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Shrewsbury Town Centre Redevelopment

Volume 703: debated on Tuesday 9 November 2021

[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. I will call Daniel Kawczynski to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Shrewsbury town centre redevelopment.

We are very proud of Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire. The Minister may know that Shrewsbury has more listed buildings than any other town in England. That is quite a unique attribute. Having more listed buildings than any other town in England means that we have outstanding architectural beauty in our historic town. Edwardian, Elizabethan and many, many other architectural periods have thrived in Shrewsbury. It was the birthplace of Charles Darwin and his home where he studied at Shrewsbury School before pursuing such a famous and important career.

The historic beauty of the town, surrounded by the beautiful Shropshire countryside, means that tourism is one of the most important major income generators for our town. I am very pleased to have secured a direct train service between Shrewsbury and London. This is extremely important for additional international tourists visiting our town. We have also now secured the funding for the north-west relief road—a vital artery in the ring road around Shrewsbury that is going to be built shortly.

Having secured those two important infrastructure projects in recent times, my mind now turns to how, as a local Member of Parliament, I can support the unitary authority, Shropshire Council, in its attempt to redevelop our town centre. I spent the summer recess extensively lobbying the previous Secretary of State for what is now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and his junior Ministers. We had many meetings and conversations about the extraordinary opportunity that we have in the heart of Shrewsbury to convince the levelling-up fund that this is a project that needs investment. Unfortunately, the reshuffle that took place saw almost a clean sweep of all the Ministers. However, I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his position. I think, from my conversations with him, that he will make an outstanding Minister in the Department, and I am very grateful that he is here today to hear my appeals for this project directly to him and his officials.

In the recent round of levelling-up fund announcements, Shropshire did not secure the £20 million that our local council had asked for to redevelop the town centre. I will come on to explain how the council has now got control of three major shopping centres in the heart of our town, and prime real estate. Nevertheless, we were very disappointed that the council’s attempt to secure this funding was unsuccessful. I want to use this debate to try to tease out a little bit more information from the Minster as to why we were not successful, and what we need to do to turn this from a failure into a success.

We see massive investment in cities in our region such as Manchester and Birmingham. We see huge investments in the so-called red wall seats, in places such as Stoke-on-Trent. If I had £1 for every time I have heard that levelling-up funding was going to Stoke-on-Trent, or one of the other red wall seats, I would have been able to retire by now. I understand why and how red wall seats and inner-city areas in the midlands and the north need levelling-up funds. However, I want to express my concern that in the—quite right—levelling-up process that this Government are putting the country though, which is seeing more money spent in the midlands and in the north rather than the uniquely prosperous capital city in the south-east, we should take a moment to look at how that money is being distributed, and what percentage of that money is going to inner-city conurbations such as Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and others.

I would argue—I will continue to be asking a lot of written parliamentary questions on this—that unfortunately, in the great thrust to redistribute this money to the midlands and the north, it is going primarily to those inner-city conurbations, and the rural shire counties are losing out. That has been my experience over the last 16 years as a Member of Parliament. Already in Shropshire, we receive a fraction of the investment in health, education, roads, and many other public sector services and works—indeed, a fraction of funding across the board—in comparison with those inner-city conurbations.

Therefore, we need greater clarity on the process, how these decisions are taken, when the next round will take place in the levelling-up fund agenda, and what criteria are being used to assess the economic benefits of the levelling-up investments. That is extremely important for the Minister and his Department, because as taxpayers we are particularly interested in value for money and the return on the investment from how that taxpayers’ money is being spent. When a project wins levelling-up funding, it is essential that the Department shares with the electorate not only how the money has been spent, but also the consequences of the public sector investment in that project and the outputs of investing that taxpayers’ money, in terms of gross value added uplift for the local economy and, indeed, jobs and economic prosperity.

Shropshire Council has not heard about future growth deals—when I spoke to Professor Mark Barrow, a senior officer at Shropshire Council, he wanted me to make this point. The council is not cognisant of future growth deals and needs clarification about the local enterprise partnerships. We have heard some quite different assessments and opinions about the LEPs and their long-term sustainability and operability. I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to the long-time LEP head in our area, Mandy Thorn, a local business lady who has done an outstanding job of managing our LEP. However, will the Minister clarify what he perceives to be the future of the LEPs and what role, if any, they will play in the redistribution of taxpayers’ money, so that my council, the LEP and others can plan for these changes?

On the specific nature of the bid, Shropshire Council has purchased three large shopping centres in prime real estate in the town centre: Pride Hill, Darwin and Riverside. There is controversy about this because the council purchased them at a time when their price tag was much higher than what the whole site is worth today. Inevitably, it sows concern with the local electorate and residents when the council makes a purchase of this nature, for tens of millions of pounds, and the value goes down.

Why has the value of the site gone down? We know about the rapidly changing circumstances of British high streets and the huge changes that are taking place in the way retail shopping is carried out, with more and more being done online. On the one hand, I can understand why some people may be concerned that the council has bought the site, but on the other hand the previous private-sector owners did almost nothing to the site, and we were not confident that they were able to develop it in a way that would benefit Shrewsbury.

Nevertheless, the council now owns this prime real estate in the heart of the county town of Shropshire. Bearing in mind what I have said about the changing nature of the high street and how we have to adapt to create lucrative and exciting opportunities for people to visit our high streets, it is now critical that we set aside the controversy over the purchase. We must do everything possible to help our council to develop the site in a way that is in the interests of the local community and is economically beneficial.

We can have a debate as to whether town centre redevelopment should be done by the public sector or the private sector. I have spent as much of my time working in the private sector as I have in the public sector: 16 years. There are weaknesses and strengths on both sides—that I know. The debate is not about whether the private sector or the public sector should develop the site; it is about the reality of the situation: that the council owns the site. As the Member of Parliament, I need the Minister to be cognisant of this opportunity.

I have heard from Professor Mark Barrow that there are already many opportunities and many private-sector companies that are seeking to invest in the site once a decision on how it will be redeveloped is made. Professor Barrow informs me that, when there is a plan for the demolition of some of these sites and redevelopment can start, there will be hundreds of millions of pounds of investment in Shrewsbury town centre. Very prestigious hotel chains have expressed an interest in buying plots and building. There is also an opportunity to reduce retail space to match the changing nature of retail shopping, which will help some of the small, independent retail outlets on Pride Hill, something for which Shrewsbury is famous, rather than the huge superstores that there are in Telford and elsewhere. Reducing retail space is also very important for sustainability.

There is also an opportunity to build a lot of commercial housing, including affordable housing, on the site. That is increasingly important for councils and the Government to take into consideration, bearing in mind how difficult it is for young people today to get on the housing ladder.

Of course, there are other modern facilities that will attract people, not just from Shropshire but from mid-Wales, into the town centre. We are very proud in Shrewsbury, as a border town, to be the gateway to Wales, and we benefit a great deal from many people coming not just from all over Shropshire but from mid-Wales to do their shopping in Shrewsbury.

I ask the Minister to arrange for Peter Freeman and his team at Homes England to meet Shropshire Council officials to discuss the best way forward for this development. The previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), appointed Peter Freeman as the new chair of Homes England in October 2020. Peter Freeman is co-founder of the property developer Argent and is well known as one of the visionaries behind the revival of King’s Cross, as well as major developments in Birmingham and Manchester. He has a track record of planning and delivering the regeneration of local areas, and of creating spaces that are socially and economically vibrant. I would like the Minister to please engage with his experts in the Ministry, including Mr Freeman, who has a national reputation for having the expertise and knowledge to support and successfully move forward these types of projects around the country.

On bended knee, I ask the Minister to seriously consider the £20 million that is desperately needed now to redevelop the site. I heard somewhere today—I will be corrected if I am wrong—that my council spends 84% of all revenue on adult and children’s social care. My council is desperately short of funding. We have a rapidly ageing population and a ticking bomb with adult social care costs in the county. This injection of cash into our town centre would economically regenerate the prosperity of the town and give the council and the whole community a huge boost. I ask the Minister to look on our bid kindly and mercifully.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and to listen to the passionate speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). I congratulate him on securing this important debate and on his unwavering commitment to advocating for his constituency, which I know about from talking to him at first hand. I strongly agree with him that the levelling-up agenda is for the whole country, not just some parts of it, and on the essential importance of accountability, value for money and better understanding what use taxpayers’ money is put to. I will use the time that remains to talk a bit about how the levelling-up agenda can serve Shrewsbury and the rest of his constituency.

The levelling-up agenda is about empowering local leaders and communities. It is about boosting living standards, particularly where they are lower. It is about spreading opportunity and improving public services, particularly where they are weak. It is also about ensuring that communities right across the UK can take pride in their neighbourhoods and the places they call home; my hon. Friend spoke passionately about some of the glories of Shrewsbury and some of those things that people are rightly proud of. I have been encouraged by what I have read about Shrewsbury and the vision and plan of local leaders, particularly in Shrewsbury’s “Big Town Plan”, which is extremely exciting and includes the ambitious redevelopment of the Riverside shopping centre, which was included in the bid that my hon. Friend spoke about.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Chancellor recently announced the first-round award of £1.75 billion to 105 successful bids from the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund. Bids were assessed completely impartially by officials against four components: value for money, deliverability, strategic fit and characteristics of place. In the interests of transparency, alongside the winning bids my Department published an explanatory note detailing the levelling-up fund assessment and exactly how bids were shortlisted and decisions reached.

Sadly, many more bids were received than funding was available for in the first round. I am sure my hon. Friend knows that it was a competitive process with lots of strong bids. I assure him, however, that that is not the end of the process. Although Shropshire Council’s bid to support Shrewsbury’s regeneration was not successful in this round, I strongly encourage it to bid again in the second round of the £4.8-billion fund, which, to answer his question, is expected in spring next year.

The levelling-up fund is not the only mechanism through which we are supporting levelling up in Shrewsbury and Shropshire, and it is not the only opportunity that will be available. I will touch on some of the things that we have done. As part of our ambition to rebalance the economy, we have invested more than £6 million in Shrewsbury’s transport infrastructure in the last five years. Funding from our local growth fund supported the Shrewsbury integrated transport package to improve road junctions, invest in sustainable transport and improve the town’s commercial centre. I congratulate my hon. Friend on helping his area to secure the important improved train connection that he mentioned.

In 2019, that funding was complemented by a further £2 million from the local growth fund to help to restore the iconic Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings, which is home to the world’s first iron-framed structure and complements all the other wonderful heritage buildings that my hon. Friend spoke about. More recently, I was pleased that £5 million from the getting building fund supported Shropshire Council’s remodelling of the Pride Hill shopping centre, which will create 250 well-paid jobs.

My hon. Friend will agree that that is levelling-up in action and is testament to the Government’s ambition to support Shrewsbury to grow and thrive in the coming years. We recognise that more needs to be done, however, and I know that some of the projects mentioned today have been supported by European funding in the past. Now that we have left the EU, there is scope to go further and faster.

That is one of the reasons why the Chancellor confirmed more than £2.6 billion for the forthcoming UK shared prosperity fund over the spending review period, which is another opportunity to level up Shropshire. That will ramp up to £1.5 billion a year by 2024-25 and the total spending will, at a minimum, match the size of EU funds in each nation of the UK. We will publish further details about the shared prosperity fund in due course, and I encourage my hon. Friend to ensure that Shropshire Council is aware of the opportunities that the fund presents.

I am listening intently to my hon. Friend. Before he finishes, I take the opportunity to invite him to Shrewsbury in the Christmas recess so that he can see the town centre.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s invitation and I will try to find a time—nothing would give me greater pleasure; it sounds wonderful. I am interested in how the levelling-up agenda can help places such as Shrewsbury.

My hon. Friend rightly focused on regeneration, which is a challenge that all places face at the moment as we move towards more shopping online and as town and city centres have to change to meet the challenges of the new era. He will have noticed the funding that the Chancellor set out in the spending review for brownfield regeneration, through which there may also be opportunities for the local council, including, as he mentioned, by talking to Homes England and to the high streets taskforce. I will endeavour to make the connections offline between central and local government officials that he asked for.

We all agree that, however far Government funding goes and however many different good and targeted spending streams we have, spending by the Government alone can go only so far in fulfilling our levelling-up agenda. We want to encourage strong local leadership to truly deliver and power the productivity growth that is essential for rebalancing our economy and our country. One only has to look at the success of some of our metro Mayors, such as Andy Street, in attracting private sector investment, spurring growth and acting as powerful ambassadors for their regions, to see the tremendous potential of further devolution beyond our largest cities.

That is one reason why, where there is strong local support, we want to roll out those powers and opportunities to the rest of the country too, using county deals. My hon. Friend has expressed a strong interest in how such a deal could support local regeneration and drive growth across Shropshire. I look forward to discussing that further with him as my Department prepares to publish its levelling-up White Paper. It will set out our plan to improve livelihoods and opportunity in all parts of the UK, building on our work so far, including on devolution and urban regeneration.

My hon. Friend mentioned local enterprise partnerships and the great work of Mandy Thorn. I agree with him on that, and I pay tribute to the work of people in local enterprise partnerships. Earlier this year, we initiated a review into the role of local enterprise partnerships. We now intend to consider the future role of LEPs and the local business voice in the White Paper that I just mentioned, alongside our commitment to extend devolution and strong local leadership into county areas, so my hon. Friend will hopefully not have to wait too long for greater clarity on the future role of LEPs. Our levelling-up taskforce is also working closely with relevant Departments across Whitehall to ensure that reform in multiple different policy areas all comes together to empower local leaders and ensure that levelling up will be greater than the sum of its parts.

Once again, I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution to the debate and for securing it. I will reflect on the very important points that he made, and I will continue to engage with him—hopefully, I will take up his offer of a visit—and to work with local partners to support their efforts and pursue this very important agenda. The Government intend to equip areas with the tools, funding and resources they need to become the masters of their destiny. This mission has arguably never been more important than it is today, as we forge a national recovery out of the covid pandemic.

The forthcoming White Paper will set out further details of our approach and how we can support places such as Shrewsbury to realise their ambitions and plans for growth. As my hon. Friend set out so eloquently, Shrewsbury has a rich history as a vibrant and enterprising town. Together, I believe that we can build on his work and that of his local partners, to ensure that Shrewsbury’s future is as bright and prosperous as its illustrious past.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.