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Town Regeneration

Volume 684: debated on Monday 16 November 2020

We are witnessing a profound reshaping of our towns and high streets as covid-19 continues to have a very significant impact on our communities. Our towns fund is investing £3.6 billion in an initial 100 towns, which will help to renew town centres and high streets across the country. In September, all 101 towns received their share of over £80 million to help deliver immediate improvements, and I was pleased to announce the first seven comprehensive town deals last month, with further deals and the results of the future high streets competition being announced very shortly.

The market town of Uttoxeter in my constituency has been identified as well placed to support housing growth in the local plan. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the potential that the regeneration of Uttoxeter town centre offers and how we can ensure that it meets the needs of those who live and work in the area as the population increases?

My hon. Friend has the privilege of representing a historic market town in Staffordshire that I know well, and she is absolutely right to say that covid-19 presents great opportunities for the repurposing of offices and retail. We need to seize that moment and ensure that we get more housing in our town centres. That is the way that we will drive footfall, and we will turn empty shops into thriving homes. We have already put in place new planning reforms to enable people to do just that, as well as to demolish vacant buildings and turn them into housing, and we will continue to find new flexibilities in the months and years ahead to do just that.

Since my election, I have heard from many constituents who have concerns about the neglect of the high street in Blyth. The town has applied for money from the high streets fund as well as the towns fund. While I realise that there has to be a fair and transparent process for selecting the successful schemes, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will do all he can to help the people of Blyth in the Conservative aim to level up? Let us build back better.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Blyth is one of the initial places chosen to develop proposals for the towns fund and for the future high streets fund, and we recently provided £750,000 to make immediate improvements to Bowes Street. I was also pleased that, as part of our £900 million getting building fund, two projects in Blyth are seeing investment from the Government, including £2.6 million for the creation of the UK’s first offshore wind centre for robotics. So, from improving one of the town’s historic streets to green jobs for the future, the Government are investing in new opportunities for Blyth.

Over the last four years the average number of visits per person to Bolton town centre has fallen, as has happened in much of the country—indeed, in Bolton’s case it has fallen by 37%—while vacancies and crime have risen. Can my right Friend assure my residents that the Government will make efforts to reverse this trend by encouraging growth in the markets of the future?

I certainly can. We have taken a number of steps throughout the pandemic to help small businesses, particularly in retail and hospitality, so that when, as we hope and expect, the national measures are eased on 2 December, it will be easier for those businesses to move forward. I was pleased last week to announce that I am extending the right that allows pubs, restaurants and cafés to provide takeaway services until March 2022. I have also extended the option for local authorities, such as the council in Bolton, to host outdoor markets and events, and for businesses such as pubs to use their land temporarily without planning permission, for example for marquees in pub gardens.

Given that the likely response to covid will mean that office space is needed much less in the future, and that that is likely to be a long-term trend, does my right hon. Friend agree that that should have a profound impact on the algorithmic distribution of housing numbers anticipated by the planning White Paper?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are seeing the most substantial change to our city centres and town centres since the second world war, and that does give us pause for reflection. We now need to consider what the opportunities will be for the repurposing of offices as residential and for turning retail into mixed use, and that will, I think, lead us to a different approach to distributing housing numbers across the country. The consultation that he refers to has closed; we are considering the responses, and I will make a statement on that in the weeks ahead.