likely to succeed. Although I am grateful that Stoke received £2 million in funding from the heritage action zone fund, there is still much more ground to cover. Without community buy-in, our town centres cannot thrive. Indeed, I am a fan of ideas such as the creation of a high street buy-out fund to help communities to purchase empty property on high streets, along with a specific business rates relief for regulated socially trading organisations.
Power is too distant from communities. Polling conducted across England by Power to Change revealed that three quarters of people felt that they had little or no control over the important decisions affecting their local area. We need to develop places that are really valued by the local communities that they serve. For that to happen, we need a collaborative approach and strong local leadership. There is no one-size-fits-all solution here and today’s consumer is very alert to something that is inauthentic.
Town centres should be places where we see a mixture of arts and culture alongside the traditional shopping experience. There is a growing consensus that experience will be at the heart of the future high street, whether it is in the form of a greater role for hospitality, community organisations or public services, or in the form of more residential property.
Across our city, many more opportunities exist to repurpose heritage buildings while preserving their distinct Potteries characteristics. In particular, the site of the old Spode Works presents a significant opportunity for intelligent regeneration, and levelling-up funding will encourage further investment. However, the complexity of the Spode site necessitates a sensible approach. Although many buildings should be repurposed, some buildings should make way for a new vision of the site. Revitalising our high streets is not solely about repurposing properties currently sitting empty but about enhancing our heritage. Does the Minister agree that we must show ambition in our vision, to create new heritage for future generations?
First of all, Ms Fovargue, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jack Brereton on securing this important debate.
High streets and heritage are humongously important to the people of Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke, because ultimately they are about having pride in place, in addition to the fact that Stoke is obviously a collection—a federation—of six towns, each one with its own unique identity and new purpose. Some of them are still fighting to become the city centre all over again one day, but hopefully those arguments will not be heard in Westminster Hall today.
I am blessed in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke to represent the mother town of Burslem and the town of Tunstall. They are fine examples of towns where we are proud of our history and heritage, and so much good work has already begun. For example, Tunstall Library—the old library—and Baths has secured £3.5 million from the UK-leading £56 million given to Stoke-on-Trent by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor. That has meant that we will see new life being breathed into this important historic monument, and lots of new jobs will be created from the investment in our high streets and town centres.
There was also investment under the previous administration of Stoke City Council, under Councillor Jellyman, in Tunstall town hall, which is on the high street of Tunstall. It is an important and historic landmark that has seen a brand-new library and a family hub—one of the Government’s flagship policies—helping those aged nought to 19 to come into the town of Tunstall. It is right on the high street, thereby enabling more footfall. We have also had additional support for Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent’s award-winning market, the Tunstall indoor market, which has many excellent independent retailers and cafés inside for people to enjoy a good, old-fashioned Staffordshire oatcake. It is cheese and bacon for me, with a bit of red sauce—although I accept that that is controversial.
We have recently had Tunstall action days, which means that rogue and absent landlords have been held to account for the damage being done to our high street: some buildings are not being taken care of and some landlords, sadly, have accounts in the Cayman Islands but do not invest in making sure that their properties are watertight. I know that because my office is on the aforementioned high street of Tunstall. I have had plenty of back and forth with the landlord but, sadly, he is not living up to the standards I would expect by protecting and preserving our history and heritage.
We have some fantastic cultural heritage open days at the moment. If someone wants to step out of the mother town of Burslem or Tunstall, Middleport pottery is doing some fantastic excavation work at two of the kilns on site. The excellent Burgess and Leigh pottery is the world’s only handcrafted pottery, and “The Great British Pottery Throwdown” was filmed there before being moved to Gladstone Pottery Museum. We have Ford Green Hall, a fantastic Tudor building that many people can enjoy, right by the high street in Smallthorne, which has a fantastic shopping community. There is Moorcroft, the heritage art pottery, and St Bartholomew’s church in Norton-le-Moors, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South served as a city councillor before coming to this place.
We have an abundance of opportunity, but I want to go back to the point about the section 215 notice; I place on the record my thanks to the Secretary of State, but also to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill called the Planning (Proper Maintenance of Land) Bill, which was inspired by the dreadful scenes that residents in Longport and Middleport have seen at the Price and Kensington Teapot Works. An individual has allowed the beautiful, grade II* former factory to fall into disrepair and have numerous fires on site. They have allowed waste to be dumped and not allowed Historic England to go and check the status of the buildings, which means that it has become a major eyesore and dangerous to some of the surrounding roads. The city council had to bring down part of it in order to protect the wellbeing of motorists and passers-by. Despite being taken to court under the legislation, there have been only £72,000-worth of fines, which is not really a big deterrent.
When I introduced my private Member’s Bill, I was delighted that the Government accepted it and made it part of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. The current fine, which is capped at £1,000, will be replaced by an unlimited fine for the first offence, allowing judges to use their discretion to determine what level of damage has been undertaken. The second fine will increase from £100 to £500 a day, which will hopefully give bargaining power to local councils in order to hold to account rogue and absent landlords who plague our history and heritage, particularly in conservation areas.
Sadly, Stoke-on-Trent was land banked, as it were, by outsiders. Lead, copper and glass were stripped out of the Queen’s Theatre, the indoor market and the Wedgewood Institute before the city council regained them. Buildings were allowed to fall into a state of disrepair, but past administrations bravely stepped in and saved them by at least keeping them in the ownership of the people of Stoke-on-Trent. We are now working tirelessly to find a way forward.
I will quickly mention Chatterley Whitfield colliery, because I forgot to do so and will be in big trouble with the Friends of Chatterley Whitfield as well as Historic England. We recently opened building 30, which has lots of displays from the old tours that used to take place at one of the largest complete coalmining sites in Europe. It is a fantastic site with fantastic individuals, including Nigel Bowers, who recently received an honour from His Majesty for recognition of the work he has undertaken. Again, the colliery is well supported by local councillors such as Carl Edwards and Dave Evans, who have been working tirelessly for a long time and championing the importance of the site. There is a wide-ranging mixture of important, historic buildings, with a huge opportunity to experiment with geothermal energy on site as well as bring back the history that is so important to our area. Josiah Wedgwood did not just choose Stoke-on-Trent because of the clay; it was also the coal that came with it that enabled the ceramic sector to flourish.
Our history is important, rich and diverse. That is why there were tears and mourning in the city of Stoke-on-Trent when we saw The Leopard pub in Burslem tragically burn down only last year. That is still being investigated but sadly no one has been held accountable to date. That important historic monument in the middle of Burslem played an important role in this country’s industrial revolution, as the place where James Brindley and Josiah Wedgwood met to discuss the development of the Trent and Mersey canal. We hope that one day we will be able to protect at least the front of the building, but it looks like the damage is so severe that another use will have to be found. I know that plans are being looked at with Historic England, the city council and the owner of the site to look at bringing it back into residential use. I hope that is done in a sensitive way, to take into account the look and the feel of this fantastic town.
We also know that a study was undertaken by Councillor Abi Brown to look at the feasibility of bringing into use the Burslem indoor market, the Wedgwood Institute and the Queen’s Theatre. Those three beauties of Burslem will take a large amount of investment, but first we need the funding to make sure the buildings are safe to carry out more extensive investigative works. For the mere sum of £650,000, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities could unlock the opportunity for us to further explore what can be done with those three buildings to bring investors into our city to look at how they can take advantage of the wonderful opportunities before them.
We can breathe life into Burslem indoor market to make it a fantastic performing arts space or a place where people can have street food on match day before going off to watch the mighty Port Vale football club, the dominant football club in our great city, which does such a fantastic job for its community, again in the heart of Burslem—obviously, there is another club down in the south of the city, but I do not want to mention its name. The Wedgwood Institute also provides a fantastic opportunity to look at potential office space, and the Queen’s Theatre is a potential performing arts school, wedding venue or whatever it could be.
Those beauties need to have life breathed into them, and I was delighted when Historic England and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities supported the bid by me and others in the local community to protect the indoor market by making it a listed building, enabling us to access pots of funding that we have not been able to access previously. I am, however, a little bit miffed that when I saw the levelling-up fund round 2, there was a separate cultural bid pot of up to £50 million that was not accessible for those who bid in round 1. Stoke-on-Trent has been awarded the most money from the levelling-up fund of any area to date, but when there is an opportunity for more, we always want it in Stoke-on-Trent. I hope that Stoke-on-Trent can bid for the cultural pot in rounds 3 or 4 in future and ensure we can put further funding into our key historical sites. That might be at the Spode works, which my hon. Friend Jo Gideon has been tirelessly championing; the Crown works, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has been championing; or the three beauties in Burslem that can be unleashed and unlocked in our local area.
We have also had good news, with the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery receiving a significant amount of funding. That includes funding from the former Administration of Stoke-on-Trent City Council to bring about the new Spitfire Gallery, in remembrance of how Reginald J. Mitchell, a lad from Butt Lane—where I am proud to live and serve today—invented the Spitfire that enabled us to keep the Germans off our shores during world war two. It is great that we have that fantastic Spitfire on display. I have also been working with all Stoke-on-Trent Members of Parliament to secure around £5 million for the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery to look at how we can put the archives on public display and sell the story of coal and clay in our museum that the public will enjoy. That is how we bring further investment into our high street and boost our local economy, creating more jobs and, crucially, enabling our history and heritage to be preserved.
Finally, although I appreciate that the new Labour administration is understandably taking its time to evaluate existing projects, I was disheartened to see that on day one the levelling-up projects were brought into some sort of disrepute through rumours about potential cancellation or delay, led by Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s current leader, Councillor Ashworth. Thankfully, that has now been nipped in the bud, even though the arena that we anticipated for the Etruscan Square scheme has now been written off. That arena would have had an e-sports specialism—the only one outside London—which would have complemented Staffordshire University’s role as a leader in video games technology and the digital T-Levels at the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College.
I am also dismayed to remind the public of Stoke-on-Trent that under the former Labour Administration we saw £30 million to £40 million of white elephant projects, such as new council office buildings, rather than investment in the mother town of Burslem. When they did invest, it was in daft schemes like Ceramica, which did nothing but bring further downfall on the town. Recently, even, threatening to issue a section 114 notice has only driven investment away from our city. Thankfully, Councillor Ashworth clarified at the last full council meeting on
Since 2019, the Members of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent have secured over £100 million of investment into our city—more than any other collective group of Stoke MPs in history. We passionately believe in our history and our heritage. We want our town centres and high streets to thrive, not just survive. But we need the Government to do more, because we have many challenges: many historical buildings, including listed ones; poor land value, which in some cases will put off developers; and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South mentioned, being the second lowest council in the country when it comes to what we earn through council tax, so we cannot simply rely on the council tax payer of Stoke-on-Trent to pick up the tab.
I hope that Stoke-on-Trent will be told to bid for the coming round of levelling-up funding, that the cultural fund will be made available to us and, of course, that we will get a nice big chunk of money to carry on making sure that Stoke-on-Trent is the greatest place for people to bring up a family, go to work and live out the rest of their days.
It is incredibly good to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend Jack Brereton for securing this incredibly important debate. Heritage is the soul of a community—a point that we should remember when we build new communities and regenerate existing ones. It is so good to listen to the passion with which hon. Members have spoken about their communities, not least my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis, who I think is passionate about everything he does, but in particular about heritage in Stoke-on-Trent.
There has been so much to agree on in the debate. I was particularly struck by the support for the ceramics industry: that is pure heritage in Stoke-on-Trent, and it really comes through in Members’ contributions. Indeed, it is not possible to go to dinner anywhere with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North without him checking the plates, and if they are not made in Stoke-on-Trent he complains to the management of whichever restaurant or hotel we are in. It is that passion which drives the community, but that passion needs to be enabled by action and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South mentioned, the action has been slowed by the pandemic, the inflationary pressures we face and so on. The pandemic stole two years of everybody’s lives. The effect was especially felt here in Whitehall and Westminster, and that has translated down to frustration in our communities.
A huge opportunity remains. I am passionate about levelling up. We are dishing out billions of pounds to breathe life into left-behind communities through the levelling-up fund, the shared prosperity fund, the towns fund and the future high streets fund. Ultimately, levelling up is a cycle of skills and jobs, infrastructure, services and investment—pump priming from the Government, but corporate investment and foreign direct investment as well. All of that combined goes around to people, communities and the places in which we live. That is the lens through which we need to look, and it is where heritage comes in, because levelling up at its very core is about the opportunities that we create for people and that people can create for themselves. We need to reset the way that we look at this investment. It needs to be looked at through the lens of place-making, and that is where we bring in heritage. It is where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South mentioned, we lack skills in councils and planning authorities. We also lack capacity and—dare I say it—political leadership in councils to look at the bigger picture. We need to look beyond the administrative, bureaucratic and statutory elements of planning and at what an area and a community need. What are the health outcomes we want to address? What are the policing priorities for that area? How do we make a place that is fit for the future, but has the memories and best of our past enhancing our heritage?
We have a huge opportunity. The all-party parliamentary group for ending homelessness recently produced a report on empty properties—on conversions from retail and office space into homes for people. The report identified up to 20,000 units in the possession of local authorities around the country that could be converted. That opportunity directly translates to action that we could be taking at a local level, and that could be supported by action from the Government through not just the high streets fund, the towns fund, the levelling-up fund or so on, but funds such as the heritage fund and various others. We need to put heritage at the heart of place-making, but we need to do it in a way that brings through the passion that we see in our local projects and local politicians.
Members might ask why I am passionate about the subject when I am not from the Black Country—I am literally the odd one out in the debate. It is because I have plenty of heritage in my constituency. I have Olney, which is a beautiful Georgian market town with huge amounts of heritage and listed buildings. Newport Pagnell is, again, a beautiful market town. Tickford bridge in Newport Pagnell is a grade-I listed iron bridge. Wolverton is a wonderful, proud railway town, home of the royal train. We have heritage in all our constituencies that we can pick up and run with when it comes to designing the future. I am incredibly proud that Milton Keynes got £3 million from the shared prosperity fund, which admittedly is not the £50 million that the collective MPs for Stoke-on-Trent got, to regenerate those high streets that I mentioned and to do more to take that heritage through.
There is lots to do, but through the lens of place-making, we can understand and make a tangible difference by bringing the best of the past into our future and designing a vision for our future that works. That vision should take the best out of things such as the community renewal fund and the community ownership fund to help acquire empty properties and to deliver value that reflects our heritage as well. We need to co-ordinate, plan and deliver. We need to breathe beauty into our high streets, understanding our past and embracing our future.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I commend Jack Brereton for bringing this important issue to the Chamber. I sincerely thank all hon. Members who have contributed. We may not always agree politically, and certainly not on red sauce and brown sauce—they have strange tastes—but heritage is deep within our communities and the people we represent. This is not just about the heritage of buildings or industries, but the heritage of who we are, as unique communities across the country. That has been demonstrated admirably throughout the debate, but especially so by Jim Shannon, who did so with the characteristic heart he always brings to such debates.
The debate comes in a week in which we have heard in the headlines the troubling news for Wilko. Those shops are often not in heritage sites, but 12,500 jobs are in the balance. Each job is a person watching their livelihood be tossed from one potential administrator to another, with the prospect of more empty premises on our high streets. Mortgages, rents, bills and retirement savings are all up in the air for our constituents. Wilko is the most recent retail chain to succumb to that fate, but all indicators show that it will sadly not be the last. Over the past 13 years of punishing austerity policies, we have lost countless high street favourites, with their empty properties haunting us long after the owners have vacated. Our formerly thriving town centres now sadly serve as business graveyards. It is truly a miserable predicament.
While cases such as Wilko stand out due to their status as major employers, every week small and medium-sized businesses and heritage industries are facing the threat of closure. That is particularly true of manufacturing towns and cities, including Stoke, as we heard, and the town of Luton, which I represent. Manufacturing history runs right through Luton, and we still have businesses under threat. SKF has been in my constituency for well over 100 years, and workers have given their best years of their life to that plant. Without a coherent industrial strategy, we will see the threat continue in the future.
The Federation of Small Businesses has written that
“high street vacancies not only harm the overall perception of the area but also lead to a significant loss of spill over footfall from larger units and national chains.”
That is backed up by findings from the Association of Convenience Stores, which states that empty properties have a “detrimental effect” on existing businesses, reducing customer traffic to retail hotspots and leading to a vicious cycle of more closures. We have seen that across the country. It is crucial that the Minister takes note of the widespread impact that leaving properties vacant can have, both economically and socially.
The decline in the beauty of our high streets leads to a decline in custom and standards of behaviour too. It has been mentioned already that abandoned town centres have become hotspots for crime in recent years. That is why the Labour shadow Home Secretary has committed to reintroducing respect orders, which will hold perpetrators of antisocial behaviour to account and restore community bonds through a social contract. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South was right to talk about the merits of section 215. Hastings Borough Council has been doing something like this for a number of years—decades almost—under the guise of what was called Grotbusters. It has transformed the seafront and the old town and preserved one of Europe’s largest land-based fishing fleets. I know that the council, working with brilliant campaigners such as Helena Dollimore, will continue to work to preserve that heritage.
We all want to see our high streets buzzing with businesses of all shapes and sizes and to make them safe to wander around and attractive to spend in. Strong businesses also mean more job creation. In turn, that means local pounds in the pockets of local people to spend in their local shops. Surely that is something we all want to see. Thriving high streets lead to a revival in our local communities and that is what every community wants and deserves. The glaring failure to reform business rates in the Government’s 13 years of power has led to the decline of our high street businesses on an industrial scale. It was not just covid; the decline started well before then. The Office for National Statistics indicates that the third quarter of 2023 is the eighth quarter in a row where there have been more closures than creations of businesses. What a damning statistic that it.
Labour in power will reform our outdated and ineffective business rates system and bring in wide-reaching reforms to even out the playing field. As it stands, the threshold for small business rates relief is still too low, at £15,000, despite calls from across the House and vocal groups in the sector. Reviving our high streets is not just down to changing business rates. There are other factors at play that are making retail locations unappealing for customers, sending them to online giants rather than local bricks and mortar businesses. In the room next door is the Food & Drink Federation, which spoke of how important it is that we have healthy high streets to ensure that we can compete with online giants.
A pleasant natural environment, a feeling of safety while browsing and easy and affordable transport are all understood by us as key to seeing improved outcomes for our high streets. This is not a pipe dream. Across local government, we are seeing the fruits of our municipal values. Councils such as Sheffield, Southampton and Telford are glowing examples of the success town centres and high streets can enjoy when their health is made a priority.
In Sheffield, the Heart of the City development has refreshed the city centre but preserved heritage buildings, keeping beautiful façades, combined with cleaner streets and improved public transport, as well as creating new jobs. That is all bringing shoppers back to the centre in hoards.
In Southampton, which voted Labour into power in 2022, the council is delivering on its promise to regenerate the city centre. Similar to Sheffield, the Labour council in Southampton understood that improving the natural environment with greenery and more eco-friendly transport goes hand in hand with increasing custom in local shops.
Meanwhile, further north, Telford and Wrekin Council has demonstrated its commitment to investing in its Pride in Our High Street programme. Business support grants have given a second chance to struggling businesses, and saved local favourites from financial ruin. It is even holding its own High Street Heroes awards. Nominations for this year’s businesses are open until
I know from the popularity of my own Small Business Saturday shout-outs in Luton North, which happen every Saturday—not just once a year—that such support means so much to the owners of the small businesses on our high streets, and to the customers who see their local favourites celebrated. It is fantastic to see the variety of ways that local authorities are championing our high street businesses and preserving our heritage through direct grants and other incentives aimed at the public.
Although MPs such as Lucy Allan may publicly state that the Government are not interested in constituencies such as hers, the situation is not the same for Labour. Sheffield, Southampton and Telford are fortunate to have Labour Mayors and Metro Mayors who have been creative and committed in their support for town and city centres. In contrast, Central Bedfordshire Council—under historically Conservative leadership, but now under no overall control—has shown blatant disregard for the role high streets can play in bringing communities together. It has persisted in building housing developments with no shopping areas, no town or village centres and poor infrastructure. People complain about access to GPs, services and schools because of this Government’s lax planning laws. Elsewhere, residents are losing their treasured local pubs, places that have been there for neighbours to gather and share connection for hundreds of years. As we have seen in recent events, that has shaken communities across our country. Planning laws that benefit unscrupulous owners are continuing to fail our communities. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined whether there are plans to address that.
Labour is the party of real-life levelling up. We will support small and medium businesses to grow, both in strength and in the ways that they can serve the public and the community. We trust that council leaders are best placed to make decisions for their localities. That is why our plans for expanded regional devolution will include powers to create strong and sustainable local economies. We will revive the great British high street. We will reform business rates, tackle antisocial behaviour and reduce empty premises, so that shoppers will return to their high streets and we will all be better off.
It has been a pleasure and a privilege to listen to this fantastic debate. As a midlands MP myself, it has made me just that little bit more proud of the heritage that I share with colleagues here—as well as with Milton Keynes and, of course, Strangford across the water in Northern Ireland. There is always a lively debate about where exactly the Black Country ends. I am often asked whether there are any bits of Worcestershire in the Black Country—perhaps we will discuss that outside the Chamber.
It is right that I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Jack Brereton on securing the debate, which has shone a light for us all on the diligent work that he does day in, day out on behalf of his constituents. It has also shown his deep knowledge of his area. As he said himself, although he was not able to rely on some established processes to contribute to the consultations he mentioned, he could draw on a lifetime’s experience of living and breathing the streets of Stoke-on-Trent South.
Like my hon. Friend, the Government want our high streets to be restored to their former glory, as the beautiful, beating hearts of our communities where people can come together to socialise, shop, work and run businesses in safe and attractive surroundings. The reality is that many of our high streets are struggling—they are blighted by boarded-up shops and antisocial behaviour—but we are determined to break the cycle of decline. We have already started to do so, working side by side with local leaders to achieve our shared goals. Transforming dying high streets back into vibrant places to live, work and socialise is central to our levelling-up agenda, and that will be the litmus test for our success.
Today’s debate is crucial to our better understanding what more needs to be done to protect and rejuvenate crucial civic centres, which are rightly cherished by communities up and down the UK. There is no better example of best practice than those that hon. Members shared of the historic ceramic industry and pottery towns of Stoke-on-Trent, which are backed by the Conservative Government. I will turn to the specific points raised by hon. Members at the end of my remarks. The truth is that, in stark contrast to what Sarah Owen just said, we have success stories all over the country, backed by billions of pounds of funding from the Conservative Government.
Even with the massive challenges that have emerged in recent years—the exodus to online shopping and the impact of the pandemic—people still very much care about their high streets, as we have heard from all the speakers in the debate. High streets are central to people’s sense of local pride and belonging; they are the iconic thing that people focus on. When we ask, “What does levelling up mean to you?”, concern about the high street comes up time and again.
Let me talk about some of the actions that we are taking to reverse some of the issues that hon. Members have rightly identified. Our ambitious Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will help to tackle the growing problem of empty shops on high streets, which fuels the feeling of decline, through high street rental auctions. Those will empower local authorities to address long-term vacant properties. Landlords will be required to rent out persistently vacant high street commercial properties to new occupants, or face the local authority’s stepping in and putting the lease up for auction.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South may be aware that, on
As my hon. Friend noted, local planning authorities have powers under section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to serve notices that require owners to take steps to clean up their land where it is adversely affecting the amenity of an area. The power applies to both land and buildings, and it is an important tool for local planning authorities, alongside other powers, such as repair notices in respect of listed buildings or dangerous structure notices.
Today’s debate has been about how we look after our high streets, and one of the best ways of keeping heritage buildings going is just keeping them going. Unfortunately, a number of buildings require extra protection, and there is a pattern, up and down the country, of buildings suddenly becoming vulnerable to arson attacks, and then demolition, when they are either sold or not used as much. The Minister will know why I make that point.
As we are talking about enforcement, one way that we could, perhaps, afford extra protection to such buildings is through the listing process. When an application for listing is made in England, there is no protection until the full process is undergone and a decision is made to protect the building. In Wales, when an application to list is made, temporary provision is made immediately, and then a final decision is made about whether to give full protection. Will the Minister consider that, and perhaps suggest it to the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend Dehenna Davison? Will she also consider increasing penalties where there is clear evidence of arson and misuse of property?
I thank my hon. Friend and commend him for all the work he is doing on behalf of his constituents, who I know used to be regulars at the Crooked House pub. We have all watched the situation there with great concern. I will take his ideas seriously and look at what more we can do; I thank him for those proposals.
We have seen some transformational examples of section 215 powers being put to good use for formerly vacant industrial sites, town centre street frontages, rural sites and derelict buildings, as well as more typical rundown residential properties and overgrown gardens. Local authorities have powers to undertake clean-up works themselves, the cost of which they are empowered to recover from the landowner.
My hon. Friends have called for use classes to be made simpler and more straightforward. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South will know that the class E use class includes a broad and diverse range of uses suitable for a high street or town centre, including shops, restaurants, cafés and offices, as well as health centres and gyms. It also allows for new uses that may emerge in a town centre. The use class applies to buildings in conservation areas and to listed buildings, but unfortunately planning permission is still required for any external works in those areas. We always keep use classes under review, and I am sure it is right that we continue to explore where we may be able to assist my hon. Friend in achieving the objectives he outlined. My hon. Friend Jo Gideon made the point that people like to visit properties in heritage areas, whether they are pop-up cafés or restaurants. That is a vital point.
I am also sympathetic to the frustrations of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South with the implementation of local conservation areas and the boundary lines. I know that he has already taken that up with the local planning authority. I remind the authority that it is duty-bound to review past designations to determine whether former or new areas should be considered to be within the boundary. Planning authorities are responsible for delivering conservation area appraisals, which should be kept up to date.
One of the central policies that we have to enable Stoke-on-Trent to reach its flourishing potential even more than it is at the moment is the Office for Place, which my hon. Friend mentioned. I am thrilled that that newly created arm’s length body will be located in Stoke-on-Trent, because it gives me the perfect opportunity to arrange a visit and to have oatcakes with cheese, bacon, red sauce and maybe even brown sauce—let’s try them all and see which we prefer. Of course, the vision is to support the creation and stewardship of a beautiful, sustainable, popular and also healthy place, so perhaps we should have a small oatcake.
There could be no more appropriate home town for the Office for Place than Stoke-on-Trent—the city’s name in Old English means “place”. We have heard the city’s proud heritage and its chance for a prosperous future so passionately and clearly articulated. The levelling-up funding going into the Crown Works is just one part of taking that heritage into a new area. I understand that the Office for Place chair, Nicholas Boys Smith, who is a leading expert in the country, has already met my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), for Stoke-on-Trent South and for Stoke-on-Trent Central, and council leaders, to discuss opportunities for regeneration. He will be working closely with them to help them reinvigorate their city, moving from streets as gyratories to streets as enjoyable places to be, attracting jobs and taking advantage of the proud industrial heritage.
The Office for Place has already established its office in Stoke-on-Trent, which will benefit the city through its positive impact on the local economy and opportunities for collaboration. It is fully envisaged that it will partner with Stoke-on-Trent City Council, but of course it must also take into account the views of local MPs, who have a broad vision, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South said so well.
My understanding from colleagues in the Department for Transport is that they are still working with Stoke-on-Trent City Council to deliver the transforming cities fund programme, including proposals at Longton station. I encourage my hon. Friend—if he needs encouragement —to continue his lobbying efforts with the Department for Transport.
There has been a lot of discussion of high street heritage action zones. The championship that Members present have shown on behalf of their constituents, who both work in and appreciate the ceramics industry now and in the past, is just exceptional. We all agree that restoring our high streets must include protecting our heritage. The Government remain steadfast in our commitment to doing that, which is why we are investing tens of millions in regenerating historic buildings on high streets and in town centres across England through our future high streets fund. Meanwhile, social enterprises, community groups and charities reusing heritage buildings on high streets and in town centres have been supported through the £15 million made available via the Architectural Heritage Fund’s transforming places through heritage programme.
That programme is benefiting local people and businesses. For example, the historic Drapers’ Hall in Coventry has opened its doors once more following funding from the scheme as a successful arts venue. Meanwhile, through the £95 million high street heritage action zones programme, we are driving the regeneration of 67 towns and cities, transforming historic buildings and streetscapes. More funding is coming on top of that thanks to the additional £930,000 investment made this year by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to support existing high street heritage action zone projects.
I was delighted, as always, to hear from my friend Jim Shannon—it has been too long. It reminded me what a wonderful time I had in his constituency. I really valued his tribute to the Union of our beautiful islands, to the royal family, and to moving forward together on our cherished heritage. I strongly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central that we should show ambition for the future, for our children and grandchildren, in terms of our culture and heritage.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North is a huge advocate for pride in place. Together with his colleagues, he has driven exceptional, record amounts of funding, in particular into his town of Tunstall. I very much hope that the current Labour administration of Stoke-on-Trent City Council will heed his calls, and those of all his colleagues, to work constructively with the exceptional, record amounts of funding that have been put into their city by a Conservative Government who believe in the future of Stoke-on-Trent after many years of neglect. It is always a pleasure to debate the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Luton North, but I will take no lectures from her about Labour councils. I say one thing to her: Birmingham City Council.
Our high streets have been the lifeblood of our communities for generations, and we will not let them wither on our watch—far from it. Instead, we are pulling out the stops to preserve them, protecting our heritage, supporting local businesses, and helping to provide the vibrant, safe civic hubs that our communities deserve, supported by our newly established Office for Place. We have measures to support our ongoing efforts, from planning use classes to high street rental auctions, and we must work pragmatically with local leaders on some of the timescales that have been raised with me due to delays from the covid pandemic. We are laying the foundations for a brighter future by working alongside local leaders to deliver for their communities with exceptional devolution deals that transfer meaningful powers and funding to them as we level up opportunity across the country.
I thank the Minister for her thoughtful response and look forward to welcoming her to Stoke-on-Trent. We very much want to show her some of the things that we have been talking about as she has a look around our fantastic city. Stoke-on-Trent is very much on the up, and it is the litmus test for levelling up, so we would very much like to show her some of the issues that we have been talking about.
I thank all colleagues who contributed to the debate, particularly Jim Shannon. It was fantastic to hear about his town and the rich heritage of Northern Ireland. I also particularly thank my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), who have supported the work that we have been doing to level up Stoke-on-Trent and attract the huge investment that has come into the city.
I thank my hon. Friend Marco Longhi. I very much agree with his suggestions about listings. We should look at the process in Wales and whether it could be applied in England to protect buildings under huge threat, such as we saw with the destruction of the Crooked House pub. I also thank my hon. Friend Ben Everitt, although I will make a little correction: Staffordshire is not part of the Black Country, although part of the Black Country historically used to be in Staffordshire.
I slightly disagree with the points made by the Opposition spokesperson, Sarah Owen, regarding austerity. Many of the challenges and issues in Stoke-on Trent have been going on for decades. We saw decades of neglect under Labour Administrations. Some of the challenges now faced by our high streets have been going on for much longer than the issues she mentioned.
Motion lapsed (