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High Streets

Volume 669: debated on Monday 13 January 2020

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s support for high streets. (900108)

11. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s support for high streets. (900110)

15. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s support for high streets. (900115)

20. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s support for high streets. (900121)

This Government are committed to supporting high streets and local leaders up and down the country, and we are doing that through our £1 billion future high street fund, which is part of our larger £3.6 billion towns fund.

As this is our first questions after the festive season I want to take this opportunity to thank all the shopworkers who worked so hard over the Christmas period to enable us to deliver our Christmas presents—and particularly, if I may, Mr Speaker, the workers in the RSPCA shop on Bank Street who sold me the very natty tie I am wearing for 50p only last Friday.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply—and I think his tie is very blue.

My constituency, Cities of London and Westminster, is home to Oxford Street, often referred to as the nation’s high street. Given that local authorities rely heavily on business rate receipts to help encourage more investment into the high street, what plans do the Government have to give councils greater fiscal powers to invest business rates locally?

What an excellent question; I would like to start by welcoming my hon. Friend to her place, and her question is a sign of the expertise that can be brought into this House when we have people with long experience in local government. She will know that local government can currently retain 50% of business rates revenue growth, and councils are able to work with those retained business rates and see what they can do to improve their local areas. I know that as a new and robust Member of this House my hon. Friend will continue her work with Westminster City Council to make sure that that happens.

Towns like Brierley Hill in Dudley South have struggled to compete with nearby retail parks, and also now increasingly with more shopping moving online. Will my right hon. Friend do everything he can to help towns like Brierley Hill adapt to modern economic challenges and also make those town centres places where people want to be?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited Brierley Hill, I am sure to celebrate the fact that it is one of the first 100 places under our future high street fund to receive £150,000 revenue funding to work on the exciting plans to ensure our high streets are fit for the future. My hon. Friend, who is, I think, still the chairman of the all-party group on beer, will be working very hard to make sure our pubs are protected, and we can have micropubs up and down the land.

In recent years Wolverhampton city centre and, in my constituency, local centres such as Wednesfield high street have struggled. I am delighted that Wolverhampton city centre will benefit from the Government’s stronger towns fund, but will the Minister work with me so that local traders and retail businesses all over Wolverhampton North East, including market traders in Wednesfield high street—

It is a city. Will the Minister work with me so that they feel confident that the Government will support their hard work and further local regeneration?

I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend is looking forward to playing an active role both in her high street and stronger towns fund bid. The idea behind this is to bring together leaders and communities—Members of Parliament, council leaders, business leaders and third sector groups—to come up with a long-term plan for the improvement of their towns. Whichever side of the House Members sit on, that is absolutely something they will want to see for the area they represent. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend as she takes that role forward.

Speaking to traditional retailers during the election campaign, it is clear that future business rates is a massive issue for them. There is, in particular, a sense that there is not a level playing field between them and the increasingly dominant and massive digital retailers. Will the review of business rates, which we promised in our manifesto, be looking at that?

I welcome my hon. Friend back. He has been a redoubtable campaigner in the area of business rates in his time in Parliament. Working with him and through him, the Government have, since 2016, introduced a £13 billion cut in business rates over the next five years. Should we in this Parliament seek to go further and faster? Yes. We are going to review business rates and I am sure my hon. Friend will play an active role in that review.

Leading on from the issue raised by my fellow colleague from Suffolk, Beales has stores in both Lowestoft and Beccles in my constituency. It is clear that the crippling impact of business rates has been a significant contributory factor to the difficulties it is currently facing. I acknowledge the rates relief the Government have provided to smaller businesses, but may I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure, in the review of business rates that is due to take place, that the Government not only consider root and branch reform but the replacement of rates, too?

My hon. Friend, as a chartered surveyor, is an expert in this area and, like our parliamentary colleague, he has campaigned vigorously and continuously. In terms of the review, everything is going to be reviewed. It will be a joint review between my Department and the Treasury. All ideas, from all sides of the House, about how we improve the health of our high streets and our business community more generally, will certainly be taken on board.

I want to return to the question from the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), which I do not think the Minister really answered. In the previous Parliament, a unanimously agreed Select Committee report—I think it was generally well received, apart from the response from the Government which was a bit lukewarm—recommended that we address the fundamental imbalance whereby Amazon pays 0.7% of its turnover in business rates and high street shops pay between 2% and 6%. That unfairness needs to be addressed. Will the Government now commit, as part of their business rate review, to look at that unfairness and at how we can rebalance tax, so that digital sales pay more and high street sales pay less?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will not complain if I just take the opportunity to wish him a happy birthday. What a great question to ask on his birthday. If he listened to the answers I gave, I was absolutely clear that this will be a fundamental and wide-ranging review of business rates. All arguments, including those set out in the report by the Select Committee he chaired in the previous Parliament, will be taken into account. Perhaps, if he gets a spare moment this evening in between blowing out candles, he can read the relevant passage of the Conservative manifesto, which is pretty clear on this point.

I spoke to the previous Secretary of State to ask for Knottingley in my constituency to be included in the towns fund, because the high street is under great pressure and has been heavily hit by public service cuts and Government spending cuts in the last few years. We have lost not only the last bank and local shops, but the sports centre, the library, the Sure Start centre, much policing and local youth services. Knottingley has not been included and, frankly, that means that it is not getting a fair deal. Will the Minister ask the Secretary of State to meet me and see what can be done to make sure that Government investment can go back into Knottingley town centre and that we can get a fair deal for the town?

I remind the Minister that it is not only high streets but our town centres that are under pressure and in decline all over our country, and this is not just about business rates, but about notable buildings. Mr Speaker, you will know about the George hotel, where rugby league was founded 125 years ago—the anniversary is coming up next year. It cannot be renovated and has lain empty and idle for years. Surely the compulsory purchase order system could be improved to give local authorities the ability to take a significant building in any town centre and do something about it.

The planning White Paper will come out after the conclusion of the debate on the Queen’s Speech, and, looking at how CPO works in our town centres and other parts of the country will be part of the consultation. On the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, it would seem to me a crying shame if this issue could not be dealt with, as we head towards the rugby league world cup. If he would like to come to see me, I will certainly make it my job to do so.

Mr Speaker, it was a pleasure to see your journey down here with Patrick the cat and Boris the parrot a couple of days ago—a preening, repetitive, attention-seeking Boris; I am sure he will fit in quite well here.

Our high streets and town centres are in crisis, with more shops closing than opening. The Government keep falling way below what is needed to take real action that will make a difference. When will they take real action to address the fundamental weakness of our business taxation system to give our high streets and town centres a fighting chance? As a practical suggestion, why not look at enterprise-type zones for our town centres with incentives to make sure that they have a future?

In terms of practical action, the £3.6 billion towns fund seems to be a good place to start. When we add to that the £13 billion that we are saving for businesses in business rates, we are certainly making some progress, but I will go away and look at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion about high street enterprise zones.