We are determined to support our high streets and we have consulted on a package of proposals. A decision will be made shortly about how best to proceed.
The announcement that Bedford will lose its Marks & Spencer store after 100 years is a massive blow for our town centre. Will the Minister accept the recommendations of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s report and commit to helping local authorities such as mine that need urgent funding to redevelop our town centres?
I said in response to an earlier question that I think the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s report is excellent, and we are considering it at the moment. I have sympathy with the local authority in Bedford and the challenge it faces with the closure of M&S, which is why I recommend that the hon. Gentleman, together with his local authority, makes an expression of interest in the Government’s future high streets fund by 22 March. The fund is designed to help areas to ensure that high streets remain at the heart of their community, which is exactly where they should be.
People who live in Spennymoor, Shildon and Bishop Auckland in my constituency feel that the decline in their high streets symbolises the fact that they are not listened to in general. So cannot the Minister understand that the proposal to bypass the planning rules on permitted development is exactly the wrong way to go? What we want is more involvement and more control for local neighbourhood communities.
On a recent visit to Bishop Auckland, I had the privilege of visiting the hon. Lady’s high street. I am sure she would agree that the inspirational work taking place at the Bishop Auckland project, where a charity, in partnership with the local authority, is coming forward with an ambitious plan to regenerate the high street, is exactly what the Government should be looking to support as part of their future high streets fund. Although I am sure we are both passionate about Bishop Auckland, I disagree with her, because one way we can ensure that high streets thrive is to ensure that the free market can determine planning and that people are free to open shops in the sectors they see fit at the appropriate time.
In high-value areas such as St Albans, previous planning reforms have meant that office space has been turned over to residential. Couple that with high business rates and there is a serious danger of losing much of our high streets in many areas similar to mine. What more can be done to help on business rates? The £51,000 limit is welcome, but it has not helped many of my businesses in St Albans.
The reduction in business rates for shops with a rateable value under £51,000 is, of course, part of a wider package. My hon. Friend, as a campaigner for her high streets, will appreciate that the change from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index, and the other changes to make revaluations more frequent—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) must not beetle out of the Chamber in the middle of the exchanges on his question. I know he has asked his question, but there are further questions on the matter. I feel certain that he is interested in not only what he has had to ask, but the views expressed by other Members.
You never know, Mr Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman might be interested in what I have to say, although I doubt it. [Interruption.]
The Whip says that the Minister is pushing his luck, but he must not get down on himself. People should be interested in hearing what the Minister has to say. The hon. Member for Bedford has, belatedly, stayed after all and we are pleased about that.
This is not just about the help the Government have set out on business rates; it is also about ensuring that high streets can remain fit for the future. It is all very well for the Opposition Front-Bench team to scoff against the free market, as they did during my response earlier, but let us not forget that the people who ply their trade and work as retailers on the high street are the embodiment of all that is good about British entrepreneurship.
Mendip District Council has made some excellent inclusions in our local plan for rejuvenating high streets in the district. Will the Minister commend the council’s work and look favourably on any bids it brings forward to help to fund the transformation of our high streets?
I absolutely commend Mendip District Council and my hon. Friend for their work on taking forward a bid for their high street. He and his area will be aware, as will all other areas in the country, that they have until 22 March to put in an expression of interest—100% of the boroughs that receive the cash will have applied for it, so I suggest they get on with it.