Addressing the issue of empty shops is one of the priorities for the industry-led taskforce set up as a response to the Portas pilots. We are also encouraging landlords to make empty shops available for meanwhile use, and have introduced the community right to bid, to help local people sustain their vital community assets.
The Portas pilot is a great boost for Stockport, and I have seen some of the good work done there, particularly during the recent “Love your local market” fortnight. However, there is a record number of empty shops in the town centres of this country—about 24,000. Just how many of those does the Minister expect to see filled as a result of the many initiatives that he has announced?
As the hon. Gentleman will recognise, the Portas review suggested 28 different steps. We have accepted almost all those, and one of the things we added to the list was a £10 million fund that directly helped to bring empty shops back into use. That is £5 million more than was proposed by his party.
Formby, Maghull and Crosby—three towns in my constituency—all bid unsuccessfully for the Portas cash. Sefton’s Labour council would like to help, but the scale of the cuts to local government make that almost impossible. What concrete support is the Minister going to give to revitalise our town centres, because the £10 million he mentions is not going to go far enough?
Hon. Members know that active Members of Parliament are an extremely important asset in getting those town centres working again. A second round of Portas pilot bidding is to take place, which I will announce before the end of this month. That is still open to the hon. Gentleman’s three towns. In addition, I can report to the House that going forward we intend to support all the towns—more than 370—that have applied.
I have been able to see some fantastic schemes in places such as Stockton, where the council has taken over a large double shop frontage, which entrepreneurs rent for just £10 a week. It then uses the empty properties in the town centre to get these people into rentals after a few months when they have made their businesses a success. Those are the types of schemes that I have seen and that I am encouraging, and hon. Members can do an awful lot to persuade their local authorities to play ball.
I am sure the Minister will join me in welcoming the big reduction in the number of empty shops on Redcar high street, but what can he do about the rigidity of the business rates system? In one case, business rates are five times the rent being sought by the landlord.
Business rates are always a heavy cost and people like me who started our businesses in shops are familiar with that heavy burden. We have taken 300,000 of the smallest businesses out of paying any business rates at all and, in addition, we have spread the rise, which is only an inflation-level rise, for other businesses over up to three years. We will continue to look at ways to help businesses, and particularly the smaller shops, with their rates bills.
What plans does the Minister have to assist areas with high shop vacancy rates, such as Grimsby, which has 28.3% vacant, West Bromwich, which also has 28.3% vacant, Stoke-on-Trent, which has 25% vacant, and Sunderland, which has 23% vacant? Those areas, so far overlooked for Government funding, have an average unemployment rate of more than 10%, which is way above average. Can we expect there to be more weighting towards disadvantaged areas in the next round of Portas pilots?
One of the useful changes we have made through the Localism Act 2011 is to allow local authorities to vary the rates downwards, which means that local authorities can look at their high streets and try to help them. I rather brushed over a point earlier. Those on the Opposition Front Bench have previously called for £5 million to be spent on bringing those empty shops back into use—I remind the hon. Lady that those calls came from her own Front Benchers—and we have doubled that and spent £10 million to assist.
There would be fewer empty shops if small retailers in particular could spread their costs more evenly. I know that the Portas recommendation was that wherever possible people should move to monthly rather than quarterly rent. Will the Minister take this opportunity to encourage all landlords to look kindly at such an approach when it is suggested by their tenants?
From my experience, as reflected in the 2007 leasing code, an awful lot of small things could make a big difference to smaller businesses. Finding the money to pay three months’ rent in a single go is enough to topple some businesses over, and smoother payments, fairer leases and not always having upwards-only rent reviews can all help. I am working with the industry, including the likes of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, to ensure that the leasing code is better implemented.