My Lords, our high streets are changing and the Government are committed to helping them adapt—for example, by tackling planning and parking restrictions. We have also introduced a £1.4 billion package of support for 2015-16 business rate bills. Approximately half of that will go to the retail sector.
My Lords, my noble friend’s Answer is indeed helpful but does not really reflect the crisis facing our town centres, with 10% of properties empty, declining footfall and business leaching away to online and retail parks. Against that background, in addition to what Her Majesty’s Government are doing, I wish to put two thoughts in my noble friend’s mind. First, encourage all local authorities to make parking easier and cheaper—for instance, my former constituency of Northampton has free parking all weekend and two hours free every single day. Secondly, look closely at what Northampton’s business support programme is doing, and consider extending it on a shared basis between Her Majesty’s Government and local government so that we may see a significant reduction in business rates for independent retailers throughout the United Kingdom.
My Lords, it is good to hear what Northampton is doing. I certainly encourage local areas to share similar schemes with other authorities. Where local authorities are given the power to provide business rate discounts, they do as they see fit and the Government will meet half the cost. The noble Lord asked me about vacancy rates. They have fallen to 9.8% and are at their lowest since records started in 2011. I appreciate the point about online sales, which for many people are becoming more convenient, but retail sales have increased for the 28th consecutive month, the longest sustained period since 2008.
How much progress has been made in dealing with long-standing revaluation appeals? What has the impact of those been on local authority finances? Will the Government, having received their share of those rates when they were paid, now meet their share of the cost of any refunds?
My Lords, the Government are providing real incentives for councils to support enterprise and economic growth. We have introduced the local retention of business rates, allowing councils to keep half the revenue from business rates. In this year alone, 362 authorities will retain an extra £544 million in business rates, and local authorities are protected against significant declines in business rate income through a safety net that guarantees income at 92.5% of baseline funding.
My Lords, business rates have risen by some 20% since 2010, at a time when the Government have held down other forms of taxation. Does the Minister agree that that is a very high increase? Given that the Government initiated in March a consultation on the reform of business rates and that consultation closed in June, will she confirm that they are still committed to the reform of business rates within the timescale for announcement in Budget 2016 that they set out a number of weeks ago?
My Lords, the Minister prides herself on the fact that unoccupancy rates have fallen. Is it not a fact that most of the incoming renters of these shops are food outlets? How does that help people who want to buy other equipment and goods from high street shops?
My Lords, I think it is true that incoming occupants of high streets are a mixture. I do not have a disaggregated number for what proportion is food retail, but certainly putting more housing—which this country desperately needs—into a town centre increases the footfall in that town centre.
My Lords, while I am grateful for the support Her Majesty’s Government are giving to independent retailers, it seems extraordinary that they are doing so at a time when they are talking about deregulating further Sunday trading hours, which many insiders in the industry believe will give huge commercial advantage both to the large supermarkets and to out-of-town shopping centres. There is deep concern that local councils will not be able to resist the legal appeals by some very powerful commercial organisations if they try to differentiate in different areas. Recently the CEO of the British Independent Retailers Association said that any extra trade from deregulated Sunday trading,
“will go to the more suitable out of town centres with further lost market share for independents”.
Can the noble Baroness inform the House what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to support independent retailers in the light of this information?
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is absolutely right to point out that that will be up to local areas. However, we have done a lot to support independent retailers by supporting projects such as the Portas projects, which have done very well in Braintree, Tiverton and Ashford, and we have put 360 town teams in place. Ultimately, however, these decisions will be for local authorities to make.
My Lords, will the Minister accept that the loss of nearly 50% of local government trading standards officers has had a negative effect on local high street retailers, who have often benefited from their help and advice in the past, but has had a positive effect on rogue traders, who are very glad to see the back of those trading standards officers and their enforcement capabilities?