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Covid-19: High Street Recovery

Volume 697: debated on Monday 14 June 2021

What recent guidance the Government has provided to local authorities on opening up the high street in the context of the covid-19 outbreak. (901094)

As we embark on what we all hope will be a great British summer, this Government have announced a vital package of support for our high streets, from planning easements to funding support. Taken together, we are seeing more than £385 billion of support for our businesses and high streets. With our planning reforms, we will allow our high streets to adapt and thrive, see outdoor markets spring up, and al fresco dining flourish. I am confident that, despite all the challenges, people across this country will rediscover the delights of their local high street this summer.

Cheshire East Council continues to keep unnecessary barriers in place on the high street in Knutsford, blocking off the car parking spaces and damaging local businesses. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Cheshire East Council should be helping local businesses and not literally putting barriers in their way?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that bringing back people to their towns and high streets is vital, including to the one that I know well in Knutsford. Local authorities should be doing everything they can to make those high streets as welcoming as possible. Covid-19 guidance and our al fresco dining revolution should not come at the cost of despoiling otherwise beautiful high streets such as that in Knutsford. With just a little imagination and creativity, it is perfectly possible for barriers to be made beautiful, even if they do need to be there. We want to see council officers apply thought and judgment, rather than being over-zealous. Put simply, if they will not take them down, they should build barriers better.

First, I thank the Secretary of State for recently visiting Accrington to discuss what a difference the levelling-up fund could make to my constituency. We know that it is important to build more houses, but on that visit we also spoke about our dilapidated housing stock both in the town centre and across Hyndburn and Haslingden. Will he agree to meet me to discuss the VAT placed on renovation and repairs for old housing stock and look at the potential for removing this as a trial in certain areas to encourage builders to rejuvenate old housing stock?

My hon. Friend will know that such decisions are for the Chancellor to make. We have in place a reduced rate of VAT at 5% for certain residential renovations to encourage development and incentivise regeneration. However, she makes an important point that of course I would be happy to discuss with her. I thank her for hosting me in April, when it was great to see the town back open for business and still producing some of the best pies in Lancashire. She will know that I got into some trouble for saying that a particular shop in her constituency produced the best pies in the county, so all I will say on this occasion is that they are all pie-oneers and there is a slice for everyone if they visit Accrington.

Our splendid market towns in fabulous Somerton and Frome are driven by their high streets. They are the engine room of the local economy and the hub of the community, as I am sure everybody saw at the fabulous eat:Castle Cary festival last month. However, the past year has obviously been extraordinarily difficult, so does my right hon. Friend agree that support for high street businesses is essential both to keep our communities strong and to achieve a swift economic recovery?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I urge all his constituents to get back to their local high streets to support the shops and hospitality businesses that he mentions and make the most of the sunshine in Somerset. We have seen some positive signs, with Springboard data reporting an increase of over 17% in people shopping on their high streets in the recent half-term break. He mentions the eat:Castle Cary festival. That is exactly the kind of thing we want to see across the country this summer. Outdoors is safer than indoor venues. My Department, for its part, is ensuring that through planning easement it is much easier and simpler for local communities to hold outdoor events such as markets without needing to obtain planning permission.