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Lowestoft High Street: Revitalisation

Volume 658: debated on Wednesday 10 April 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

I am pleased to have secured this debate because businesses on the high street in Lowestoft are really struggling at present, and there is an urgent need for government, both national and local, to work with the private sector to address the problem. If we do not do so, more businesses will close, more jobs will be lost and more livelihoods will be jeopardised. While there are specific challenges that need to be addressed in Lowestoft, this is a challenge that town centres face all around the country.

High streets are the backbone of our economy: they are at the heart of local communities; they nurture local businesses; and they provide many local jobs. Millions of people all around the country work or have worked in retail, often in town centres and often as their first experience of the workplace. High streets need to reinvent themselves, otherwise untold damage will be done to many local economies.

Businesses cannot do this on their own: there is a need for teamwork with businesses, landlords, business improvement districts, chambers of commerce, the Government and, in the case of Lowestoft, East Suffolk Council and Lowestoft Town Council all working together. Lowestoft Town Council has an important role to play with its local knowledge and contacts.

In Lowestoft, there are exciting plans to reinvigorate the local economy—making the most of offshore renewables, regenerating the local fishing industry and showcasing our tourism offer as Britain’s most easterly town, with a rich maritime heritage. However for those plans to be successful, we need a vibrant high street, a beating heart at the centre of the community.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I sought permission from him to intervene, because the high street is an issue in not only Lowestoft but Newtownards in the middle of my constituency. Some businesses in the core centre of Newtownards, in the heart of Strangford, not only have high street shops but are online. There is a success story there. Does he feel that while some can do that, not all can? We need help for the high street centrally from Westminster and regionally—perhaps defraying or reducing the rates—so that high streets can continue to be vibrant.

I am very much homing in on the issues and challenges in Lowestoft, but the problems are faced all around these islands, from the very east, which I represent, to the very west, which the hon. Gentleman represents. Business needs to adapt, and the Government have a role to play in addressing the problems. He mentioned business rates, and I will come on to that.

The challenges that the high street faces have been with us for some time. Lowestoft faced up to those and formed a business improvement district, Lowestoft Vision, which instigated initiatives that have helped to stem the rising tide, but in recent weeks there has been an alarming acceleration of shop closures. Following the relocation of Poundstretcher and the closures of BHS, Argos, the Body Shop and Claire’s Accessories, Beales department store, Kerrys, and long-established family businesses Coes and Cook’s have all put up the closing-down signs.

The town centre in Lowestoft, which comprises Station Square, London Road North, the High Street and the surrounding streets, is in danger of being hollowed out. Last month, out of 410 premises, 75 were vacant. National retail analysis indicates that that trend will accelerate in the coming months rather than slowing down. We do not have a Debenhams in Lowestoft, but such administrations will be a recurring feature of the retail landscape.

I shall just mention London Road South in Kirkley—not technically in the town centre of Lowestoft—where in recent years the business community has come together to regenerate that particular street, that particular thoroughfare. They were very successful in doing so, but they also face challenges and I shall liaise with them about how best to assist them.

The high street is under pressure for many reasons. Those that affect all towns include the move since the 1980s towards out-of-town shopping, with the convenience of free parking right in front of the store, which is not available for shops on the high street; high rents on the high street, which are a problem because they are not sustainable for many businesses as footfall declines; the high level of business rates is a problem, as we heard, although the recent revaluation helped some businesses in Lowestoft town centre; the relentless rise of the internet, which is well documented; and the fact that as a nation we make fewer big shopping trips.

Other factors are unique to Lowestoft, such as the challenges of being a coastal town, with half the catchment area being sea and trade being seasonal; the disadvantage of ready accessibility to Norwich, which is a regional shopping and cultural centre that, much as it grieves me to say so as an Ipswich Town supporter, punches way above its weight; and Lowestoft’s relatively isolated location with poor road and rail links does not help, albeit with a station right in the town centre. The situation is made worse because the A47 main road goes right through the middle of Station Square.

Numerous other obstacles to ready access at times make the town centre difficult to reach. Those include a number of congestion pinch points, repair work to the Bascule Bridge that links south and north Lowestoft, and emergency utility works, such as the sewer repairs in Station Square, which took place at the end of last year. Such barriers to getting into Lowestoft have meant that many prefer to do their shopping in Beccles, about 10 miles away. The third crossing of the port, which is being considered by the Government’s Planning Inspectorate, will alleviate the problem, but its opening is some three years away.

Out-of-town shopping has not helped and the council recently faced the difficult decision of deciding whether to grant planning permission for the redevelopment of the former Zephyr Cams factory on the south Lowestoft industrial estate. The proposal would remove an eyesore at a prominent gateway to the town, but it would also enhance the attraction of out-of-town shopping to the detriment of the town centre. The relocation of the district council’s offices from the town hall in the High Street has removed lunchtime shoppers, and it is unfortunate that the alternative use of the property that was lined up fell through. It also grates with me that Suffolk County Council is relocating the Lowestoft Record Office, currently based in Lowestoft’s library, to Ipswich to facilitate a regeneration project there seemingly without considering the need for a similar initiative in Lowestoft. The library, which lies between the Britten Centre and the Clapham Road car park, wants to be a key component of the regeneration of the town centre and the High Street.

While there is an urgent need for short-term measures to slow down and halt the rate of closures—I shall return to that topic later—East Suffolk Council has put forward an exciting vision for the revitalisation of the High Street, which forms part of its bid to the future high streets fund. I urge the Minister to give the bid full and favourable consideration, although I appreciate that the Department will go through a full and proper assessment process.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. His description of the challenges facing Lowestoft mirrors the situation facing my constituency, because fishing, tourism and renewables are also relevant to Cleethorpes. I am sure that the Minister will mention the Greater Grimsby town deal, a private sector-led initiative that will support Government initiatives such as the coastal communities fund, and it is vital to get the private sector involved.

My hon. Friend makes the point that coastal towns face particular challenges. There is so much in Cleethorpes that is similar to Lowestoft, and the public and private sectors need to get together as a team to address those problems. I sense that we have not been able to achieve that previously, but the clock is ticking alarmingly close to midnight, so we must get on and create that team.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), I share my hon. Friend’s recognition of the isolation facing coastal communities due to the 180° of sea. Does he agree that the recently announced stronger towns fund will introduce welcome funding into such communities? Will he join me encouraging the Minister to help nudge the scheme along so that it supports not just England, but the devolved nations?

I will come on to discuss the variety of funds that we will be able to dip into, so I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I am very interested in the fact that he referred to himself as an Ipswich Town supporter, because my eldest son Jamie also supports Ipswich Town. The Tractor Boys, as they are called, are holding up the Championship at the minute, but we hope that they will get out of relegation.

My question is about councils. My council has a regeneration project involving all the villages in the area, including the fishing villages. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that councils have an important role to play when it comes to regeneration?

I am pleased to hear that the gospel of Ipswich Town extends throughout these islands. They kick off at Brentford in about 15 minutes’ time.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of teamwork between councils and the private sector. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) said, they need to work together. We need to grasp that nettle.

East Suffolk Council has come up with a strategy to address these problems and take full advantage of Lowestoft’s unique selling point as Britain’s most easterly town, which is perhaps something we have previously been rather shy in shouting about. It is also important to make the most of the regeneration opportunities that the third crossing will provide, as well as the location of the railway station at the heart of the town and the potential to blend the town centre with the modern and newly vibrant fish market.

The need to increase leisure provision is also recognised in the bid, building on what we already have with the Marina theatre and the Bethel, which is home to the Lowestoft Players. The proposal highlights Lowestoft’s heritage, invariably closely associated with the sea, and seeks to provide seamless links to Ness Point, the country’s most easterly point, and to the south beach via the historical Scores.

There are four distinctive interrelated areas in the proposal. First, the buildings around Station Square will be restored, with the objective of creating an area attractive to restaurants and leisure activities. It will be renamed Peto Square, after Sir Samuel Morton Peto, who built the station. The former parcel office is currently being refurbished and will be brought back into use as a visitor centre and community café.

Secondly, in the southern section of London Road North, retail uses will be consolidated around a refurbished Britten centre. The council’s recent purchase of the former post office will act as a catalyst for redevelopment. The council also owns the Battery Green car park site, where significant public-private investment is envisaged to create a modern leisure hub, with the possibility of a multi-screen cinema, a gym and a hotel. This will link to the Marina theatre via a newly pedestrianised Marina Street.

Thirdly, at the northern end of London Road North, a wider range of uses is proposed. As well as retail, there will be refurbished and new build housing, community space, work units and offices.

Finally, the High Street area will become Lowestoft’s heritage quarter, with a mix of independent retailers, galleries and local eateries. The town hall will be brought back into use to provide cultural and community space. The ancient pathways known as the Scores, which link the High Street to the former beach village and onwards to Ness Point, will be restored to their original condition.

Newly designated parking areas on the periphery of the High Street will cater for an increase in visitors to what will be a destination location. The Triangle marketplace will be reintroduced, with high-quality market stalls and support for a regular and varied programme of art, craft, antique and food events. The vacant space above shops could be converted into residential accommodation.

To be fair to the Government, they are not asleep on the job. They have come forward with a variety of initiatives to meet the challenges faced by high streets across the country. These include providing £10 million to help local areas clean up their streets, making them more attractive places to work and visit; reducing the business rates bills of many small businesses and taking 600,000 businesses out of paying rates altogether; promoting the future high streets fund, which will make £675 million available to help modernise high streets and town centres; relaxing planning rules to support new homes on high streets; establishing an expert panel chaired by Sir John Timpson to diagnose the issues that affect the UK’s high streets and to advise on how to make our high streets thrive; and promoting the Great British High Street awards and supporting businesses through the future high street forum. It is important that these initiatives are properly co-ordinated, sustained and adequately resourced.

There is a slight sense of déjà vu, because in 2012 Lowestoft was designated a Portas pilot town, but seven years on the situation has got worse. If we read the Portas review again, we see that Mary Portas came up with 28 practical recommendations. Not all of them were necessarily appropriate for all towns, but if they had been implemented and fully followed through, I sense that they would have helped to improve the situation across the UK, although I do not think that on their own they would have brought about the renaissance that our town centres so urgently need. The fact that the Portas review did not bring about the transformation that she was seeking and that we all yearned for was, in my opinion, partly down to the fact that there are so many organisations with a role to play and it is difficult to get them all working together, hence the need, as we have heard this evening, for team building.

I sense that the future high streets fund will be over-subscribed and the Government will be under pressure to hand out smaller slices of cake to a great many towns. If necessary, additional funds must be found, and it would be helpful if it was possible for funds to be pooled from the future high streets fund, the coastal communities fund and the stronger towns fund. I wrote to the Secretary of State last month seeking clarification on whether that would be possible, and I look forward to receiving his reply.

While highlighting the role of government, it is also important to mention the role of the private sector. Yes, high street businesses need national and local government to provide a level playing field with online competitors, without any grand national-style obstacles, but they also need to adapt what they offer so as to ensure that it is distinct and different from what their online competitors provide.

It should also be pointed out that some of the prime retailing area on London Road North is owned, like so much of the UK’s high street, by institutional investors such as pension funds and insurance companies. Their post-war business model of letting shops on 25-year full repairing and insuring leases, with five-yearly upward-only rent reviews, to businesses with a proven track record is now outdated and largely a thing of the past.

There are examples in the big cities—at King’s Cross, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Bristol—of such institutions playing a leading role in redeveloping business and shopping districts, helping create a distinct sense of place, with a wider variety of commercial and community activities. They have a similar role to play in smaller cities and towns, on high streets up and down the country where they own property. They need to be brought in as part of the team.

As I mentioned earlier, I am conscious that East Suffolk Council’s vision, while exciting, may feel like a distant dream to businesses fighting for their survival on the Lowestoft High Street. There are a variety of short-term measures that could be instigated to support them now. First, East Suffolk Council should carry out a review of its car park charges. I accept that the council faces difficult budgeting challenges of its own, but all avenues should be explored to see whether it is possible to come up with a system of charges that are not a deterrent to visiting Lowestoft town centre.

Secondly, linked to that, the statutory instrument for decriminalising on-street parking in Lowestoft and across much of the rest of Suffolk must be fast-tracked. This would help prevent illegal street parking, which currently handicaps many retailers, and would be another source of income for the council, which could then be reinvested into the town centre. I urge the Minister to do all he can to encourage his colleagues at the Department for Transport to give that work the highest priority.

Thirdly, working together, Lowestoft Vision, Lowestoft Town Council, East Suffolk Council and I must ensure that Lowestoft town centre is as tidy and clean as possible this coming summer. That was not the case at times last summer, partly due to the long hot, dry spell.

Fourthly, the plans to find a new occupier for the former town hall must be stepped up. Again, I will work with Lowestoft Town Council and East Suffolk Council to help achieve that.

Looking at the role of national Government, I have three additional asks of the Minister. First, a root and branch review of business taxation needs to take place. I acknowledge that the Government have introduced the business rates relief for small businesses, but the business rates burden continues to accelerate store closures, job losses and the decline of the high street. There is the associated problem that, with business rate retention by the councils, our councils are now more reliant on business rates, and if there is a fall in the income available to them from rates, they will have less funding available for investment in services.

There needs to be a full review of business taxation, taking into account the interplay between all taxation of businesses, including business rates, corporation tax, VAT, national insurance contributions and taxes not yet used in the UK. At present, businesses on the high street are carrying too big a burden. The system is not progressive and does not properly take into account a business’s profitability and ability to pay.

Secondly, to encourage the conversion to residential use of vacant town centre accommodation, particularly on upper floors, should not VAT be zero-rated on such refurbishment projects in line with the construction of new residential dwellings? Thirdly, a wider range of uses are going to take place in high streets in the future, so national and local government need to think carefully about what public sector activities should be encouraged to take place there. Should not the NHS and our schools pursue a “town centre first” approach when considering the location of surgeries, clinics, schools and colleges?

With the Brexit debate raging, there is a worry that the future of our high streets will be overlooked. That must not happen. If it does, we shall be letting down people, communities and businesses all around the country. I believe that there is an exciting future in Lowestoft, but to get there, while limiting further business fall-out, we need a concerted effort by all, with government taking the lead. I hope that, in his reply, the Minister can provide the reassurance that people in Lowestoft are seeking.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for raising this important debate. I note that, only two weeks ago, he also raised the matter with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions. He has raised it at length and with sagacity, and I hope to have the opportunity to respond.

The passion with which my hon. Friend has spoken about his town centre is just so exciting. In fact, the Conservative Members present here tonight and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) of the Democratic Unionist party are demonstrating that they, too, share that passion and desire for their high street. That passion is also shared by the Government. When I get up every single morning, I go to work thinking that my job in government is to oversee and drive forward the renaissance of our regions, and the high streets of our smaller towns and cities around the country are on my agenda.

I wish briefly to thank John Timpson, who carried out the Timpson review. I spoke to John last year and asked him whether he would lead the review. Initially, he said no, and the reason was that he had 2,200 shops to run. I then put it to him that it was quite a good idea to have someone who runs 2,200 shops to help the Government write their new high streets policy. I was delighted with his expert panel, and he went on to say yes. One thing that he recommended, which fed directly into the Budget, was the creation of the future high streets fund. My hon. Friend has repeatedly talked about the need for teamwork, and the prospectus for that fund explicitly sets out that the bids that succeed will have teamwork and business very much at their heart. Of course, it is not only my hon. Friend who has grabbed the opportunity of the future high streets fund—over £600 million—with gusto. More than 300 bids have been sent to the Government, and we are currently reviewing them in line with the independent bidding policy that we have put in place.

My hon. Friend talked very well about teamwork, which is hugely important. He also talked about locating public services on high streets. As well as thanking Sir John Timpson, I want to thank Bill Grimsey, who said in his Grimsey review, “Wouldn’t it be refreshing if we located our libraries, GP surgeries, childcare and town halls on our high streets to ensure that people visited?” I was therefore slightly concerned to hear my hon. Friend say that Lowestoft is moving some of those very same services away from the high street, when the big push of public policy is to place the public sector absolutely at the heart of the high street.

My hon. Friend raised the short-term challenges faced by Lowestoft, particularly his desire for free parking. In my own local authority area, we have the blessing of free parking on our high street. Parking charges should always be locally determined, but I would say to local authority leaders around the country that at the Trafford Centre—my constituents’ nearest major shopping centre—the parking is free and every parking space is full, but when I visit towns that charge for parking, it is clear that many parking spaces lie empty, just as the shops will eventually lie empty if people do not visit their high streets. I urge local authorities to bear in mind my hon. Friend’s comments, as well as my own.

My hon. Friend said that he is seeking UK Government action regarding a review of business rates. This is of course a question for my friends and colleagues in Her Majesty’s Treasury, and he may seek to engage them more heavily on that. On the town centre first policy, he would do well to build on the good practice set out by Bill Grimsey.

Finally, we heard a brilliant contribution from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Business rates are devolved in their entirety, so he would need to take up his point locally in Northern Ireland. I celebrate and cheer on the involvement of Northern Ireland in the Great British High Street competition for the first time last year. We are running that competition again this year, and it will be bigger, better and have more applicants, many of whom I hope will come from Northern Ireland.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).