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Retail Sector

Volume 571: debated on Thursday 5 December 2013

I regularly meet representatives of the retail sector. I attend the retail policy forum, which meets three times a year, and I recently spoke at the Association of Convenience Stores’ heart of the community conference. As part of small business Saturday, I will visit independent shops in Westerham this weekend and I encourage all colleagues to support this hugely important campaign.

The rise in e-commerce and online sales is changing our shopping habits and impacting on our high streets. What more can the Minister do to encourage co-operation between big retailers, independent retailers and councils to take advantage of the opportunities offered by developing technology to transform our high streets into exciting community spaces for the 21st century?

I agree with the hon. Lady about the huge opportunity here. We are keen to help small businesses in particular to trade online. With the help of my Department, Go ON UK is piloting a programme to help to provide businesses with the skills to transact online, including using mobile technologies to exploit the increasing use of smartphones in e-commerce. That will roll out nationally next spring. The Technology Strategy Board carried out a successful digital high street pilot last year in Hereford and it is currently exploring how to build on that.

I, too, will be out and about in Calne, Royal Wotton Bassett and Malmesbury on small business Saturday, supporting our small retailers. Does the Minister agree that one of the biggest burdens I will hear about as I wander around will be the overwhelming burden of business rates on small businesses? What action can he take now to lessen that appalling burden?

My hon. Friend will know that we have doubled small business rate relief and have already extended it until 2014. On our plans after that, I must ask him to be patient a little longer.

Chester has been a fantastic shopping centre for centuries, but it faces increased competition from online shopping and out-of-town shopping centres. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these days we have to make shopping an entertainment experience, with cafés, bars and on-street entertainment to drag people back on to the high street?

Yes, I do agree. As the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) put it, we have to make high streets community spaces again that are not simply for transactional shopping. There are a number of ways in which high streets can respond to the challenge of e-commerce and the Government are here to help.