Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Andrew Stunell.)
Thank you, Mr Gray, for allowing me to introduce the debate. I am very grateful to the hon. Members who have turned up for braving the snow and ice to be here on the final day of the parliamentary term.
The debate is on an extremely important subject, which I believe hon. Members and the public will welcome the opportunity to discuss. There is barely a constituency in the country that does not contain a local high street of sorts, whether it be in a village, town or city, rural community or urban area. Our high streets are the beating hearts of our local communities. They are the vital hubs where essential services are located and where people meet for both business and recreation. The small shops based in those centres are often run by hard-working, small, independent businesses that employ local staff who provide a really personal service to their communities, and ensure at the same time that money is spent and therefore kept within the local economy.
In recent years, there has been a great deal of focus on the decline of local high streets. In many communities, independent retailers have come under threat. They have faced a rising burden of regulation and tax, a daily battle against crime and violence, and competition from the growth of out-of-town shopping centres. It has been estimated that in 2009 alone, 12,000 independent shops closed. Throughout the country, one does not have to look far to witness the sad sight of rows of empty high street stores, either boarded up or left vacant for months on end.
In Kingswood, my constituency, the situation is no different. For many years, local people—constituents whom I meet on the doorstep and at my surgeries—have been concerned that Kingswood high street, although still a great place to shop that features fantastic local stores, could be improved and given a better chance to stand up against out-of-town shopping centres to become once again the beacon of the Kingswood community. Local people have told me that for too long, Kingswood seemed to have been forgotten by politicians or those in authority, and that allowing local high streets to fall into disrepair sends a message that we do not care about our local community. I am determined that in Kingswood that will change. As the new local MP, I pledged that for the first time in 18 years, Kingswood would have its own MP’s office based in Kingswood, on the high street. That is not merely a token symbol; it is testament to my commitment to make Kingswood a better place to live and work, to invest in our local area.
That is one of the reasons why I called for the debate: I believe that many of the issues we face in Kingswood are exactly the same issues that need to be resolved at national level through Government action and legislation passed here in Parliament. It is here that we can give local people and local communities, in Kingswood and elsewhere, the opportunity to influence and shape the destiny of local high streets. Indeed, we must do so. After all, local high streets are the backbones of our local communities. A thriving high street points to a thriving community, but it must be the community that is at the centre of deciding the future of its local high street.
In discussing the regeneration of local high streets, I do not want to suggest that Kingswood high street is in a state of disrepair or that we are witnessing the so-called death of the local high street, left to rot, supposedly, by the increasing development of out-of-town shopping centres and malls. I merely want to discuss what we can do to make it a better place; I want us to discuss among ourselves what we can learn from one another’s experiences in different local areas about what works.
In many ways, Kingswood high street has all the ingredients to thrive and to restore its former glory. The Kings Chase shopping centre has done excellent work in restoring the fabric of the covered shopping area, while the introduction of a new Boswells café is a welcome move that will no doubt increase footfall. However, it is the recent establishment of the Kingswood Business Association that I believe gives greatest hope to the area. Working tirelessly to promote Kingswood, the business association is working with South Gloucestershire council to make Kingswood high street as vibrant a place as any.
The association is in the middle of carrying out a health checker exercise, asking what are the current and future needs of businesses in the local area in order to make Kingswood a sustainable place to work and shop. On the basis of that understanding of what is needed to maintain the vitality of Kingswood high street, the Kingswood Business Association is proactively seeking tenants to fill empty units—businesses that will particularly help to complement existing ones. Tackling the early symptoms of degeneration ensures that local businesses have an important steer on the future direction of their high street, taking responsibility for their local area. I welcome the recent launch of the “Healthy High Street?” guide by the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), to promote at a wider, national level the good practice that is already taking place in Kingswood.
The Kingswood Business Association has also recognised that there are many ways in which the high street can be promoted for little cost, by organising community events that can bring local people into the area to see what they are missing. This year, for instance, the Armed Forces day celebration, with veterans marching side by side down Kingswood high street, was a great success. Stalwart organisations such as the Friends of Kingswood Park and other leading champions of Kingswood such as Diane Block and George Kousouros should be given credit for all the hard work that they have put in over the years to make such events a success.
As the local MP, I am hoping next year to make Kingswood high street the focus for community celebrations once again. This time, I want to make Kingswood the place to celebrate St George’s day, and I am currently working to organise a parade along the high street to mark it. Local high streets can be the perfect place to celebrate such events—events that, although simple, are effective, helping to bring people together and getting local businesses talking to one another.
However, sustaining a local high street and a community cannot just be about organising events or shopping locally at independent small shops. We need to act as a Government to provide the breaks necessary for independent small businesses to thrive. Rate relief helps to keep financially afloat many small businesses on local high streets, yet at the same time many small businesses do not take up or even know about small business rate relief and consequently pay money that they do not need to pay to local authorities.
After the Federation of Small Businesses began a campaign for rate relief to be applied automatically, rather than businesses going through the bureaucratic process of applying for it, automatic small business rate relief was introduced in Northern Ireland. It has injected more than £8 million into the local economy and benefited 16,000 small businesses. It is to be welcomed that the Localism Bill now proposes to allow small business rate relief to be paid automatically to eligible small businesses. South Gloucestershire council made a submission under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 for automatic small business rate relief and is extremely pleased to see Ministers acting on that proposal.
I welcome the commitment in the local growth White Paper to double small business rate relief for one year from October; eligible ratepayers with rateable values below £6,000 will pay no rates at all for that year. It is also welcome that the Government are committed to taking legislation through the House to ensure that no new supplementary business rate can be imposed without the backing of local firms in a referendum. I particularly welcome the consideration of the possibility of giving local authorities wide-ranging discretionary powers to grant business rate discounts, so that they can respond to local circumstances by reducing business rate bills. In Kingswood, that might provide the opportunity for the high street to become an enterprise growth zone, offering local businesses and retail organisations the opportunity to invest in Kingswood with the reward of lower rates, creating our very own enterprise zone.
Does my hon. Friend agree that those ideas for rate discounts would be very interesting to food businesses, and particularly to traditional food businesses such as grocers, bakers and butchers, which often have quite tight margins and can struggle if they are in a particularly highly rated area?
That is an extremely interesting point. I had not considered it, but obviously there are many shops on the high street of that nature, so such a measure would indeed be extremely valuable.
Equally promising is the £1 billion of Government funding that has been set aside for councils that welcome new housing development. They will be able to spend it to benefit their local economy. In Kingswood, there are areas of brownfield land in need of development. At the same time, there is a great need for more affordable housing in the area. The new homes bonus—the Government’s proposal to match the council tax raised from the construction of new homes, supplemented by £350 per home for the first six years—will provide the opportunity for even greater investment in Kingswood, which might be spent on improving the local high street and its surrounding areas.
Increased investment and financial incentives are vital to protecting our local high streets, but we must also address the imbalance between our historic high streets and the growth of larger out-of-town retail centres or malls. It is there that we have the chance to learn the lessons of the past, and not to penalise small businesses in favour of larger retail outlets. I welcome the change in attitude displayed in the coalition’s programme for government, which states that it
“will seek to ensure a level playing field between small and large retailers by enabling councils to take competition”—
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the Mayor of London’s Great Outdoors programme has been particularly successful? My constituency has been lucky enough to benefit from the programme; Orpington was beset by structural decline for many years, with Bluewater a few miles down the road on one side and a great shopping centre in Bromley on the other. In July this year, Orpington was lucky enough to benefit from a £2.2 million regeneration programme.
Absolutely. I do not want to put across a message that we are anti-supermarket or anti-big business. This is about striking an appropriate balance between the two, and ensuring that small businesses are protected while at the same time ensuring that people in every constituency have choice—as they must.
I welcome the change in attitude displayed in the Government’s programme, which will seek to ensure a level playing field
“by enabling councils to take competition issues into account when drawing up their local plans to shape the direction and type of…retail development.”
In Kingswood, South Gloucestershire council has taken that message on board and made special provision for town centres and local high streets in its core strategy. It was also heartening to read the speech made by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on 2 November at the Heart of the Community conference, when my right hon. Friend stated
“we continue to support the ‘town-centres first’ policy, after all, a Conservative Government introduced it in 1996.”
That is something that the Conservative party, for one, has long campaigned on, and I look forward to hearing how the coalition Government will ensure that it takes place.
Above all, I welcome the local growth White Paper, which sets out the Government‘s economic ambition to build a fairer and more balanced economy driven by private sector growth within local communities. Indeed, it set out their commitment and belief that viable town centres are also key drivers of our economy. That can only benefit our local high streets, in particular by reforming the planning system so that it is driven by communities who want growth, rather than applying the system we inherited, which stifles development and innovation, and acts as a barrier to economic recovery.
In my local authority, several years ago Crawley borough council and West Sussex county council worked closely together to regenerate the high street. There is another thoroughfare—The Boulevard—in my local authority area, which the local councils are now looking to redevelop. With the local growth White Paper, and the localisation of planning policies that the coalition Government are introducing, is it not the case that local councils will be even more successful in achieving such things?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who did a tremendous job during his tenure at West Sussex county council. I hope the Government can take forward some of that work and learn from what he implemented in West Sussex.
By introducing a presumption in favour of sustainable economic development—it must be sustainable—and introducing a new right for communities to shape their local areas through neighbourhood plans, we are providing the seedbed in which local businesses will be able to flourish and expand. It is about ensuring that the high street and the people who live in a community have a viable, sustainable economic future. Parking, transport, procurement, and the threat from supermarkets and out-of-town developments are all best dealt with by local authorities, local community groups, local businesses and local people working together. Allowing local people the chance to get involved in the planning process is crucial if we are to improve decision making. Local problems, I believe, are always best solved at local level.
Many planning decisions involve the introduction of new buildings, yet we must not forget that the nature of many local high streets—historic landmarks in our towns and cities—means that they contain historic buildings in need of constant preservation. All too often, the presentation of local high streets is judged on the condition of those buildings and their quality of repair. It is vital that such buildings—many grade listed— be maintained and kept in the best condition possible. On Kingswood high street, the local Royal British Legion club has recognised that, and spent tens of thousands of pounds on repairing and cleaning the outside of the building, which is one of Kingswood’s landmarks. That has restored the building to its former glory and done much to improve the look of Kingswood high street; the members of the Legion should be thanked for all their efforts, which have made a real difference.
Sadly, not all buildings in Kingswood are fortunate enough to have been looked after so well. Just off Kingswood high street is Whitfield’s tabernacle, a famous grade I listed building, which, together with its nearby chapel and grounds, has fallen into a tragic state of disrepair. For years, despite great public concern, the building has been allowed to crumble and its grounds become overgrown. As the new local MP, I am unwilling to allow this blight on the Kingswood landscape, so close to the high street, to be tolerated. Recently, I organised a joint meeting with South Gloucestershire council, English Heritage and the current owners to drive the restoration of the historic site. English Heritage has now committed £48,000 to urgent repair works on the tabernacle, and I will continue discussions with all relevant parties until we reach a workable solution.
Although the tabernacle project is once again moving, there are other derelict buildings near Kingswood high street or in its vicinity that I am campaigning to see restored or improved. The former Linden hotel is such a building, and I am determined to see it improved. Over the years, like the tabernacle, the building has fallen into disrepair. It is all too easy to sit back and allow that to happen, but much harder to stand up and do something about it. As local MPs, we must begin to tackle such problems if we are genuinely to stand up for our local areas. Such local buildings should never have been allowed to fall into such a state; but I am not here to challenge the past, only to champion the future.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the role of landlords, particularly those with premises in town centres? The level of dilapidation of some of the retail stock in town centres is such that market forces alone would struggle to regenerate some areas.
I agree that it is difficult, and landlords can often be recalcitrant in a difficult market when dealing with some of those problems. However, we need to push further to ensure that historic high streets and buildings in need of protection are regenerated where necessary. I am a strong champion of looking after those buildings.
We must have pride in our buildings and local areas if we are to have pride in our local communities. The Sun’s recent campaign to save the British high street has pointed out that sense of pride. We need to make our high streets more attractive places in which to shop. That can be achieved in a variety of ways, and often at low cost: planting trees or shrubs, installing hanging baskets, providing more bins and having dedicated teams to remove fly-posters, graffiti and chewing gum. All of that will make our high streets cleaner and more enjoyable to visit.
The Government need a strategy to tackle our empty and derelict shops, and to ensure that at local level, as is the case with the Kingswood Business Association, local communities can be empowered to get shops back into use, whether through local knowledge, sharing best practice or the introduction of lower rates set by the local authority. The Sun’s campaign has also pointed out the need to take a hard line on retail crime, for instance shoplifting and antisocial behaviour. I agree. Shoppers must feel safe in their local high street. If there is any chance that intimidation might take place, it must be tackled. Damaged or vandalised property must be repaired as soon as possible, and must never be tolerated. Equally, a business that is frequently the victim of crime is a business at risk of closing down. Tackling crime against small businesses can but assist urban regeneration.
We should recognise that the night life of local high streets is equally important to their reputation and long-term sustainability. In Kingswood, I found a mutual desire on the part of restaurant, pub and nightclub owners, the police and South Gloucestershire council to ensure that Kingswood high street is as safe a place as possible to enjoy a meal or a drink on a night out. The council has recently made a substantial investment in CCTV, at the same time as investing in taxi marshals to ensure that local people can get home safely.
Following the refurbishment of Kingswood civic centre—a huge investment by South Gloucestershire council, which signals its commitment to invest in Kingswood—I was delighted to see that local police will once again be based on Kingswood high street, enabling them to meet the local community’s immediate needs and provide for its safety. We should constantly be on the lookout for ways to make our local high streets as safe as possible, and as the local MP, I continue to work with every interested party to ensure that that happens.
We are already witnessing new changes and new beginnings in Kingswood. Since the election of a new council in 2007, the local community has witnessed record investment, but change must be matched by a commitment to the future. There is much more to do, and I am committed to doing the best I can for Kingswood and to standing up for our local high street.
As Members of Parliament, we should and must act as effective champions for our local areas, refusing merely to allow the status quo to continue and refusing to stand still and allow our local high streets to fall into disrepair. We, too, have a responsibility to stand up for our communities and high streets and to enable local people to discover how they can make their high streets better places to work, better places to shop and better places to enjoy.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me make a couple of general points that might help hon. Members. First, it is helpful if those who intend to speak in Westminster Hall write to Mr Speaker. A number of you have done so, but others have not.
Secondly, I mean no disrespect to my old colleague, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), for whom I was a special adviser, but normally the order of dress in this Chamber is the same as in the main Chamber. It being Christmas, however, a degree of latitude is probably perfectly in order.
I shall make an unashamedly parochial speech, but before I do, let me congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing the debate and on the way in which he introduced it.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that high streets are usually dominated by small businesses. Often these are innovative businesses, which, as he rightly said, work extremely hard. On occasion, they are run by one or two people with a great commitment to the service they offer local people. I also agree about the importance of the campaign that The Sun has been running.
The hon. Gentleman made a series of interesting points about the Localism Bill and the benefits that it will, in his view, offer down the line. I will be interested to hear what the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), thinks about that Bill.
I want to make two parochial points and one point about London. My first parochial point is about north Harrow, which is in my constituency. I have lived there for most of my life, and I should perhaps invite hon. Members to follow the example of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government by visiting north Harrow, which he did during the general election campaign—he was taking time out to support my campaign, or, at least, I think that was what was going on. On his visit, he would have had the chance, as will other hon. Members if they take time out to come to north Harrow to support my next election campaign, to see some great restaurants. Britain’s best fish and chip shop is probably in north Harrow, but there are also a series of superb cafés, delis and Indian restaurants. Other businesses include great newsagents and a fantastic shoe repairers.
I want to raise a concern about north Harrow, however, which came ninth out of nine in Harrow council’s annual look at the viability of district centres in our borough. Indeed, as most residents of north Harrow will recognise, it has had a series of problems attracting new businesses since the closure of the Safeway supermarket in 2002. Concerns about north Harrow’s viability as a district centre have been thrown into stark relief in recent days with the closure of north Harrow’s last major bank—Lloyds—on Friday. Lloyds management cited the decline in footfall in north Harrow as the reason for shutting the branch, which is the only one that they have shut in recent months in the whole of London.
The council and I, as the Member of Parliament, have been in touch with Lloyds bank and we have pressed it, albeit unsuccessfully, to reconsider its decision. However, we also asked it to do a number of other things. First, we have asked it to work with the local council to think about what it can put back into north Harrow to support businesses in the area. Secondly, we have asked the bank to look at how it can work with the post office in north Harrow to extend the range of services that Lloyds customers use. Many constituents are not aware that the post office provides a service for Lloyds bank customers. The concern is that many people who previously came to north Harrow to use the bank will not recognise that they can use the post office for their banking needs and will instead go to other areas, including, worst of all, neighbouring areas such as Hillingdon, Brent or Hertfordshire.
The last issue that I want to raise in regard to north Harrow relates to the space occupied by the former Safeway store, which has been closed since 2002. New flats have been built above the store to house key workers, but the space that Safeway occupied still has no businesses in it, which appears to be the result of a problem over the ownership of the lease. The local council is looking at the issue, but I hope that the owners of the lease and, indeed, the Genesis housing association, which built the flats above the space, will work much harder with the local council in the early part of 2011 to resolve the question of the lease once and for all. That will enable this crucial space to be promoted again so that we can have businesses in it.
The hon. Member for Kingswood made a crucial, albeit brief, point about the need to recognise early signs of concern about the viability of district centres, which brings me to my second parochial point. Harrow town centre remains extremely viable with a series of what would be classified as major high street areas running through it. However, it faces huge competition from the Harlequin centre in Watford, Brent Cross and the attractions of central London. Over the past 10 to 15 years, there has been no major development in Harrow town centre and no major consideration of what we need to do to maintain the viability and attractiveness of the borough’s premier high street area. The council is beginning to look at the issue, and I hope that all the businesses with an interest in Harrow will work extremely closely with the local council to make sure that there is no slippage in Harrow town centre’s competitiveness.
The only point at which the hon. Gentleman almost lost my interest and enthusiasm for what he was saying was when he described the Mayor of London as a great visionary, but as it is Christmas, I will skip over that. To be fair, however, there is one thing for which I should give the Mayor credit: introducing the bike hire scheme in central London. I worry, however, that he has not taken the same interest thus far in outer-London boroughs, and I hope that we will see early signs from him and from his successor in 18 months’ time of a new focus on outer-London areas such as Harrow.
I hope that there will be an extension of the bike hire scheme. It is interesting that the same country that provided the inspiration for the Mayor’s bike hire scheme now advocates considering a car hire scheme. If the occupants of the Mayor of London’s position in the coming years are interested in such a scheme—and they should certainly think about it—I hope they may be willing to explore whether they could work with Harrow council on it, or, indeed, on other schemes to promote economic regeneration. Outer London deserves more attention than it has traditionally had from those in City Hall. I hope that the Mayor of London will prioritise support for Harrow generally and, given the particular concern that I have raised about its viability, north Harrow.
A debate of this kind inevitably has something of a Cook’s tour quality, so I want to take hon. Members from Harrow down either the A40 or the M40, or the Chiltern railway line, to Bicester and Banbury. The two main towns in my constituency are market towns, and their only real raison d’être has been as market towns.
Retail continues to change every decade. The Banbury in photographs taken in the 1930s looks very different from the Banbury of the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s or ’70s. There is continuous evolution because retail is all about millions of people making decisions—thousands of decisions each day—about how they spend their money, and that evolution will continue.
In recent years, two substantive changes have affected town centres and high streets. One is shopping near the edge of town, or out of town. Banbury has excellent supermarkets: Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons. However, they are on the outskirts—on the edge of the town. People want to use them and they are much used. We must accept that part of the retail revolution as a given.
The other revolutionary change is the use of the internet. I understand that 10% of Christmas presents will be bought on the internet this year. I recently visited the Christmas sorting office of Banbury post office, as I have done practically every year for the past 30. I suspect that every other right hon. and hon. Member has also visited their sorting office. In previous years, I saw thousands and thousands of Christmas cards. Last year I started to notice some parcels, but this year the place is awash with parcels from Amazon and elsewhere. I shall take this opportunity to pay a compliment to all the postmen and women who have been getting out in grim conditions. In the villages of north Oxfordshire yesterday, the one constant sight was the Post Office van, which was getting through to deliver the huge number of parcels bought on the internet.
Nowadays the internet makes Christmas shopping easy. Both my children’s Christmas presents were bought on the internet. The situation with my wife is much simpler; she just tells me what she has bought for me to give her. I am not sure whether she bought it on the internet, but it is a very simple system. However, the internet revolution will not go away. People will buy more and more on the internet.
At any one moment about 12% of the retail properties in Banbury are voids. They change—some come and some go—but over the past three or four years, walking down the high street in Banbury or in the market square, one has seen those voids. I do not see where the speciality shops will come from to fill those voids. We have had—and do have—regeneration in Banbury. We have the fantastic Castle Quay shopping centre. We have just had a scheme, involving the Environment Agency, through which a private sector contribution is enabling Banbury to continue with some flood defences that will make town centre regeneration possible along the Oxford canal. Some really grotty existing light industrial areas will be redeveloped for affordable housing and new businesses. The area will be really exciting, but we will still be left with much empty retail space.
The question I want to put to my hon. Friend the Minister is about a conundrum with which we shall all have to get to grips. Much of the void retail property belongs to commercial developers. It is on their balance sheets as an asset. They do not particularly mind about the situation. They are not getting rent from the property, but they are happy to leave such capital assets where they are. It seems that there is no incentive for them to bring it back into useful existence. I have come to a conclusion about what we shall need to do in a town such as Banbury with much of that former retail space. That space is not being used, and the space above it, where shopkeepers would once have lived but which later became commercial space, is pretty grotty commercial space that is difficult to let, as much better commercial office space is being built on business parks around the town. Realistically, it will be difficult to let that space. I think that we need to bring it back into housing use as flats above shops to house young people, students, and key workers such as nurses.
To some extent that is already happening in Banbury, but I suspect that we shall need it to happen a lot more. What can we do to accelerate the process? What can be done to encourage commercial landlords to see that they will get better yields by seeking planning permission to convert some of the empty retail space into accommodation than they will by leaving it as retail voids? I am thinking of setting up a prize for the grottiest, longest-term void, and at present the award would undoubtedly go to a site that was the headquarters of Crest Hotels in Banbury, which is an abomination unto the Lord. That complete mess, which is within a cricket ball’s throw of the town hall, is now just used by roosting pigeons. There seems to be very little incentive for the owners or freeholders of the property to bring it back into use and turn it into offices or housing.
We need to provide some incentives—either carrots or sticks—to owners of empty retail space to get them to consider what uses they can put the buildings to, other than leaving them as retail voids. Of course, that means that the local planning authority must be supportive and encouraging about people returning to live in town centres and high streets. However, given the unmitigated pressure on new housing—particularly for young people, students, single people and key workers—I should have thought that that approach would produce an ideal relationship involving trying to find existing buildings to convert to flats and housing for such people.
The uncomfortable truth is that aspects of the retail revolution are such that we are never going to see our town centres or high streets revert to what they were in the 1950s or 1940s. The retail revolution has moved on. We must find other ways to secure the vitality and viability of town centres with the shops, retail experiences, banks and building societies that already exist. We must do all that we can, of course, to ensure that people want to come to the town centre and use it as a focus for the community. However, we must also accept that we shall never need all our town centres’ historical retail space for retail purposes. Some of it could better be converted to housing. However, the mechanisms for bringing that about—how to get the housing and how to get more people living in town centres—are a conundrum, and I should welcome the Minister’s thoughts.
I have to work it out for myself to decide when to stop speaking. Thank you, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing the debate and refer hon. Members to a declaration of interest as part-owner of MarketNet, an e-commerce operation running since 1994.
I would like to follow on from the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), because he made key points. A lot of this is driven by financial realities. Supermarkets have two advantages: no wholesaling, so they keep the whole of the margin, and an oligopsony—that is, the buying power allows them to drive down the prices at which they buy goods, which therefore allows them to compete financially, more so with shops that have to take the wholesale-retail route.
We have been trying for 11 years in Yardley to redevelop the Tivoli centre, where there used to be a shopping centre built on the site of an old cinema. Although the Labour councillors decided to vote to stop it recently, after 11 years we are finally getting a redevelopment of the Swan centre, or Tivoli centre, which should see another 600 jobs for the constituency. That plan is underpinned by Tesco, which I have supported, because I want to see the redevelopment of the site. The finances are such that we cannot redevelop that site without money coming in from somewhere. The community right to buy—a very good project—has to be underpinned by finances. The difficulty for high streets is how to deal with the fact that there has been a movement away from retail on the high street. That raises a number of issues, one of which is the dereliction. Look at the issue from the commercial landlords’ perspective: if they accept a lower rent, one difficulty is that they then have to devalue the property in their accounts. They do not want to do that because it could derail them to a much greater extent. We need to find an incentive, as we have for empty homes, for empty commercial properties so as to encourage people to recognise the realities of life and develop that.
There is a distinction between high streets and shopping centres such as Bluewater, which was referred to earlier. High streets are public spaces. We can have marches up and down them; we have loads of parades in Birmingham, all over the place. We do not have those in shopping centres; we have little things, because shopping centres are private spaces. That issue needs to be looked at, with the owners of shopping centres, as it devalues the community aspects. The great advantage of Acocks Green, like other places in Birmingham, is that it was based on a market right in the centre, in Digbeth, but is in fact an urban area developed out of a number of villages. All the villages have centres and, oddly enough, places such as the Yew Tree are bypasses of the village of Old Yardley. Houses have grown up where fields used to be between the villages. They are village centres that were owned by the communities. The shopping centres that have developed do not have that same community ownership, which is rather sad. That is something that local government and national Government should work on—trying to develop more community involvement and a general feeling that it is all part of our wider community. I accept that they are private centres—there is no question about that—but it is sad to lose that communal element.
Farmers’ markets, for instance, can really add to an area. There are many places in Birmingham with farmers’ markets, which are good to have. Their element of disorder—the word we use at the moment is “chaos”—means that they are not structured, but are all different. We are never quite sure what we are going to find; it is not all Café Rouge and Pizza Hut. There is a children’s song about Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, which those who have young children will know. Though that is a national song, it is nice to have the variety created by different organisations. It is good if someone sets up a retail outlet, creates new ideas and develops them.
However, we do have to come down to the finances—that is where the Government need to study to what extent there is a level playing field. As the footfall moves into the shopping centres, as it has done, the value is clearly no longer in the land values in high streets. The effect of the commercial financing is such that people do not want to accept a lower rent because they would have to devalue the asset. That leads to the dereliction that is damaging to the community in the wider sense. To that extent, I support the hon. Member for Banbury, in that we need to look at incentives to ensure that we do not have dereliction. I think I have probably said enough.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on his excellent speech. I now know considerably more about Kingswood than I did about 45 minutes ago. He clearly has a great passion for the area he represents and has done a tremendous job. He made an interesting speech, which I hope other hon. Members will develop. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) has just left his seat. I know he did not wish to say too much about Boris Johnson, given that it is Christmas. I am not sure whether he meant that Boris Johnson was either the Messiah or a very wise man. No doubt he will have the opportunity to tell us at some later stage.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made an interesting speech. He developed an issue to which I had not given much thought—dealing with long-term voids in high streets to boost the private rented sector. My experience as an inner-city MP is that nothing is more important than a vibrant and stable residential population to ensure a boost for such areas.
Many Members may wonder on what basis I am speaking. Are there any high streets in Cities of London and Westminster? There are many of the most traditional high streets, such as Cheapside, in the City of London, where one of the largest shopping developments in central London in recent years has opened. Oxford street was once Westminster’s high street, though it perhaps has more profound resonance now. Other residential shopping areas can be found in Marylebone high street and Elizabeth street. I accept that those two are in the relatively wealthy areas of Marylebone and Belgravia, but their vibrancy and success are due fundamentally to having a relatively stable, single landowner, which makes a big difference to the choice of shops available. To an extent, the Howard de Walden and the Grosvenor estates in each of those cases—the same applies to the Portman estate, which does a tremendous job around Edgware road—have realised the importance of variety in a local shopping centre. Although I do not know all the statistics, there is little doubt that there has been an element of having loss leaders, allowing particular shops to pay considerably lower rates or to get a rate rebate.
I accept that that is not necessarily a panacea that can apply throughout the country. I am lucky in that there are great pockets of wealth in my constituency. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the drab Marylebone high street that I first walked down only 25 years ago, when I worked in London between school and university, has been transformed. It has become much respected, with people coming from beyond London to shop there, even though it is less than half a mile from Oxford street. Having traditional, independent restaurants, bookstores and small specialist food stores such as bakeries and cheese shops, makes a tremendous difference.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one interesting idea in the Government’s Localism Bill and White Paper on local growth is whether councils around the country might take on the role of some of the big landlord estates in London? They could try to stimulate economic growth in their areas by supporting certain types of business, which might in turn lead to other business growth.
I agree. That would be a useful way forward. One difficulty is often the disparate freehold ownership on a lot of high streets. I certainly do not think that there is a need for a centralised plan, but there needs to be a vision that goes beyond simply ensuring that tenants are paying rent this year and next, and the one after. There needs to be a vision for 15 or 20 years. We always need to take into account what my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury rightly said, which is that it is hard to put a finger on how high streets will look in 20 years’ time. They have certainly changed every decade since the 1940s, due to different shopping habits.
I am sorry that the two Members representing suburban London seats who were here earlier have gone. There are specific problems in suburban London, which I would not wish to put to one side. I have a great passion for London as a whole and recognise that there are certain advantages in representing a very central London seat. In Orpington, where my wife’s family came from, and in Harrow, there are some fundamental problems, partly as a result of out-of-town shopping centres. A slight irony of the recent snowfall is that many people have not been able to get out in their cars to do that sort of shop, and have therefore been forced back to see the offering in their own high street.
There are no easy solutions to all this. One possibility is to have a single landowner who can perhaps make an area special, look at flagship stores and, where possible, consider loss leaders.
I want to touch on business improvement districts. In fairness, they are greatly to the credit of the previous Labour Government, who introduced elements of the legislation, and they have been a great success. In my own constituency, the New West End Company, which operates around Regent street, Bond street and Oxford street, has been a great success. We have seen various other business improvement districts around the Paddington Basin area, and demand is increasing. However, the money that has been spent by business improvement districts tends to be focused on aesthetics and on increasing the number of policemen to ensure that shoppers feel safer and that shops are less subject to crime.
With local authorities facing difficult financial settlements not just for this year and next, but probably for the rest of this decade, I worry that this should not be seen just as a matter of substitution. I encourage town centres to consider going down the business improvement district route, although they will still see money being taken away by way of what should be the normal local authority responsibility. We need to bear that in mind, as we do supplementary business rates.
I want to mention supermarkets, which have been touched on by other hon. Members. It is easy to criticise supermarkets. I have stood up for them previously in this Chamber, and I think that they do a tremendous job in many ways. They provide phenomenal choice that was unseen a decade or two ago. None the less, I accept what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) said—I think he referred to an oligarchy of sorts being adopted, although I cannot remember how he phrased it. I also worry that the grocery ombudsman route may not be an entirely sensible way forward.
If we are to have a vibrant shopping centre, a flagship supermarket is almost always needed. Waitrose is in Marylebone high street in my constituency; we also see various Sainsbury’s and Tesco stores, particularly some of the smaller ones. However, I would like to see newsagents playing a part in the high street, for example, and I would like supermarkets to show some responsibility by, for instance, not selling newspapers. That would ensure that newsagents within 50 or 100 yards of the supermarket had a chance to thrive. If there was a long-standing fishmonger nearby, let us hope that the local Sainsbury’s or Tesco would not sell fish. In other words, we need to ensure that people do not have to do all their shopping in a particular Sainsbury’s or Tesco—an all-singing, all-dancing supermarket—at the expense of the smaller stores. That would present the supermarkets, which do a tremendous job, with an opportunity to show a certain amount of self-restraint, rather than having to be bossed around by an all-powerful ombudsman. Thank you, Mr Gray, for allowing me to speak. I look forward to other contributions to the debate.
I am grateful to have the pleasure of speaking in the debate, Mr Gray, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing it. This is an important debate for a constituency such as mine, which has a collection of village high streets and three market towns. I think that I can still refer to them as market towns, as all three have markets, but I suspect that by the end of my term here, I will have to call them supermarket towns. One new supermarket opened in my first six months as an MP, and the threat of another couple in the other two towns is further damaging the high streets.
Perhaps one of the great pleasures of being an MP is supporting “shop local” campaigns. When my girlfriend says, with apologies to the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), “Can we go to the Westfield centre in Derby?” or, “How about Meadowhell?”—sorry, I think I am meant to say “Meadowhall”—I can say, “No, we need to shop local.” I had great pleasure taking her out to Ripley on Sunday to spend far too much money on jewellery. It seems that we have legalised product placement, and with the number of lists of shops that have been cited in this debate, perhaps some of us are having a try at that here.
To return to my point, I have three market towns in my constituency: Alfreton, Heanor and Ripley. I am giving nothing away when I say that they all have challenges to face. As other hon. Members have mentioned, we have empty shops, pubs and business premises, and bits of land that have been set aside for bypasses that will never happen. There is no magic easy fix for such problems. None the less, those towns now have glossy regeneration plans—the previous Government insisted upon them—with 100-page booklets full of glossy pictures. I am a little suspicious, because the plans are very similar for each town, with a slightly different road map to reflect the historic roads. Fundamentally, we are several tens of millions of pounds short of achieving those plans.
Perhaps we need to think a little more strategically about what a town should look like and how it should be changed and sorted out. There is a risk that everyone looks at a town and tries to do the same thing. We tend to think, “How do we get the shops back to where they were 30 years ago? How do we get independent shops to come back here when they have practically all left, and how do we reopen that pub?” We may need to go beyond that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned, and accept that things have changed and that we do want to shop at supermarkets. I suspect that we are all guilty of getting back at 9 o’clock at night and of doing our shopping when only the supermarket is open. It is much easier to do that than to go down the high street during opening hours. People exercise their right to choose, so we need to find a plan for our towns that lives in the real world and applies to the future world, and that does not try to take us back 30 or 40 years to what used to work then. There are things that national and local government can do to encourage the change. I am pleased with some of the things that the new Government are doing. We must ensure that planning control is actually about planning rather than development. We must look at what we want to have in each town, where we want it and how we get it.
When I look around at least one of my towns, all I see are rows of betting shops, takeaways and charity shops. They are not great for the vibrancy of a town. One of the ways in which we can reduce the number of betting shops in a row is to allow them to have more than four slot machines. The problem is we may then have two empty betting shops rather than two full units. Councils should have the planning power to say, “No, we have enough betting shops and takeaways; we want something different.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing this debate. It is wonderful to see so many Members here despite the imminent recess. My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) hit on a key point when he talked about practicalities, the reality and individual choice. In my constituency, this is such a hot topic that should I call such a debate, some 200 people would descend to try to talk about what they want to do about their closed shops and multiple shops of the same style. This issue is definitely about localism, and it cannot be about prescriptive ideas. We must ensure—I hope that the Minister will do this—that we empower local councils and individuals to do what is right for their area.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. One thing that councils should have the power to do is to say, “Right, we want this town to be a focus for restaurants or for small shops.” They should be able to choose whatever is right for that town and look at how they can encourage that. We have heard talk of granting business rate discounts, and that is certainly something that we can do. We can grant a holiday for the first year, or half rate for a few years, to give businesses a chance to establish themselves. We can try to streamline the planning system so that we can say, “If you want to convert this empty shop or that void into this kind of outlet, we will guarantee that you can get that planning permission.” That would speed up the process and take out some of the costs. Let us look at practical measures.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) talked about trying to rig together freehold ownership. I know that towns have a problem with the numerous different owners in the high street—they might have banks owning closed branches, a few pub landlords owning pubs that are boarded up, individuals who own shops but cannot be found, and a couple of obscure trusts. We must try to find a way in which we can bring that together. Perhaps we could consider innovative land swaps. Councils might have valuable land outside the town that could be attractive for out-of-town parking, while someone’s land in the centre could be used to regenerate the town. We need to get a critical mass of ideas together so that we can do something rather than thinking, “I can fix two of these 27 outlets, but I still have a problem with the other 25.”
I shall now address car parking, which is probably a poisoned chalice. Anyone who talks to small shopkeepers or owners of small businesses will know that they say that they cannot compete with supermarkets because supermarkets can give free parking to all their shoppers, whereas the customers of small shops have to park half a mile away down a hill, and pay various rates for that privilege. They say that they just cannot compete with supermarket parking for either convenience or cost. The situation is difficult, because councils want the revenue from car parking, and it must be right that car parks be maintained—we want safe, clean, well-lit car parks, and the cost of such maintenance must be met from somewhere. However, one of the things that kills town centres is that people just do not want to pay the £1 or £2 they are charged to park in them. When people are spending £5 on petrol to get to a town centre, it is hard to believe that the 50p for parking will put them off, but if anyone looks at the cars along a free-parking residential street, it clearly does.
We need to take a strategic view. If we are going to save our town centres, we need to think, “What can we bring here that will be viable and self-perpetuating? What can we do to help people to come here, even if we cannot chuck millions of pounds at it? What do we need to do to get the infrastructure, parking and public transport access right, and the pavements well lit and attractive?” If we try to bring those things together and create the right conditions, we can make this plan work. I am afraid that the time for trying to find a one-size-fits-all approach and an attitude of saying, “Let’s go back to the 1960s high street”—great as that might be—has now passed.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing this important debate. I agree with much that has been said about the regeneration of local high streets, but I would like to make a couple of parochial points about Pendle.
We in Pendle face the same issues as many town centres throughout the country due to people’s changing shopping patterns and competition from out-of-town retailers. However, different parts of the borough face different challenges. The pedestrianisation of the main high street in Nelson, which is the largest town that I represent, was a serious and expensive mistake which, if anything, accelerated the loss of local shops. I am pleased to say that a £2.3 million scheme to reopen Nelson’s main high street, with the hope of helping to revitalise the town centre, is nearing completion. That scheme, which began in June, will help to bring traffic back through the town centre and improve the street scene. Crucially—this is what my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) was just talking about—it will allow shoppers to park much closer to local stores so that those stores can compete more effectively with supermarkets and out-of-town stores that have free car parking immediately outside their doors.
The project is an essential step in helping us to breathe new life into Nelson town centre. Since the general election, I have held monthly meetings with the leader of Pendle borough council, Mike Blomeley, and its chief executive, Stephen Barnes, to talk about some of the challenges that we face, as well as specifically about how we can work together proactively to regenerate our local high street, which is something that concerns us all.
Several hon. Members have touched on the important fact that we still have some excellent local shops in our areas. We need to bring shoppers back to areas such as Nelson. However, far too many of my constituents who live outside Nelson town centre say to me, “There are no decent shops in Nelson.” If they visited the town centre, they would realise that many of the independent and family-run butchers, bakers, jewellers and gift shops are still there. We have far too many boarded-up shops, but there are still some real gems hidden on the high street. That is why my message about “shop local” campaigns, with which many Members in the Chamber today are involved, has always been, in regard to local shops, that we really need to encourage people to use them, or lose them. I was therefore delighted to be in Nelson last Friday to open the new post office. Given the number of post office closures in recent years, it seemed odd for a Member of Parliament to be opening a new one. However, I congratulate Mr Vali, who has invested in opening a new post office store in the old Woolworth building in the town centre. That new post office is one aspect of the ongoing regeneration of Nelson town centre.
In Colne, which is the town where I live, the situation is very different. We have a number of empty shops, but by and large the high street is doing very well. We have a number of shops, pubs and restaurants, and the town centre tends to be quite busy. However, one of the biggest problems facing Colne is something that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood: we have a number of significant buildings that have fallen into disuse and disrepair.
One of the biggest of those buildings in Colne is Shackleton Hall, a landmark building on the high street. Despite being grade II listed, it became an eyesore after years of neglect and was put on English Heritage’s at-risk register. I am therefore delighted to be able to tell hon. Members that renovation of that building began in July and is now well under way. There is a £2 million project to invest in the building. The main building is being converted into modern office space with a retail arcade below, while preserving the Victorian exterior. Once it is renovated, the building will become the new headquarters for Housing Pendle, which is currently located just a few doors away in Colne town hall, as well as providing additional retail space on the high street. After years of neglect, I am delighted to see this historic building transformed and brought back into use at long last. It will be a great boost to Colne town centre, both helping to brighten up the town and providing more jobs.
I cite the two examples in Nelson and Colne today because although, as a lot of Members have already mentioned, it is very important to remember the contribution that can be made by local chambers of commerce and business associations, and by automatic rate relief, it is also important to remember that intervention is needed in some areas to address the most challenging issues. I am therefore delighted by the Government’s launch of the regional growth fund, which I believe will help to fund the regeneration of many high streets across the north of England. I am also pleased about many of the provisions in the Localism Bill, which will make regeneration easier, along with the provisions in the White Paper on local growth. Given the time, I will end my speech, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing the debate. One of the great strengths of the institution of the Westminster Hall debate is that it brings to the fore issues of great concern to the citizens we represent. The hon. Gentleman and others, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), have spoken with passion about why high streets matter.
The evidence is clear. High streets have a special place in the heart and the habits of the people of Britain. At its best, the British high street is not only where people go to shop but where they go to find services, access leisure facilities and meet friends in bars, pubs and restaurants. It is, therefore, a very important place in the make-up of our local communities. It deserves to be protected and promoted.
High streets vary in their nature from a row of shops on the one hand to complex city centres on the other, and it is not true that high streets are universally in decline. On the contrary, some are succeeding, in particular—but not exclusively—those in affluent areas. Evidence from the Town and Country Planning Association, Planning Aid and the Federation of Small Businesses shows that the high streets that succeed are accessible, cared for, invested in, clean and safe, and have an attractive environment.
In a typically thoughtful contribution, the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) was right to point to the success of Marylebone high street. I, too, remember Marylebone high street 25 years ago; now it is the thriving heart of Marylebone. Evidence of the ability to turn around decline can be seen in some of the great city centres, ranging from Birmingham—after the bullring was bulldozed, we saw in its place a vibrant city centre high street—to Manchester, which has seen the remarkable repopulation and regeneration of its city centre.
Sadly, other high streets are slowly declining, often—but not exclusively—in poorer areas. That decline is characterised by empty shops, a poor environment, lack of investment, the growth of pound shops and charity shops, and the decreasing use of the high street as the quality of the offer is eroded, allied to the flight of the multiples—the household name shops—to shopping malls and out-of-town shopping centres. A vicious circle of decline is destroying communities’ social fabric and condemning too many citizens to shopping and socialising in inferior places.
Evidence from the Town and Country Planning Association, Planning Aid and the Federation of Small Businesses shows clearly what is needed to turn the tide. Public intervention is key, as are public investment and the public sector’s use of its powers, working in partnership with the private sector, to create the climate for private sector investment to regenerate the high street.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster rightly pointed to the success of many business improvement districts. Several things are key to such regeneration programmes, such as road access, good public transport, parking facilities, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) said, and a pleasant pedestrianised environment. High streets should also be well cleaned, as the evidence shows that citizens desert dirty high streets, and well policed, because citizens do not shop on unsafe high streets.
High streets should have toilets, as evidence from Age Concern and others is that senior citizens do not go to areas where they cannot spend a penny. High streets should have changing facilities for babies, as the evidence shows that young parents do not take their children to places without such facilities. Disabled access is also crucial. A remarkable young woman in my constituency with muscular dystrophy is waging an admirable campaign for household name Next to install a disabled lift so that young women such as she can shop there like anyone else.
High streets should also include public service front offices. The hon. Member for Kingswood was right—dare I say it? MPs should be based in their high street. I have moved to just off the high street, because I think it is right that MPs should be in the heart of our communities. It is impossible to achieve all those objectives and regenerate the high street without a combination of public intervention and public investment and the use of planning powers, including compulsory purchase.
I know from my experience in Birmingham and Erdington that there is a contrast. Erdington high street is in decline; I have been told hundreds of times that it is not what it once was. On the other hand, shopping malls such as the Fort and the Star City leisure complex have grown. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) was right to mention that trend. Yet some high streets have succeeded. The small high street in Castle Vale in Erdington is at the heart of a remarkable regeneration project in that estate. As the representative of Erdington, I place a high priority, as do all Members here today, on the regeneration of our local high streets. I welcome the fact that we have turned the tide on Erdington high street. Sainsbury’s has agreed to move back into the high street, and I hope that Mothercare will follow. It is right that we have public service facilities in our high streets, which is why I welcome the opening of the NHS health and well-being centre on Erdington high street.
The debate has focused on disturbing long-term trends that give rise to legitimate concerns on the part of the people we represent. However, I stress that the evidence is clear: the decline of that great British institution, the high street, is not inevitable. All over the country, decline is being arrested and high streets are now succeeding. If the public good is to be realised and we are to have high streets of which our communities can be proud, and if the private market is to flourish through investment in high streets, it is crucial that the public sector work in partnership with the private sector to the benefit of the communities that we represent.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), who gave a clear picture of both the good and the not-so-good aspects of the situation that he and Kingswood face. I thank other Members and hon. Friends, who have contributed thoughtfully to the debate, with considered contributions and positive ideas about how things can be put right while accepting, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) just said, that the country has many thriving local centres and high streets. We must not talk them down completely.
Town centres and local high streets are certainly extremely important. They are seen as being at the heart of the community. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) made the point that they are civic as well as retail spaces: places where people can meet and greet, set up charity stalls or have their petitions signed. That is clearly distinct from the rather regulated world of shopping malls and retail centres. It is vital that we create the right environment for local businesses to thrive and support economic growth and regeneration in our high streets.
The Government are taking a new approach to local growth, recognising that it must be driven locally. The hon. Member for Kingswood made the point clearly that we should seek local solutions to local problems. That is exactly the approach that this Government are taking through localism—putting residents, local businesses and civic leaders in the driving seat and providing them with new rights, powers, tools and incentives to drive local regeneration and growth. It is important to create a fairer and more balanced sustainable economy. Without it, UK businesses cannot succeed, including small retail businesses.
Will the Minister join me in urging Lloyds bank, which has had huge taxpayer support, to recognise even as it withdraws from north Harrow in my constituency that it has a responsibility to the people there, who have invested in their bank over years, to help in the regeneration of north Harrow? Lloyds has a continuing responsibility to work with the local council, perhaps by providing financial resources, to support the regeneration initiatives planned for that part of my constituency.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech earlier, which he described as unashamedly parochial and which set out the issues that he and the community of north Harrow face. At several points during the debate, I felt a strong temptation to give my own constituency-based speech about local centres and high streets, but I guess that I am not permitted to do so. However, I will tell him that I too have been trying to ensure that banks withdrawing from high streets and local centres in my constituency accept their corporate responsibility. I hope he understands that I stand with him on that issue. Large chains, whether banks or retailers, should show some responsibility by investing in local communities. In this case, they are disinvesting in local communities. Their role is important and should not be overlooked.
I will concentrate specifically on the Government’s role and that of public policy. Hopefully, we can discuss what large private sector organisations might best do in another forum. As the hon. Member for Kingswood said, we launched the “Healthy High Street?” guide in November, and we are working with the Development Trusts Association to promote the temporary use of empty shops for the benefit of the community.
I want to pick up on one of the points made by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) in his contribution, which was characteristically diagonal to the general line of the debate, but helpful none the less. He noted that the retail environment changes constantly, decade by decade, and that it is not a question of returning to some golden age, but of accepting the existing retail environment and working with it. There is no doubt that one of the problems we face is the fact that the capital asset value of a property underpins the financing that the developer or ultimate owner relies on, and that value is calculated brutally as a multiple of the rental available from the property, which means that if the owners give a discount, often their capital value is written down. In these difficult times, and even in less difficult times, that means that they can find their financers on their backs seeking to renegotiate loans. That is why we have worked with the Development Trusts Association on “meanwhile leases” for the temporary occupation of shops, which can prevent that counter-productive write-down and at the same time give some life and vibrancy to high streets.
The hon. Member for Banbury also suggested that there was a role for a switch to housing. I want to make it clear that a key aim of the Localism Bill is to change our planning system so that such decisions will be in the hands of neighbourhoods, local communities and local councils, which can draw up district, neighbourhood or—as in the case of Banbury, which I guess has a town council—town council plans, based on their communities’ needs and requirements, and signed off through a local referendum. That will give local communities much better control and a much better chance to find the kinds of solution that they believe are needed. If that includes a switch to housing, or particular planning controls, that is for them to decide.
I must enter a note of caution about planning controls. When I started my career in local government some 30 years ago, a key concern was to prevent banks and building societies from dominating the high street. Three decades later, we are fighting to retain them, which is a measure of the change there has been. We are now fighting to stop take-away food stores opening, but I expect that in a few years’ time we will be fighting to save them. That is one of the paradoxes of a rapidly changing business environment.
The Government are not only giving new rights and powers to local councils and communities; they are also looking at the future of the town centres first document—planning policy statement 4. We shall be announcing shortly how we intend to take that forward as part of the national planning policy framework.
The key is to shift powers right down to the level where they matter. Each place is unique and has the potential to progress, and localities themselves are best placed to understand both the barriers and drivers to local growth. I will keep my fingers out of the machinery and not talk about parking policy, but that is a classic case where the solution in one town or shopping centre might be quite different from the solution needed in another local or district centre just a couple of miles away. The idea that there should be a national prescription for the solution—even a council-wide prescription—is surely mistaken.
Members have drawn attention to the provisions of the Localism Bill, to the coalition Government’s announcement on small business rate relief and to the new homes bonus. All those moves have wider policy implications, but they can all benefit the local high street. We want to create at national level a framework—an environment—where local decision making can flourish and there are real, workable incentives for investment, growth and development.
A couple of the points made in the debate should be emphasised. Farmers’ markets and street markets were mentioned, but we must not forget traditional real markets, which act as important magnets to bring people into many of our towns and communities. One of my Department’s roles is to raise the profile of such markets, which are an important element in the retail mix that can attract consumers and increase the vibrancy of town centres and high streets. I recognise that a well-run and successful market is a valuable local asset. In an interesting development, which is being replicated in many village and town high streets across the country, street traders in Marple, in my constituency, have worked effectively with the council to introduce an intermittent food fair and market. It has brought life and traffic to a shopping centre and started a vibrant culture of participation in that community.
The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) noted that Lloyds bank business could be transacted in post offices, and the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) said that he had recently opened a post office in his constituency. Those are signs of the importance of post offices as part of the mix of retail business in our high streets. I draw the attention of Members to the steps that the coalition Government have taken to secure the future of our retail sub-post office network, which is an important component of our high streets that should be retained for the future.
I can unambiguously say yes to that. It is important that we encourage not only public services to make better use of post offices and make them a focal point in our communities, but also organisations such as Lloyds. If it is disinvesting in an area, it clearly has an obligation to provide suitable facilities not just to its customers but also to the community.
The Government are committed to a strong, sustainable post office network. We have put in £1.34 billion of funding over the spending review period to support the maintenance and modernisation of the network, and will be making a statement on plans for the future of the Post Office shortly.
We have had an interesting and thoughtful debate. I have been unable to respond to all the ideas produced, but I will certainly take them away for careful consideration.