[Relevant documents: Uncorrected transcripts of oral evidence taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee on 17 June 2013, HC 309-i, and 2 September 2013, HC 612-i.]
I beg to move,
That this House recognises that high streets and town and city centres are vital to local economies; acknowledges that many small businesses and retailers are struggling under the pressure of business rates rises; notes that since 2010 shop vacancy rates have remained at over 14 per cent but that there has been a 20 per cent increase in numbers of payday loan shops and a three per cent increase in numbers of betting shops in the last year; is concerned that recent changes to permitted development rights and use classes are likely to lead to an over-concentration of betting shops and payday loan companies in many areas, against the wishes of local people and businesses; and calls on the Government to give local communities a greater say over the shape of their own high streets and town and city centres, including control over use classes, to help encourage the more widespread use of neighbourhood planning and greater cooperation between local communities and businesses and to cut and then freeze business rates from 2015 to help small businesses on UK high streets and town and city centres.
When introducing the Portas pilots a few years ago, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), with his customary understatement and modesty, said that
“these pilots can be the vanguard of a high street revolution, and others can look to their example to kick start a renaissance of our town centres.”
However, recent data show us that this high street revolution has yet to materialise. I think it is wrong to place the blame at the door of Mary Portas, because there was much in her original report that was helpful. I want to place the blame for such poor progress in reviving our high streets firmly where it belongs: with the Government.
The Government’s failed policies for the high street undoubtedly start with the sluggishness of our economic recovery, but I want to focus specifically on what is wrong with their approach to regenerating our high streets and town centres. The past five years have seen a significant squeeze on household and personal incomes, resulting in muted spending and an increase in retail failures. The high street has not only been hit by falling living standards but has had to contend with the rise in internet shopping. Yes, shopping habits are changing, but the high streets and town centres are still very important to the well-being of our communities, yet the Government’s policies are not rising to the challenge of revitalising and regenerating them.
The hon. Lady starts her speech with a blame game. Would she attribute any blame to Labour’s Licensing Act 2003, which caused a culture of binge-drinking on the streets? Does she see that as in any way revitalising and adding a positive contribution to our high streets?
The hon. Lady mentions the over-proliferation of betting shops. Surely the Labour Government’s Licensing Act made that worse with the changes they made to the number of machines that could be put in each shop. Because of her Government’s policy, the national chains are now putting several branches on the same high street.
In fact, the reason for the increased number of payday loan companies is, first, what has been happening to the economy, and secondly, the change in use class orders, to which I will turn in a few moments.
Local shops and retailers are really feeling the squeeze on the high street, and these are still tough times for many areas.
Of course we would welcome any regeneration that is happening on our high streets.
Business rates are rising by an average of nearly £2,000 during this Parliament, and more than one in 10 small businesses say that they spend the same or more on business rates as they do on rent. However, we must ask this question: is it all doom and gloom?
Our historic high street in Stockton-on-Tees has suffered, like others, but our council has acted by developing what it calls the enterprise arcade, which gives fledgling businesses the opportunity to develop and then move into shop units. Yet we are seeing more betting shops and payday loan companies taking up space in our high street. Does my hon. Friend agree that those fledgling businesses should be given priority over betting shops and others so that they can provide the shops our high street needs?
Is the hon. Lady aware that the number of betting shops has reduced slightly in the past 12 months, and that 9,000 betting shops on the high streets is 7,000 fewer than there were in the 1970s? Will she not accept that over the long term the number of betting shops has fallen?
My hon. Friend is making a very compelling argument for giving local councils the power to determine how their high streets develop. One measure that we could introduce is umbrella provisions to enable local councils to stop the clustering of payday lenders or betting shops on the high street.
To return to the question of whether there has been an increase in the number of betting shops, I am concerned about the high number of gambling adverts during TV programmes. I watched the football last night and there were three of those adverts during one commercial break alone. Does my hon. Friend agree that such encouragement of gambling must be linked to the impact on the high street?
I hope the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I make some progress. I will let him intervene later.
We know from information recently produced by the Local Data Company that there has been an improvement in occupancy rates. That is a good thing, but before Government Members get too excited I must point out that the vacancy rate has fallen from 14.2% to 14.1%, so one in seven shops are still standing empty, which is hardly a cause for celebration. That average figure also hides some large regional disparities. For example, Blackburn has a huge vacancy rate of 26.9%, with one in four shops lying empty.
The report also shows that in some areas vacancy rates remain stubbornly high. Since August 2010, the national average for empty shops has been above 14%, with a significant number being long-term sick with little or no prospect of being reoccupied as shops. Areas of improvement undoubtedly exist, but overall the recovery on our high streets leaves much to be desired.
The Government have responded to this major problem in their usual way: they have taken a piecemeal approach, fragmented the response and, when all else has failed, blamed the planning system. We now have a plethora of initiatives intent on improving the high street: Portas pilots, town team partners, the future high streets forum, a high street innovation fund, the high street renewal award and a fund for business improvement districts.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a distinct contrast can be drawn between Kings road in Chelsea and County road in Liverpool, Walton, which has experienced a proliferation of betting shops, payday loan companies, fast-food takeaways and pawnbrokers? The Government cannot wash their hands of this—the rise has been exponential and that has partly been down to their policies.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must highlight where the Government’s policies on the high street have failed.
There is a long list of initiatives, but the fragmented approach masks the lack of an overall strategic approach that would bring together local authorities, key stakeholders and communities to plan for and deliver real change in their town centres.
Before the hon. Lady moves on to her socialist selection of which stores it is right for people to purchase from, will she admit that the Government’s employment allowance, which will be introduced in 2015 and will reduce the cost of hiring people to work in shops, is a very welcome step in getting started the sorts of shops that people want to purchase from?
It is very important to have a localist approach that encourages local people to get involved in shaping their high street. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman supported such an approach before all the changes that have been made over the past couple of years.
We want key stakeholders and communities to be brought together to plan and deliver change in their town centres. It is a pity that the Minister was not at the Local Data Company summit this morning, because he would have heard people saying that that was exactly what they wanted.
In his recent report, Bill Grimsey gave the Government some much-needed helpful advice. I will briefly highlight a few of his recommendations. He said that the Government should:
“Set an objective to repopulate high streets and town centres as community hubs encompassing: more housing, education, arts, entertainment, business/office space, health and leisure—and some shops”,
“Establish a Town Centre Commission for each town with a defined skill base and structure to build a 20-year vision for each town”.
He went on to say that they should establish five pilots to trial that immediately and called on the Government to
“Prepare for a ‘wired town’ vision or ‘networked high streets’”,
to review business rates and to require the owners of empty properties to seek a change of use class to bring properties back into occupation.
The hon. Lady is setting great store by the Grimsey report. She has spoken about making it easier to change use classes and to convert commercial property into residential property. However, her motion argues against that. How does she square that circle?
If the hon. Gentleman had read the motion more carefully, he would have seen that we are arguing that local authorities, in consultation with their communities, should be able to shape use classes in their area. We do not think that use classes should be got rid of altogether, which is what his Government are seeking to do.
I must express concern about a motion that calls on the Government to
“give communities a greater say over the shape of their”
communities when, unless I have misunderstood something, this Parliament recently passed the Localism Act 2011, which was initiated by this Government, as a result of which business improvement districts are being created and neighbourhood plans formulated all over my constituency. The hon. Lady clearly was not here for those debates and has not noticed what is happening in communities across England.
It is the right hon. Gentleman who has not noticed what is happening, particularly with regard to use class orders. The power for local communities to shape their high streets is being taken away.
A steer from Government is required to enable local authorities, stakeholders and communities to get together and pool their resources to shape their high streets. One huge stumbling block to the Grimsey approach remains. While many of us have been arguing for greater powers to assist local communities in shaping their areas, the Government have been busy giving away the powers that do exist to provide for that. In May, the Government legislated to allow changes to use classes so that virtually any class of commercial premises on the high street can become any kind of shop, fast food restaurant or shop in the euphemistically named “financial and professional services sector”, which alongside banks and estate agents includes payday lenders or legal loan sharks and betting shops.
I hope the Minister can tell us what was going through the Government’s mind when they decided that what struggling high streets needed was for it to be made easier for more bookies and payday loan companies to be sprawled across them. I would like to hear the rationale for that decision, because my previous attempts to elicit a response from the Government have failed. Nationally, there are 20% more payday loan shops and 3% more betting shops than there were a year ago.
I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend, but does she agree it was extraordinary that the coalition Government opposed my amendment to the Localism Bill, which would have made betting shops a sui generis class under our planning laws, and brought an end to the travesty that is taking place across our high streets?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, and it is a shame the Government did not accept his amendment. We must keep pressing them to change direction, particularly from where they are attempting to go at the moment, which is complete deregulation.
There are 20% more payday loan shops and 3% more betting shops than a year ago, and I do not think there is huge clamour out there in our communities for any more. Indeed, people want the opposite; they want fewer of those shops because they are taking the place of independent retailers, clothes shops and health food shops.
My hon. Friend said there is no clamour out there in the country for more betting shops, fast food takeaways and payday loan companies, but there is a clamour for communities and planning authorities to have more control over these changes. Does she agree that the recent changes make a complete mockery of the rhetoric coming from the Government about giving more power to communities? It is simply not true.
I will make some progress. 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 the owners of 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 for a change of use for the buildings they intend to occupy. The policy is so disastrous that I am not sure who the Government think it will help. It will certainly not help independent start-ups, which are still hampered—as we know—by the lack of available credit.
As if the changes announced in May were not bad enough, the Government have just completed consultation on another round of relaxations to permitted development and change of use classes that would see banks become flats, post offices become residences, and any small shop turned into a house without the local authority or community having a say in whether those changes are appropriate or of sufficient quality.
London local councils recently produced a report that stated:
“The removal of boroughs’ ability to require planning permission for these types of use change is likely to have a detrimental rather than positive impact on local economic growth. And whilst there is a recognition that some previously commercial areas in and around high streets are no longer viable for business, the ability for these to become residential should be left to the discretion of the local planning authority and not national policy.”
We entirely agree. We are not against the principle of changes from office to residential; we are for the principle of local communities deciding what is best for their area, not Ministers in Whitehall.
I have been contacted by the owners of the Exchange, a music venue in Bristol—it is in the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams). They took out new premises in a commercial area of Bristol, but have found out that there are plans to convert neighbouring properties into residential properties. They will therefore get noise complaints. They are concerned that, having invested in the new venture, they could be put out of business. Is that an example of what my hon. Friend describes?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving us that example, which clearly demonstrates what is wrong with the Government’s approach. I hope the Minister has heard it.
I should tell the Minister that the Opposition are not against change to use classes, but the Government are entirely misguided in seeking to introduce a national permitted development right that will bypass local decision making and give communities no say in what ends up on their high streets.
On the Channel 4 “Dispatches” programme in August last year, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), said that the Gambling Act 2005 was a “mistake”, that the consequences
“are ruining the high street and people’s lives”
and that “we were wrong”. Do you agree?
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The Government’s approach is entirely the wrong one and profoundly anti-localist. It is therefore strange that they seek to badge the changes as indicating that they are absolutely committed to enabling individuals and community groups to have a greater say over every aspect of their area, including their high streets. I can only conclude that that is some sort of Orwellian misspeak.
What would Labour do? First, it would allow local authorities to put some types of businesses into a separate use class or use classes to prevent over-saturation of a particular use type in a given area—betting shops, for example. We know that some in the Government agree. At the Liberal Democrat conference this year, the Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household, the then Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, moved a motion saying that local councillors should be
“empowered to decide whether or not to give approval to additional gambling venues in their community”,
and he called on Liberal Democrats in the Government to push for betting shops to be put in a new separate planning use class
“allowing local authority planning committees to control them”.
The motion was passed, so no wonder he was reshuffled. The Government have done exactly the opposite.
Local councils also agree with the Opposition. A recent report from all 32 London boroughs said that town centres and high streets were at risk of not meeting the needs of local residents because planning regulations restrict the powers of local councils to encourage balanced local economies, including a lack of control on the spread of shops such as pawnbrokers and bookmakers. The councils recommended that such shops should be removed from use class A2 to a sui generis class of their own. The House should note that local authorities did not ask for further deregulation of that use class, which the Government propose to give them.
Secondly, Labour would give local authorities powers to determine permitted development locally in keeping with local needs and aspirations. Thirdly, Labour would strengthen neighbourhood planning and consider retail diversity schemes to allow communities to shape their high street. Fourthly, as announced at conference by the Labour leader, a Labour Government would cut business rates for small businesses if elected in 2015 and freeze them the year after, helping 1.5 million small businesses, many of which are on our high streets.
Does my hon. Friend share my view that in areas of market failure, particularly across the north of England, the situation is acute, and that, in the face of swingeing cuts to council grants to the point where they are in some cases unsustainable, we must do all we can to grow indigenous businesses to keep communities afloat?
I will move on as quickly as I can, Mr Deputy Speaker.
In response to the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), the announcement was to cut business rates if elected in 2015 and freeze them for the year after that. In the context of that announcement, the Government’s plans to fiddle with red tape and postpone the business rate re-evaluation just do not cut it. We will start discussions with local authorities to see which of the Grimsey proposals can be taken forward to begin to deliver real change on the high street.
Finally, we want to put local communities at the centre of decision making with regard to what happens in their high street, so they can determine a vision for it and deliver to local needs and aspirations.
I need to carry on, as we are running out of time.
Above all, we must remain hopeful that our high streets can be vibrant community hubs, and this is entirely possible if local communities are given the right freedoms. Local people are best placed to decide the kind of high street they want for them and their families to live, socialise and shop in. Writing in The Observer last week, Lauren Laverne reminded us that our high streets provide places of real escape, and as long as they do they remain more than a metonym and are places definitely worth saving. I doubt if the Minister reads her weekly column, but he should. He should listen to her and he should listen to us, too.
High streets are far more than shop windows to the retail industry. They have moved far beyond just being a retail hub. They are the heartbeat of our towns and cities and have always been the linchpin of our communities. With that in mind, I was disappointed if not surprised to hear the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) reduce the issue to Labour wanting more regulation, more borrowing and higher taxes while, in one fell swoop, managing to destroy local government finance post-2015.
Our high streets benefit from wider community access, whether that includes fire stations, the police, children’s centres, the NHS, retail, leisure or hospitality. The hon. Member for City of Durham says she wants the town centre to be the heart of the community and a real community hub. I applaud that. I am just not quite sure how, in the same speech, she managed to argue against that by proposing to ban conversion to residential, which brings more people to our high streets. The hon. Gentleman is right: people care deeply about their high streets because they are the centres of their community. We want to see vibrant, viable high streets where people live, shop, use services, and spend their leisure time, and that includes a safe night-time economy.
Will the Minister join me in saying how disappointing it was that the shadow Minister had nothing to say about car parking charges in the centres of our small towns? Labour-run Kirklees council still imposes inflexible car parking charges in Holmfirth, which is a small market town. No wonder shoppers go to Morrisons two miles down the road, where they can park for free. Will he encourage Labour-run Kirklees to be more flexible and have more supportive car parking charges?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point; councils should look closely at their car parking charges, not least because, as they will know if they have any real business sense—I would hope that even a Labour council would seriously consider its future financing opportunities—successful high streets will drive business rates retention. However, for that they need footfall and for footfall all the evidence shows we need easy, cheap car parking.
I will take no lectures from Labour on our high streets.
Stockton boasts the widest high street in England, and a major project to rejuvenate it is under way, thanks to a Labour local authority. Many organisations are involved, but the Post Office has opted to walk away from our high street, downgrading the service and burying it at the back of another shop. Does the Minister agree that the Post Office should be a partner in our high streets, instead of walking away?
I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to be more persuasive about what is right for his community. In a range of communities, the Post Office is investing in high streets, including in mine in Great Yarmouth.
I will remind the House of Labour’s record on the high streets. It introduced 24-hour drinking laws. Its campaign in the 2001 election actually said:
“Couldn’t give a XXXX for last orders? Vote Labour on Thursday for extra time”.
It then gave our town centres a Jekyll and Hyde personality—quiet by day, often nasty and brutish by night—whereas this coalition Government have given more powers to councils to rein in the excesses of the late-night, vertical drinking establishments, while supporting well run, popular and safe community pubs. Labour pushed through the Gambling Act 2005—I am pleased to see the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who took it through the House, here today—leading to a rise in uncontrolled gaming, including addictive fixed odds betting terminals.
Government Members jumped up and down defending bookmakers earlier, but does the Minister agree that encouraging more bookies, which is what the legislative changes do, will put people off going to the high street and that those who visit the bookies only spend their money in the bookies and do not go to the other retailers?
I do not think the evidence entirely backs that up, but I will let the hon. Gentleman discuss that with his right hon. Friend, who brought in the Act that created a lot of the problems. Online gambling, which the hon. Gentleman spoke about earlier, is part of what takes people away from the high street. I was disappointed to hear Opposition Members lambast some good, strong small businesses employing people and bringing money into our economy, including some of the fast food outlets, which are a phenomenally important part of the high street.
The deputy leader of the Labour party, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), has since admitted, as my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) said:
“I think we were wrong, we have made a mistake... it’s ruining people’s lives.”
I would not subscribe to the socialist vision for our high streets of allowing politicians and bureaucrats to decide what is suitable for them, but constituents of mine have expressed their concerns about the plethora of bookies. I wonder whether we should be unpicking some of the damage done by the previous Government’s Gambling Act and introducing a concept of saturation, which could be taken into account when the Gambling Commission makes licensing decisions.
Councils have the power of article 4, but there is a wider issue about ensuring that our town centres are vibrant places that businesses want to be in, so that they are filled with the kind of retail, hospitality and leisure industries that consumers and residents want.
In response to the sedentary intervention just now from the right hon. Member for Tottenham, we are reviewing betting machines and have given our full support to councils, such as Labour-run Barking, to use their existing envelope of planning powers to tackle the community impact of betting shops.
The simple answer is no. Those authorities are wrong: it simply does not. They need to go back and think much harder about changing their offer and doing what they believe is right for their communities. If that means using article 4, it is there for them to use.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. I agree and will come to that in a few moments.
Labour made it more difficult to park in town centres—my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) has mentioned that point—with Whitehall guidance issued by John Prescott telling councils to cut the number of parking spaces, increase parking charges and hit drivers with fines. In 2008, the local government Minister, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), complained that councils were not using parking charges to their “full potential”. By the end of Labour’s time in office, 9 million parking fines a year were issued in England. What was the public’s response? Quite sensibly, they are taking their time to shop online or drive to out-of-town stores where they are not penalised for using their cars. That was Labour’s response to changing lifestyles and the internet—to make it as difficult as possible for people to shop in and visit our town centres.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will come to business rates in a moment, but when I talk to retailers, there are two key issues, one of which is how we get more footfall into town centres, and there is no getting away from the fact that parking has a key part to play in that.
As the hon. Member for City of Durham rightly said, the internet is not just a creative technology; it is changing retail dramatically. The fall of some retailers—household names that we all knew well, such as Blockbuster and the old HMV—was down to weaknesses in their business models and an inability to keep up with the pace of change. They struggled to adapt to modern behaviour and could not compete with the rise of the new online retailers, which now make up almost 15% of the market—a figure that experts say will rise exponentially. High streets have changed and must continue to do so. The best retailers and the best high streets and town centres are already looking at how they can and should adapt to become places where people live, shop, use services and spend their leisure time, but there are no quick and easy solutions. As hon. Members will know, that will take time.
As the proud Member for Bedford, may I thank the Minister for visiting the town on Monday with Mary Portas? She said three important things: that Bedford is a beautiful town, which it is, that we have a glorious river, which we do, and that the best way for towns to work is for the community to work together on its future, which we are doing. Does the Minister agree with those three points?
It was clear on Monday how proud of Bedford the team rightly are. They have done some great work, and it was a wonderful place to visit and to see some of it.
Given the time, I want to make a bit of progress. Some recent research suggests that the vacancy rates on high streets are beginning to plateau, after about 20 years of decline. If that is true, we should celebrate that—and celebrate the great British high street—but we must also look to do more. The coalition Government are committed to helping communities to adapt. We believe that plans and ideas for town centres must come from local areas themselves. It is for councils, businesses and communities to decide what their high streets and town centres will look like. Government cannot and should not look to bail out or prop up ailing high street businesses with taxpayers’ money, nor should we just introduce new taxes—as has been suggested by the Opposition—to create a level playing field of misery. Higher taxes destroy jobs and undermine enterprise. Government must support local people, building skills and spreading best practice.
My hon. Friend makes a superb point about how we can improve footfall in our town centres by being flexible enough to allow people to live nearer to them and in and around them.
The Government are looking at building skills and spreading best practice, as well as doing everything we can at national level to support high street growth. That is why we invited Mary Portas, who has championed the British high street, to review the future of the nation’s high streets. She has done a phenomenal job of raising the profile of that issue around the country over the past few years. We took action following her review, providing communities with the means to establish Portas pilots and town teams across the country to test different approaches. We have put in place 27 Portas pilots and more that 350 town team partners, with funding and a defined support package for each of them.
Over the past year, the Government have worked closely with the Association of Town and City Management and with Business in the Community to support the Portas pilots and the town teams. The ATCM is making use of a £1 million fund to provide practical assistance to improve leadership, town team capabilities and partnership working, and to share learning and spread best practice. Business in the Community has set up a high street champions programme to give dedicated support to the Portas pilots on business engagement and mentoring. Businesses with a commitment to town centres provide support and encouragement to Portas pilots to help them to achieve their objectives.
The high street champions are working with their town teams to deliver positive change in their towns, and a lot has been achieved by the pilots and town teams. For example, Market Rasen has built a market from scratch, which earlier this year won a prestigious award for being Britain’s best small speciality market. Dartford has introduced Sunday trading with free parking and subsidised advertising. Stockton has launched a discounted business rates scheme for businesses that take over a vacant shop in the town centre. That is something that councils now have the power to do, thanks to this Government. Ipswich has a brave, large-scale master plan to reorient its high street so that it runs from east to west instead of from north to south. It is making the most of its assets to transform its existing town centre and its waterfront. A variety of mixed and leisure uses have been approved, and that has attracted further investment and created new employment opportunities. Those are just a handful of examples; there are many more great pieces of work being done around the country.
I am genuinely grateful to the Minister for giving way. He is being generous with his time and it is appreciated. Will he tell me what specific support the Government are giving or intending to give to communities in areas of market failure that are being particularly affected by the public spending cuts that we have seen since 2010?
As I have just said, councils and communities must look at what they can do. For example, councils could use powers to alter business rates, which the previous Government did not allow them to have. They could also do more in relation to parking. I will outline some more specific points in a moment.
Earlier this year, we established the future high streets forum, which brings together leaders from retail, property, academia, hospitality and local government. They include sector experts from organisations such as Boots, Costa Coffee, John Lewis and the Post Office. The forum is taking forward important work, looking at local leadership, at the barriers to and enablers of success, and at what the future high street will look like.
The Government have taken loads of really good initiatives, and the Minister is right to put them before the House today. It is also clear that some of Labour’s criticisms about gaming issues are completely misconceived, given that it was the Labour Government’s legislation that caused the problem. I supported the motion on reviewing use orders that was passed at our conference, and I hope that the Government will look seriously at the question of use orders in relation to betting establishments—
The Minister has mentioned the hospitality and leisure sectors on a number of occasions. He will know, through his magnificent work as the pubs Minister, the importance of the community pub. Does he agree that the night-time economy and the leisure sector play a massive role in revitalising our high streets and in providing jobs and opportunities for young people?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important that we look at what a community needs and wants. Our high streets are changing into places where people go for a day out or a night out. While they are there, they might do some shopping, have something to eat, or go to a bar, a club or the local community pub. It is important to embrace that and not to try to have what can be inferred from earlier: some sort of socialist or Marxist control from the centre of what the high street can or cannot have, or of what we should facilitate in our high streets. The consumer and the customer will drive what the businesses want to provide. That is how to get a high street that serves its customers.
My hon. Friend has made that point on a range of occasions. It is an issue on which the authorities will have to decide in each individual case when they look at the licensing.
The sector specialists are putting their own time and expertise into this project; they are the ones best placed, with the best experience and knowledge of the market, to support and advise us and others on the programme of work. We are helping local people to adapt their high streets, making available new tools and powers. Through the planning system, we are removing barriers and we have set out a “town centre first” policy in the national planning policy framework. We want to see more people living in and near their town centres to make them more vibrant, but also to increase footfall. That could include bringing in housing or other business uses alongside the traditional retail offer.
In May, we introduced measures that allow property owners to take advantage of new rights for temporary changes of use. Those measures have been well received by developers. A recent survey of just 15% of councils by Planning magazine showed that there have been 262 prior approval applications for change of use from offices to residential in the first two to three months. That includes a number of applications to create over 100 new dwellings. The Labour party opposes those reforms, yet also opposes brownfield regeneration—providing badly needed new homes at no cost to the taxpayer. If the Labour party does not want more homes in our towns and cities, where should people go for them? These practical changes are already helping to boost the economy, but there is more we can do.
The sense of decline in some areas can be aggravated by the sight of closed or run-down shops. A public consultation has just closed on further relaxations of change of use. We want to unlock the potential of underused and unused retail premises while providing much needed homes at the same time. More people living closer to or in town centres will increase footfall and boost local shops and businesses. We also want to allow retail premises to change to banks and building societies, delivering more branches on the high street and encouraging more choice and more competition for consumers. By contrast, Labour’s planning policies mean more red tape, higher costs for business, and more boarded-up, empty shops.
As well as cutting excessive regulation, this Government are easing the tax burden on small shops. From April 2014, every business and charity will be entitled to an allowance against their national insurance contributions bill each year. That will reduce the costs of employment, supporting small businesses as they grow. We have doubled small business rate relief until 2014, and made it easier to claim. Since 2010—and it is important to put this in context—the level of relief given has trebled from £333 million to £900 million. We have cut corporation tax, whereas Labour wants to hike it for successful companies.
Let us compare the record of this Government with that of the last Government.
Labour opposed making it easier to claim small business rate relief; we changed the law to make it easier to claim, and doubled the rate relief for four years. Labour hiked up business rates on empty properties, with no offsetting reduction elsewhere; we are introducing a new rate relief for empty new build to help to kick-start development. Labour imposed retrospective business rate hikes on England’s ports; we scrapped Labour’s unfair port tax. I recognise, however, that there is still more to do on business rates, which we will balance with the need to pay off Labour’s vast deficit. At a time when businesses are looking to grow and help the economy recover, tax stability is vital.
I want to drag the Minister off ports and back to the high street. The Government are doing a review of the Riot (Damages) Act 1886, and the Minister will be aware of the destruction caused to many of our high streets across the country. In those circumstances, it is right for people to receive compensation in relation to a crime that was no fault of their own. Will he report back to us on where that review has got to? It would be devastating for high streets if we got rid of that compensation.
That is also why it is important that we ensure, in every part of the country, and especially where the riots caused damage, that we get high streets working, bringing back vitality and business. It is also why we postponed the revaluation until 2017, helping to avoid sharp changes and unexpected hikes in rates bills over the next five years. The biggest beneficiaries from a 2015 revaluation would not have been small shops, including in the north of England, but prime office space in London. City banks would have seen plummeting bills, while everyone else would have faced soaring bills to pay for it. We have cut taxes for small firms and small shops, and we are encouraging innovation. Pop-up shops are a great way for start-up businesses to enter the high street. We have provided support through practical advice on how to set up pop-up shops. My Department even has its own pop-up shop, which I commend to hon. Members wondering what Christmas presents to buy this year.
We have also backed the “Love your local market” campaign. This year’s campaign in May was almost twice the size of the first. More than 700 places ran 3,500 markets in England, and many people took the opportunity to try trading for the first time. Dates have already been announced for 2014, so “Love your local market” is well on its way to becoming an annual event. Markets have an important part to play in a vibrant town centre. We will do our part by continuing to put in place the framework that will allow local government, businesses and communities to develop their own vision and solutions, driven by their circumstances and needs.
We are keen to see the creation of more business improvement districts, given their significant potential to revitalise town centres. We have also consulted on plans for property owners to have a greater role in revitalising their high streets though their involvement in business improvement districts. This week I was delighted to announce that British BIDs will be operating the £500,000 business improvement districts loan fund. The fund is now open for business and will be offering loans up to £50,000 to prospective districts that want help with set-up costs.
We cannot avoid one important fact. For many people going to a town centre, there is a need to park. Parking is vital to modern high streets. Councils must recognise the influence of their parking policies on the viability of high streets, and adjust those policies accordingly. We are taking steps to tackle the draconian parking charges and enforcement that we inherited. We have removed previous requirements in planning guidance to set parking fees that are designed specifically to discourage car use. Our guidance now encourages authorities to set competitive charges, and to ensure that parking in town centres is convenient, safe, secure and affordable. Our new national online planning guidance, issued for public testing and comment in August, encourages councils to provide more town centre parking spaces and to end anti-shopper practices.
However, there is still more to do. My right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and for Transport jointly announced last month that the Government will publish details of further reforms.
I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman would be so against the private sector, which is what develops businesses and creates jobs. After 13 years, under the previous Government, of decline and failure to deal with the issues, this Government have put together a package of measures to take matters forward. We are now seeing exciting things happening in town centres across the country, with forward-thinking councils—generally, good Conservative councils—developing their town centres for their residents, to give them a product they want to use.
As I said, my right hon. Friends are looking at further reforms, including stopping CCTV spy cars being used for on-street parking enforcement. We also intend to consult on updating parking enforcement guidance to support local shops, and on issues such as tackling wrongly issued fines, reviewing unnecessary yellow lines and increasing the grace period for parking offences. We will empower local residents and councillors, and stand up for hard-pressed shops.
Despite 13 years of Labour Government efforts to control everything from the centre, we should all recognise that there is only so much that Government can do. Councils should work to encourage and support high streets by using the powers they already have, particularly on business rates and parking. Local government, businesses and communities need to work together to create their local version of the future high street that is right for their community, harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of local people who best understand the unique needs and opportunities of their community, rather than having a one-size-fits-all approach.
The Opposition motion goes in the wrong direction for our high streets and our country. The coalition Government are standing up for local shops and local shoppers, with lower charges, lower taxes and less red tape. We are giving a helping hand to allow our town centres to thrive and prosper in a modern age. I urge the House to reject the motion.
That was a deeply depressing speech from the Minister. He has done absolutely nothing to deal with the issues affecting my high street. I should mention that in 2005, Deptford high street was voted the best high street in London. We really do have a problem with the Minister and his Government.
Two years ago, I presented a 10-minute rule Bill to amend the use classes order. I did so because of a petition signed by 1,000 people who lived close to the high street, and who were amazed that the council could do nothing to stop the proliferation of betting shops. There were seven in the high street itself, and five in adjoining streets. We noticed an increase in drug dealing, drunkenness, abusive behaviour, begging and intimidation. Unlike the financial institutions that they had replaced—the banks and the building societies—the new occupiers stayed open for longer hours and throughout the weekend, including Sundays. The character of our high street has been seriously damaged by the behaviour of people using those facilities.
Does my right hon. Friend think that the Government actually understand the havoc that betting shops and local loan shops are wreaking on many people’s lives? We do not need any more of them. Is it not time that we were tougher on them, and started to promote proper shops instead?
Absolutely. I think that the Minister made it obvious that he does not understand what is going on.
At the time, all our objections related to betting shops. The bookmakers themselves denied the association between betting shop clusters and antisocial behaviour, yet there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. A leaked memo from William Hill instructs staff
“not to contact the police when…customers…damage machines…to reduce the number of reports to the police”.
So we really know that there is a problem in our high streets. It is clear to me that the planning laws need to be strengthened in the interests of local people, and not done away with in the way that the Government propose.
I have heard that recently, in East Ham high street, someone smashed up a machine and there was no report to the police for exactly the reason that my right hon. Friend has mentioned: the betting shop chain wants to minimise the number of reports to the police of antisocial behaviour.
The people who own such premises will not take responsibility, and in some senses they are unable to do so. That is the problem. Where there are betting shop clusters, there is associated antisocial behaviour, and none of us has the powers to tackle it. As my right hon. Friend says, even the police are not being informed. It is an absolute scandal.
When the local campaign began, the concern was entirely about betting shops. Why did the financial institutions leave our community? They left because they were not making enough money, because people in Deptford do not have enough money to enable banks and building societies to thrive. So what do we have now? We have institutions that are taking the very money that those people did not have in the first place. As I have said, it is an absolute scandal.
Let me put the situation in context. Lewisham is the 31st borough in England in the indices of multiple deprivation. That is very serious. Two of the wards that cover the high street are among the 10% most deprived in England. Is this, I ask the Minister, a community that needs betting shops and payday lenders? Is this not in fact people preying on the most vulnerable in our society and causing them to lead lives that are even more wretched than some of them were in the beginning? We find this utterly unacceptable, and the Minister has given us no hope today that he is going to do anything about it. [Interruption.] Yes, he is making it worse.
Let me spell it out. In Deptford High street, Nos. 14, 37, 38 to 40, 44, 48 to 50, 52, 60, 70, 72, 93 to 95, 175 and 206 are all either a betting shop, a payday loan shop or a pawn shop. Does the Minister honestly believe this is what local people want? Is this not the Government again refusing to act in the interests of local people, and backing big business against small traders?
Having said all those negative things, we have a very vibrant and robust community, with people who want to see their community thrive, who want to open small businesses, who want to shop in small businesses, and who have organised among themselves an annual Deptford X festival, as we have lots of artists in the area. This is a community that deserves better from this Government. We have a new library, we have a new school, we have a new public square; they are all sitting there on the high street. We have done many of the things the Minister urges local authorities to do. Currently, the Lewisham local authority is spending a grant from the Mayor of London with match funding of £2 million, but I ask the Minister this: what is the point of doing all that and at the same time ruining the high street through this proliferation of very undesirable businesses? I am not against gambling, and I have certainly borrowed money myself—although not at the rates of interest of payday loaners—but there is a limit to how many of these shops we actually need in any one place, and the limit needs to be set.
Government Ministers promised to take us seriously. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and I had several debates in which Ministers stood there and said they would take the issue seriously, that they understood it, and that something would be done. The Conservative website promises to
“put…power in the hands of local people”
and describes the big society as promising
“a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities.”
What hypocrisy is this!
Local people are crying out for a change in policy to end the ruination of our high streets and to return the high streets to places with the diversity and vibrancy that our community and many others have to offer. Nothing less than Labour’s proposals to do something about the use classes order, to create a situation whereby a local council can respond to local needs, is going to solve the problems and meet the wishes of local people.
The Minister needs to explain to us tonight why under this Government local people can have no say in their local community development and their local high street, and not have their wishes for their shopping patterns and the needs of their community met. That is the challenge to this Government, and they need to say something better than what the Minister said in his opening speech tonight.
I commend the Opposition on bringing forward this motion. This is a timely debate and I am grateful to have the opportunity to contribute. I wish to make two points, but first please allow me to say that in the last Parliament, in ancient history, I chaired a commission on the whole business of strategies for successful town centres. My foreword started by saying:
“Our town and city centres lie at the heart of our communities and are as vital to their health as the heart is to the body.”
That explains my commendation to the Opposition for choosing this debate.
The hon. Gentleman is making a valid point. Does he accept that it was the Conservatives who allowed out-of-town shopping centres, which have been the reason for the town centres in my area collapsing as places of retail opportunity?
I understand the point about out-of-town shopping centres, and I will come to that, but neither party in government has anything to crow about in this direction. I urge this Government to be more positive. Turning this into a party political battle does not help when we analyse the real causes, but I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question.
I wish to make two simple points, the first of which is about the high rents and leases in town centres, especially in relation to out-of-town developments. Business rates on non-domestic properties on the high street are still massively too high. We have not caught up with the point that the hon. Gentleman was making, which was that the value of retail sites has moved yet we still think our town centres are the thumping heart of retail. If we continue to think that, we will drive retailers out of town centres completely. So we need to be very aware of business rates on non-domestic properties in high streets, which are still too high. They are also based on pre-credit-crunch valuations, so let us get real.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about business rates. Recently, I had to write to the Minister about the Valuation Office Agency and the long delays faced by some businesses. Does he agree that that has been a problem? The hon. Gentleman mentioned the pre-credit-crunch valuations. Does he agree that urgent action needs to be taken to deal with that problem? The Government have stepped in on individual cases, but as a general point it is a real problem.
I cannot make the point I made about businesses being driven out of town centres because of high rates without accepting the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I am happy to do so.
Small business rate relief is still made a mystery to many local businesses in our town centres. We have not given it the push it needs and deserves, and many of the opportunities remain unclaimed by small businesses. I urge the Government, and us all, to do more to bring small business rate relief to the attention of many small businesses which have struggled through the recession and now see light at the end of the tunnel but need all the help they can get. Similarly, small businesses are less equipped to deal with red tape and with the lease negotiations than large retailers and their resources.
Many leases still include upward-only rent reviews and we have to do something about that. We have talked about it in this place for a very long time but it is crazy that many businesses under great pressure, one of which I am dealing with in Northampton at the moment, have leases with upward-only rent reviews. I appeal to local government and to local property owners to recognise the iniquity of such clauses in leases.
Out-of-town developments have, of course, been a problem for town centres. Between 2008 and 2012—so both Front-Bench teams are implicated—approximately 2.4 million square metres of additional shopping centre retail space were added to the planning department’s work. Both Governments are responsible, and we should not try to knock spots off each other on this issue. Both Governments are responsible for adding out-of-town retail space in massive amounts. We need to recognise the impact that that has on our town centres, as I have said before.
I always agree with my hon. Friend and I am grateful for his support in this area of policy.
Having said that out-of-town development has been immensely harmful, not least in the imbalance of valuation of rate, I shall come on to the damage done by local government. Councils have been the major enemy of our town centres for 30 years. That applies to Labour councils, Liberal councils and Conservative councils. Let me explain why. They have allowed the gradual decline through ring roads, isolating town centres and making it difficult for people to get there. I have already made the point about out-of-town developments. Parking charges have been seen as revenue income, although parking areas were built as a service to shoppers. At last our councils are beginning to appreciate that. Building parking areas on the other side of the ring road so that shoppers have to push their trolley across the ring road does not make a great deal of sense from a planning perspective.
Poor planning—piecemeal planning—has denuded our town centres dramatically. One of the problems is that a new planning officer will come along with his own little pet scheme, which he will implement without any reference to the heritage of the town or the style of the building. Planning officers are supposed to be the protectors of our heritage, our good open spaces and our buildings, yet they too have been a disaster for 30 years in many of our town centres. I know people who have gone down to their town centre, managed to get across the ring road, seen the new developments and felt that it was not their town at all. The new development gave no understanding of the heritage of the town.
We need local government to recognise that it has a responsibility to ensure that our town centres are more user-friendly, to ensure that people can get in and out of them easily, to ensure that parking charges are low so that people can come in to shop, and to ensure that we bring people back into our town centres. Too many local government offices have been shoved outside with that new retail development. There is much more that we can do. If anybody wants to read the report, I would be delighted.
I congratulate the Minister on gaining responsibility for the Government’s high street policy. I take the opportunity to declare an interest. Later this year, before Christmas, I am opening a high street shop. My wife and I are establishing Danczuk’s Delicatessen on Rochdale’s high street. You are invited to come and try our wares, Mr Speaker, as are other Members.
Let me start by talking about Rochdale’s high street. It is suffering just as much as many others across the United Kingdom. It has an average number of empty shops, but it lacks diversity. We have too many charity shops, too many “cash a cheque” shops and far too many payday loan companies. Our problems are similar to those in other towns, of course, because the overall problem is the economy. The Government have presided over a faltering and, at best, flatlining economy. That is what is causing the failure on our high streets.
I want to make an important point: the growth in underemployment and the increase in temporary, part-time jobs, zero-hours contracts and low-paid work all feed through to the high street. The nature of that work is the cause of the growth in the number of pawnbrokers and payday loan companies on the high street, and not just in Rochdale, but in towns and cities across the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) referred to the Local Data Company’s research, rightly published today, which shows that although chain stores and multiples are in decline, the number of independent retailers is increasing. That shows—again, this is a reflection of the economy—that the people who have been made redundant over the past couple of years have used their redundancy money to be entrepreneurial and to set up shops. I do not decry that point, because it is an effect of what has been going on in the economy, but it has caused churn and flux on our high streets.
Another important point about the economy is the living standards crisis that the Government have caused. They cannot take £1,500 a year off the average working family and expect that not to have an impact on the high street. The consequence is a major drop in consumer confidence, and it has certainly changed shopping habits. That, too, is having a direct impact.
I admit that it is not all the Government’s fault—internet shopping has had an impact, of course—but I believe that they have a laissez-faire attitude towards our high streets and that is causing many of the problems. We have seen their Portas review. The problem is that it has not had much of an impact. They ignored Mary Portas’s comments on business rates, which I think was a mistake. The Portas pilots and the review have now become mired in problems and scandals about how much she was paid by Channel 4 and whether Channel 4 and the programme producers had any involvement in liaising with the Department about where the pilots should be. What I think the Government have learned from that episode is that reality TV is no way to develop Government policy.
The Government would do better by listening to Bill Grimsey’s alternative high street review. He talks about the need for stronger local leadership, better local analysis of what is going on in local areas and better use of technology on the high street. Most importantly, he calls for a radical overhaul of business rates. To illustrate that point, we learned yesterday that inflation now means that business rates will increase in April by 3.2%. According to my analysis, that will add an extra £200 million to the bills of hard-pressed retailers—not all business; just retailers. The truth is that we pay the highest property taxes in the European Union. By 2015 the Treasury will have received more receipts from business rates than from council tax.
My hon. Friend is correct. That is an extremely important point. That cut will help significantly. I have seen the damage this is doing in my constituency. For examples, my local fish and chip shop recently closed and the premises are being advertised with a rent of £6,000 per annum, but the business rates are £18,722 per annum.
Business rates are clearly mentioned in the motion, and Labour Front Benchers have made it clear that there will be a review of business rates under a Labour Government.
Postponing the revaluation of business rates does nothing to help small businesses. Because of this postponement, retailers in Rochdale are subsidising retailers on Regent street in London. That is unacceptable. The Government often say that rate relief can be a subsidy, but it does not even apply to the vast majority of retailers right across this country. According to the Office for National Statistics, in the period between this Government coming to power and 2015, businesses will pay an extra £6.5 billion in business rates on top of what they were already paying.
The Government and the Minister need to listen to what is being said. Let me give some examples. The hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) has spoken about this and, I understand, has written to the Chancellor asking him to speed up the revaluation of business rates. This week the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr Yeo) has written in his local newspaper that he is going to speak to the Communities and Local Government Secretary about the problem with business rates. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) has said that business rates are causing real problems and need urgent reform. The hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) has said that business rates should be linked to the consumer prices index rather than the retail prices index. The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) has said:
“Friends in the Treasury should consider freezing business rates…and give a fighting chance to small businesses.”
The fact will not be missed that all those hon. Members are Conservatives. It is not only Opposition Members who think that business rates should be radically reformed, revised and changed to help small businesses; Government Members think so too.
Let me conclude by echoing the good point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi). When the Labour leader recently announced that a future Labour Government would first reduce business rates and then freeze them, Bill Grimsey, a well-known local retailer, said that Labour was the first party to demonstrate that it gets it. When will the Government get it and cut business rates?
I want to start in consensual mode by congratulating the tablers of the motion and the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on putting business rates firmly on the agenda.
I have had many discussions about the high street with traders and experts such as landlords and agents. I serve on the Communities and Local Government Committee, as does the hon. Gentleman. We have interviewed Mary Portas, civil servants, and Ministers of all shapes and sizes. We have talked about the threat of the internet, the perennial problem of parking, out-of-town shopping, pop-up shops, council policy and the like, but again and again we get back to business rates, which make it hard for businesses to start in the high street and hard for them to survive when the going gets tough.
The Federation of Small Businesses has raised this issue, as have the retail sector bodies. They are concerned not only about the actual rate but, as the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) said, about the problems of revaluation and appeals against current valuations, which take an inordinate amount of time. When I raised revaluation during Business, Innovation and Skills questions not long ago, I think in the previous Session, the Minister, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), said, more or less—I paraphrase—“Be careful what you wish for: they may go up.” I cannot help thinking that he lives in a parallel universe or does not visit the high street all that often.
Fortunately, that is only part of the Government’s policy; other aspects have been outlined. I very much support the move to localise business rates. I like the continuation of support for the previous Government’s policy of business improvement districts. We are getting one in Southport and I hope it will be very successful. It certainly promises much and is well organised at the moment. However, they do not provide a reduction in business rates, and that is what is now required. I understand that in the latest spending round the Business Secretary considered moving on, or reducing, high street rateable values.
The rates for a small restaurant in the shopping mall in my area are £30,000, but the mall owner has put the rent at £30,000 as well, so the overall cost—not just the rates—is impacting on the business, which has to make £60,000 a year before it can start to make a profit.
The problem, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, is very specific. If we give a discount or make any kind of reduction to high street retail rates, will that include the whole retail sector and the out-of town sector? If we give it to the high street, will we also want to give it to Tesco Express? The Government have to face up to those legitimate problems.
As the hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) said, very little money is being made on the high street at present, and the amount of money that was made in the past will never be made again. The big chains recognise that and are altering their retail model. They have reduced their high street presence and will not come back in the same numbers. Ultimately, we cannot ignore that issue, but we cannot address it locally.
In some way or another, we must look to the Government to come up with a solution. That will involve the Department for Communities and Local Government, which, judging from its comments so far, is relatively sympathetic; the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is broadly sympathetic, unless it is lobbied hard by the big traders; and, specifically, the Treasury, which can be fairly unbending on this subject. The Minister needs to set up a cross-departmental meeting that involves the retail sectors, joins up the initiatives—not the silly ones, such as those centred on parking on double yellow lines—and takes action on rates. If the Minister does that, I think he will become the hero of the high street. The high street can get more savvy with the web, diversify more, hold more events and extend or vary its hours, but with the albatross of business rates around its neck it simply cannot thrive.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) and to participate in this debate. I regret the partisan tone used by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) with regard to this important matter and in response to the constructive approach taken by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) towards the real problems faced by communities up and down the country. Back Benchers have taken a more conciliatory approach.
Town centres and our high streets matter: they give us our sense of place, they tell us who we are and they tell us a bit about the history of our communities. People care passionately for them for those reasons. My constituency has lots of little shopping areas and four main shopping town centres. Crownpoint in Denton is the largest shopping centre, followed by Houldsworth square in Reddish, King street in Dukinfield and Haughton Green village. They all face different challenges and have done for the past 25 years or more.
On planning changes, which have been touched on by the hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley), the trend for out-of-town shopping had a catastrophic effect on two of the town centres, namely Denton and King street. It started in the 1980s with the planning free-for-all that led to a large rise in the number of out-of-town shopping centres. The construction of an out-of-town Sainsbury’s in Denton led to a dramatic decrease in town centre trade at Crownpoint, and the construction of a Morrisons in Dukinfield and an Asda in Ashton-under-Lyne—on either side of King street—led to a dramatic decline in trade on the traditional shopping street in Dukinfield.
Presumably those places were built and have succeeded because that is how people want to shop. It is now very difficult to unbuild them. What is the hon. Gentleman’s answer? Does he want to change the decisions that people make about how and where they shop?
Absolutely not. I was going to make the point that these are long-term trends. We cannot put the genie back in the bottle. However, we cannot get away from the fact that the way in which we shop has changed and one reason for that is the rise in the number of out-of-town shopping centres.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we could have made our town centres much more user-friendly and retail-friendly than they are? I recognise that out-of-town centres are demand driven, but we could have made the retail offer better in our town centres and we have failed to do so.
We absolutely could.
The attempt to put the genie back in the bottle led the previous Government to introduce the sequential test, which meant that town centre retail development was prioritised and only if developments could not be accommodated in the town centre could developers look at edge-of-centre or out-of-centre sites. That was an important change.
The first political campaign that I got involved in as a newly elected councillor in 1996 was against the decision to close Denton post office, which was located on the market square. We lost that battle and Denton post office moved into the Co-op store on the other side of the town centre. Overnight, that market lost 25% of its footfall and it never recovered. Fewer traders came, fewer shoppers came, still fewer traders came and by 2008, the council had to close Denton market.
I am really stating the obvious in saying that shopping habits have changed over the years. My grandparents did a daily food shop. Very few people today have that routine. My parents would do a weekly shop and might have gone to the shops on a daily basis for odds and ends. Today, we buy in bulk. This debate is not just about the rise in internet shopping; the way in which we live our lives has changed fundamentally.
Although I agree with the hon. Member for Northampton South about the impact of planning decisions and about rents and rates, I disagree with him on the role of local government. There is some very good practice out there. I will spend a few minutes talking about two examples in my constituency. Labour-controlled Tameside metropolitan borough council has established town teams in its five main town centres of Ashton-under-Lyne, Denton, Droylsden, Hyde and Stalybridge. Those are not Portas pilots, but were established on the initiative of the council. They are all different in their make-up and have different priorities for their town centres.
I suppose that I should declare an interest as a proud member of the Denton town team. We have developed a vision for Denton that is unique to Denton. We have organised some town team events. We had a party in Victoria park over the summer to celebrate the centenary of that fine piece of civic open space, we are holding an Oktoberfest this month and we have started to organise the Christmas lights and events for the town centre.
More importantly, the town team has led an initiative to create a new pop-up shop in Denton town centre. We had a “Dragons’ Den”-style competition to design and build a new modular shop. Bill Jennings, the chair of the Denton town team, has worked with the council and the local college on that competition. The winning entry has been built and the planning permission has been granted for a piece of wasteland opposite what used to be Denton’s market square. The new pop-up shop will be a confectioners where one can buy traditional sweets out of a jar, such as a quarter—I still use old money—of midget gems. Those are the initiatives being led by Denton town team.
The issue is not only about occupancy rates, however, and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham is right about the over-concentration of uses, as that changes the vibrancy and vitality of our shopping streets. In Denton, the problem is less one of payday lenders and bookmakers than of takeaways. Takeaways are great, and in the evening the main street is thriving and vibrant. During the day, however, the shutters are down, which gives an impression that Denton in the day time is closed for business. We must consider how to deal with that.
In my final minute I want to talk about the Stockport part of my constituency. Stockport is a Portas pilot town, but the part I represent—Reddish—is concerned that it might be overlooked because of the concentration on Stockport town centre. In partnership with businesses in Reddish, town councillors have established the Reddish business forum. That is a different approach from the one taken by the Tameside part of my constituency, but it is having a big impact. Businesses are driving changes to the high street around Houldsworth square in Reddish so that they do not get left behind. They have organised a fantastic arts festival—ReddFest—which has been running for three years, and they have held markets and community events on Houldsworth square. It is working; that is best practice—local government working with business for local communities. Those local communities have the answers and we must trust them to deliver. That is why I commend the contribution made by those on the Labour Front Bench. This is about empowering our local communities to do the right thing for our town centres.
I welcome today’s debate because we can all agree that high streets and town and city centres are vital to local economies, and I put it to the House that this Government are committed to seeing them improve. The issues faced by our town centres did not start in 2010. There were concerns in the high street well before then, and I do not recall any initiatives to support town centres from the Labour party when it was in government.
I will focus my remarks on the threat to town centres from out-of-town retail and internet shopping, both of which did not start only three years ago. Given the threat from out-of-town retail, it is right to have a “town centre first” policy, and last year when considering the national planning policy framework, the Communities and Local Government Committee was insistent that such a policy should be included. It is important to ensure that if development can take place in a town centre, it should do so over development on other sites. I am often asked why I am so supportive of a “town centre first” policy, but anyone who has visited the United States, where there are few planning controls, will see holed-out town and city centres, with doughnutted different shopping developments round the outside.
My constituency of Rugby is faced with an interesting dilemma, namely the proposed redevelopment of an existing out-of-town centre, with a firm commitment for a department store to be located out of town. In Rugby we have aspired to a department store for more than 30 or 40 years—I well remember a vacant site in the town centre awaiting such a development, but it did not come. We now have the opportunity to take that development out of town, or not at all, and I regret that we will be doing the right thing in taking it out of town. I will speak later about the importance of accepting new housing and how that can support retail. The proposal from my local authority to accept new housing means that we will have sufficient customers both for the enhancement of existing out-of-town retail, and to support our existing town centre.
Reference has been made to internet shopping. That is increasingly becoming the norm and town centres must adapt. Broadly, I believe that if 12% or 15% of retail purchases are conducted over the internet, town centres must reduce the size of the shopping available by a similar amount. The alternative is to grow a population. If we grow our population, we can defend the size of our existing town centre. A progressive Conservative council in Rugby is building 1,300 new homes at the gateway site. Further developments will result in 6,200 new homes. Communities cannot legitimately speak of their disappointment with high street decline if they are unwilling to accept the need for additional new housing in their areas.
On high street development, I welcome the Mary Portas review. The Communities and Local Government Committee looked closely at her report. I was pleased that she drew attention to the fact that what happens in town centres is about much more than businesses, and that we need to look at our town centres from a wider perspective, considering open spaces, libraries, coffee shops and the night-time economy. Although she has received criticism for failing to follow through on her proposals, she should be praised for highlighting those things and for engaging in discussions on the future of our town centres.
The motion refers to localism and criticises the Government, but which party pioneered the localism agenda and introduced the Localism Act 2011? This Government have given power to more people.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have a frontrunner in neighbourhood planning in my constituency, which is looking into the provision of local retail.
Localism could have happened at any time in the 13 years under Labour, but it did not. It is rich of Labour Members to lecture the Government on the local agenda when they centralised power with the national planning policy framework. As my hon. Friend has said, neighbourhood plans give local communities a greater say in what happens in their high streets.
The motion mentions betting shops. One question Labour Members need to answer is whether they would prefer a vacant unit or a betting shop that brings people and life into the town centre.
There is no denying that the future of the high street and our town centres is an urgent matter. It is entirely right that we should discuss it today. It is important that local authorities have a progressive attitude and take positive steps to bring forward development that sustains life within town centres.
My constituency has a string of individual settlements with local high streets or estate precinct shopping provision. The high streets in Middlesbrough and East Cleveland face two challenges—one long-standing challenge and another relatively recent one.
The long-standing challenge is out-of-town shopping, which began in my area under the previous Conservative Government, when the Teesside Development Corporation built Teesside shopping park. We acknowledge that that was a good thing for the local area and that it provided lots of employment, but in the short to medium term, there was no plan for high streets in Middlesbrough, East Cleveland and Stockton to deal with the effects of out-of-town shopping, an American phenomenon.
The second challenge is the growth of web-based retailing, with goods delivery to the door. Neither threat can be engineered out of existence. They are a fact of life enshrined in past planning decisions and the advance of new technology. Therefore, if our local high streets in Guisborough, Loftus, Skelton and Brotton are to survive as proper retail outlets, and not just as monolithic parades of hot food takeaways, betting shops and charity outlets, imaginative thinking is required. We need both to be flexible with our built high street environment and to have the support mechanisms to ensure that high streets are allowed to remain competitive.
One concern is the erosion, as a result of cuts to local council funding and changes to the regeneration framework imposed in the name of blind ideology, of the support that local authorities and regeneration agencies could provide. One example of that erosion can be seen in the main shopping area in my constituency, Guisborough, where support from the local authority, Redcar and Cleveland borough council, in the shape of help from borough-wide high street managers, is no more. An ambitious programme underpinned by the then regional development agency, the market towns initiative, has disappeared along with the RDA.
We are also hampered by a lack of support from the finance and insurance industries regarding the conversion of upper floors of older retail premises, where traditionally a 1900s shopkeeper and his family lived. New housing is hampered by soaring insurance premiums, as insurers declare that such occupation provides a security risk to the shop below, even though the new families could provide a form of watchman service if there were attempts at intrusion.
The worst threat comes from the approach of the Department for Communities and Local Government, which sees any form of development and occupancy, however much it would harm the ambience, style, attractiveness and vitality of the high street and the traditional retailers, as necessary to provide fig leaf support for the proposition that the Government’s economic policies are bearing fruit—even if that fruit is a poisoned apple for neighbouring businesses. Successive changes to use class orders and permitted development rights are eroding the powers needed by local authorities and local communities to shape their high streets and town centres to reflect local needs, demands and aspirations. The changes to once unquestioned and accepted planning rules are making it possible for payday lenders, betting shops and fast food takeaways to open without getting the kind of planning permission which, complete with provisions, enabled a balanced stance to change and development in a retail setting.
Imposing a laissez-faire approach that deregulates change of use so that no such permissions are required merely leads to bad neighbour problems for everyone and encourages fly-by-night forms of unsustainable development that cash in on passing social trends, with no thought to encouraging organic change for the better in the host setting. One such example is the spread of pawnbrokers and cheque-cashing outlets as a result of widespread poverty and the need to realise assets simply to get some cash to feed a family. Such changes are often cumulative—one outlet selling cheap booze or hot food takeaways is often followed by a competitor. The same is true of the finance industry, which has followed a pattern of migration from a specific A2 business enclave to a former Al shop front entry high street presence, thus suffocating the chance of niche retailers opening in their stead.
Use class orders have been vital to protecting public health. It is the application of such orders by local councils, including those in my constituency, that has barred hot food takeaways from opening near school gates. Without such controls, that could again become a problem and have a long-term detrimental impact on children’s health. As I know from my constituency postbag, such matters are high on the agenda of concern for my constituents. It is far better to keep some forms of control regarding the use and make-up of our high streets, while at the same time tackling the real problems facing small retailers: constant increases in business rates, lack of any real tangible support from bankers and insurers, and constant rent increases that are often determined by remote financial institutions such as big pension funds, which seek to maximise income at the expense of quality of life.
Labour’s pledge to cut and then freeze business rates will help 1.5 million small businesses, many of which are in retail premises. That will give local shops a real boost, unlike the pursuit of the chimera of a laissez-faire, kick-start approach that exists only within the heads of Government Front Benchers.
I welcome today’s debate. High streets and town centres are vital to every constituency. Many that were once vibrant face immense challenges from the pressures of structural change, such as the year-on-year double-digit growth in online retail and the continued growth of out-of-town retail. I had hoped that the motion would contain helpful measures, but it seems to be concerned with political ideology set on dictating to individuals what they might want, rather than providing the answers to the problems that our high streets and town centres face.
I commend the Government for removing permitted development rights, which are referred to in the motion, from our town centres. One of the biggest issues we have is an oversupply of retail and office space, particularly in secondary areas—a problem that a lot of people do not like to admit. There is a lack of footfall in these areas and a lack of maximisation of available time. For example, there is often not a very good early evening economy. It is an excellent idea, therefore, to allow landlords to turn commercial property into residential property. We need far more people to live in most town centres to create that footfall and that early-evening economy.
As for limiting certain use classes, there is a real risk of unintended consequences. Across the country, many of our struggling town centres have more of the use classes that the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) mentioned, so what she advocates could destabilise town centres. Of the use classes the Opposition have a problem with, one is payday lending. I must admit that I am not too keen on payday lending; it has its place, but the regulation needs to be looked at. The Government are doing that, however, and that is a far better way of dealing with payday lending than saying, “You can’t be in a particular town centre because of planning regulations.” I mentioned the structural change in retailing, but there has been a structural change in bookmaking too; bookmakers have shifted from the periphery and secondary areas to primary areas, because as town centres have become more difficult to fill, landlords have reduced rents, bringing bookmakers on to the high street. We need to consider both industries carefully, because we do not want to end up with more empty shops, fewer jobs and less VAT, national insurance and corporation tax being paid.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is for individuals to choose whether to use bookmakers, but there is obviously a market for them and they create jobs on the high street. At the end of the day, would we rather have somewhere empty and possibly boarded up, or a bookmaker? I know which I would choose. I would choose to have the property occupied. The Opposition Front-Bench team grimace, but from how they have been talking about our high streets and town centres, one would think there was 100% occupancy and that these businesses were forcing out other businesses. If the hon. Member for City of Durham came out to high streets and town centres across the country, she would know that high streets are struggling and that there are a lot of empty units. Those businesses are not forcing people out, as she insinuates.
I know from speaking to local businesses that business rates are a challenge. Although many of the secondary areas in my constituency town centre benefit from the small business rate relief—I am glad the Government have extended that until 2014, a policy that Labour opposed, and that some of those small businesses will receive £2,000 towards their national insurance bill, which will be very welcome—there is a challenge for small businesses in primary areas of town centres, where they do not benefit from the rate relief. We need to look at that carefully to see what we can do to help those small businesses. This is a complex area, but I am greatly concerned by Labour’s policy and how it would pay for it. It advocates scrapping the Government’s pro-business, pro-jobs reduction in corporation tax, which would be a retrograde step. It wants to send the message to businesses that we are closed for business and inward investment, and to halt the progress that the Government are making. We have already created 1.4 million new jobs.
I would have liked to raise several other issues today, but in general, the motion offers very little in the way of solutions for high streets and causes me concern about the direction of Labour policy in wanting to control individuals. I will certainly be opposing the motion tonight.
The answer to the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) about how to pay for business rates is to grow the economy. If he listens to what retailers and other businesses are saying, he will also know that business rates are at the top of their list of problems, which is why what is said in the motion moved by the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), is the right thing to do.
I want to talk about the retailers in the three town centres in my constituency, in Formby, Crosby and Maghull. Like others, we have enthusiastic and energetic local retailers who are committed to their local communities and work incredibly hard. Many of them do an excellent job and run superb businesses, but they are desperate for improvements to be made to our town centres and desperate for the kind of support that we have been discussing today to be given sooner rather than later. They want to take advantage of the opportunities that are available, not just to deal with the challenges they face.
We have talked a lot today about those challenges and some of the difficulties. The three high streets that I represent face similar challenges, albeit with slightly different issues. The town of Maghull has a small supermarket with a parade of shops—people have to cross the road to get to the main part of the town centre—and has the second part of the Portas funding, backed up by funding from the local council. Crosby also has funding from round two of the Portas pilot, which is backed by the local council as well. In Maghull the town council has got involved—it has tried to use pop-up shops—but recognises that this is only a short-term fix.
I have to say to the Minister—or I would have, but he is no longer in the Chamber—that car parking is not the issue in the town centres that I represent. People are going to out-of-town shopping centres for a number of reasons, not least the convenience of being able to buy everything under one roof, so whether we have car parking charges or not is somewhat irrelevant. I also thought it was odd that he said it was okay for privately owned car parks to charge for parking, but not for councils to do the same.
Crosby has a similar issue to Maghull’s with empty units. Other Members have mentioned the number of charity shops, which is a particular issue in Formby, which has something like 14 charity shops. Some of them sell the same, new goods as other traders, but they do not compete on a level playing field, because the cost base for charity shops is much lower, as they pay only 20% of business rates and are staffed by volunteers. I do not wish to criticise charities and their need to raise funds, but that is a real issue.
All three town centres in my constituency share similar problems, but they also have opportunities. Formby and Crosby are half a mile from the beach and have opportunities to attract the many visitors to the area, particularly in the summer. Crosby has the famous “Another Place” statues by Antony Gormley on the beach. People come to visit the statues, but they do not know where to go afterwards.
My hon. Friend has linked the two points. We need to trust local communities to come up with answers, because they all have different opportunities. I have mentioned the opportunity to link the beach and the visitor economy to support the high streets in Formby and Crosby, but equally—this has come out a number of times—local people do not want more legal loan sharks, bookies or fast-food takeaways taking over at every available opportunity. They want to see high-quality retailers encouraged into high streets and to support good local traders, not necessarily payday loan companies, bookmakers or fast-food takeaways when there are too many of them.
We have some good businesses, as I have said. Each of the three areas is underpinned by a medium-sized supermarket. However, even having a supermarket in the town centre is no guarantee of support for other traders, because people tend to do all their shopping under the one roof, so whether it is out of town or not, the resulting problem seems to be similar.
I have been asking businesses in my communities what they want. Dealing with business rates was top of the agenda, but the second item was economic growth linked to the cost of living. An energy price freeze and regulation of the energy market—another flagship Labour policy—are exactly what retailers and businesses want to see, because energy represents one of their biggest costs.
My hon. Friend said that business rates were a factor for his businesses. Is it not part of the problem that no business rate revaluation has taken place and that many of those businesses are still considered to be in prime shopping areas, when in fact those areas are anything but that?
My hon. Friend reminds me of a point that I was going to make. Business rates and rents are very high in the town centres, but we only have to go a few hundred yards down the side streets to see a different picture emerging. People can afford the rents and rates there, and businesses are doing much better because their cost base is so much lower. He is absolutely right to suggest that we cannot afford to wait for that revaluation to take place. People are already on their knees and hanging on by their fingernails, if that is not too many metaphors for one sentence. They certainly need that help right now.
Business rates are certainly the No. 1 issue when I talk to retailers and small businesses, and when I talk to representatives of the Federation of Small Businesses, as I do from time to time. Businesses need help, whether through business rates, through proper banking support involving going back to the old-fashioned bank manager acting as an adviser, through having a mentor to encourage and support them, or through the local council and others in the community helping them to make the most of the opportunities. That is how we will revitalise our town centres. More payday loan companies, bookmakers and fast-food takeaways are not the answer.
We all represent very different communities, and our town centres will be different as well. Those of us whose constituencies contain multiple towns will know that there can be great differences even within a few miles.
We cannot get away from the two major trends that everyone has talked about—namely, the impact of out-of-town shopping and the impact of internet shopping. Those factors are not going to go away. No one is proposing legislation to move the big sheds into the town centres or to ban the use of the internet as a shopping tool; it would be ridiculous if they did. Those factors make the challenge all the greater, because we have to make shopping in the town centre an experience. In the old days, people regarded the town centre as a destination in its own right. Now, it is an experience that they go for, during which they might undertake some shopping as well. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), is nodding. She will not be doing so in a moment.
I set up the town team in Folkestone in response to the Government’s Portas pilot initiative. That brought together the local authority, local politicians, the local business community, the chambers of commerce, local independent traders and the national chains that operate in the town, and allowed them to start to think about the sort of town centre experience they wanted. We set up that town team the best part of two years ago and, in that time, I have never been part of a conversation that focused, in the way that the hon. Lady’s did, almost exclusively on payday lending shops and bookmakers. I have never sat in a meeting with business people and heard them say, “The problem with this town is that we are being pushed out by betting shops.”
Some hon. Members might feel that they have too many betting shops, takeaways and payday lenders in their constituencies. We heard the speech by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock), who set out her case passionately. In her case, the problem has happened already. The proposals that the hon. Member for City of Durham put forward would not help. Is Labour looking for the compulsory closure of the betting shops and payday lenders that are already there? If those shops are so bad, perhaps they should just ban them outright. If they are the curse of the high street, perhaps they should legislate to get rid of them. Labour is not proposing to do that, however. Hon. Members will have a view on whether there are too many of them; I suggest that the legislation we have to look at is not the Localism Act 2011 or anything that has come from the Department for Communities and Local Government. The problems are the consequence of the Gambling Act 2005, which was passed by the Labour Government. That is where the quarrel of the hon. Member for City of Durham quarrel should lie.
The hon. Lady did not mention the chambers of commerce in her speech. In fact, she was dismissive of the work of the town teams and did not focus on them at all. What we hear when we get representatives of the chambers of commerce and businesses round the table are suggestions for initiatives similar to the one described by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) in his interesting speech. In those initiatives, we see people coming together to plan events, to create something special and unique in the town centre that will bring people back into it. It is lots of those sorts of initiatives that will reverse the trends seen in many towns, particularly Folkestone in my constituency, where there is under-trading and people leave the town to do their shopping elsewhere. The challenge we face is to bring more of those people back in.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which feeds into the debate on business rates, on which I shall touch. Calling for a big cut in business rates is bold, is supported by the business community and amounts to a very big tax cut. Like all tax cuts, it has to be provided for. What we have seen so far from the Government are cuts in taxes for small and large businesses. We have seen targeted relief through enterprise zones and regional growth funds, which help businesses on the high street as well as those in other locations. We have seen more work done, too, on business improvement districts. That support has been targeted in the areas where it can really help.
What we have seen from the Opposition side is a “rob Peter to pay Paul” exercise between the business communities—taking from some businesses and giving it to other businesses in a short-term and small way, which I do not believe will make any difference at all. It is by working together through business improvement districts and through supporting all businesses with tax cuts that we will see the changes that we need. Ultimately, good local plans will be the answer, as the towns come together to say, “This is the sort of experience we want to create.”
Members have been absolutely right to highlight the issue of parking. Guidelines from the last Government undoubtedly encouraged local authorities to reduce the number of cars in towns by encouraging people not to drive into the town centre, by increasing parking charges and by making it difficult for people to come into the towns to park. That has to be reversed. If we want to meet the challenge posed by out-of-town shopping centres or internet shopping, we must make it as easy as possible for people to come into the town centre and choose to do their shopping physically there, while providing them with a memorable, enjoyable and unique experience. All our efforts should be focused on reducing unnecessary charges and burdens. Many of us have fought campaigns in our own constituencies to keep free on-street parking in town centres, to encourage discretionary shopping and to bring people in.
The town teams and the business improvement districts have done particularly good work here, for example by encouraging the roll-out of wi-fi in town centres. We need to make our town centres places where people want to live, work and spend their time. We need to encourage more people to live in town centres through change of use so that people, as I say, live, work and enjoy their leisure time in the town centre. That is part of the new experience that we have to create.
Folkestone has seen a very successful regeneration of the old town area, which had seen high levels of closed shops and under-utilised space for many years, through the construction of a new creative quarter in the old town. Occupancy rates have gone up dramatically. In fact, all the properties that have now been refurbished by the Creative Foundation will be full by the end of October this year. That is a very positive change, which has led to a broad programme of exhibitions and events, and provided reasons for people to come into the town centre. Such an integrated programme shows how to revitalise our town centres; it will make more of a difference than anything else.
In my final few seconds, let me say that many of us are disappointed that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) was unsuccessful in his campaign to become Deputy Speaker. I know how hard he has worked to champion small businesses. The loss to the House in his not becoming Deputy Speaker is a gain for us in debate, as we will be able to benefit from his contributions in many more debates to come.
Yesterday, my constituent, Mr Iqbal, a shop owner, was murdered in Rotherham and another person was seriously injured. I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House in sending my sympathies and condolences to their families and friends. I would also like to congratulate South Yorkshire police on detaining the suspects so quickly.
This debate is about our high streets, but we need to remember the people who work there. We need to give particular attention to lone workers who are isolated and all too often subjected to abuse and violence. These workers do not enjoy any additional protection in law. I urge hon. Members who are interested in changing that to support my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and sign her early-day motion 529, and I urge the Minister to consider it.
I absolutely support that campaign and thank my hon. Friend for mentioning it.
Now, however, Rotherham high street is swamped with payday loan shops, which are effectively loan sharks on the high street. Many of my colleagues have been campaigning for better legislation on payday loan companies, which charge in some cases 16,500% interest, without even checking the ability of the person to pay the money back. Nationally, there are 20% more payday loan shops than a year ago. One key reason they have been able to become so prevalent so quickly is that they have been able to take over premises formerly designated for banks and building societies. Being on the high street gives legitimacy to such companies, yet the damage they can do is well documented. They appear to be a quick fix for temporary financial problems, but sadly they often become an extremely expensive burden on the people who can ill afford extortionate repayments.
The changes the Government plan could almost be seen as a green light for the expansion of payday lending and similar companies on the high street. They pave the way for such companies to take over other forms of shops, and not just those formerly designated for financial organisations. I feel certain that if local councils were able to determine such matters in conjunction with the community, we would be better able to encourage more responsible lenders, such as credit unions, to gain a foothold in this market. Without the controls we propose, I fear that yet more of our high streets will become dominated by outlets that serve only to worsen a spiral of poverty and decline. At the very least, the Government changes will reduce the power of communities to have a say on the types of shops on their high street.
Rotherham is part of the second round of Portas towns. As Mary Portas herself said,
“when a high street has too much of one thing it tips the balance of the location and inevitably puts off potential retailers and investors”.
We cannot allow that to happen. Local people want the power to shape their town centres. Rather than creating a free-for-all in which that power is actively denied, we should work with local businesses, business improvement districts and others to help to make high streets vibrant and safe places once again, putting them back in the heart of our communities.
I shall be brief so that my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) can also make a contribution.
I thank the Minister for his visit to Bedford this week. I am sure he would join me in congratulating the Bedford town team, the Bedford business improvement district, and particularly the leader of the Bedford business improvement district, Christina Rowe, who has provided strong leadership in difficult circumstances, on creating a vibrant response to the Government’s incentives and initiatives. I think it was the prospect of the Minister visiting Bedford that got the council belatedly to put through cuts in parking charges in the town centre. I hope that is just the start of the local council doing more to reduce parking charges in Bedford.
I want to address some of the points made by Opposition Members. My first admonition to them would be the old saying, “actions have consequences.” In relation to this debate, the actions of the previous Government have had consequences that we are seeing today. Will Labour Members recognise that the liberalisation of licensing laws, the changes that were put through in the Gambling Act 2005, and their Government’s lack of control of the massive growth in personal debt during their period in office led precisely to some of the concerns that they are talking about today?
I found their recommendations on stores and the selection of stores quite confusing. It was not clear whether they wanted people to choose which stores were in the town centre, or whether they wanted to tell people what stores should be in town centres. Perhaps I can help them by saying that those who want to give people more choice should liberalise and allow people to make their own decisions, but if they want to decide which stores are right for people, that is socialism. The socialist selection of stores that we have heard from Opposition Members is a flawed policy, which gives new meaning to Marks & Spencer. [Interruption.] I will not give way, as I want my hon. Friend the Member for Witham to have the time to make her speech.
I want to make three suggestions to my hon. Friend the Minister. First, on betting shops—this was the first question I asked when I became a Member of Parliament—will he consider getting rid of fixed-odds betting machines, and then act to do so? Such machines create tremendous incentives that make the local retail presence of betting shops far more likely. The change is long overdue.
Secondly, will the Minister think about service quality in town centres, and about ways of helping them to be creative in their provision of excellence? One of the differences between a large store and a small store is the fact that service interaction is much more important to the success of a small store, and I am not sure that we are doing enough to create excellence in service. Perhaps some of the initiatives to which Lord Baker has referred could help in that regard.
Finally, let me suggest that the example of the “gamesmakers”—the volunteers who, during the Olympics, came together to create a delightful experience for people who wanted to attend the games—could be extended to our towns. Perhaps we could create “townsmakers”. As we all know, McDonald’s is a purveyor of excellent service in its restaurants, and it also provided assistance during the London Olympics. I had a very interesting conversation with the franchise holder of McDonald’s in my home town. Perhaps the Minister could have a conversation either with Mr Ishmael Anilmis, the franchise holder of McDonald’s in Bedford—who is in himself an excellent story of progress and entrepreneurship—or with McDonald’s nationally about how the company can take what it has learnt from the “gamesmaker” experience, and use it to improve our town centres and the quality of service that they provide.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) for shortening his own speech in order to allow me to speak.
I have spent 35 years growing on the high street. My parents were shopkeepers, and I am proud to be the daughter of shopkeepers. I have seen a great deal of change on the high street, and I found Labour Members’ contributions to the debate somewhat disappointing. My hon. Friend the Minister rightly said that we should take no lectures from the Labour party when it comes to the future of the high street. I remember that not so long ago, under the last Government, my parents’ shop was closed because of Labour’s post office closure programme. That brought devastation to many communities, including those on the high street.
As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), there has been a great deal of debate in the House about business rate revaluation. He referred to the Bill Grimsey report. Bill Grimsey came to Witham over the summer to work with my town team, to observe the initiatives, and to discuss how we could enhance our high street and town centre. Some very positive contributions had been made, but business rates were still the No. 1 issue that was being raised by my local shopkeepers. That is hardly surprising, because they pose a big challenge.
While the Minister has been very clear about where the Government stand on rate revaluation, I ask him at least to consider at some stage—if not now, hopefully immediately after 2015—taking a fresh look at the issue. I should like him to think about what we can do, and when we can introduce reform. In particular, I urge him to do something that the Government have been doing very successfully thus far, and continue to devolve more power down to local authorities and communities. I ask him to encourage the provision of more support for the survival and growth of local town centres and high streets through some of the initiatives which we have already heard about. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) mentioned not just town teams but business improvement districts. Those are community-led initiatives. We need less state intervention, and more community support and community innovation at the grass roots. That is what will transform our town centres and high streets.
There is no doubt that we have done a great deal so far in terms of discounts on rates. The Government’s sentiments are clear: they feel that town centres need innovation and entrepreneurialism. We are doing good things in cutting red tape and lowering taxes, which did not happen under the last Government. Businesses in my community and in my constituency know that it would never happen under a Labour Government, because it was their socialist policies that did so much damage under the last Administration. Moreover, it was a former Labour authority in my constituency that did a great deal of damage to my local high street. We are changing that now, which is a very positive development.
Another issue that has been touched on is the role of neighbourhood plans, which have been reintroduced to return development powers to local communities. Witham in particular is doing a great deal. The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) shakes her head. She is welcome to come to Witham and see some of the good things that we are doing there. Neighbourhood plans have been transformational in my community, and part of the reason for that is development. There has been growth, which is something that we should praise and encourage. There are more new homes, and the new homes bonus will help with infrastructure development and infrastructure investment.
Finally, I urge the Minister to come to Witham when he is en route for his constituency, and to meet our town team and look at some of the innovative ideas—the edginess—that we have, because this is about the empowerment of local communities. I commend his Department—in particular him and the Secretary of State—for devolving more of those powers to the grass roots and to our communities.
It is a great pleasure to speak for the Opposition in this debate and to follow the excellent contributions made by many Members, not least the opening contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), who set out a very strong case for our motion.
Our high streets and town centres are struggling. We all know our shopping habits are changing, but there are other critical factors affecting our town centres. Living standards have been falling in 39 out of the 40 months that this Prime Minister has been in office, and that is having a huge effect on high-street spend. Currently, one in seven shops are empty—a threefold increase since 2008—and many others are being turned into yet more payday lenders, betting shops and takeaways. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) highlighted the changing character of his high street and he also outlined the good practice of his local council, and it was good to hear that, as it was to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) on the good practice of his local council in protecting its high street. Such great local initiatives were a feature of many of today’s contributions and, I say as a localist, they are good to hear and should be celebrated.
May I say what a great pleasure it is to see the hon. Gentleman bounce back so quickly and make a contribution to this debate of such obvious passion and expertise? He only narrowly lost out earlier, but, as has been said, his loss in the Deputy Speaker election is our gain in today’s debate. Rather cheekily, however, I would prefer to invite him to come to Corby and see what a great Labour local authority has done. I understand the comments he has made about out-of-town retail, and many other Members echoed them, but we have protected Corby town centre and we have seen the fruits, as there are now 8 million shoppers coming each year—and I hope that will be 8 million and one when he decides to come and visit us.
We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) and for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) about the payday loans companies in their high streets. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton made a very powerful point when he drew a comparison between the experiences of different Members in their local communities, suggesting it is not appropriate to compare the County road in Liverpool with the King’s road in Chelsea.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) tried to amend the Localism Bill to tackle the problem of betting shops, and he made the case for that again today, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), who reminded us that, as so often with this Government, the rhetoric does not match the reality on localism and giving councils the real powers they need to address this problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) gave an example from her area of the detrimental impact the Government’s change of use policy is already having, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) talked about the problem in our high streets. She said the two wards that cover the high street in her constituency are in the top 10% most deprived in the country. She says betting shops, pawn shops and payday loan companies are preying on some of the most vulnerable people, and she made a very strong case that the planning laws need strengthening, not weakening. That was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), who also talked about the importance of the proposal to cut business rates, a point my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has made.
On tackling payday loans, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is crucial to recognise one significant step taken by this Government, which is to allow credit unions to lend money without their members first having to make a deposit? Does he agree that credit unions are the way forward, through attracting the people who are most vulnerable to borrow responsibly?
I am pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman agree that action needs to be taken to address the problem of payday loan companies on our high streets, but I have to say that the response so far from his Front-Bench colleagues has been far too weak. I hope we will have his support in trying to improve the protections available for constituents around the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) spoke passionately about his town centre, telling us how the campaign to save the Denton post office was his political awakening. He spoke with knowledge and pride about the many great initiatives in his town, points that I wish to echo in respect of what is happening in the five towns across my constituency. All the local authorities, including the town and parish councils, which play a particularly important role in our smaller town centres, are trying very hard to protect them.
I have very little time, so I am going to continue my speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) is making a very personal contribution to the success of his high street, and I am sure that all hon. Members will want to wish Mrs Danczuk well with the opening of Danczuk’s Delicatessen. He powerfully highlighted the impact of the living standards crisis on our high streets, saying, rightly, that there is a relationship between security of employment and issues such as zero-hours exploitation, and people’s ability to spend on the high street.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) opened her speech by offering condolences to the family of her constituent Mr Iqbal, who was tragically murdered. May I associate all Opposition Members and, indeed, the whole House, with the condolences that she has sent to his family? She makes a powerful point that we ought to have a concern for the safety of people who work in retail.
The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), opened his speech by telling us about the Government’s various initiatives. He told us that over the past two years they have established the Portas pilots, the town team partners, the future high streets forum—there was no end to the initiatives. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham said, it is a fragmented and piecemeal approach that has failed to deliver the real change we need in the health and well-being of our high streets and town centres. Well-intentioned though I am sure some of the initiatives are, the truth is that the Government’s approach is a dog’s breakfast and it has had no significant impact. The Government’s own progress report in July highlights that; it is so scant on the details of what has been improved.
The Portas pilots have been very slow to pull down the money allocated to them and by June only 12% of the £2.3 million Portas pilot budget allocated had been spent. Mary Portas has said, and I was there at the Select Committee:
“I’m not seeing that happening and it’s getting very frustrating. The Government’s response to my proposals has been tepid. I feel exhausted by it…I feel thoroughly and utterly deflated.”
Sadly, listening to the Under-Secretary I share that feeling. Rather than address the concerns raised by Mary Portas, the Government have now introduced policies that look set to worsen the situation. Such policies include the changes to the planning rules announced in May and August, which strip communities of a say over their high streets. The important difference that the changes will make is that they will allow payday lenders and betting shops, which have always been able to open up in banks and building societies, to take over other shops as well. The Government are also allowing offices, shops and services such as banks and building societies to be turned into flats and houses without any proper strategy. That is the opposite of what our high streets need and it is the opposite of what people want to see.
I have very little time left.
Labour will therefore give councils new powers, so that in areas where there is a problem councillors could put payday lenders and other problem uses into a new umbrella class. We will encourage local authorities to plan for and allow flexibility on the high street in a way that suits the community they represent, such as through permitted development rights. We will take action to promote retail diversity and, vitally, we will cut business rates. If Labour wins power in 2015, we will use the money that this Government would use to cut taxes for 80,000 of our largest businesses to cut business rates for 1.5 million businesses across our country. That proposal has been welcomed by organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses. I believe it has the power to make a huge difference. It will save those businesses £450 a year, which will be much needed; it will be a real lifeline.
May I end by welcoming the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), to his role? I very much hope to see him in the Lobby supporting our motion, because I understand that the Liberal Democrat conference supported it, too. It is Liberal Democrat policy, but I wonder whether it will be another example, like the mansion tax or the Robin Hood financial transaction tax, where we have given the Liberal Democrats the opportunity in this House to vote for their own policy and they have found some weasel words to get out of it and troop through the Lobby with the Tories. The action that we need for our town centres is set out in our motion, and I urge him to see sense and support it.
The hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) and I are both newbies in our roles, so I welcome him to his role. I will decline his blandishments, which have been offered to me on many occasions by an Opposition spokesman, seductive as they may be in part. That is often the way with Opposition motions, and I have spoken on many of them over the past three and a half years. Although there are some good things in what the motion says and I agree with some of it, there are obviously areas where we cannot agree.
There have been 13 Back-Bench speeches. It is the second time in the past two years or so that the House has had the opportunity to debate high streets. I spoke in a Back-Bench debate on the high street called by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) in January 2012. On that occasion 50 Back Benchers spoke in the debate so we know that there is huge interest in the issue across the House. However, given that this was an Opposition-day motion, there are rather more Labour Members in the Chamber as we are coming up to the vote than there have been throughout the entire debate. Considering that it was their own motion, it is disappointing that more Labour MPs chose not to take part.
It is a particular pleasure on my first outing at the Dispatch Box to be speaking about high streets. If I may be parochial for a moment, my constituency, Bristol West, has the greatest high street in England running right through the middle of it—the Gloucester road, the longest stretch of independent businesses in the country. At the west of my constituency there is Clifton village, full of independent shops and boutiques, and in the east of my constituency is Stapleton road. Rather as the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) said of her constituency, Stapleton road in my constituency is in one of the 10% most deprived census enumeration districts in England, but it is a thriving high street and I pay tribute to all my constituents there, particularly the new arrivals from Somalia in recent years, who have opened small businesses in that street.
We do not have in that high street the problems of betting shops that the right hon. Lady mentioned. She was the first of many speakers who mentioned that problem, to which the Opposition motion refers. The general point that was made was that nothing can be done about it. To all those who made that point, I say there is something that can be done. There is something in existing planning legislation that they could use; it is called an article 4 directive. I suggest that all the hon. Members who said they feel that their local area is not doing enough to stem the tide, as they see it, of betting shops moving into their high streets should speak to their local councillors and local council officers and ask why an article 4 directive has not been issued. Many of the other considerations relating to betting shops fall under the licensing regime, not the planning system, which is primarily to do with the rationing of space.
The Government are doing much on business rates. We have delayed the revaluation until 2015. Also, as was announced in the Budget this year, we are giving every business in the country a £2,000 national insurance credit. That will be of huge value to many small businesses throughout the country, some of which will no longer be paying employers’ national insurance at all, and many of them will be retailers. That £2,000 may compensate significantly for the high cost of business rates, which we certainly acknowledge is a problem. Many small businesses say that uniform business rate is a problem for them.
I warmly welcome the appointment of my hon. Friend, who will do an excellent job as Minister. I put it to his colleague earlier that, on one aspect of the debate, our party decided this year that we wanted a change in the law to allow a separate use class for gambling establishments. I hope that he will not forget that policy in government, and I hope he will show how good a Minister he is by persuading his colleagues before the end of this Parliament to change the law accordingly.
My right hon. Friend is always a delight and always very helpful. I am sure that that will be a hot topic for discussion at ministerial team meetings over the next 12 months.
On the point about business rates, councils already have discretion to give a reduction, and the Government fund that on a 50:50 basis. Many hon. Members talked about the effect of business rates on their communities and about the revaluation. The hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley)—I commiserate with him on today’s result—made some points about valuation. Actually, out-of-town businesses are valued on the same basis as town and city centre businesses, and it is on the rental valuation. Although the valuation is based on 2008, in 2010 this Government reduced the percentage applied to the valuation, so the truth is that since 1990 there has been no real-terms rise in business rates.
I have now given way three times, unlike the hon. Member for Corby, so I will continue with my speech.
We heard from several members of the Communities and Local Government Committee—I am sure that I will be appearing before it soon—including the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk). I certainly agree with many of the good points he made. We want diversity on the high street. None of us wants to see clone towns with chain stores and too many charity shops, bars, estate agents and so on. However, he rather shot himself in the foot when he said that the big problem is the flatlining economy. We have heard a lot from Opposition Front Benchers about the flatlining economy, but it turns out not to be true, because there was no double-dip recession and the economy is growing. We know that there is much more to do, but the country is certainly on track and the economy is returning to health.
The hon. Member for Rochdale, among many other Members, also mentioned the Grimsey review, which was intended as an alternative to the Portas review, or to complement it. I attended the launch of Bill Grimsey’s review downstairs in the Churchill Room and think that he made many interesting points. One that particularly chimed with me was the suggestion that the high street should do much more to make technology available, particularly wi-fi. I am now quite militant about asking high street businesses whether wi-fi is available. He makes a very good point.
We also heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Southport (John Pugh) and for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), both of whom are members of the Select Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby mentioned that it was also important to have people living in town centres. During the debate it seemed that many Members thought that people living in town and city centres was something of a problem. As someone who not only is an MP for a city centre, but was the councillor for Bristol city centre 20 years ago, I think that it is marvellous that more people want to live in town and city centres. We are reversing the urban flight to the suburbs that took place over a long period. Town and city centre vitality depends on a cross-section of the population living in those communities, spending money in the shops, working in the shops and perhaps being able to walk to work. I find it quite puzzling that many hon. Members seemed to think that it was a problem that the changes we are making will enable more people to live in town and city centres.
In the minute remaining I will mention some of the initiatives that the Government are undertaking. I think that some hon. Members were quite churlish about the Portas review. Mary Portas is a business woman who gave up her time for the Government. She came up with many sensible recommendations, 27 of which the Government have accepted. I went to her consultation on the Upper Committee Corridor, which was packed with MPs who wanted to support what she was doing—