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The High Street

Volume 563: debated on Tuesday 21 May 2013

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and delighted to have the opportunity to introduce this debate on the future of our high streets. Let me start by saying that, as it is a widely recognised barometer for the performance of our economy, it is especially worrying to have seen more retail chains go into insolvency in the past 12 months than ever before. Yesterday’s British Retail Consortium report, showing that the number of empty shops has reached a new high, adds to a growing sense that our high streets are experiencing a short and painful decline, which the Government, I will argue, are not doing enough to address. First, however, I want to put into context the value of our high streets in terms of retail, as a focal point for communities and as a generator of social capital and civic pride.

As retail is the traditional home of Britain’s biggest private sector employer, it is worth noting that the latest figures from the House of Commons Library show that the retail sector employs 4.2 million people—more than 15% of our work force. It accounts for 34% of all turnover in the UK and, according to the British Retail Consortium, employs 40% of all those aged under 20. UK retail sector sales were worth more than £311 billion in 2012. It is a massive sector and an important rung on the employment ladder for young people.

However, high streets are more than just a place of commerce. They are dynamic hubs of social activity where enduring social bonds are formed that help to create strong and vibrant communities. Local high streets are also a strong source of civic pride; they can help shape a keen sense of local identity, common heritage and local values.

If we take all that into account, it is hard to imagine a future in Britain without the high street playing a substantive role in community life, but as we all know, high streets currently face enormous challenges and many local high streets are fighting for their lives. Faced with that threat to such an important economic and social driver, it is incumbent on Government to act. In the early days of the coalition, Ministers at least gave the impression that they recognised that. The Minister responsible for high streets—the Minister for Housing—said in November 2010:

“My colleagues and I are committed to tackling these challenges head on. After all, our high streets need to be centres for economic growth as we move towards the recovery.”

Two and a half years later, those words have a distinctly hollow ring. Instead of commitment to tackling the problems, Ministers have shown indifference. Indeed, their actions have made things worse. They have not only failed even to give a full response to Mary Portas’s 2011 review, but, year after year, they continue to ignore calls from business groups for some respite on business rates. Every year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer keeps piling millions of pounds on to the bills of retailers, which is causing insolvencies everywhere. And whereas Mary Portas, the Government’s high street tsar, said in her report that the high street had reached “crisis point”, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills blithely claims that there is no crisis on the high street. Those are not the actions of a Government committed to tackling a serious problem. They are the actions of Ministers with their heads in the sand.

My hon. Friend is making powerful points. Does he agree that the biggest boost that the high street could get would be to be on a level playing field with Amazon, which is not paying taxes in this country at the moment?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I will come to the point about Amazon, and not just in relation to business rates; corporation tax is also an issue.

Let me examine the flagship Government policy to tackle the problems facing our high streets—the much talked about Portas pilots. I was an initial supporter of the Portas review and I thought that the pilots were a good idea, but that was before the previous Minister responsible for high streets, who is now the Minister without Portfolio, turned what should have been a serious policy exercise into a farcical circus. Further help was on hand from Optomen Television, which managed to hijack a Government policy and turn it into a reality TV series.

I should like at this point to praise the current Minister responsible for high streets for distancing himself from the antics of his predecessor. He has had the good sense to change the ridiculously titled Future High Street X-Fund to something that is more appropriate to public policy, instead of trying to ape Peter Kay’s last spoof reality TV show. The High Street Renewal Fund sounds much more dignified, but the damage has been done.

It is a year this Sunday since the first wave of Portas pilots was announced. The retail grade magazine, The Grocer, reports that an “emerging findings” report was supposed to be published this April, but has now been shelved. People close to the situation are quoted as saying that there have been

“teething problems including concerns over corporate governance.”

They go on to say that

“having a formal audit-style report may not have been worth the paper it was written on.”

When will the Government’s “emerging findings” report be published, and when will the Government respond to Mary Portas’s recommendations?

Ministers called the Portas pilots the

“vanguard of a high street revolution”.

However, they have been not so much a revolution as a revelation—the revelation that we need substance, not just public relations, to deliver real change.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this very important debate. Does he agree that there is a very important role for local authorities and local business groups in helping to encourage businesses? For example, in Hackney, we are trying to develop outlet retail, to boost the local high street, on Mare street. That one-to-one engagement with businesses is very important at local level, in addition to whatever might happen nationally.

I could not agree more. However, the engagement of businesses has been successful in some areas, but very unsuccessful in others, not least in terms of some of the pilots.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Local people in Houghton tell me that they are concerned about the growing number of fast-food and takeaway outlets on the high street there. They want a better retail offer; they are concerned about the damage that that is doing. Should local people not be offered a greater say in the planning of high streets? In the current circumstance, local people feel powerless to stop that and feel as though they do not have a say on the offer available to them on their town centre high street.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is one that the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of the Labour party, addressed just before the county council elections in terms of planning abilities for local authorities so that they can shape their town centres and high streets more effectively.

My response to the hon. Gentleman’s point is that the high street is too important to communities simply to be left to the free market. There is a requirement for intervention both nationally and locally.

It has been widely reported that many of the first and second-wave Portas pilots have spent hardly any money and some have spent nothing at all. Did Ministers not award the pilots to towns that already had ready-to-go plans to transform their high streets? At a time when urgent action was needed, everyone anticipated that the pilots would hit the ground running. Instead, most of them have withdrawn into a shell and are in a state of paralysis. It now looks as though some of the plans had been drawn up on the back of an envelope and were nowhere near viable. Can the Minister explain how long those pilots are supposed to last? Will they carry on struggling to put plans together indefinitely?

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and I praise the work that he has done in Rochdale. The debate has been quite partisan so far. I am a bit more favourable towards what the Government have done so far. I think that the Portas review was quite a good piece of work. However, I share my hon. Friend’s concern about where the money has been spent and the fact that it has not been spent in some towns. Our experience in Stalybridge is the opposite. We have done some great work, but without any resources. I just wonder whether the Government will be able to say something about how they might get resources to town teams who are doing very good jobs in their areas if places that have been pilots have not been able to do the things that they wanted to do already.

That is an interesting intervention: if money is not being spent in some pilot areas, surely it could be moved to areas with more innovative approaches that are ready to hit the ground running. It would not be fair to tar all pilots with the same brush. I am aware of excellent work that is making a real difference in Market Rasen and Nelson, both of which have shown strong leadership and rich community engagement.

Given the problems, it is no wonder that the Co-operative Group recently—just this week—demanded a review of the Portas pilots. If ever a programme illustrated the disconnect between Whitehall and local communities, this is it. The e-mail exchange that has come to light between Mary Portas’s team and officials from the Department for Communities and Local Government serves to highlight the problems. An example of how Government officials let TV companies set public policy can be seen in an e-mail about local councillors and residents arguing over their high street. A member of Mary Portas’s team e-mailed the DCLG stating:

“In TV terms the fight between the bureaucrats and the passionate citizens could be great”.

That Government officials were having such a conversation beggars belief. The Portas pilots were supposed to be about improving local high streets, not creating arguments for argument’s sake to make good TV. Robin Vaughan-Lyons, chairman of the Margate town team said that people had been left in tears by the antics of Mary Portas’s film crew. He told The Grocer, not a publication given to sensationalist reporting, that they

“are a group of people who are more interested in publicity and being on TV than they are in helping Margate and they have been deliberately encouraged by the film crew to make personal attacks on us.”

We should all celebrate bringing together volunteers to form town teams, for which people give up their time freely to help make their community a better place to live. Surely that is what the Prime Minister envisaged as the big society in action. How disgraceful that Government officials colluded with a TV company to sow seeds of division in communities and stoke up resentment simply to create a dramatic storyline for an hour of tawdry TV. That is not the government by citizens for society that the Prime Minister promised us, but government for television. As one soap opera inspires another, the Minister who was responsible for high streets made sure that the Portas pilots spawned other funds and initiatives. The Government’s high street innovation fund is one such example.

In her review of December 2011, Mary Portas underlined what she wanted councils to do:

“This should be game-changing stuff and thoughtful engagement, not just the usual suspects round a table planning the Christmas decorations.”

How do Ministers square that, I wonder, with the fact that many thousands of pounds from the high street innovation fund has been spent by councils on Christmas lights and hiring Santa Claus and reindeer? Last month was the launch of high street champions, an initiative to support high streets by partnering them with large businesses, but only in the pilot towns. Obviously, it is good to see businesses working together, but I am not convinced that matching big national chains with independent businesses is the best approach.

There can be exceptions. Tesco was born in Hackney on a market stall in Well street, which has great challenges. The local manager had the freedom, after, it has to be said, some negotiations with headquarters, to refuse to have a fresh meat counter because there was a butcher outside the door and to refuse to have a fried chicken counter because of the number of fried chicken shops in the street. Where partnership works, it works well, but, as my hon. Friend highlights, it is challenging for the individual managers of big stores.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The question is about how Government can affect the situation locally. There are lots of examples of good practice at a local level, but we have not had a strong sense of direction or leadership from the Government on town centres and high streets.

Rather than talking about high street champions, I would like the Government to consider funding digital champions: experts in multichannel retail, who can make a real difference and work with the independent retail community to help it embrace multichannel retail to supplement shops and safeguard its future. Independents make up 69% of all shops, and we need to do everything we can to safeguard their presence on our high streets.

When we look back on high street policy carried out by the coalition Government, we see that the multitude of headline grabbing initiatives have blinded us to the elephant in the room that is causing the most damage on the high street. I refer of course to business rates. The Government have collected an extra £500 million over the past two years through increased business rates, and yet they have spent only £20 million on the Portas pilots. Week in, week out, businesses in Rochdale tell me that the tax is far too high and is dragging them close to the brink. Research published this year by the Forum of Private Business shows that 94% of small business owners think that business rates are far too high. There is a growing sense that the Government see the high street only as a cash cow to milk to exhaustion.

The sense of injustice is further embedded by the Government’s decision to postpone next year’s business rates revaluation. While London property prices continue to rise, business owners in more affluent metropolitan areas can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the Government will keep their rates artificially low, but many northern businesses, which have seen property prices fall by 40% in some areas, have to pay the top-of-the-market 2008 rates until 2017. We end up with the absurd scenario of Burnley effectively subsidising Bond street, and Rochdale subsidising Regent street. Business rates for an Amazon fulfilment centre in Doncaster are calculated at £44 per square metre, yet for an out-of-town Comet store in Rochdale, which as we know subsequently closed, they were £125 per square metre. Even worse, the rates for one unit in a Rochdale shopping centre are calculated at £1,080 per square metre—24 times more expensive than the rates Amazon pay in Doncaster.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Does my hon. Friend agree that, although business rates show no flexibility, landlords are being flexible over rents? Business rates represent a barrier to trade.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I have seen properties in Rochdale with business rates that exceed the price of the rent; that cannot be right. There is a significant and serious problem with business rates. There is no doubt that they are past their sell-by date. Will the Minister use today’s debate to acknowledge that this prehistoric tax regime is unfairly holding businesses back and is not fit for purpose? The Valuation Office Agency needs an urgent overhaul and business rates desperately need reform.

Many people are of course already doing their bit to try to reform our high streets and move away from the chain stores’ monopoly, to give a new generation of people the skills to set up new and diverse businesses. I pay tribute to Retail Ready People, an initiative led by vInspired and the Retail Trust, which works with young people in Rochdale to help them set up a pop-up shop on the high street. It is working all over the country to give young people the skills and confidence to take over empty shops.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on his attempt to blame the coalition for many of the problems with our high streets—it is inventive, if nothing else. Amazon is a big employer of my constituents. Last year I tried to help secure transport for people from my constituency to work there. It is an important local employer that he has bashed a couple of times. Does he want Rochdale business rates to move towards Amazon business rates or does he want Amazon business rates to move towards Rochdale business rates? If it is the former, can he tell us where the money will come from?

It is neither. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) made the point that Amazon is not paying full corporation tax, and there is a discrepancy in business rates, so I suggest that we need to overhaul the whole business rates system. It is simply not fit for purpose.

I am aware that many other voices are not locked into the myopic consensus that characterises Government thinking on the high street. One of them is that of Bill Grimsey, a turnaround specialist, who was formerly the chief executive of Wickes, Iceland and other companies. I met Bill recently, and he explained that town centres cannot be saved as pure retail destinations. Technology is already influencing how we shop, and in the future everything will change. What is required, he argued, is a holistic approach to creating vibrant high streets that addresses housing, education, health, entertainment and shopping.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He has not yet addressed something that probably costs retailers more than business rates: credit card interchange fees. If they were reduced to what Europe has said the cross-border level should be, £1 million would be put into every MP’s high street. That is an enormous amount of money. Would the hon. Gentleman therefore give the Government credit for acting on credit card interchange fees through the recent consultation, and does he hope that we can make progress? That would make a substantial difference, by putting demand into local economies.

I welcome that intervention. I am not very familiar with the issue, and it has not been raised with me in relation to the high street, but the hon. Gentleman makes an interesting and important point, about which I am keen to learn more.

We need a fully focused, committed approach by Government, not another dose of dilettante PR. Currently, it is hard to know who is in charge of high street policy. Let us just spend a moment trying to make sense of where the change we need is coming from.

The Business Secretary turned up at the recent Retail Week Live conference and talked about accepting Mary Portas’s 38 recommendations, when there were only 28. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is constantly in the newspapers, using emotive language to talk about car parking charges while he continues to cut council budgets to the bone. A Department for Communities and Local Government Minister claims that the unfair business rates revaluation delay is right, despite not one voice in retail supporting the move. The Minister with responsibility for Portas pilots and high streets carries out the role on a part-time basis while he tends to his main duties as housing Minister, and today we have a planning Minister addressing this high street debate.

I say to the Minister that someone needs to get a grip. We need a full-time high streets Minister and clear, strong leadership from the Government. Only then might the Prime Minister’s woolly rhetoric about ensuring that high streets are at the heart of every community start to mean something.

I have six or seven Members wishing to speak, and I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at no later than 3.40 pm. I do not intend to put a fixed time limit on speeches, but if people speak for about seven minutes, everyone should be able to make a decent contribution. I hope that everyone will look to that kind of time scale.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk)on having introduced the debate with his usual cheery optimism, in a slightly more partisan way than he needed to. I must apologise to you, Mr Davies, because I am moonlighting from the Finance Bill and might have to return there before the final summing up. I have another colleague here in a similar situation—the Whips should not be informed.

On Sunday I had a very optimistic experience. I was in a small street in Southport called Wesley street, where the traders have suffered for some time, blighted by shops not being filled and worries about custom. They have done a great deal for themselves, including painting their shops in contrasting vibrant colours. On Sunday they had organised a festival. They had put a green swathe down the middle of the street and a series of events was taking place. The place was absolutely buzzing. That group of traders have had the courage and initiative to reinvent themselves, and that is what we need in the high street.

The high street must, in a sense, reinvent itself. Certain pressures are not due just to the coalition Government, as might be supposed from the opening contribution. They are due to fairly long-term things, such as changes in shopping and working habits, the fact that we are living in an age of austerity and there is generally less money around and less profit for companies, and the fact that the drift out of town continues. Overwhelmingly, they are due to the threat of the internet and the fact that people can now shop at any time of the day or night. In some places, including my own constituency, the pressures are also due to the threat from increased mega-retail development—as I call it—such as at Liverpool One, Bluewater and the Trafford centre.

People look at what is happening on their local high street and see it as a kind of blight. They regret the lack of vitality. They look at the empty shops, and believe that something must be done. That is apparent, but what is not is what must be done. Some things clearly will not be done. The clock will not be put back, the internet will not be abandoned—people will use it more—and people will continue to change their habits. We cannot roll back to the 1960s.

Above all, the high street cannot buck the markets. Certain things are thriving. In the high street, things that may be undesirable, such as charity shops, and payday loan and cash register companies, are thriving in the current regime. Nail bars seem to do extraordinarily well in my neck of the woods, and coffee shops are in wild abundance—no one need be short of caffeine in any part of the UK as far as I can see. Building societies are also there, but they are a rather dull and sober presence. Most of the general public do not see that as satisfactory, and they say that something must be done. But it is not obvious what must be done, or who will do it.

Businesses are doing something anyway—they are pulling out. The chains have deserted many of our towns, some by going bust and some by moving to retail in other ways. Councils must do something, but they are desperately short of cash, and I agree with the hon. Member for Rochdale that metropolitan boroughs in particular are getting a poor deal at the moment with regard to the grant support settlement. Councils also complain about being short of certain necessary powers and levers—the Minister might have something to say about that—and they are also short of options.

Very early in any conversation with retailers we are asked, “What can you do about parking and the onerous charges? What can you do to level the playing field with out-of-town shopping?” Councils can tinker, but they cannot stop rationing parking because people will have just as many cars and there will be no more space in town centres than before. There will need to be some sort of system.

People say that the Government must do something, but the Government do not seem to have a clear or obvious solution. If they had one, I think they would employ it, because there is certainly the public demand, and also demand from other Members of Parliament. They do fund schemes, such as the Portas ones, and they employ advisers, such as Ms Portas. I think that they also employ Terry Leahy, which I am not so sure about. In my view, he is not necessarily the guy who has done the most for the high street over the past few years—certainly not in my town. We have a big out-of-town shopping centre, and Tesco made an unsuccessful bid to increase its area for non-food retail there, which would have hugely damaged the high street.

What I am trying to say is that the solution is elusive, which is probably because there is not just one solution but a range of individual ones. During the Portas phase, the Government did not approach a local authority and say, “You must do this,” or “You must do that,” but rather, “Bid for what you think you can do that will work”. The Government have a positive role. They can spread good practice. If they find that something works in Stockport or Rochdale, they should tell the world about it so that other local authorities and communities can follow suit. They can encourage the reinvention of the high street, through the promotion of business improvement district projects and the like. In my constituency, we hope soon to have a BID of some sort. A business improvement district gives local retailers more control over their immediate environment, and that can only be a good thing.

The Government need to do something, and sometimes it is easier to reduce the retail footprint, where that is sensible. If that means more domestic use in town centres, that is not necessarily a bad thing, as far as the vitality of towns is concerned. It might bring young people to a town who otherwise would not get housed at all.

The Government can do something about out-of-town development. I am told by the Federation of Small Businesses that Tesco often pays no rates on its car parks. It pays rates on its stores, but it has often negotiated an environment in which it pays no rates on its car parks. That is a clear anomaly that could be addressed to level the playing field.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, above all, the Government need to do something about the rates system, or about stimulating and producing some change in the commercial property market.

The hon. Gentleman touches on an interesting topic when he says that Tesco and other large stores pay rates on their stores, but not their car parks. In examining the possibility of large out-of-town stores paying rates on their car parks, would it not make sense to redeploy and recycle that money into the regeneration of town centres to give them innovation, as well as colour, class and style, and so ensure that they are reinvigorated, even if that costs a bit more for out-of-town centres?

Totally. Out-of-town shopping centres have a duty to the town that they are outside, and with which they are often not engaged.

I understand that, during the pre-Budget negotiations, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills thought it reasonable to investigate whether something might be done about retail business rates, but that the difficulty is how to advantage the people we want to be given an advantage—the small shopkeepers—not the big players, some of whom need no financial support whatever. I could refer again to Tesco.

Where we want to do something about business rates, that is currently more complex than it need be, which I want the Minister to investigate. I have heard reports from small business sources that when they want a downward valuation of their business rates and have a serious case—and when business rates are out of kilter with rents, as the hon. Member for Rochdale suggested—it takes far too long to get a result. By the time that it has all been sorted out, they will be out of business.

My fundamental point is that retailers must adjust to the shock of the new. They need to see their shops not as antagonistic to the internet, but must play along with it and be portals for it, because they have certain advantages. The current system, with white vans constantly going up and down the country and leaving brown parcels in the porches of people who are out, is not frightfully efficient. There is no capacity within internet marketing or sales for much to be done about repair or return, at least not without additional expense. Very little quality control can be exercised when people deal with an internet retailer, as opposed to one whose shop they can walk into to complain about the product. The interesting point—this is why I think that the hon. Gentleman is really on to something—is that some big stores, such as John Lewis, which have used the internet very well, have found that that has not corrupted or reduced their in-store sales, but has enhanced and developed them, so antagonism need not exist.

In conclusion, there is a need for the retail sector and the high streets of this country to pull themselves up by their own boot straps. There is significant help that the Government can get, and I am sure that there will be lots more sensible suggestions.

Order. I reiterate, I hope with more success, the need for brevity from Members to allow everybody to speak.

This has been a good debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) began it very well by pointing to the sharp and painful decline of the high street, and by drawing attention to the importance of the retail sector for the employment of young people in particular, and for the vibrancy of our communities and culture. As he said, local high streets are now fighting for their lives.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), who has reminded us of the obligation on high streets to reinvent themselves. That is something that they have done over the ages. In the 1950s, Scunthorpe high street was dominated by the Co-op. Every store up and down the high street, from the butcher’s and the baker’s to the carpet maker’s, was the Co-op. It has since gone through many changes, and now faces more challenges.

The challenges have been clearly spelled out in this debate. High streets are operating in the worst recession since the 1930s, with people understandably not spending money. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale covered the issue of the rigidity of business rates, which, still set at pre-2008 boom-time levels, act as corsets round the high street in this time of challenge. The Government should have the imagination and ingenuity to respond to that. The predilection for online shopping, which is not going to go away, is also changing habits on the high street. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said, it is important to have a level playing field between online retailers and those on the high street.

Car parking is an issue in Scunthorpe in relation to how the high street manages to compete against out-of-town shopping. Scunthorpe has two high streets: one in Ashby, which is a small market centre, and the main one in Scunthorpe itself. Scunthorpe is being challenged by a big development proposal led by a developer called Simons, with an anchor store for Marks & Spencer, which is of course attractive to the area. There is plenty of space in the town centre that would be good for a Marks & Spencer store, but we unfortunately live in a world where the business model is to develop out-of-town retail. If local people had any purchase on the decision making, they would encourage Marks & Spencer to come to the area, but to a town centre retail position.

As Members have said, incentives encourage retailers to go out of town rather than to the high street, which is part of the challenge that we face. The Government might reflect on how best to respond. Planning permission has been agreed for the out-of-town development that I have mentioned, but the developers now want to alter it to allow them to have coffee shops on the site as well, which would further disadvantage the town centre, despite its being made clear in the original application to the planning committee that that was unlikely. Retailers feel that the advantage is moving against them.

What do retailers in Scunthorpe and Ashby say that they need to equalise the playing field? They say, “Give us two hours’ free car parking.” That is the key to the equalisation of the playing field. To be fair to Conservative-controlled North Lincolnshire council, it has gradually moved on that point. There has been a bit of kicking and fighting. I produced a 2,000-person petition in favour of two hours’ free car parking in Scunthorpe and Ashby. Retailers have made it very clear that they need it to transform their chances of staying alive through these difficult times. The Scunthorpe town team, led by Eddie Lodge and colleagues, has done an excellent job in highlighting its value for the Scunthorpe retailer and shopper, as has Keep Scunthorpe Alive, which is led by Des Comerford and town-centre retailers. Two hours’ free car parking is needed to equalise the playing field through these difficult times. It would be helpful if the Government came up with a bag of cash, but I suspect that that will not happen.

As the hon. Member for Southport pointed out, council budgets face very difficult challenges, and North Lincolnshire council is no different, but it has gradually moved towards creating two hours’ free parking. It is obvious to anybody who understands the area that if the Parishes multi-storey car park in the centre of Scunthorpe, which is not heavily utilised, had two hours’ free car parking throughout the day, with payment still being on exit, that would transform opportunities. Perversely, the Conservative-controlled council is flirting with the idea of changing it to a pay-and-display car park, and having two hours’ free car parking from about 2 pm, but that would vitiate the dwell time. When people go into town centres, we want them to spend time there and, if they bump into my colleague the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), to have a coffee with him, without worrying about getting a ticket on leaving the pay-and-display car park—unfortunately, we have very vigilant car park attendants. I am using the debate to spell out the case for two hours’ free car parking in the Parishes multi-storey in Scunthorpe. That would be a shot in the arm for the local economy and the local high street.

I recognise and commend the work of local businesses Primark, BHS, Barclays, the Poundshop, Vodafone, and Coe and Co. They have all made investments in the town centre in the past two years, so this is a changing scene. I also highlight Fallen Hero, which won the Drapers award for young fashion retailer of the year only last year. It is a model of what my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale called multi-channel retail, in that it has a high street presence and an online presence, and that is a dynamic way forward for the high street.

The recession; the progression to out-of-town shopping and superstores; the march of the internet; Lord Prescott’s decision to get rid of Tynedale local authority in favour of a Northumberland county council in Morpeth, which is miles away; and the car-parking inequity in Northumberland: those and many other problems bedevil our high streets. Worst of all, however, is our convenience culture: our innate desire to take the easy path or the soft option, and that leads us to the one-stop shop. All of us, in this room and in life, are guilty of taking that option, but if we do not use our high street, we will lose it.

The reports of the death of our high streets are, however, greatly exaggerated. They remain the beating heart of our communities. They are more than just a row of shops; they and their small business are the heart of our local communities. To be fair, the Government are, as I am sure the Minister will outline, doing good work on extending small businesses rate relief until April 2014 and on changing the planning laws to assist the high street. I strongly approve of those policies, which are helping, and I hope to see improvements in the way the Valuation Office Agency goes about its business, and all of us will have had experience of inequities in that respect as constituency MPs.

I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman. I know Hexham, and I believe it won an award a few years ago for being the best place to shop in England or the UK—I cannot remember which, but I am sure he will tell me. He sounded a bit gloomy, but perhaps he could share some of the secrets of Hexham’s success so that we can take them back to our constituencies.

Watch, listen and learn. The truth is that Hexham has a wonderful high street. As the hon. Lady correctly said, Hexham was named market town of the year in 2005, with a mix of charm, accessibility and community spirit that set it apart from its peers. The judging panel said:

“There is a definite sense here of a town with a pride and a purpose. It is friendly and welcoming, where people matter and visitors are made to feel at home.”

I could go further, but time does not allow me to.

The blunt reality is that the town has suffered the same problems as all other towns. It may have an abbey that has been there since 600, it may have Hadrian’s wall on its doorstep, it may have God’s own county around it and it may have a plethora of wonderful independent retailers, book festivals and music festivals—all manner of good things—but it is not immune to the problems that affect other towns.

That brings us to what individual Members of Parliament and the Government can do. What we can do to address the points that have been identified—this is what I would like to think we are doing in Hexham—is roll up our sleeves and come up with a plan to reinvigorate our high street. With the town council, the county council and the proponents of the town plan and the neighbourhood plan, we have formed an action plan, which we have called “In Hexham, For Hexham”. It sets out six key objectives for restoring the town to its former glory. It takes on some of the good ideas from the Portas review, such as free parking. It looks to employ town centre managers to co-ordinate everything on behalf of retailers. It is transforming sites that welcome visitors, such as the bus station, so that they actually look good. We are cleaning the town, painting the town and planting the town. In those three aspects, there is great scope.

Fundamentally, we are inviting all retailers to give us a wish list of what they would like to see changed, and we are actioning those lists through MPs’ offices and the county council. We are also physically rolling up our sleeves. On 6 July, along with all the retailers, I will be going around the town and smartening it up. That is very much what individual retailers have to do: they must come together and work strongly so that there is positive change in their local area. There is much more I could say, but I hope that, over the coming months, we will see significant and real action to transform Hexham town.

To finish, let me take my cue from the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and celebrate Hexham. No less a newspaper than The Guardian, which I obviously read every day, said Hexham remains one of the best places to live in Britain. It informed its readers that Hexham is

“as cute as a puppy’s nose”


“as handsome as Clark Gable”—

it was not talking about the MP, I hasten to add. It asked whether my humble home is

“the nicest market town in the known universe”.

Finally, it urged its readers on, saying, “Let’s move to Hexham”. I am not sure what that would do to my majority, but I welcome one and all to come and taste the unique retailing and high street blend that is Hexham in Northumberland.

Order. Five people are seeking to catch my eye. We have less than 25 minutes before I call the Front Benchers. I therefore urge people to show some self-control and consideration for others so that we can get everybody in.

From Hexham to Hackney. There are some of the same delights, but also some of the same challenges.

I want to focus particularly on the plans for Mare street and the Narrow way, but we also have Dalston shopping centre, which is a little tired, although there are plans to revamp it, and it is a busy, active level B shopping centre. We have the wonderful Broadway market, which was improved as a result of residents and retailers joining forces, and it has very much become a destination where people meet up. We also have Victoria park, and estate agents have dubbed the surrounding area Victoria Park village. The local food retailers, particularly the Ginger Pig butchers and the local fishmongers, act as anchor stores, helping to attract shoppers who will browse in other shops in the area, such as the excellent Victoria Park Books, and in the local art galleries.

There is also Chatsworth road, which is still on the turn from being a high street with many challenges to one where there are now some quite expensive shops and a nice market with expensive goods. There are still some of the lower-end, cheaper goods, and there is a challenge to make sure the local community is served by having affordable as well as destination shops. Then there is Well street, which has faced many challenges, and which still has some way to go, partly because one local charity owns a lot of the premises, and it has been difficult to turn them over to new retailers, for reasons I do not have time to go into. Finally, there is Hoxton Street market, which is very old and famous. Again, it is being revamped, as part of an attempt to improve our markets.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) summed up Hexham in his own way, and I would sum up Hackney in terms of its three main markets. There is Broadway market, where it costs about £2.50 for a loaf of bread, but people have a great time sitting watching the world go by. There is Ridley Road market, where people can buy traditional fruit and veg, and where retailers have been known to sell bush meat and cane rat, which the council clearly clamped down on very quickly. Parts of the Ridley Road feel very much like a Nigerian market. There is also Hoxton Street market, where you can get three pairs of knickers for a pound—I see you are very interested in that, Mr Davies. However, that sums up the many differences in my constituency, which covers a wide range of people. We then have Kingsland Waste market, which is a sad shadow of its former itself, although there are plans to improve the markets generally.

I want to touch particularly on Mare street and the Narrow way. The council is looking at trying to improve the high street. A recent survey measured the footfall and conducted face-to-face interviews with 478 individuals. It showed that the area is popular for shopping, particularly with people who live nearby, but only 5% of those surveyed planned to meet friends there. That is one of the challenges: this is not a destination that people go to do things other than their basic shopping.

Some of the overall strengths and weaknesses highlighted were quite interesting, and they perhaps sum up the challenges facing high streets up and down the country. The strengths were that there was an established local catchment—so people went there because it was convenient —and great good will and loyalty. It is the main local centre for more than 140,000 consumers—so friendly, not frenzy, Mr Davies, is what you get in Hackney shopping streets. There are many reasons to visit. There are still banks and useful shops. Buses are a key strength: people can get there easily by public transport.

On the negative side, customer numbers appear to be in decline, not just in Mare street and the Narrow way; there are few new customers. We are not getting the destination shoppers we need to increase the footfall. There is little new development. The shop fronts are tired, and the area has been left behind for a long time. Trading is down, which is a sign of the times for all of us on our high streets, and the retailers’ offer is limited—particularly on food and beverages, where provision is particularly poor. The study by the Retail Group for Hackney council concluded that people need more reasons to visit, and more trip generators.

What, then, has the council done to try to improve things? The balance between the roles of the council and Government and of retailers is interesting. The Manhattan Loft Corporation has been brought in by the council and is investing significant amounts of money in a fashion outlet retail centre, close to Mare street and the Narrow way. We have had a Burberry outlet store for many years. The way to tell a Hackney councillor was by their smart mac and fold-up Brompton bicycle; but we now have Aquascutum and Pringle outlet stores recruiting local unemployed people—so that is a boost to jobs, and there are great plans for redevelopment there. Anyone who wants cheap, high-end fashion can come to the new outlet store in Hackney when it is fully developed. There will be a range of developments in the railway arches nearby, and they will entice in local designers for pop-up stores. We are a fashion hub, with some top designers interested in coming to the area. That must all filter through to the old Mare street and the Narrow way, however, to ensure that there is change.

I have two key pleas to make to the Minister. The first is about bookies and change of use—and we have the planning Minister here. I am not against high street bookies, but we have 65 in Hackney and five, I think, in that one high street, so they are too concentrated, and the ease of change of use makes it far too easy for them to open next door to each other. Secondly, we need the Government to think seriously about business rates. I shall not repeat the points that my colleagues have made, but it is a big issue. When businesses tell me that they pay more in business rates than in rent, it is a real issue. No wonder high streets are struggling.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on raising this important subject. It is one about which I am passionate, because my parents ran shops, so after school I often played behind the shop counter. We had wool shops—so I wore ill-fitting jumpers well past the time when it was socially acceptable—and a series of hairdresser’s shops, which were ultimately wasted on me. I am also the vice-chair of the all-party groups on town centres and on retail. I am unashamedly a big fan of Mary Portas and her work. In my constituency, I have organised retail forums and I regularly attend the inSwindon business improvement district company board meetings, working with retailers.

Town centre regeneration on the high street is a major issue in Swindon. We were on the cusp of major regeneration when the 2008 economy crashed, and the developers, as they did across the country, went out of business. However, thankfully, the diggers are now in place. We have a brand new cinema, restaurants and all sorts of regeneration, and it is a huge relief to the town—a town with 300,000 people within 20 minutes of its town centre and 3 million within an hour. It is no coincidence that a £65 million rebuild has just been confirmed for our Oasis leisure centre, because it is so easy to get to Swindon.

We have a McArthurGlen outlet village, which is a model of the retail world. It has been hugely successful and continues to expand at an incredible rate. That is the basis of some of the points I want to make: what works so well for the McArthurGlen outlet village is that it is one centre and one point of contact, so a retailer needs to talk to only one person—not the local authority, or so-and-so the landlord. There is one point of contact, with one set of marketing, employing all the staff and ensuring that customer service is good. If any of the retailers fail to conform, they are out. That improves the customer experience. We have the potential, with the proposals for super-BIDs, to give an organisation such as a BID all the powers in a town centre, treating it a bit like one big shopping centre, making it easier for retailers, and consolidating marketing and promotion.

Several hon. Members have rightly highlighted the importance of parking. Probably the biggest disaster under the previous Government was the obsession with green travel plans, under which councils built on car parks, hiked up parking charges and forced shoppers to use buses. Buses have their place but that decimated town centres. Thankfully my local authority recognised that, and after a 22% fall in footfall in five years, car parking charges were cut. There was praise for that in the Mary Portas review. The charge is now £2 for 4 hours, and, unsurprisingly, there has been an 11% increase in footfall. Crucially, the dwell time has also increased. Over time, reversing that policy has meant collecting more income. Flexibility is vital. From a planning perspective, town centres need to change, so local authorities must accept—this will be music to the Minister’s ears—that they need to be absolutely flexible. In Swindon, whenever developers came along and said, “Look, we want to flip the town centre on a 5° axis,” the local authority said, “No problem at all.” That is why we will get major town centre regeneration.

Several hon. Members have highlighted the problem with business rates. I do not want to repeat arguments, but I know that the British Retail Consortium has done fantastic research on that, and it is true that something is terribly wrong when business rates are higher than rent. Landlords are being flexible and lowering costs. In my constituency I think the cost has gone from £180 to £140 per square foot; but business rates are rigid. I know that in theory local authorities can be flexible, but they do not necessarily have the funding for that. I propose that either we need a system linked to the rent being paid, so that if a landlord is flexible, the business rates would be flexible, or—and this will upset my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy)—we need to deal with Amazon. It is destroying the high street that is its shop window. There should be some form of internet consumer tax, with the revenue ring-fenced to subsidise the traditional high street business rate case. It will not be popular with Amazon. I met its chief executive and he did not share my view, but that suggests it is probably the right thing to do.

We need the next generation of independent consumers, so that we do not have identikit town centres. I have been doing a huge amount of work to encourage opportunity for young entrepreneurs. Some local authorities have not been quick enough about spending the money that the Government have provided for the high street. There should be opportunities, to give young entrepreneurs a go. I have set up several schemes, which have proved very successful. Mary Portas made a relevant point, which was that retailers got lazy and need to sort their game out. Customer service is crucial. That is why John Lewis has been doing so well. In previous debates I have highlighted businesses in my constituency, such as Bloomfields and the Forum. They have set themselves apart and bucked the trend, and are expanding.

I urge the Minister to remain flexible, promote best practice and work with the all-party groups on town centres and on retail and the British Retail Consortium. Let us be proud that we are a nation of shopkeepers.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on securing the debate.

As the chair of the all-party group on small shops, I welcome the opportunity to discuss the high street. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) I am the child of shopkeepers. I grew up over the shop—and under the till, half the time. I am proud of the small shops heritage that I have, and which our nation has, as a country of small shopkeepers.

Witham town has had several challenges to its high street, as other towns have, but it is an entrepreneurial community. There is phenomenal good will among the residents and the town team group. Despite the occupancy rate—there are about 114 empty premises in Witham town; it is slightly higher than in other parts of the Braintree district—there is no doubt that with the right amount of support from our local authority and the business community and community groups, we are coming together to innovate and address the town centre challenge differently and creatively.

The Government should be commended for many positive schemes, such as the town team partners initiative, StartUp Britain and the high street innovation fund. For entrepreneurs in particular, who will be the next generation of business leaders in the community, such schemes are engaging.

I should like the Minister to comment on several issues. One of our priorities in Witham town is to reinvigorate the high street by renewing interest in the local market. That includes relocating it to the high street. It is all about location. It will expand the offering and make the high street more attractive. Of course we can consider parking and similar issues, too. I should be grateful if the Minister elaborated on the measures that could be used locally to implement changes successfully—to cut through red tape and some of the local government bureaucracy and barriers that hinder the town team.

Like many town centres, Witham needs investment in its public spaces, and our local community groups coming together to do something about them is one of the greatest areas of recent work. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) mentioned painting and tidying up the local community, and I commend the initiative of the Witham Boys Brigade to plant flowers and tidy up what I call the Witham gateway, which is straight off the A12. Small solutions such as that, once they spread across our towns, bring a great sense of community and enhance the aesthetic values of our communities. Getting businesses and local firms to sponsor such community initiatives is also a great way of involving them.

We have touched on business rates, but I want to discuss the impact of crime on our high streets, in particular on small shops. There is no doubt that crime undermines businesses. It is terribly demoralising for business owners who put their lives into their small shops and high-street businesses. Shopkeepers who work hard to earn every single penny are being threatened by criminals and find their lives and livelihoods being put at risk, which is absolutely awful. I want the Minister to join me in calling on the police, prosecutors and courts to do more. While our law enforcement agencies have good intentions, more should be done to support those setting up businesses and investing their livelihoods in our high streets, and to compel offenders to pay more in fines.

I will leave it there owing to the time, but sending a positive message to businesses about crime should be part of the Government’s wider programme to support our high streets, which includes all the successful measures already put in place.

Order. We will go to the Front-Bench spokespeople at 3.40 pm. That leaves the parliamentary neighbours the hon. Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) eight minutes to divide between them.

I think my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), is more than happy for me to eat into his time as we are such good neighbours. I thank him for the confirmation I just got from the look on his face.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk)—apparently that constituency is in Lancashire —on securing the debate and on much of what he said. Like other speakers, I agree with the comments about the need to deal with business rates, so I will not repeat those arguments. Similarly, I am grateful to my flatmate and hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) for making some response to comments of the hon. Member for Rochdale about the previous Government’s planning policies. I sat on a local authority for 10 years and I can say that the planning policies of the time seemed to work against our town centres in many ways, so the failures cut across political divides.

I should also point out that we, as consumers, are hypocrites when it comes to our high streets. We all love them, but how many of us have recently ordered online? How many of us have recently ordered from Amazon? The arms are not going up, but I have no doubt that I am not the only one here to have ordered from Amazon in recent months. Of course, Amazon does employ local people, but we have to understand that we are all slightly hypocritical.

I want to focus on what local authorities can do, because they can play a really positive role. Indeed, the local authorities in my constituency—North Lincolnshire council and East Riding of Yorkshire council—are currently playing positive roles. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) made an excellent speech. Scunthorpe’s is probably the most challenging high street in our area in terms of regeneration, and its difficulties are much more complex. He said that the local Conservative council was edging towards free parking, which is slightly disingenuous given that it was the previous Labour administration that scrapped free parking and imposed charges across north Lincolnshire. It was the Conservative council, when it took control in 2011, that scrapped the charges in Brigg and introduced free parking periods in Scunthorpe, which had never been done before. The hon. Gentleman did at least acknowledge that it was the Conservative council that was behind those measures. The introduction of free parking has made a huge difference in Brigg. Talk to retailers and they will say that the two-hour free-parking period has had a massive impact on the number of people coming into the town. In Epworth, the council has worked incredibly hard to provide 40 extra parking spaces, which was a big boost to its town centre.

Councils need to get a bit smarter about their resources. The council in Brigg has tied together its vision for the high street with its vision for tourism, leisure and heritage and has created a new heritage centre. The library has been moved closer to the town centre, which is now becoming a hive of activity that people want to visit for a whole range of reasons. The previous Labour council was going to close the tourist information centre—[Interruption.] It was consulted on. We have not only refurbished it, but have developed that service even further. There is much that councils can do.

Another scheme that should be considered across the country is the creation of wi-fi hotspots in our town centres, something that North Lincolnshire council is committed to funding. Across in the East Riding of Yorkshire, I have managed to get a local company to offer the service for free in Goole town centre. It is another way of drawing people in with a USP that says, “This is a modern centre.” Shops and cafes can also make use of it. They can have a shop front, but they can also generate online sales and promote themselves that way.

A great deal can be done and I ask the Minister, if he wants to, to come and spend some time in north Lincolnshire and look at what we have done on free parking and on trying to put services back into our town centres. We are currently working on another project with another town in my constituency that I hope will come to fruition soon. Even in these tough times, local authorities can do things to help to bring people back into town centres.

I had plenty more to say, but in fairness to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes I am going to sit down and allow him to talk about his constituency. I ask hon. Members to count how many times he says “England’s premier east coast resort.”

It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to speak in this debate as the third member of the north Lincolnshire trio. This debate provides an opportunity for us all to showcase our high streets, and I will be no exception to that. First, however, I want to touch on the Portas review, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and others.

As I have said in previous debates, I do not regard the Portas review as a panacea for the revival of our high streets. I do not want to pour cold water on it, but as a former member of a town team for many years, I can assure hon. Members that virtually every idea in the review has been discussed, debated and tried not only on the Grimsby town team, on which I was representing the local authority—like this Government, it was at the time a successful Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition —[Interruption.] I take the applause of the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). My point is that we cannot just assume that reducing parking charges, for example, is the absolute answer. I say that not because I am against it—I would have free parking wherever possible—but the reality is that we at North East Lincolnshire council wrestled with how we were going to deal with the £1 million income that we get from parking charges and set that against the obvious attractions of trying to provide cheaper or free parking. As we heard from the other two north Lincolnshire Members, North Lincolnshire council has come up with a good scheme that contributes considerably towards that, but it is not the absolute panacea.

There is a danger that such debates can turn into a round of “knock the supermarkets,” but let us not forget that, as we heard earlier, supermarkets such as Marks and Spencer and Tesco actually grew from market stalls. Meeting the demands of the consumer is the key here. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe mentioned the Co-op, and I can remember being dragged down Grimsby’s Freeman street by my mother to the Co-op, which was an enormous department store in those days. It dominated the whole shopping centre and was the Tesco of its day. So there has always been a department store, as it were, with everything under one roof, but the independent retailers must be able to compete with that.

Let me turn to Cleethorpes, the pre-eminent resort on the east coast. It has a very successful high street, St Peter’s avenue, which is only a mile and a half from Tesco’s out-of-town development. However, having a mix of shops, including independent shops, that meet consumer demand is the key. Those shops in Cleethorpes are thriving and successful.

As I close, I have one point to put to the Minister. We all recognise that, with changing consumer patterns, there are too many retail units, or former retail units, in every high street and every parade of shops in every town up and down the country. I appreciate that the Government are doing some things in terms of planning to help with the reclassification—change of use, and so on—but what is needed is a scheme to regenerate those properties, to bring them back into use and to prevent the dereliction that plagues so many of our high streets.

Thank you, Mr Davies, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on securing this debate. The fact that it is timely, necessary and topical is evidenced by the number of Members who are here in Westminster Hall today. I also thank him for his excellent contribution to the debate, which clearly pointed out the lack of appropriate action being taken by the Government to regenerate our high streets.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) for raising the issue of payday loan companies, which is an issue I will return to later, and my hon. Friend for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for reminding us that the retail sector is very important as an employment base in our constituencies and for offering opportunities to young people. I must also say to him that, having heard his contribution, I now feel I know the members of his town team personally; I hope they appreciate that.

At one point, I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) were trying to outdo each other in arguing about which place was the best to visit—Hackney or Hexham—and in particular where the best market was. I have noted their comments for future shopping trips.

Of course, other Members pointed to the need to have greater differentiation on our high streets and to the need to invest in public spaces, and we heard lots of other ideas about how to improve the high street. There were also lots of invitations for the Minister, which I hope he is grateful for.

At the outset, I will say that I do not particularly want to criticise Mary Portas and the approach she has taken. She and the Government were right to flag the challenges that our high streets face from the recession, online trading and out-of-town centres. It was right that we had a focus on the high street and I do not blame Mary Portas for being a celebrity or for wanting to make a TV show. However, I am critical of the Government for not taking this issue seriously enough and for not having an approach to the high street that is capable of meeting the challenges that Mary Portas identified.

I feel a bit sorry for the Minister who is here today—the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles)—because of course he is not the Minister who was responsible for setting the Government’s approach. The Minister who was responsible is the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), who has been mysteriously quiet on this issue, which is not at all like him. Of course, he is not here today to answer for the lack of action, but the Minister who is here will know that there is much criticism of the Government’s approach.

Retail expert Paul Turner-Mitchell put it perfectly when he said it is

“wrong to call the winning bids Portas pilots when most town teams were left to their own devices to try and turn things round. The problems on the high street are deeply entrenched and they need serious attention, not an off-the-shelf reality TV approach”.

Indeed, we know that only seven of the current round of Portas pilots have spent any money and that in total—across all 27 town teams—only 12% of the budget has been spent. That points to something going seriously wrong with the Government’s approach and we are entitled to ask what they will do to address the more “entrenched” issues.

The fact is that the Government have seriously let down the Portas pilots, and although those pilots may make good TV the communities that submitted winning bids have not received the support they were promised. Even more seriously, the Government have let down the rest of the country’s high streets and town centres. More than 400 towns competed to become Portas pilots. At the time the pilots were announced, the Minister without Portfolio said that the other areas could learn from their example, but that seems scant consolation now. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) pointed out, perhaps the Government should consider how to make the money that has been put into the Portas pilots go further if it is not being spent by the areas that have already been successful. My question to the Minister is this: what is being done to help the many towns and areas up and down the country that simply do not have any means at their disposal to help them turn their high street around?

We know that this problem is very serious, with as many as one in three shops closed in some areas and 14.2% of shops closed in the country as a whole. Surely it is time for the Government to focus on real policies to support our high streets, rather than on helping to make reality TV shows.

Perhaps that was what was in the Government’s mind last week when they announced changes to use class orders. Members could be forgiven for not noticing that announcement, because this huge change to our policy for the high street was sneaked out in a written ministerial statement, accompanied by regulations that the Government are currently proposing to put through by use of the negative procedure. However, what these changes to use classes could do is to allow virtually any class of commercial premises on our high streets to become any type of shop, fast food restaurant or shop in the euphemistically called “financial and professional services” sector, which, alongside banks and estate agents, includes payday lenders or legal loan sharks and betting shops.

Given that this is an area that the Minister who is here today has responsibility for, I hope he can tell us what was going through his mind when he decided that what struggling high streets need is to make it easier to have more bookies and more payday loan companies sprawl across them. I would like to hear the rationale for that decision today.

Nationally, there are now 20% more payday loan shops and 3.3% more betting shops than there were a year ago, and I do not think there is a huge clamour out there in any of our communities to have any more of those shops; we want fewer of them. They are taking the place of independent retailers, clothes shops and health food shops. There are now more than twice as many betting shops on British high streets as all the cinemas, bingo halls, museums, bowling alleys, arcades, galleries and snooker halls combined. I am sure that the owners of the payday loan companies were jumping for joy when they learned that this year they could accelerate the growth of their businesses without even having to ask permission for a change of use of the buildings they intend to occupy.

That policy is so disastrous that I am not at all sure who the Government think it will help. It certainly will not help independent start-ups, which are hampered—as we know—by the lack of available credit. Somewhat belatedly, the Chancellor seems to have recognised that, in that he has set up a new fund to support small and medium-sized businesses to gain access to credit. However, we also know that the current use class system allows a change of use for a premises in the A class from another type of use to use as a shop. So there are already ample opportunities for empty shops to be used in other ways, or for pop-up shops to be created in empty buildings. The Government should be encouraging that process, rather than the creation of yet more payday loan companies.

Indeed, in that regard it is Labour that is being really localist, because the Minister has effectively, for a period of two years, deregulated use classes on the high street. We want to give local authorities real powers to be able to decide what use classes there are and how they operate on the high street, and to give all our communities a real say in shaping their high street, differentiating it and making it something that local people can be proud of. I want to hear why the Minister has taken the route he has.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on securing this debate. He brings huge authority to all our debates in the House because of his particular life experience and honest common sense. He is a forensic member of the Communities and Local Government Committee and I am already nervous at the prospect of facing him in a Committee sitting relatively soon.

We can start with some common ground—there may not have been a huge amount of it, but there is some—which is that the importance of our high streets is greater than purely economic. They are not simply businesses; they play a role in our communities as the hub of the social and cultural life of our towns. It is, therefore, important for all of us to find ways to help them adjust to change.

We have heard from all hon. Members who participated in the debate a wide range of stories about many situations, including the fact that people can buy three pairs of knickers for a pound in Hoxton market—I shall be taking up that offer soon, though for which purpose we will not describe now—and that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) is cuter than a puppy’s nose. I think, Mr Davies, that you will agree that that is a fair description. However, it is interesting that, despite the variety of communities, economic circumstances and geographical locations that have been discussed, a number of common themes have emerged. That is because the changes taking place in our high streets and town centres are not just a reflection of the recent recession, devastating though that has been for some businesses, or of particular Government policies, though those policies over the years have had positive and negative effects, which I will go into, but are a result of some dramatic technological and behavioural changes taking place in society, of which I suspect we have seen only the beginning.

My starting proposition to all hon. Members who have taken part in this debate is that we cannot stand Canute-like and command the waves of technological and social change to turn back. That has been the approach of past Labour Governments in response to industrial changes. That has always been a disaster and has always cost the taxpayer a huge amount of money, and it has never saved anybody their jobs or their livelihoods.

We need to do what my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) suggested and help retailers and high streets, and the local authorities that govern them, to adjust to the shock of the new. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) mentioned ways that that is happening in her constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) spoke about how his town is exploring interesting approaches to tempt new retailers, with new formats and new ways of serving the customer and giving them an offer that competes with the convenience of ordering stuff from their sofas.

What can the Government control and what can they not control? We need to mention business rates. The business rates system is simple. A single amount is raised that is uprated every year by inflation, but by no more, and the increase in a business rate on one business has to be matched by the decrease elsewhere on another business, because the total contribution to the Exchequer is the same and simply increases by inflation.

I say to the hon. Member for Rochdale that in the five years of the Labour Government’s last term, the total take from business rates went up by £4 billion and in the five years of this Government’s term it has increased by a bit more than £2 billion, so there has not been the swingeing increase in business rates that he tried to show. In the meantime, we have introduced a doubling of small business rate relief, which is extended until 2014. That is benefiting a huge number of small retailers. Although business rates will need to be taken into account with regard to the changes that we have been talking about—I do not suggest that the business rates system will not need to change over the medium term—there has been no shift under this Government that might explain the problems faced by our high streets.

Parking is a slightly more relevant issue, in terms of changes that have happened. When it is possible for people to buy whatever they need from their sofa, it needs to be easy and comfortable for them to buy something from a shop. I detected from the physical movements of Opposition Members that even they recognised that the last Labour Government’s policies on parking charges were entirely counter-productive. In backing a rise in parking charges to try to drive people out of their cars, they succeeded. People got out of their cars and got on to their laptops, on their sofas, and bought stuff that way. I am glad to hear many examples of far-sighted Conservative authorities cutting parking charges introduced by Labour authorities, thereby benefiting north Lincolnshire, in Brigg, Scunthorpe and other places, and tempting people back into town centres. That is a constructive approach.

Ultimately, central Government, and sometimes even local government, cannot pretend to themselves that they have within their gift the power to conjure a renaissance in our high streets. This Government believe that all we can do is try to anticipate what is happening and try to liberate, so that people can try out new ways of doing business, and back innovation. Through anticipation we can try to understand how the technological sea change that is taking place will affect people in future. My hon. Friend the Minister responsible for this area has set up the future high streets forum to explore the longer-term changes—perhaps slightly longer term than those addressed by previous studies of this problem.

It is in an attempt to liberate that we have introduced the temporary changes to the use class orders and will look at further changes to those orders, to make it easier for local authorities to decide that some retail frontages should benefit from greater permitted development rights. We are saying that no national Government, no planning Minister—neither I, nor the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), should she ever succeed me in this position—and no other Minister can possibly determine what is the right use for a particular property. I would even go so far as to suggest that some local authorities are too slow to adapt to change. They would love, as in France, to declare that particular premises had to be preserved for ever for a baker or a butcher, but unfortunately this is not realistic. It does not work and the state of the French economy is proof enough of that fact. We have to liberate so that they can experiment.

That brings me to the various ways in which this Government are backing innovation, through the Portas pilots, the town team partners, the high street innovation fund and the high street renewal awards. All these measures are helping to back innovative ideas. It is no surprise to hear, yet again, from Labour Front Benchers that they consider the best way of measuring the success of a policy to be how quickly public money has been spent. We do not consider that a measure of success. We consider it prudent of those Portas pilots that have received grant from this Government but have not yet convinced themselves that they have a worthwhile investment to wait until they have worked out something that they think will make an impact.

It is simply not good enough to persist with the approach of the last Government, spraying money around, hoping that some of it will stick and make a difference. Every pound and penny is the earnings of a member of the British public and constituent, and that money should be spent only when the innovation it is supporting will deliver real change.

We all want our high streets to revive, but we should recognise that when they do so, that will be in many different forms across the country and will not look anything like anything any of us grew up with. We should not be afraid of that; we should embrace that future and back those who will bring it about.