This Government believe our high streets need to adapt to changing consumer habits, especially online shopping. The Portas pilots are test-beds for developing new ideas. They are part of a comprehensive approach designed to strengthen local leadership, reform planning and parking policies, help small shops and boost local markets.
Ministers must acknowledge the huge discrepancy between the £20 million Ministers have spent on the Portas pilots and the fact that the Government have increased business rates for retailers by over £500 million in the past two years. With a recent survey showing that the UK has the highest business rates in the European Union, is it not time that the Government stopped treating the high street as a cash cow to milk to exhaustion?
Nothing has changed in rating policy. Ever since 1990, business rates have gone up by the retail prices index—it was the same under the Labour Government. It is right to say, however, that they are fixed overheads. That is why, unlike the Labour party, we have doubled the threshold for small business rate relief and taken a third of a million small businesses out of business rates altogether. I thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.
I am a fan of Mary Portas and her recent TV programme showed that Mary and some traders have great vision. However, all too often, the local authority and some traders could not agree on how to proceed. Can we time-limit grants and, if they are not spent, transfer them to areas that will spend them quickly?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The key—it was referred to by the planning Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles)—is the strength of local civic and business leadership. That is what we are seeing in the pilots. On the grants, the key is ensuring that the money is spent wisely, not quickly, but I take the point about disputes that block activity on the ground.
I very much welcome the Minister’s strong support for the Portas principles and that of the planning Minister. Does he agree that one sure-fire way of wrecking high streets is to allow local authorities to allow out-of-town shopping centres?