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High Streets

Volume 550: debated on Monday 17 September 2012

In response to the Portas review, the Government are taking positive action to help our high streets. That includes strengthening local civic leadership through town team partners and business improvement districts, revitalising local markets and backing small businesses.

My local high street in Dartford has successfully applied to become a Portas town, which has encouraged a large number of organisations such as NCR to consider putting help and expertise into Dartford. Does the Minister agree that such a proactive response, particularly from local councils, will help to ensure a successful future for our high streets?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that strong civic and local business leadership is vital. That is why we are enabling more than 300 towns to form town team partners. I hope right hon. and hon. Members will support their local town team partners so we can ensure that our high streets can compete in future.

The Lowestoft town team are getting to work on implementing the plans set out in their successful Portas pilot bid. The town centre was enhanced in the summer by Lowestoft college’s short-term lease of an empty shop. Does the Minister plan to encourage landlords to carry out more lettings of that nature?

Absolutely; we need to encourage that kind of innovation, and I commend what has happened in respect of Lowestoft college. That is why we have a £10 million high street innovation fund to help those with the highest vacancy rates. We need to get those empty shops back into use, whether as pop-up shops or as in my hon. Friend’s example. It is very important to tackle that aspect of the problem.

Does the Minister accept that as long as local authorities charge excessively for car parking, customers will simply choose to shop out of town and our town centres will continue to die? What can he do to encourage them in these difficult financial years not to charge for short-term car parking?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight this issue. That is why we have removed the floor that underpinned the minimum charging for car parking. We encourage local authorities in his constituency and elsewhere to think carefully about the rate of charges so that our high streets can compete with out-of-town shopping centres and others.

Thriving street markets offering local produce and community and specialist stalls attract shoppers to town centres and high streets, and encourage independent retailers to start new businesses. Does the Minister agree that it is important that councils remember the important contribution that markets make and include them in any future town centre initiatives?

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. I am a big fan of local markets—they are where we can get fresh produce and where our small start-ups can begin—so I endorse entirely what she says. In the summer, of course, we tried to revive our markets locally, and we will continue that work. I hope that all hon. Members will play a part in that.

Shirley town centre partnership in my constituency was unsuccessful in bidding for the first tranche of funding to be a town team partner. I am ever hopeful, however, that it will win an award under the second tranche. What really impressed me was the ingenuity and quality of the ideas that Shirley and—I am sure—other town centre partnerships have come up with. Could the scheme be extended, should beleaguered high streets that have put forward these great ideas miss out on the second tranche?

I can see that there is no better advocate for Shirley than the hon. Lady. I encourage her to continue her work. There are opportunities available, including the high street innovation fund—the £10 million fund to help high streets themselves change—and I encourage her to get more involved.

One of the major obstacles to the development of high streets and the surrounding areas are the derelict buildings that were once local landmarks but which are now simply eyesores. I am thinking of buildings such as the Church Inn and the Tatton Arms in Northenden in my constituency. Some of these buildings are in such a poor state that the owners no longer have to pay business rates. Will the Minister consider introducing a derelict premises tax levied at 150% of business rates and payable until the owner brings forward proposals for development?

There is a far better way of doing that. The £10 million high street innovation fund is deliberately designed to bring empty homes back into use. That is what a number of local authorities are doing. I am afraid that wanting yet more taxes is the sort of knee-jerk reaction that we can expect from the Labour party.