Skip to main content

Town Centre Regeneration (England)

Volume 592: debated on Tuesday 10 February 2015

I do not want to be too alarmist, but town centres in this great country of ours are in danger. They are threatened by all sorts of forces: not exactly evil forces, but forces of change. If we do not adapt to that change, the nature and vibrancy of our communities in towns and cities—I am talking particularly about towns in this debate—will be in great danger.

I will go through the dangers first, because the situation is not entirely bleak. The fact is that people today are changing their habits, as they have over the generations. They are changing now to a pattern of retail shopping online. Everybody I meet says, “Of course, I only do it in extremis,” but when they are under the stress of Christmas shopping or a late birthday or anniversary, they go for the online option. Online shopping is with us; it is growing; and it will become more dominant as time goes on. It is no good wishing it away; it is happening. That is one danger. Many shops may find that they are not viable because they are competing with the online option.

Another danger that has been with us for some time is the big supermarkets. The mega supermarkets want to sell everything: wine, food, clothing, white goods. When I was a lot younger, one went to a supermarket for food shopping. Now, supermarkets want to sell everything. In pursuit of market dominance, they take away custom from the small and medium-sized businesses, which are at the heart of communities and make town centres vibrant and enjoyable to visit.

There are other problems. Many small shops have been driven out—I know that as the Member of Parliament for Huddersfield, which is the heart of the woollen and textile area in Yorkshire. We know about the retail market in clothing; we know that many low-cost traders have come into the market, usually selling clothes manufactured in low-cost economies thousands of miles away from this country. Low-cost shops, certainly in women’s fashion but also in men’s, are making life difficult for smaller retailers. Wherever we look, we see threats to a vibrant town centre.

I do not want to give the impression that all vibrant town centres are about is shopping. They are about arts and culture as well as convenient health facilities, so that people do not always have to go to an outlying hospital but can go to a clinic. They are also about good libraries, theatres and having the option to have a lovely coffee in a variety of shops.

There are some problems with that vibrancy. A couple of years ago, I looked at all the little town centres in my area. Huddersfield is the main town centre, but we have a number of smaller locations. When we did a bit of research, we found—the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), my next-door neighbour, will agree—that if a smaller town centre can retain a certain number of crucial shops, it will often survive and thrive. When we did our analysis of 15 little town centres around Huddersfield, we found that the crucial difference was retaining a baker and a butcher. If a town retained those, it had an anchor for other little shops around it.

What makes a vibrant town centre is almost indefinable, but it can be analysed using quite scientific methods. You must remember, Mr Streeter, that a long time ago I trained as a social scientist, first as an economist and then as a sociologist. We can study how human beings interact and where they enjoy meeting socially and culturally. There is a mix. I know I am in a nice town centre when there is a range of interesting shops and places to eat or have coffee or a glass of wine, or when I can wander into a nice library or art gallery or pop into the local theatre. I am in a nice town centre if I can do all those things in an aesthetically pleasing environment rather than a great 1960s cement innovation—although there are some, such the Barbican, where I used to live, that I am quite fond of.

In Huddersfield, we have 1,001 listed buildings; in Greater Huddersfield, we have about 3,000. We have wonderful architecture—what an asset that is—but it is much nicer if that architecture has flowers and ornaments in summer, and nice lighting in the winter. We know what makes a beautiful town centre: aesthetic factors, as well as retail and cultural ones.

Huddersfield is still a town. Some people argue that it is the largest town. That is not true, although it is a very large town; if Kirklees had been called Huddersfield, we would have been a city. I inform hon. Members that we now have a Bishop of Huddersfield, so we are becoming even more significant as a town. We are also a university town. Any town or city in this country that does not have an institution of higher education is not in the top league of towns and cities. I am sorry for places, even in Yorkshire, that do not have a university, such as Doncaster, Wakefield and Harrogate. If a town does not have a higher education institution, usually a university, it is likely not to have the vibrancy that it needs.

The hon. Gentleman is making some excellent points. He mentioned aesthetics, culture and all the things that can make our town centres great. I have a university in my constituency in Worcester that has been one of the fastest-growing in the UK and has contributed to the city’s getting a fantastic new library shared between the city and university. It has also contributed—this is an issue that he has not yet mentioned—to an improvement in our sports facilities, including a fantastic wheelchair basketball arena in Worcester city centre. Does he agree that universities have much to offer the life of our cities and town centres?

I take that point very positively; it is exactly what I am driving at, if a town has a university that is willing to share facilities, which is an important proviso. Also, a lot of universities are slightly out of town, but those that have wisdom involve themselves more and more in the life of the city centre. I will not make a party political speech in this debate, but we know that large cuts have been made to local government up and down the land. That is a fact of life. In Kirklees and Huddersfield, we are paring back almost to the statutory minimum even on education and schools, but also in cultural affairs such as libraries, theatres and art galleries. I am not saying that all of those in Huddersfield are in danger, but they are certainly being considered at present.

Without those things, a town centre becomes impoverished. On the one hand, there are real commercial factors—a change in retail patterns—that are affecting town centres. On the other hand, there is no doubt that there are real changes in what local government delivers, and in the balance between what local and central Government deliver, and what other bodies deliver. That area is an important challenge for the future.

In my constituency, we have recently had a real problem in evaluating the free bus that operates in the centre of Huddersfield. It is an amazing bus—for some parts of the day it is for students, and for others it is for older people, including “Twirlies”. I hope that you have Twirlies in your patch, Mr Streeter. They are the people who have a bus pass that does not start until 9.30 am but they come at 9.15 am and the driver says to them, “You’re too early”. I did not know that until I went on the Huddersfield free bus myself.

The free bus is vital for people who need transport, including young people with children and buggies. It is an essential part of the life of our community. However, there was a possibility that local government funding for it would end. What local government has done, with a whole group of local businesses, including retailers, is to go out and see whether we can fund it in a different way—turning it into a social enterprise, for example, so that we can give ownership of it to people and it becomes “our bus”, rather than the bus that somebody else is providing. Indeed, we can improve the service by adding a park and ride scheme and other things. We are well on our way with that process in Huddersfield.

Alternatives are what we need for the future. As some Members know, I am passionate about crowdfunding and crowdsourcing; I chair the Westminster crowdfunding forum. In a sense, we have been liberated in respect of how we can expand the social sector of our vibrant towns and cities: we can use crowdfunding to raise money and increase involvement. That involvement is important, because it is not only the money that matters; it is the ownership and involvement of people that social ownership can bring. We have seen some very good and innovative processes coming through.

I thank my hon. Friend—I will call him that—for giving way and congratulate him on securing this important debate. As we may hear from the Minister, Mary Portas reported on our high streets and emphasised the need for local businesses to provide specialism, service and quality. As my hon. Friend knows, in my patch we have Hinchliffe’s farm shop and restaurant in Netherton, and Bolster Moor Farm Shop. Both are heaving, because they offer that specialism, quality service and free parking, which is so important if people are to access shops. Will he join me in saying “Good luck” to the newly rejuvenated Milnsbridge Business Association, which is meeting next Thursday for the first time? It realises the importance of good parking and access in the centre of Milnsbridge.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend—I will call him that as well—for that intervention; you can see, Mr Streeter, that we work very well together, across boundaries, in the Huddersfield and Colne Valley area.

My hon. Friend is right to mention parking; any analysis of a lively town centre must include analysis of parking, including park and ride schemes. Parking must be identifiable; so much about parking is pretty mysterious. We found that good signposting—including about who is in charge of car parks, what the rates were and what the likelihood of being towed away or fined was—helps. Good parking access is very important and he makes a good point by mentioning it.

Business rates are also important. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee produced a very good report on high streets, which it said were severely hampered by an unfavourable business rate system. It recommended that the Government review that system, including considering whether taxes for retail businesses should be based on sales and not property; whether retail businesses should have their own forms of taxation; and whether business rate revaluation charges should be made at a different time.

In so many town centres now, so many shops are empty; they are vacant and boarded up. It is dismal when a row of shops in a street are closed. Personally, I like charity shops although not too many of them in one place; we need a balance in the number of charity shops. Like many Members, I have worked in a charity shop to give the charity some publicity.

I am afraid that I am coming out with some pet hates, but I hate takeaway shops. If they are allowed without proper planning permission, there can be a whole row of them. One thing about takeaways is that they are dead during the day; they have horrible aluminium covering or security blinds. At night, they open up for those out socially or near nightclubs. If there are too many of them in a town centre, they become a very unpleasant feature. I have a big Poundstretcher warehouse in my constituency, but I have to say that too many pound shops—low-cost, pound-style shops—in one area also blight a town centre. Furthermore, if they are like Poundstretcher, what and how they pay their employees bears some scrutiny.

Having too many takeaways or too many pound shops is a problem, as is having too many bookies. We all know the campaigns against fixed-odds betting, through which people can lose their savings in an afternoon. I have joined the throng in calling for regulation of such betting.

Having said what I dislike about some aspects of town centres, I know that the balance has got to be right. Good amenities have to be included. In my constituency at the moment, we have a campaign to save our libraries and our theatre. Again, we are looking at new options, including encouraging social enterprise.

I am going to say something nice about the Government; I know that the Minister will be very alert when I say it. Something that came through in the autumn statement, which we had lobbied very hard for, was an improvement in the inducements for social investment tax relief. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was very positive in reacting to our lobbying and the social investment tax relief has been raised to a much higher level, so there is more opportunity for people to invest in social enterprise. On the one hand, people on the higher tax rate can invest in social enterprises in their town centres; on the other, crowdfunding can be used. All this activity becomes more possible.

Of course, under any Government, we will have to redesign our town centres and reconsider what they are. They are the heart of our community and the mark of a civilised society, and we must support our small retailers and other small businesses. Let us make sure that the town centres of the future are dominated not by the large, but by the small, the various and the exciting.

Thank you, Mr Streeter, for allowing me to speak. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman); what he says is always inspirational. I will keep my remarks brief, so that the Minister and any other Members who wish to speak have time to contribute.

The point has already been made that town centres are exceptionally important; they are the heart of our communities. I will briefly use Rochdale as an example. The first co-operative shop in Rochdale is still there on Toad lane. There is a fantastic town hall and other fantastic architecture in the centre of Rochdale. There are two shopping centres: the Exchange, which does very well, and the Wheatsheaf, which is less well managed and needs a lot of attention. We also have colleges and leisure centres, which have already been referred to. My hon. Friend made the point that town centres are now very much about a leisure pursuit; there has been a real change. However, there are challenges, as he said, particularly in relation to online shopping. Having said that, Rochdale Online department store—which is an internet news hub that works with independent retailers so that they can offer their goods online in Rochdale—is a fantastic innovation.

The night-time economy is another challenge. It now starts very late into the night, if not in the early morning. I went round a couple of pubs on Saturday evening in Rochdale—I went to the Roebuck, the Reed hotel, the Spread Eagle and the Regal Moon—and really understood what the night-time economy is about, but there is a lot more to be done.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the night-time economy and he is making a good point. Does he agree that one of the things we can do to strengthen our town and city centres is to ensure that the gap between the daytime and night-time economy is broken down? One of the things that shops and shopping centres can do to help is look at their opening hours, to try to ensure that the time that people are socialising and shopping in the early evening runs into the night-time economy more effectively.

That is an excellent point. The early evening economy is just as important, because it connects everything together and makes for a safer place to be.

Councils have a critical role to play, and I am pleased to say that recently Rochdale has been much more innovative: free parking for three hours is being introduced and there is a new business rates scheme to help to fill empty shops. However, central Government have to play their part. I have concerns about the national planning policy framework, which I do not think puts the town centre first. The Association of Convenience Stores found that 76% of new retail floor space created since the NPPF came in has been out of town. Business rates revaluation has been a failure for northern towns in particular and the Government have failed fully to act on the Mary Portas recommendations.

Whoever is in Government next time needs to have a better strategy. We must listen less to the bigger players, such as the supermarkets, and we need to get local government doing more.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing the debate and I thank all hon. Members who contributed to it. They are right: if high streets are to remain at the heart of our communities, they need to be vibrant and viable places where people can live, shop, use services and spend their leisure time both during the day and in the evening.

Successful towns and high streets are adapting to the changing needs of their customers. A recent report by the university of Southampton found that a growing convenience culture and the night-time economy have been important for the resilience of the high street. The review also suggested that the long-term shift to more leisure, health and beauty services will continue.

Successful high streets are also making use of online retail. Britain leads the way in click and collect, with 35% of online shoppers using self-collect, and that figure is set to double in the next three years. According to John Lewis, 56% of its online shoppers opted for in-store collection during last year’s Christmas period. All that helps drive footfall.

The Government are committed to helping our high streets, but the vision, plans and ideas for town centres must come from the local areas themselves. We have taken forward a range of measures that will help. We announced in the Chancellor’s autumn statement a further £650 million of support for business rates bills in England. We have also given local councils wide-ranging powers to grant business rates discounts. With business rates retention, councils now have a strong incentive to invest in the future of their town centres. Central Government will meet 50% of any costs of any local discount granted. We have also announced that we will review the future structure of business rates by 2016.

To help small businesses, we have extended the doubling of small business rate relief for another year. To help tackle vacant properties, we have introduced a new reoccupation relief, halving business rates for 18 months for businesses taking over a long-term empty retail property. We have lifted planning restrictions to help high streets be more flexible and encourage reuse of redundant office and retail space. We have also recently consulted on further changes, which include controlling the spread of betting shops and payday loan shops.

We all know how important parking is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) mentioned in his intervention, and we are introducing a range of reforms, including stopping the use of CCTV for parking enforcement except in limited circumstances.

Corporation tax was reduced to 21% in April last year and will fall to 20% in April this year. We are also easing the tax burden on small shops. Every business and charity is now entitled to an allowance against its national insurance contributions bill each year. More than 90% of the benefit of that allowance goes to small businesses with fewer than 50 employees, including small shops.

Retail is one of the major employers of young people and we have made such employment cheaper by cutting employer contributions for those under 21.We will continue to take the opportunities where we can to help at a national level, but everyone needs to play their part. Businesses large and small, local government and, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield rightly pointed out, the community and the third sector all have a role to play. We have funded more than 360 town teams, including the Portas pilots, and put their ideas into practice. They have delivered many significant successes and the focus now is on building on that and helping other areas to learn about what works.

Business improvement districts are a successful model of how local businesses can work together to lever greater funding for their town centres. We have set up a loan fund to help with start-up costs and legislated to create property owners BIDs. We are also taking forward new measures to strengthen the role of BIDs and give them more powers locally.

Every council should be able to deliver sensible savings, while protecting front-line services for local taxpayers. We urge all councils to work with their local town teams and BIDs to identify where they can make the most difference. Many councils are already playing a leading role in their town teams, providing financial and management support. Councils can also look at more targeted support. I point the hon. Member for Huddersfield to the examples of Peterborough council and Cannock Chase council, which have done a tremendous amount of work in this area.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman focus on social enterprises and community organisations, which have a key role to play. I know that they do much in his constituency, including looking at taking over the free town bus service. Community groups can organise to take control of key community assets or deliver projects that benefit their area.

We understand that it can be difficult to access the finance needed to start or sustain such projects over the long term, so we welcome initiatives such as the forthcoming power to change programme, which no doubt the hon. Gentleman will have heard of, which will use a £150 million endowment from the Big Lottery Fund to provide funding and support to existing and new community businesses. Power to change has already met with the future high streets forum to look at how they can support high streets, town centres and libraries.

Does the Minister agree that whoever is in charge—councils take much less of a lead role in many towns—we need good design, long-term thinking and to appeal to the older age group, who need cover in all weathers when they go shopping or out to the town centre? Design is at the heart of so many of these challenges.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As well as consolidating the work that we have done with the Great British High Street in exchanging good ideas and buddying one area with another to help people to get out of the blocks faster, we have also been concentrating on areas that have been in the “too tough” in-tray for too long. He might like to talk to the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who is one of a number of colleagues for whom we have put together a bespoke package, including an event that will help design the plan for his local high street. I would be happy to replicate that support in his area if that would be helpful.

The hon. Gentleman is right that everyone has a role to play and social enterprise is a key part of that. In other parts of my portfolio, and in working with local enterprise partnerships in particular, we have really been pushing that agenda by ensuring that such enterprises have representation on the board and that they are focused on all the opportunities in their sector. He is right that crowdfunding is a fantastic way to access finance. The Government now fund the community shares unit and a pilot site that helps communities issue community share offers. The site also provides advice on good practice and it is supporting the roll-out of a sector-led quality assurance mark.

More support will be available and work that the future high street forum has been undertaking will be published before the end of the Parliament. I point the hon. Gentleman to the Great British High Street portal, which contains a huge amount of support and advice for traders and all who have a role to play in making our town centres and high streets vibrant. My Department stands ready to provide whatever support he needs.

I thank the hon. Gentleman not just for the positive tone that he took to some of the initiatives that the Government have been pushing, but for his recognition that tremendously creative people are looking after our high streets. They have achieved an enormous amount in the past few years. The public value our high streets. He is right that they are more than just places to shop: they provide a social network, support and so much more that enhances our quality of life. I thank him for securing the debate and for enabling us to air those issues this afternoon.