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High Streets

Volume 689: debated on Monday 22 February 2021

May I associate myself and all on the Government Benches with the remarks you have just made with respect to Julia, Mr Speaker? We are all very saddened to hear of her death. As you said, service to this House comes in many forms and few have served it as well as she has. We all pass on our deepest condolences to her husband, family and friends.

The Government’s response to the pandemic has seen billions of pounds of support flowing to our high streets through business grants, the furlough scheme and tax deferrals. We look to the future with renewed optimism through the progress of our world-beating vaccination programme, but we know the pandemic has magnified and accelerated market forces and will have a lasting impact on the hight street. The role of high streets has always evolved. I am confident that it will do so again, provided there is the right leadership from local councils to make that happen. We are supporting councils and the pace of change through planning and licensing reform, preserving what is best about the high street at the heart of our local communities but enabling it to move forward with renewed confidence.

I, too, pass on my great sympathies to the family of Julia Clifford. She was indeed a great person and always cheerful.

High streets need to adapt to the changing nature of retail and become places that offer a chance for everyone to work, rest and play as well as shop. Does my right hon. Friend agree that planning policy must adapt, so that councils and businesses can make the changes they need to remain competitive and broaden their appeal to the public?

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. We are seeing profound changes to the high street. As it begins to reopen later this year, we will need an extremely flexible planning system so that we can ensure that small businesses and entrepreneurs can adapt and evolve. We will need a mixed economy, ensuring that there are housing, leisure, shops and restaurants in town and city centres. That is what we are seeking to achieve. We have already put in place, at great speed, a number of significant planning reforms: for example, our reform of use class orders; the ability of local councils to hold markets and of pubs to have marquees in their gardens for longer than they would have done in the past; and permitted development rights to enable businesses that are no longer viable to be turned into high-quality homes so that people of all ages can live in the towns in which they work.

The past year has been incredibly difficult for businesses on the high streets across Sevenoaks and Swanley, but while some landlords have shared that burden others have not. What more can the Government do to encourage landlords to adjust rents where businesses have lost significant trade, or indeed have been unable to trade?

My hon. Friend raises an important question. We are experiencing probably the most significant adjustment in commercial property in our lifetimes and the Government are doing a number of things to assist that process. First, we have helped businesses with their cash flow during the pandemic through the business rates holiday and the business grants that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made available. Secondly, we have given businesses peace of mind during the most difficult months by introducing legislation to protect them from eviction, and from forms of insolvency and debt collection if they cannot pay their rent during this period. Finally, we have worked with the sector to publish a code of practice to help to support rent negotiations.

What is required now, if it has not happened already, are very urgent conversations or mediation, if that is necessary, between landlords and their tenants to ensure that where they can pay, they do so—we expect that to happen—and where they cannot pay, sensible, pragmatic arrangements are put in place. It is not in the interests of good landlords to lose viable businesses at this moment and we strongly encourage landlords, if they have not already, to have those productive conversations as quickly as they can.

The town deal funding combined with levelling-up funds and others are potentially transformational for our high street and local economy in Mansfield, but we need some support. It seems likely that we may have to re-submit our bid this spring to try to get the maximum funding, so will the Secretary of State assure me that he will be able to get proper feedback and support for our new bid, and will he look at whether he might be able to give us some security by ensuring that we cannot get a lower amount if we try again?

My hon. Friend has been a doughty champion for Mansfield. I was very pleased that, in the summer of last year, we were able to provide Mansfield District Council with £1 million of accelerated funding to make immediate improvements to the town. He is right to say that, in some places, our experience is—both through the towns fund and the high streets fund—that local proposals have required further support and guidance to ensure that they meet the perfectly understandable value-for-money requirements put in place by my Department and the Treasury. We are going to help Mansfield to prepare its proposals. We have put in place consultancy arrangements to do that and I look forward to working with him.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a significant part of regenerating our high streets needs to be bringing back into use old, historic buildings that have been out of use for far too long? That underlines why the Ipswich town deal bid is such a good bid, because at the heart of it, and the two most popular projects in the consultation, are plans to breathe new life into the Paul’s silo building—£4 million on the waterfront—and the old Post Office building: two iconic buildings for Ipswich that need a breath of new life.

My hon. Friend and I share a personal interest in historic buildings and the culture and heritage of our towns and cities. Ipswich, as the county town of Suffolk, has a particularly rich heritage. We want to see historic buildings restored and regenerated, and that is a significant part of all the funds that we have made available to date and will be of their successors—the levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund. I very much look forward to working with him as he finalises his proposals and ensures that Ipswich gets the regeneration funding that it needs.

I offer my condolences on behalf of the Opposition to the family of Julia Clifford on their very, very sad loss.

High streets need support to help them to recover, so will the Secretary of State guarantee that the funding that all areas receive under the levelling-up fund will be at least as much as they received under their local growth deal?

I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman’s and the Opposition’s new-found enthusiasm for business and supporting the wealth creators in this country. Of course, it was just over a year ago that they were supporting the overthrow of capitalism. The Leader of the Opposition’s relaunch last week was not quite the Beveridge moment that it was billed as, but we will keep on supporting small businesses on the high street. The Chancellor has done that very successfully over the course of this year in difficult circumstances, with the business rates holiday, the cut in VAT and the support for business grants. We are going to be doing more, as the hon. Gentleman said, with the £4 billion levelling-up fund, which builds on the success of the £3.6 billion towns fund. That will ensure that communities across the country—but particularly those that are furthest away from the labour market, have the highest levels of deprivation and have not seen the levels of Government investment that we would wish hitherto—get the funding that they need to move forward into the year.