[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I am pleased, together with the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), to have secured the debate. As co-chair and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on retail, we understand that thriving town centres and high streets are the living face of our communities and vital to their economic and social well-being. Town centres influence how people see, experience and relate to their local areas. They are, and always have been, places where we re-affirm our place in our communities by meeting and talking to each other. The familiarity of the high street can give us a sense of belonging.
Retail is the building block of our high street. More than 3 million people—more than one in 10 UK workers—are employed in retail. In my constituency, retail is by far the largest private provider, and it is responsible for more than a quarter of all jobs. There are many important issues facing the high street, such as employment, retail skills, business rates and rents, finance for small businesses, car parking and town centre management.
Although I do not underestimate the seriousness of those issues, my debate will have a slightly different focus. The visibility of the high number of empty shops scarring our town centres, with one in seven shops empty nationally and one in five empty in the north-west, can give us the impression that our high streets are slowly shutting down. I do not believe that the situation heralds the final demise of the high street, but it demonstrates the extent of the challenge faced by the private and the public sectors to reinvigorate that public space.
The biggest challenge is the impact of online shopping and developing mobile technology. I see that as an opportunity for the public and private sectors to harness those revolutionary technological changes and bring together the physical with the digital to provide more exciting and unique community spaces.
Online sales are set to account for more than a quarter of all retail sales by 2020, and it is predicted that 4,000 retail stores will be lost by 2015. The latest figures from the British Retail Consortium show that in October, online sales of non-food products reached a new record rate of 18.3%. M-commerce grew by a staggering 300% last year alone, and it will rise further. Already, 72% of us own smartphones, according to research by Deloitte, and that will only increase.
Remember the old days, not long ago, when there was only one way to shop? We walked down the high street and into the shop we wanted, spotted the item that we wanted to purchase, bought it and carried it home. With mobile phones, we can now go into a shopping centre, examine goods, scan barcodes, compare goods online, read reviews and buy either in store or online. Developing mobile technology means that in the future, we will also receive real-time, tailor-made messages from companies about myriad offers and discounts in nearby shops.
The thousands of empty shops up and down the country cannot all go back to being traditional shops. As a result of the impact of mobile technology, future town centres will no longer simply be about physical shopping; they will be about socialising, entertainment services and cultural events. That was highlighted by both the Portas report and the Grimsey report.
Many stores are responding to new technology by bringing together online services with physical shops. Many businesses are equipping their staff with iPads or installing kiosks to allow for easy in-store customer ordering. A good example of the bringing together of the physical and the digital is Amazon’s introduction of collection lockers on the high street, which allow people to collect their orders rather than waiting for deliveries. eBay has set up a pilot system allowing “click and collect” orders to be picked up at Argos outlets. John Lewis has already launched a service that allows customers to collect their order from one of 1,500 local Collect+ shops, so customers start their shopping journey online and finish it in the town centre, which creates additional footfall.
Many shops already have free wi-fi for tailored marketing, which also allows shoppers to read detailed reviews and compare prices—something that 33% of smartphone users are already doing. Apps or scanable QR codes and barcodes help stores to target shoppers for special deals and extra branded content on their mobile devices as they browse the shop. QR codes on shop windows can divert custom to a website outside normal opening hours, which is particularly useful for a small shop.
Mobile technology is already transforming our high street, but let us try to imagine what the high street of the future might look like. In Spain, people can already use phone identification to check in to their local high street, after which a host of real-time events and offers flash up on their smartphone to alert them to what is happening there and then. Such technology can even direct people to a free parking space, and Westminster is already pioneering a new app for that. In years to come, we will also see many stockless shops, which aim to sell their brand. In such shops, customers will sit on sofas and view new collections through high-definition touchable holograms, which allow them to feel the texture of a fabric and have an item delivered to their home immediately.
Future technology will identify people from an on-street face recognition account that they can opt into, which will alert key shops and services to the fact that an individual is coming, to allow them to prepare a tailored offer in store. That means that we will receive tailor-made messages and offers as we walk down the high street. Things that seemed ridiculously futuristic a short time ago will be here soon, such as Google Glass, a head-computer worn like glasses, which an individual can speak to. It will project images and information on to the glass, and will function like an interactive search engine. It is difficult to predict the effect of such technological changes on consumer behaviour, but we must understand how transformational they will be.
I have already mentioned the Portas and Grimsey reviews. I think it is unfortunate that they seem to be in conflict with each other, because essentially they both say the same thing about innovation and partnerships. Stockport is a Portas pilot. Our pilot is based on regeneration of our market and Underbank, and it is creative industry-led. It is fair to say that it has been a bumpy ride, but that is what pilots are about. It has illustrated the difficulties faced when two very different cultures—public and private—try to work together. The good news is that footfall is up in the markets, new shops are opening and a unique Stockport brand is emerging.
The pilot demonstrated that we need a different kind of public-private partnership to support regeneration projects based on small retailers and markets. Such projects should always have a business plan based on hard evidence and proper analysis of strengths and weaknesses, to arrive at a unique high street offer for a particular town. If public money is to be spent on business rate relief, buying and letting property to preferred leaseholders, transferring public services to empty shops or converting empty shops to residential use, we need to see value for that money, especially as resources will become increasingly scarce. I would like the Minister to do what he can to spread the evidence from the Portas pilots and similar innovative schemes across the country, to provide local councils with information that will help them develop business plans for their high street. We do not want to be constantly reinventing the wheel.
In Stockport, I am conducting a shopping survey of people who live near the town centre. It is clear that the majority of them use the town centre for small shopping trips, up to five times a week in some cases, during which they also go to the bank or the post office or stop for a cup of coffee. That provides important footfall for the town centre.
The hon. Lady makes a strong case, and I have listened intently to her contribution. I should declare an interest, because before I was elected to this place, I did quite a large amount of work in retail development and have retained a share in it.
One thing I am concerned about is that we need to have an impact on local car parking, because we need to encourage people physically to come into the urban conurbations and city centres. If car parking is expensive, as it increasingly is in my constituency, people will be driven away, and they will end up just using technology and failing to visit town centres.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. The issue comes up again and again—indeed, it came up in the shopping survey I did. If councils are developing business plans, they also need to take into account the impact of their car-parking charges and whether those will attract shoppers to their town centres, rather than drive them somewhere else. That is an important part of any business plan. Converting empty shops to residential use and into shop fronts for public services seems a good plan, because it will encourage people to shop in the town centre. The presence of banks and post offices is also important in creating footfall—a point made by the Association of Convenience Stores.
The growth of online shopping has weakened many out-of-town large-format stores, and, as a result, there has been renewed interest in the convenience format, with a return to smaller, more frequent shopping trips. That could benefit towns such as Stockport.
In our town, there are many new independent shops. It is good to see them exploring ways of working together and of using the internet and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to support their bricks-and-mortar shops. I was talking to a Stockport business that already operates an online store through ASOS Marketplace, which is part of the ASOS fashion retail site. However, independent retailers across the country report that they are struggling to compete with major internet retailers, as they lack the funds on their own for large-scale online marketing and websites to compete with Amazon and eBay.
An interesting response is new websites for independent retailers such as myhigh.st, which is supported by the British Independent Retailers Association. Target 200 is an innovative e-commerce network that gives independent shopkeepers the chance to join together to sell their products online. It also gives towns a platform to showcase what is happening in their high streets. Together with “click and collect” and an independent shops loyalty programme, it enables shoppers to buy online, while encouraging visits in person.
Such innovation may be the way forward for Stockport, bringing an online presence together with the town’s physical shops. In an affordable way, that will give independent retailers additional income through online sales, while showcasing Stockport’s bigger retail shops, its markets—including its specialist markets—and its cultural and heritage attractions. That will encourage more people to visit and shop in the town.
With all the discussion about the demise of the high street, I am really concerned that opportunities are being missed. It is important that councils and businesses join together to use the exciting opportunities offered by mobile technology to transform the delivery of private goods and public services on our high streets, turning them into the exciting community spaces of the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Walker. It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), who, with me, co-sponsored the debate. She delivered a fantastic speech; not only is she a real champion of the high street, but, with all her talk of the future and what the high street needs, she is a presenter in the making should “Tomorrow’s World” ever be re-launched.
I am a proud retail geek. My parents ran a retail shop, so I spent many hours after school behind the shop counter—I had my very own “Open All Hours” experiences as I was growing up. I am the new co-chair of the all-party group on retail, alongside the hon. Member for Stockport. I am also the vice-chair of the all-party group on town centres.
Town centre regeneration is a major issue in the Swindon area. We were on the cusp of major regeneration in 2007-08, but as the economy crashed, I am afraid the developers went to the wall. However, we are very much at the front of the queue for the next wave of regeneration. Regent Circus is taking shape by the day, and it will have a new cinema and a number of eateries, including Nandos. Judging by my postbag, that is exciting huge numbers of people. Those things will be here this time next year, which is a big boost, especially for a town that can boast 300,000 shoppers within 20 minutes of it and 3 million within an hour. That is one reason why we were able to secure £65 million of private sector investment to rebuild the legendary Oasis leisure centre—I am sure Members have all gone there with their bathing costumes. I have set up a retail forum, and I regularly visit lots of shops and retailers. This is a key interest for me.
I am an unashamed Mary Portas fan. I know she is a controversial figure and divides public opinion, but I think she shone a light on not only some serious issues and challenges, but some opportunities for the high street. Sometimes we need someone who is straight talking to come in and shake things up. There was almost a collective acceptance of defeat, and there was no reason for that, because, as Mary Portas has shown, there is so much that can be done to help the high street.
As the hon. Lady said, the high street is important. About 11% of the country’s work force are employed in retail. There is a lot of flexible working, which suits a lot of people. Often, people’s first job is in retail. My first job was at Starrs newsagents, although, regrettably, I had to leave because I was spending more than I was being paid on stuff I did not need, because I was always staring at it and putting it on the shelves. So, for no reason other than that I could not afford to work there any more, I had to end my newsagent career.
Local authorities have a key part to play. Many areas have an opportunity to pursue redevelopment, but local authorities must understand that they need to be flexible. There are towns where there are historic reasons why certain buildings need to be protected, but a lot of towns need to accept that when a developer says the whole town centre needs to turn on its axis by 5°, that might make all the difference. The success of supermarkets and out-of-town shopping centres comes from the fact that they have built environments that attract customers, and town centres need to replicate that.
Although it is important to attract the brand names and the anchor stores to the high street, towns must have space for the small independent shops that create character and give people an extra reason to come off the motorway at that junction to visit that town centre, rather than those further down the motorway.
We have talked about parking. I was proud that the Mary Portas review highlighted Swindon for best practice. Despite challenging financial times, we managed to cut car-parking charges. We then saw a 10% increase in footfall, following five to 10 years of decreases. Suddenly, cutting charges to £2 for four hours led to a 10% increase and, crucially, to a much longer dwell time. Previously, people were coming in to do their banking and then leaving. After the change, they came to do their banking, visited a café and, once they had refuelled, they would go and spend money on shopping, which is great for local business.
I thank my hon. Friend for that brilliant contribution, which was spot on. I will come to the night-time economy in a short while.
A number of people will no doubt talk about business rates, and I do not want to enter into a big debate about them ahead of the autumn statement. However, we need to recognise that the world is changing. The internet will continue to grow, and the way customers shop will change. Business rates need to recognise those changes. The issue is not all about traditional bricks and mortar, and a fair system should recognise that.
The other area where local authorities and, arguably, the Government can go a bit further is super-BIDs—business improvement districts—which are fantastic. I work with InSwindon and Forward Swindon, and they do a great job. We also have the McArthurGlen outlet village, which is a huge success; it is about to have its umpteenth expansion and employs about 900 people. A queue of retailers is trying to come in. If retailers do not trade well in the centre, they are removed. How many high streets can say that?
The key to the centre’s success is twofold. First, it has fantastic car parking, which is a no-brainer. Secondly, there is a single point of contact. If a retailer is thinking of going there, they know who to speak to. If they want to go to a town centre, do they speak to the local authority, the BID company or the landlords? There are all sorts of different things, and there is a lot of confusion. I would love to see a lot more of our towns give the BID companies full control of the town centre so that they get on with things—whether that is street cleaning, entertainment or planning. That would help to transform huge swathes of our town centres.
Let me now turn away from what the Government can do. Often the temptation is to say that we can do everything, but retailers actually have a lot to do, as Mary Portas highlighted. Retailers must accept that they have to adapt to changing customer expectations, whether that involves the growth of the internet or the growth of supermarkets and out-of-town shopping centres. Customer service is crucial. Too many retailers simply took customers for granted.
I saw that in my parents’ shops when I was growing up. My parents always took time to thank customers. If the normal closing time was half-past 5 but a customer who came in after work had not finished shopping by that time, they did not shut; they kept going while there was someone there. All too often, and particularly in some chains, that attitude is lacking. In any Mary Portas television programme, that is always the first thing to be highlighted. Customers will vote with their feet. If they get bad service, they go away.
Offering something different is another thing to consider. We have Bloomfields deli in Highworth. Everyone said that it was mad to open it—“The supermarkets own the world; you have no chance of surviving”—but it offered innovative products that could not be found in the supermarket, and good quality. The shop sells fine foods and the staff will wrap things up and put them in hampers. The Christmas deluge of business, allowing the deli to sell products that it could not otherwise, is about to start, and that is all because of going the extra mile.
Shops have to think about opening hours, because the internet is 24/7. Amazon is a big competitor and will deliver overnight; so why not deliver the same day? My mother delivered things: it was a wool shop, so there were a lot of older customers, and on the way home she would drop things off to some of those would could not get in. She did it because it brought in extra business. John Lewis is a good example of the chain stores that have embraced the multi-channel approach. About 40% of its business is now click and collect.
The final element of what I am talking about is the role of young people, and encouraging them to start in retailing. The number of young people going to the high street has dropped dramatically. When I was growing up, the town centre was the place where young people went, by default, to buy music or computer games, to socialise and, when they got old enough, to take advantage of the night-time economy. Nowadays, there is a generation of young people who never set foot in the town centre because they are the ones who embrace internet and out-of-town shopping the most. We must get the mix right, as the hon. Member for Stockport said.
We must encourage young entrepreneurs to think about retail. We run entrepreneur challenges in schools, which I have just talked about in the business debate in the main Chamber. I am talking about providing real, tangible experience in a retail environment. I did that in the Blunsdon market. The young people run a market stall and the mentors talk to the successful businesses afterwards and explain, “If, after you finish college, you want to do this, we can talk to landlords and get you a space in a unit, or you can come back to the market.” From small acorns, businesses grow. All big businesses today were small businesses once, and young people can be the best retailers, because they will challenge convention. We should do more to champion that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) on securing this important debate. It is a timely one, given the number of retailers who will be hoping to do very well in the run-up to Christmas to see whether they can remain on the high street.
On a positive note, I should say that a lot of hard work goes on in town centres and high streets to make sure that retail is successful and has a secure future. The North Shields chamber of trade and commerce and Whitley Bay chamber of trade constantly promote the interests of their members but also of the town as a whole. Newspapers such as The Journal in Newcastle and the News Guardian in my constituency encourage people to shop locally and on the high street. I hope they will also encourage them to get behind small business Saturday on 7 December.
Perhaps most importantly, to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for North Swindon, many young people and women seem to be setting up retail outlets in places such as Park View in Whitley Bay. They harness new technology and come up with new and innovative ways to make it an interesting place to visit, spend time and shop.
Many retailers, including many small independents, have a difficult struggle to survive day to day. I want to focus on one aspect of a complex group of issues, which has not yet been covered in the debate: the importance of making high streets safe to visit and of enabling retailers to trade without suffering losses through criminality, which can in extreme cases jeopardise their businesses.
The British Retail Consortium survey of December 2012 reported that the cost of retail crime in 2011-12 was about £1.6 billion, 83% of which was theft involving customers. Half that goes undetected. There is, anecdotally, concern about the possibility that almost three decades of diminishing crime rates may be levelling out—and may begin to rise. I hope that that does not happen.
I am told that in 30 of the police force areas there is evidence that crime—particularly acquisitive crime, and, within that category, particularly shoplifting—is increasing. There is a danger of an overall rise in crime. I hope we shall not return to what was traditionally viewed as the link between recession and crime—albeit with something of a lag. I accept that the annual crime figures may not yet show that effect, but I am told that over a period of six to nine months a worrying picture has been emerging.
Retailers are on the front line. Newsagents and general stores stock perhaps the most transportable and resellable goods of all: alcohol and tobacco. Shoplifting is not a victimless crime. It adds to the retailer’s business costs, as well as to customers’ costs at a time when the cost of living is rising. Often, independent retailers are the hardest hit, if not because of the sheer volume of the problem, then because of the effect on their business costs.
The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill is currently being considered, and there has been concern about the definition of low-value shoplifting as being when the value of the stolen goods does not exceed £200. That is a lot of money to many independent stores. There is a perception, and even greater concern, that people arrested for shoplifting are sometimes being cautioned again and again, and that any recompense for the retailer is missing. I know that that is not the Minister’s area of responsibility, but I ask him to draw it to the attention of his ministerial colleagues.
Some retailers I speak to have been asking whether the Government intend to review the guidance on shoplifting. We read almost daily about people stealing household goods—including, increasingly, food. Sometimes that is, obviously, to feed a family. There could be numerous reasons for what is happening, such as benefit changes, worklessness or just criminality. However, it could also be part of organised crime, and, as far as I am concerned, a crime is a crime.
The police and courts need appropriate and proportionate penalties to be available, and £200 is an awful lot of money to a shopkeeper. Organised crime gang members may individually steal goods worth less than £200, but that can hardly be described as low-level crime; and it is hardly something that warrants a caution. I know from experience that there are many good schemes for combating high street, and particularly retail, crime. Many traders in Whitley Bay are linked by a radio system, and they have a good relationship with the police. However, they keep saying, “We are doing our bit; can you make sure that, should people steal from us, the penalties will be proportionate?”
I want to end on a slightly different aspect of the same issue: the unfortunate and all too frequent verbal abuse and threats of violence towards retail staff. I draw the House’s attention to the Freedom from Fear campaign of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, which focuses on violence against shop workers. It would be nice if the Minister said something in support of that campaign and of those who work in retail.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I join others in congratulating my colleagues, the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), on securing this timely debate.
We do not need surveys or focus groups to establish that high streets are popular with our constituents, whose natural instincts support a thriving high street. I suspect that is even more true in some of our smaller market towns. High streets in towns such as Barton-upon-Humber in my constituency, which has a good mix of independent shops, are certainly highly valued by local people. I am pleased to say that Cleethorpes itself has a thriving shopping area, in the appropriately named High street and down St Peter’s avenue, with a good mix of shops that is well valued by the local community.
As has already been suggested, the retail environment is changing dramatically. Too many attempts are made to preserve the high street scene and ignore the fact that shopping habits have changed due to the internet and what almost amounts in some cases to the migration of the town centre to a different location on the edge of town or urban retail parks. We have all witnessed what starts simply as an edge-of-town supermarket expand until a cluster of other retail units form around it; in a short space of time, we have a competing town centre or high street. Whether or not those changes are for the better, we cannot alter the fact that the customer has decided that they are here to stay.
The Portas review was established and, as I stated in previous debates, I see little in it that does anything more than apply a sticking plaster to a gaping wound. I do not blame the Government for using a celebrity to front the review. Sometimes celebrities can draw more attention to issues than any politician or businessman can. To be fair to Mary Portas, her report recognises that retailers need fewer shops and recognises the onward march of the supermarkets, which is of course the main reason why we need fewer retail units. She is half right when she states:
“We have sacrificed communities for convenience.”
I suggest that in most cases the communities are still there, but they shop elsewhere. I look back to my early childhood in Fuller street in Cleethorpes. It still exists and the same 80 or 90 houses are still occupied, but Mr Marrows, the grocer down the street, and Mr Nocton, the butcher round the corner, along with the baker, the hardware shop and many others, have long disappeared.
Like every town in the country, Cleethorpes simply has too many retail units. Nocton’s butchers stood on Grimsby road, which is the main road between Grimsby and the adjoining town of Cleethorpes. It is also the main entrance to the resort of Cleethorpes, and the many bricked-up, derelict properties do not enhance the reputation of what I am pleased to say is still a thriving resort. Property values and rents are low. Many sole traders are surviving without necessarily thriving. Whether the property owners are the traders themselves, a local landlord or indeed an absentee landlord, an incentive is needed to convert many of the now empty retail units to residential use. With the powers granted to local authorities by the Government’s localism agenda, councils have sufficient powers in their armouries to embark on regeneration schemes. The reality is that very little is happening. Parades of shops up and down the land scar the communities they once served. We must quickly embark on schemes that can revitalise such areas.
In the North East Lincolnshire council area, which is one of the councils that serves my constituency, schemes to renovate empty houses already exist, but they only scratch the surface. This Government and previous Governments have poured many millions into various initiatives that, as I said earlier, only apply an Elastoplast to a wound. We need initiatives that perhaps allow local authorities to spend that sort of money on compulsory purchase, rather than repave vast areas or patch up one little area. I have served on a local authority, so I know how difficult compulsory purchase is to achieve. It often takes two, three or more years to accomplish for a relatively small group of properties, and we need to make it easier. The resources spent on various initiatives would be better spent on buying up properties. Councils could then sell them at a knock-down price—perhaps even give them away—with a compulsory brief that whoever purchased them had to convert them or use them for a particular scheme.
The hon. Gentleman is making a number of important points about the powers local authorities have to shape their areas. Does he accept that recent Government changes deregulating permitted development make it much more difficult for local authorities to influence what happens on the high street?
I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Lady. I am very much one for freeing up the ability of councils to put together plans, schemes and initiatives of the sort I mentioned, which, although they may need central funding to kick-start them, are bottom-up schemes. I cannot agree with her.
Much is made of car parking charges. I agree that in an ideal world we would not have them—my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) will refer to the successful schemes that North East Lincolnshire council has introduced—but getting rid of charges is not a panacea. I recall mentioning in a similar debate that I was the councillor on North East Lincolnshire council responsible for environmental services, including car parking. We discussed it time and time again and had various initiatives to help with Christmas shopping and the like, but the reality is that we got £1.25 million in income from car parking charges. If a council is providing services elsewhere, it simply cannot at a stroke say, “We’ll do away with that £1 million.” It is a problem.
Grimsby town centre, the main shopping centre that serves my constituency, has a successful and thriving shopping centre, Freshney Place, which charges. People go there in their thousands, often at the expense of going to other areas that do not charge. If the offer is right, people do not mind paying a modest amount for parking. I can see that I have just exceeded my eight minutes, so I will conclude there and hand over.
I want to make a few brief remarks. I thank the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) for securing the debate, because this issue is important to all of us. We all have local communities in our constituencies, and we want them to thrive and our traders to succeed. We want independent traders, of which there are fewer and fewer, to be a key part of that. The debate is critical because it is about communities, which are usually created with shopping centres and high streets at their centre. High streets can help to create stronger communities, and we want to ensure that they can continue to do so. My first two jobs were in shops in Scotland, so the topic is close to my heart.
The debate is topical, given that we are coming to the Christmas period and a lot of shops and traders are feeling nervous about the next few weeks. As has been mentioned, more people are shopping online and out of town. In London, big chains are pushing up rents. My constituency is in west London. People think of London as a city, but apart from the inner city, London is made up of little villages. I have several specific high streets in my constituency that I look at in particular: Chiswick high road; High street in Brentford; High street in Hounslow; South street in Isleworth; Thornbury road in Osterley; and London road.
The Mayor of London has taken this issue on as a high priority. Recently, two of my high streets have received £4.8 million in support from the Mayor’s outer London fund. That has helped in creating a town centre manager, markets, Christmas lights—any initiative that would bring people to the high street and make it a focal point for people to shop and go to the restaurants there. A lot has been done. Of course, we have heard already about the Portas review. In fact, Mary Portas opened a shop on my local high street, Living and Giving, which is a shop for Save the Children—it is a charity shop on Chiswick High road. Some interesting points came out of that review, and the pilots have been set up. Also, in London after the summer of unrest and riots that we had, there is a high street innovation fund, and a lot has been done to encourage local markets. A lot has been done in that way, and the Government have done a lot to help to support small businesses, as many of us were saying earlier today in the main Chamber.
There are some things we have tried to do locally. A new market has been set up in Brentford on Sundays, to which lots of high quality traders have been coming, including new traders. A market is a great way in for someone who wants to start a business. Also, I have a regular forum with my traders in Chiswick to hear their concerns and try to do something about them. I certainly keep in touch with what is happening with the regeneration and transformation of two of my bigger high streets, in Brentford and Hounslow, which needed a lot of work done to them.
We have started to provide free parking for 30 minutes in some areas. I have been pushing my borough to extend that scheme right across the borough—my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon talked about, I think, a 10% increase in trade from such a scheme. That is the right way to go, and is hopefully something that will be implemented right across the borough as soon as possible, because it will certainly encourage people to come to the local high street, as opposed to going out of town. We are also looking at business improvement districts. We do not have any in my part of west London at the moment, but there are many across London and we want to try to build on those.
When I speak to my traders, including on the high street, they talk about business rates—especially in London, with its high rateable values. Ideally, I would like the Minister’s support when I go and speak to the Prime Minister next week about what we do about business rates, because I would like a more fundamental reform of them. Traders have also asked me where they can go for help. Many of our traders try going to their local councillor or perhaps reaching out to a range of people, but who is responsible for our traders on the high street? Who looks after their concerns? As MPs, we have our constituents, and I have said to my local traders that I will absolutely help to represent their interests and listen to their concerns, because they are a core part of the local community.
Some of the things we are looking forward to include small business Saturday on 7 December, when a lot of activities will be taking place then across my constituency. That has helped to create a real sense of community, which is really important. Something we are seeing a lot of in London is empty shops. I would like to encourage the use of pop-up shops, which are another way for new entrepreneurs to test out their markets, starting small and growing from that. The more we can do to encourage pop-up shops as a starting-point, the better.
When it comes to local authorities, we want to encourage people to shop on the high street; therefore, there must be real diversity there. In some of my local areas we have seen a whole stream of estate agents or charity shops, but what we want is a good mix, because that is what will get people to come to the high street. When I go down Turnham Green terrace in Chiswick, it is wonderful to see a queue outside my butchers, Macken Brothers, on a Saturday. That just goes to show that if small traders on the high street are good and people know about them, they can be hugely successful. Some of the best moments for me—for example, Devonshire road street parties—have been where the high streets have got together and created events to improve the sense of community and to get shoppers to come their streets. They have been absolutely superb.
The key thing for us—all hon. Friends and hon. Members here today—is: what needs to be done to help the high street and help local traders to thrive? If there is more that the Government can do to support them—whether through taxation or business rates, encouraging flexibility on parking and diversity, or looking at how we use empty shops and encourage more pop-up shops—that will be a step in the right direction.
Thank you, Mr Walker, for calling me to speak. I will try to be as good as my colleagues have been.
Action for Market Towns is a national charity and the representative body committed to the vitality and viability of market towns across the country, with membership from such towns all across Britain. After a highly selective process, this year my constituency was chosen as the location for its annual conference, earlier this month. Congleton was chosen as an exemplary model of good and joint working of all five town partnerships in my constituency—Alsager, Congleton, Homes Chapel, Sandbach and Middlewich. They are not competing against one other, but supporting each other to maintain vibrant local communities, including their high streets. I spoke at the conference and afterwards conducted a Q and A session with the delegates. I want to bring back to this debate and to the Minister some of the comments that delegates made about what more the Government could do to help to boost market towns and other smaller communities, with a particular emphasis, of course, on the high street.
One of the first points that delegates made was that local enterprise partnerships could offer more opportunity to help to diversify town centres, as part of their wider local economic growth strategies. However, the feeling was that LEPs tend to focus on supporting big business, not on places, and that LEPs perhaps need to focus more on supporting market towns or working with groups of smaller businesses. The question to the Minister, therefore, is: how can individual towns and their businesses influence and access LEP funds more effectively? Is there perhaps a need or an opportunity for Government to inform LEP strategy development at national and local level, to ensure that LEPs listen to and respond effectively to community representatives, including those representing smaller retailers?
My second point relates to developing the policy for multi-purpose town centres. I think we all acknowledge the need for town centres to diversify, so that they can provide retail alongside community services and play a stronger leisure, culture and amenity role. There is also an acceptance of the potential to deliver that through neighbourhood planning. There is the future high streets forum, but comment was made that although this holistic view of town centres is accepted, it does not seem to be proportionately represented on the forum. I have looked at the proportion of representatives on the forum, and there certainly seems to be a preponderance of representatives from big business and big retailers, with relatively few representing the smaller high street retailers. The question is: are there real champions of small businesses to make their voices and views heard on the future high streets forum, providing an holistic view of multi-purpose and sustainable town centres to be delivered through localism and the right to plan or community rights? Is the balance right on that forum to ensure that this will happen?
Thirdly, there is the issue of the reuse of public assets in towns. Maintenance of public services and employment in and around town centres is, as we know, vital to local well-being and prosperity. However, there is concern that empty public buildings could be made more readily available by authorities for social and community enterprises, perhaps at below market value if they are lying empty. That was something that the delegates really wanted me to draw to the attention of the Minister. Perhaps wider local economic benefit could be taken into account in calculating best value—using the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, for example—in the sale and reuse of such public assets in and around town centres. How can we achieve this?
I wish to touching briefly on charity shops. Their role in the vibrancy of town centres was something of a controversial subject among the delegates, perhaps shrouded in anecdote. It was suggested that more informed research was needed. Although there are negative aspects, including rate relief—especially relating to the sale of new products—and the clustering of charity shops in prime retail locations, on the positive side, charities and social enterprises occupy empty units, diversify town centres and, in some instances, provide a broad range of services beyond retail. I have been involved for several years in a charity shop in Widnes that occupies a former empty jeweller’s shop. At the back of the town centre, we provide drug addiction advice, debt advice, pregnancy counselling and free legal aid. To inform the work of the future high streets forum, what objective research is undertaken to understand and inform policy and good practice on the impact of charity shops and social enterprises on town centre vitality?
Finally, I am sure that the Minister would not want me to speak in his presence without referring to local plans, the national planning policy framework and town centres. The delegates acknowledged the potential benefit of new funding sources through the community infrastructure levy, which they welcomed, but there was strong consensus that the application of localism through neighbourhood planning and wider community rights could provide new opportunities for local businesses and community groups to determine the vitality of their town centres.
However, there were concerns that local proposals for sustainable business development were being overruled by proposals from large retailers and housing developers. I know of a situation near me in Tattenhall, west Cheshire, where a neighbourhood plan on whose creation local groups spent an enormous amount, including for a local referendum, is now being challenged through the courts by a major developer.
There is widespread concern that the continuing lack of agreed local plans leaves communities open to any development that is proposed—developments need only meet the NPPF requirements—and about the fact that town plans are being ignored when planning appeals take place. I refer the Minister once again to the plight of Sandbach, where some 500 properties will now be developed on the wrong side of the town centre, causing considerable congestion and other difficulties. Sandbach townsfolk do not object to development, but they want it in the right place. If only we could have waited until the local plan was finalised, that development would have been in the right place. What can be done to ensure that local community and business engagement in neighbourhood planning for sustainable growth is not overruled by the inconsistent application of the NPPF, and particularly by the financial resources of major developers?
From my own leadership experience as senior partner in a community law firm on the high street for almost 25 years, I know how much hard work, care and devotion go into local community life on behalf of local businesses. I want to support that, particularly in my constituency, in the years to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I concur with colleagues who have paid tribute to the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) and the others who have helped secure this debate.
Town centres are incredibly important to my constituency, all 257 square miles of it. We have a lot of historic market towns, including Brigg, Epworth and Crowle, as well as bigger centres such as Goole. My constituency also covers part of Scunthorpe, so Scunthorpe town centre, although it is not in my constituency, is incredibly important. Like other Members, I am committed to our town centres. I spent some time working in the US many years ago, and I was staggered when I asked the people I was living with, “Where is the town centre?” and they looked at me and said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Where is it? There must be one. I’ve walked and walked until the pavement ran out”—the town was Hamilton, New Jersey. The community just did not have a town centre. I was on a street called Edinburgh street, I remember, which was pronounced “Edinburg street” in New Jersey.
At the time, the thought that town centres in many places had either closed down or simply did not exist was alien to me, but that was a number of years ago. Sadly, some of the things that have happened in the US have started to happen here, particularly since the move to out-of-town shopping centres. Maybe we have caught up with the trend, or maybe we have regressed. I do not know which, but it is definitely having an impact.
The life and future of town centres in my constituency is fairly positive. They are still the centre of most of my communities when it comes to accessing GP services, post offices or even council services. They are also a meeting place for many generations, and they provide a huge number of jobs. I concur with other Members about the importance of retail jobs. My first job at 12 was being a paperboy, but at 15, I got a job in a shoe shop, supplying Hush Puppies and Jouralle shoes to the assorted masses of what was then Humberside. Freeman Hardy Willis was the name of the company. I then got a job working at McDonald’s, which I did for five years through college and university. I understand the value of retail jobs, particularly to young people but also to those who want to work flexibly or part-time.
Our local town centres have been supported strongly by the local council. I want to highlight several examples from North Lincolnshire council that could be applied nationally and that show what can be achieved for our town centres when local authorities and town centre retailers work in partnership. When we took control of my town council in 2011, we were swift in removing parking charges in Brigg. Since then, the council has introduced free parking periods, with the strong support of the Scunthorpe Telegraph, an excellent local newspaper. We have extended free parking into Scunthorpe, and I hope we can go further. It was the previous Labour council, sadly, that imposed charges in Brigg.
The importance of those measures came home to me during the first Christmas after we removed the charges in 2011. I went to open Santa’s shack in Brigg, in one of our famous hardware stores—other options are available, of course—and the manager of the shop said to me, “You wouldn’t believe the impact the free parking period has had.” People are not fearful of being ticketed. They understand the rules, and they know that they can come into Brigg and shop for two hours, so they do not drive to an out-of-town centre on the edge of Scunthorpe or elsewhere; they come into Brigg to do their shopping. We should not underestimate the value of free parking.
Nor should we underestimate the value of reasonable parking attendants. Epworth is having a big problem, and retail businesses are struggling. Retailers have been to see me, and I have got the council to agree to review the aggressive enforcement of parking rules that is driving people out of our town centres. Free periods are a good start, but after two hours when the free period expires, parking attendants must be reasonable.
In response to a little campaign that I ran with Goole town centre, a local council of mine has managed to get free wi-fi in Goole town centre by working with Jibba Jabba, a local broadband provider based in Doncaster. It is an excellent name; those of us from the ’80s will remember “The A-Team”. Anyone who comes into Goole and logs on to the wi-fi will be greeted by a nice picture of me welcoming them to the free wi-fi service. [Interruption.] Take-up has been high; whether people repeat their visit I am not sure.
That is in the East Riding of Yorkshire part of my constituency. I took the idea to North Lincolnshire council, which has agreed to roll out wi-fi to all our town centres to support local businesses. Many of our towns, such as Epworth, have burgeoning café and food outlet environments, which I strongly support. They have said to me that having free wi-fi has been important in Goole. People come in, sit there and use it with their tablets out, and they buy an extra coffee while doing so, because they realise that they can get fast internet while enjoying their lunch or coffee break, as people do these days.
Councils must be proactive on crime. Town centre crime is a concern, particularly for small retailers. We had a bit of a spike in Epworth not so long ago. I am pleased that, working with local councillors there— Liz Redfern and David Robinson—we managed to get £45,000 out of the council to install CCTV cameras in Epworth town centre, which retailers have welcomed. We also got the local council to fund extra police community support officers there and provide two new PCSOs in the Isle of Axholme and others in parts of north Lincolnshire. Again, it is working in partnership because it understands that crime is important in respect of retail and the economy, and in making people feel safe and confident enough to come into town centres. I welcome that partnership.
There are other simple things that councils can do. We set up a body in Brigg, of which I am the chairman—I am not in control of everything in the constituency; this is not some despotic regime—called Brigg 2020, a regeneration partnership. I also chair one in Goole, called Goole Renaissance. In Brigg, we got the council to look at the street furniture and ask, “What is attractive about our town centre and what isn’t?” The battered old railings that welcome people into town do not exactly say, “This is a place to come and enjoy an afternoon”, or “Enjoy your shopping.” That is not acceptable. Simply by doing an audit of such things and getting the council to commit to replacing them, we can change the appearance of our town centres.
When councils get it—when they understand it—and when they do not see themselves as being in conflict with retailers, it can work. Sometimes, retailers say, “The council is not doing enough for us,” and sometimes the council says, “Oh, well, retailers are just complaining about parking, yet again. It’s the usual thing,” or, “They’re complaining about litter.” When we park all those traditional tussles and replace them with proper partnership working, we can achieve a great deal. We do not have a great number of empty shops in the smaller market towns in my area.
We still have a big problem in town centres, and I do not know how the Government are responding to the matter. Sadly, in the past few years, in Scunthorpe, one of the bigger town centres, Marks & Spencer has left, although it is returning to my constituency at an out-of-town unit on the edge of Scunthorpe. Although we have tried to get it into the town centre, it is not interested in that. It is difficult to know how the Government should respond to the flight away from big town centres. In the past couple of weeks, McDonald’s, of all companies, has announced that it is leaving Scunthorpe town centre, despite its being incredibly busy. It mentioned business rates, the shift of people out of town and online sales, as others have done.
I have gone 30 seconds over time, despite being self-limiting. There was much more that I wanted to say, not about various positions that I hold but about what we can do to support our town centres by working in partnership. I hope that the Government will respond to questions raised by colleagues and to my concerns about the need to continue extending small business rate relief and about our biggest stores, to ensure that there is a fair, level playing field in town centres and out of town.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) for securing this debate and pay tribute to their work as joint chairs of the all-party retail group. I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have spoken passionately about their areas. I will return in a moment or two to some specific points that they raised.
The importance of high streets and retail cannot be better demonstrated than in Stockport, where, as my hon. Friend eloquently outlined, retail is a significant part of the economy and contributes a large proportion of jobs in the town. Stockport is benefiting from the reshaping of the town’s retail offer, and in a way it is forging a new identity. That is to be applauded.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) mentioned the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers campaign to keep shop workers safe, because we do not talk enough about that in the House and we have to consider it when thinking about regenerating our high streets and town centres.
I am glad that most hon. Members mentioned small business Saturday on 7 December. I am sure that we are all getting behind it and supporting our small businesses. It is worth highlighting.
It is pertinent to discuss the state of our high streets. We have had a number of debates on the subject in the House recently and in the past few years. The issue will not go away, and the reason for that is clear: we are seeing a decline in the variety of businesses that make up our high streets. There are now more than twice as many betting shops in British high streets than all the cinemas, bingo halls, museums, bowling alleys and so on put together, but the situation is not inevitable. Positive interventions can be made, and we should not accept the automatic decline of our high street due to trends of online shopping and so on. We have to make the right interventions, and they must be supported by the Government, who must help the process of diversification that we know is needed.
The facts make concerning reading. At this moment, one in seven of Britain’s shops lie empty, and in some places it is one in three. Given that position, the Government should take action to support the high street, but recent data show us that, in a large number of areas, the high street revolution has failed to take off. Vacancy rates, although improving, are doing so only marginally, with a reduction from 14.2% to 14.1%.
The Government’s approach is fragmented. A number of initiatives have been mentioned. We have Portas pilots, town team partners, the future high streets forum, a high street innovation fund, the high street renewal award, a fund for business improvements districts, local enterprise partnerships, local authorities, neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood business plans. Most commentators are saying that we need a more co-ordinated approach, nationally and locally, to help our high streets.
The Government should consider more closely the advice in the Grimsey report, which in many ways echoes what was set out in the Portas review. As my hon. Friend said, that report seeks comprehensively to address the challenges facing the sector. Grimsey set an objective to repopulate high streets and town centres as community hubs, with more housing, education, arts, entertainment, business and office space, health and leisure provision and, of course, shops. He also suggested setting up a town centre commission for each town, with a defined skills base and structure, to build a 20-year vision for each town. He thought that the Government should, at least, pilot that approach. He also said that we should prepare for a wired town centre and that there should be particular support for our high streets, to enable them to embrace new technology, as my hon. Friend outlined. We are not seeing a specific enough initiative to deal with that issue.
In his foreword to his report, Grimsey said:
“We’ve seen reviews, pilots, future high street forums and more. But none of these initiatives are making much impact and there is a frustrating sense of policy being conducted in the margins. The need to grasp the nettle is bigger than ever.”
He acutely identifies the most serious challenges facing the industry, saying:
“The bigger area of concern, though, is the plight of smaller retailers. Many remain horribly stressed financially with an average rating that hovers perilously above the Company Watch warning area. The same pattern applies in the supply chain. For independent shops, a sector that the Business Secretary has previously acknowledged to be an essential part of a healthy high street, the future looks very uncertain. The fact that our analysis shows 46.6 per cent of all retailers in the UK are in the warning area, and by definition at serious risk of failure, should be a loud wakeup call to ministers”—
and to all of us. He states:
“As a check up on the health of the high street, the prognosis is not good. Over 20,000 businesses are at risk and we can expect more and more business failures”
unless action is taken.
“There are around 40,000 empty shops in the UK, and this has remained”
“constant over…three years.”
The question must be, what are local government and central Government going to do about that?
Part of the answer, undoubtedly, is to enable change of use for premises. What the Government are doing on change of use, however, is making things worse, not better. We know that the consequence of the Government’s changes, particularly those since May, has been to allow more bookies and payday lenders to set up shop on our high streets. The Government are taking away from local authorities the ability to shape what is happening on their high street and to respond to community demand, yet we know that communities want their local authorities to have more control of high street improvement.
A recent survey by Deloitte shows that 73% of people want customers to have a strong role in shaping the high street, and 47% want local authorities to be able to do that. Only 13% want landlords to be able to shape what happens on the high street, yet that is exactly what we have ended up with under this Government. Because planning permission is no longer required for many changes of use on our high street, our local authorities and communities have no ability to shape what is happening. That is the exact opposite of the approach that the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) suggests, which is that local authorities should have powers to shape what happens on the high street, such as by having more rights to purchase properties compulsorily.
The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) made an excellent point on local authorities using social value clauses to help, for example, local people set up start-up units—there would be more pop-up shops. That is exactly the set of uses that local authorities might want on their high street, but if it is simply left to the market to say how empty properties will be used or changed, we are not likely to get the sorts of premises that local people want.
What is likely to happen, as I witnessed when I visited Woolwich high street last week, is that in a row of 16 shops, nine will be payday loan companies or bookies. Local people told me that they are very unhappy with the situation. They said that, in the past couple of years, the council had indeed spent money on the town square but that it was being thoroughly undermined by the number of fast food outlets and so on in the area.
The last time I raised that point with the Minister, he went out and said to the media, “This is about Labour trying to say to you that you shouldn’t be able to buy a McDonald’s.” I make it clear that that is not what we are saying; we are saying that people do not want an over-saturation of a particular type of shop on their high street. As the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) said, what we need is diversification on our high street. People are telling us clearly that they want independent retailers and community uses; they do not want to see one type of premises taking over the high street.
I hope the Minister will help us to understand how the Government’s approach will assist with that diversification, because I cannot see that approach operating in practice. In fact, we know from across the country that the opposite is happening. The Government could do more. The Government must urgently address change of use and the relaxation of permitted development, and they must give local authorities and communities real powers to shape their high street. That is urgent, but the Government need to do other things. They must consider the wider economy, too.
A recent report by the Centre for Cities claims that the biggest factor affecting the success or failure of our high street is the overall strength of the town or city centre’s economy, and the slow economic recovery over the past three years has really affected the high street. The Government should be doing more to address business rates, increasing rents and higher energy costs, all of which are particularly affecting small business. Again, small businesses themselves are asking the Government to address those issues urgently.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.
I congratulate the Members who secured this debate, which has been very interesting, not least because, in the main, it has been positive about the great things that are happening across our high streets and town centres. There has been positive consideration of what more can be done to ensure that, in the 21st century, we have town centres not only that we can be proud of but that serve and reflect what the community needs and wants. From that point of view, the debate has been extremely good, interesting and positive.
One of the fundamental differences between the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and me—my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) outlined this fairly well—is that I think the high street is what we make it. We have to understand that the high street is changing. In some ways, the high street will get smaller and town centres will shrink as retail demand changes. I will address that in a moment.
It is very much not for the Government to manage the high street from the top down. The Grimsey report outlines, and I have discussed this with Bill Grimsey, that the Government should dictate exactly how a high street plan should be done and who should do it. The report contains an idea for taxing successful retailers to help less successful or smaller retailers. We certainly will not be considering the introduction of more taxes that hit retailers in the way that the previous Government perhaps would have done.
We clearly want businesses to have flexibility. When I talk to businesses, they say that they want flexibility to evolve and reflect. To be entirely honest, I am slightly confused by the shadow Minister’s comment that we should have flexibility for diversification without allowing flexibility for planning changes in the high street. I am not sure how we can have it both ways. The reality is that councils have the ability through planning permission, not least through article 4 and through the regulation of gaming, to ensure that the high street balance is correct.
On fast food, I have never said anything of the sort suggested by the shadow Minister. The point I have made previously is that it is not for the Government to dictate whether there are too many or too few fast food restaurants. High streets and town centres will reflect what we, as customers and consumers, demand through how we shop and what we use, whatever the company—whether it is a small local business or a big brand name.
Big brand names are often run by local business people, either directly or as a franchise, and they certainly employ local people and spend good money on their shops. They can be an important part of the high street. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) said, we tend to miss those companies when they start talking about moving, but, equally, they are an important part of the high street. We should not knock that. The big brand names are there because we use them, which is the reality of life.
The hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) made a thoughtful and powerful speech on the digital world in which we now live. I think that we are now the country with the highest online shopping usage as a percentage of shopping population. We must be aware that things are changing. Google glasses are potentially part of what we could be seeing in future.
The hon. Lady is right that we need to spread best practice. A debate such as this—we have heard some examples this afternoon—is a good way to do that. We have put £1 million into the Association of Town Centre Management, and the future high streets forum is considering how we share best practice, whether it is through the 333 town teams, through volunteers working in their local area or through the Portas pilots. More generally, we are all working across the media to promote good examples of best practice.
In my constituency of Great Yarmouth, we have a town centre partnership and a business improvement district, or BID. I am a huge fan of BIDs. One of the things that the Great Yarmouth BID has done is to introduce wi-fi across the town, which has been massively welcomed by the local community. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we must ensure that our towns embrace such digital technology, not least as retail and our high streets change. I appreciate the title of the debate, but our high streets are growing towards being not only somewhere that we go to shop and do other things, but a destination for leisure and hospitality where we may do some shopping. We must recognise that fact.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) touched on his experience and declared himself another unabashed Mary Portas fan. He can join my club. Mary Portas has done a fantastic job, not least in raising the issue’s profile and setting out a journey and ideology, to which the key is recognising the unique selling point of every individual town centre.
From the success of the Portas pilots and town teams around the country, we can see that there is no homogeneous tick list; different things work differently in different places. Good things can work brilliantly in one place, but they will not necessarily work somewhere else, so we must examine how different areas evolve. I congratulate The Daily Telegraph on its current high streets campaign, a part of which is a competition to find, through its readers, the best high street, and I am delighted to be chairing the panel. An interesting thing that has come from that is how every area is different and how areas are embracing their differences to make them stand out as unique selling points.
My hon. Friend also mentioned parking charges. Braintree, for example, saw a 40,000 increase in footfall as soon as parking charges were reduced. Parking charges are an important part of the mix, and areas should be acutely aware of that. He was also right to highlight young retailers and young people being part of the high street. The high street should absolutely be a leisure and hospitality area, which is a point that links perfectly to the contribution of the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell). He spoke about the importance of safety on our high streets, particularly given the growing night-time economy. That economy is to be embraced as an important part of the high street, but the staff who work there need to be safe. People have the right to be treated with respect and will provide good customer service as a result. Equally, when our children and friends go out, we want to know that they are safe. They have the right to feel safe.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes described the changing shape of the high street. He mentioned the small business rate relief, and I am proud that the Government have trebled that to over £900 million to help businesses right across the country. He makes a fair point about how retail is changing and how retail spaces in many areas need to shrink. I am pleased that we are consulting on the flexibility to change retail spaces back to residential use, which would increase footfall in our town centres and allow them to reflect the change towards leisure and hospitality.
Hair and beauty, and the service industry in general, is one of the fastest-growing parts of the high street. Businesses such as Fusion in Gorleston in my constituency have spent a fortune improving their shop fronts. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) mentioned the future high streets forum. I am looking at its membership and want to change it slightly to reflect the hospitality and leisure aspect of high streets, including the service industries. Hairdressers, for example, have not been a part of it before. The high street economy is no longer just about retail. It is widening and small businesses represent a part of that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) mentioned parking and pop-up shops. We practise what we preach in the Department for Communities and Local Government—not only did we proudly cut our costs by 60%, but we also have a pop-up shop, which I recommend for hon. Members’ Christmas shopping. She is right that areas should be considering such things. In Great Yarmouth, our town centre partnership and the council are looking at exactly that sort of thing, almost as an alchemy centre to give new independent retailers the opportunity to develop, to test the market and to grow.
My hon. Friend, along with other hon. Members, also referred to business rates, about which I do get comments from time to time. We must appreciate that not only do we have the autumn statement next week—I would not want to prejudge what the Chancellor will say—but that retail is only one part of business rates. When we looked at the revaluation, we found that there would have been 800,000 losers and just 300,000 winners, of which retail would have been one, as would much of the hospitality and leisure industries. We must be cautious when making presumptions about business rates, but we can discuss that another time. I outlined the matter during Communities and Local Government questions on Monday.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned local enterprise partnerships, which should, where relevant, consider town centres as important. In some areas, if employees will have somewhere good to go, the town centre can actually be part of what will attract a company to invest in an area. A good, vibrant town centre can be the heartbeat of a community. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole touched on that when he mentioned the town centre being at the centre of a community.
Charity shops do have an important part to play. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned research, and Demos is currently carrying out some on this very issue. Good charity shops can play an important role in the community. They receive both good and bad press, but any kind of retail outlet on the high street can be good or bad depending on how it is presented and looked after. Charity shops sometimes offer coffee facilities and can also get involved running community events from their stores. They can also be a huge draw for footfall.
My hon. Friend also touched on planning, and councils now have the ability to have a play in that system through their local plan. We have discussed this before. I hope that her council will hurry up and get its local plan in place. I am quite happy to chastise them a little as it has been somewhat slower in getting its plan together than residents would appreciate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole made important points about how the town centre should be the heartbeat of its community. I am pleased that he has such a positive view of the future and he is quite right to do so. The town centre is an important source of employment in the community and can provide a fantastic career path. Despite the numbers of people employed in hospitality and retail in this country, we often undervalue the sector and do not promote enough just what a fantastic career it can be. Someone starting out in retail could end up in the House of Commons, which could happen to anyone, or they could have a fantastic career in retail, which goes across many different organisations, or they could be an entrepreneur running their own independent business—hopefully benefiting from the Government’s small business rate relief.
In conclusion, our town centres have a really good opportunity as we move forward. Change is happening on the high street and the high street must change. High streets should grasp the opportunity to become what the consumer wants them to be in the 21st century. The Government must tread a careful line. We want not to interfere and create false economies, but to create a facility where local people, local businesses and local authorities can work together to provide what we all want—vibrant, successful high streets and town centres that are the heartbeat of their communities and successful not just now, but for years to come.
With the leave of the House, I will briefly respond. Thank you, Mr Walker, for chairing this debate. I thank my co-sponsor and co-chair of the all-party group, the hon. Member for North Swindon, whom I look forward to working with on retail issues. He clearly has huge knowledge and real experience in the sector. I also thank the shadow Minister and the Minister for their thoughtful replies.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, which were based on their different experiences and different constituencies. It is a strength of the constituency system that it enables Members who represent big cities, rural communities or coastal towns, where many different things happen, to contribute to such a debate. The range of topics has been huge—jobs, crime, planning, parking, partnerships, empty shops, local initiatives, business improvement districts and everything else.
It has been a fantastic debate that has shown the complex interaction of factors, and that the problems are not easily solvable by one simple public policy or private initiative. I stress again that we need public-private partnerships to provide innovation and to transform the high street, but they must be the right kind of partnerships, namely those based on evidence of the right kind of interventions.
Question put and agreed to.