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High Streets (Designation, Review and Improvement Plan) Bill

Volume 838: debated on Friday 17 May 2024

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I move the Second Reading of the High Streets (Designation, Review and Improvement Plan) Bill. It has already received cross-party support in another place, and I am keen and confident that it will receive an equally positive reception in your Lordships’ House. It is a necessary Bill to maximise the chances of high street renewal with the assistance of local communities and the support of central government under the leadership of informed and empowered local authorities. I happily declare something of an interest in this as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I am a proud champion of what is termed “muscular localism” by my honourable friend Jack Brereton, the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, who has ably taken this Bill through another place. He and I, who between us have considerable local government experience, share a passion for active local government working in dynamic partnership with local businesses and communities. In Birmingham I was proud to play a leadership role in commissioning and developing the internationally acclaimed and award-winning Big City Plan, which aimed to shape and revitalise Birmingham city centre, putting the city’s sustainability, culture, creativity, technology and enterprise at the heart of its future plans, innovating the transport and street scene, attracting £14 billion of committed private sector funding and building upon our historic successes, not least in preserving and enhancing the Jewellery Quarter as a place of active manufacturing, artistry and craft. Importantly, it meant rescuing the Bullring from the concrete cage and reviving it as a prosperous, accessible and welcoming marketing and retail area.

What we learned as we progressed with our compelling vision was that others quickly bought into what we wanted to be and wanted to be part of that journey, so we were able to preserve and enhance the iconic Rotunda—I am grateful to Urban Splash, which came on board thanks to the framework and clear sense of direction that we had given—but, equally, we invited partnerships with an openness to ideas in delivering the overall imperative of Birmingham living up to its civic motto, “Forward”.

It is because of the lessons I learned as a champion and practitioner of informed, active and collaborative local leadership that I am passionate about getting this Bill into statute. It comes with money attached. Those with local government experience will know that this is not always the case when government asks things of local government. Crucially, it comes with a duty on the Secretary of State to do a lot of legwork for local government in collating and crafting guidance from across all government departments and utilising national data resources and best practice lessons from past high street schemes.

This means that much smaller authorities than Birmingham can access the kind of expertise that we in Birmingham had the wherewithal to commission separately. It means that the lessons from the Government’s high streets task force, which has helped numerous councils of all colours, can be shared with all local authorities in a one-stop shop of government guidance.

The same will be true of lessons from the levelling-up fund, the towns fund, the future high streets fund, high street heritage action zones and many more. All of them are commendable and helpful for the authorities that have enjoyed them, but they all need to have their lessons institutionalised for all authorities so they can share that best practice.

It will ensure that councils are fully aware of the range of powers available to them and of their usefulness, including perhaps unfamiliar ones such as rental auctions, from the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023. The Bill will share best practice, and I emphasise that it is about guidance, not prescription.

The support of the Government is imperative, but the Bill recognises the important role of local government, the vital contribution of localism and the mutually beneficial rewards of good public-private partnerships. Everyone recognises the challenges that our high streets face. The long-term rise of out-of-town and online shopping and of online banking, taken together with the short-term crisis of the Covid lockdowns, has changed what high streets can be. It is no longer an option to tread water and hope that something turns up. There needs to be active planning and, in some cases, enforcement. High streets blighted by low footfall and vacant properties accelerate that decline—and decline has proved to be the perfect ground for anti-social behaviour, which in turn keeps more and more local people and outside visitors away from our high streets.

The Bill will require all local authorities in England to designate at least one street, or a network of streets if appropriate, as a high street in their area, and to develop improvement plans for the designated streets. There will be no upper limit on how many streets a local authority can designate. As some local authorities will have a larger number of high streets, as we have in Birmingham, it will be important for councils, local authorities and communities to have flexibility around where they focus their efforts. However, I must reiterate that government funding for drawing up improvement plans will be limited to three high streets per authority.

Once in place, improvement plans will need to be reviewed at least once every five years. Our high streets need to be dynamic places, and the improvement plans will need to be dynamic too. Indeed, while most local authorities will likely work to the five-year period, it might be that some local authorities will more regularly consider whether the plans need updating or refreshing. For example, there is a material change in the make-up of the high street where a new opportunity comes along. I repeat that the Rotunda in Birmingham was saved and vastly improved because of an unpredicted scheme coming forward that was inspired by the predictable development impetus of the Big City Plan. Strategic plans are a magnet for outside interest and inward investment.

Consultation will play a key role in the development of the improvement plans, with local authorities required to consult on the designation of high streets as well as on the plans themselves. The process of designating high streets and creating improvement plans will likely be just as important as the plan itself, because the plans will be the result of robust consultation and conversation between local communities, local businesses, property owners, including places of worship, and local authorities, ensuring community buy-in and support for their particular designated plan.

The Bill will also interact with the planning system, as local planning authorities will have to take into account the relevant high street improvement plans when making planning decisions. Further details will be for the Secretary of State to set out in the guidance, but it is intended that the process should be as streamlined as possible, under efficient guidance and support, to ensure that no net burden is added to the planning system.

There can be no doubt of the pressure currently faced by local authorities up and down the country, and I appreciate that the fear is that an additional and time-consuming task will be required of them. But, actually, the Bill will help to provide a predictable policy framework and a pool of information and best practice that will improve the efficient focus of existing workstreams. That is exactly what the improvement plans will be: a framework and an accelerated journey towards best practice.

There will be an expression of local will that external parties, such as private enterprises, will be able to see clearly and act on. This will help facilitate public-private partnerships, which are key for growth. I know this from the experience of putting together Birmingham’s Big City Plan, which combined the best of the public and private sectors to better the lives of the people of Birmingham. And, of course, in supporting this Private Member’s Bill, the Government have shown a commitment to funding the improvement plans for up to three designated high streets.

It is not just about cost. Clearly fiscal wherewithal is crucial, but it is about local authorities having the agency and flexibility to drive informed change in their local area and benefiting their local communities. The Bill and the guidance that will follow will be just that—flexible and informed—and will give the information and flexibility to local authorities to drive forward the change that our areas need, recognising that the needs of one place will be different from the needs of another, while emphasising the need to develop a compelling sense of place, anchored in the points of difference that make each of our high streets special and attractive and dear to us all. One improvement plan may focus on cultural assets, others on shop-based artisan manufacturing, while others might focus on improving footfall and dwell time for the local visitor economy.

The Bill builds on work already delivered by central and local government to address the decline of our high streets, making sure that local authorities have the comprehensive strategies in place to regenerate their high streets with community support, while ensuring that they effectively use the powers that are already at their disposal. The Bill will be another tool in the armoury of local authorities to drive forward high street regeneration. It provides businesses and enterprising souls with a magnet, a predictable framework and a clear signal that unpredicted offers are welcome for collaborative and dynamic partnership work. I beg to move.

My Lords, I should begin by mentioning that I am a current member of the Built Environment Committee, which is engaged in considering the state of Britain’s high streets.

The Bill that we are discussing today has excellent intentions and I strongly support it. It proposes that local authorities should have a watching brief over the health and development of a high street in their area and that they should have a development plan that should be reviewed at least every five years. At the best of times, this requirement should serve to reaffirm the good practices that one would expect well-run local authorities to be adopting as a matter of course. However, nowadays is not the best of times, and the authorities will struggle to fulfil the injunctions of the Bill in meaningful ways. Many of them lack the personnel to conduct proper appraisals of local problems and to formulate plans to address them.

There was a time when local authorities could be expected to react with enthusiasm to this Bill. They were endowed with planning departments that typically contained a full complement of architects, surveyors, town planners and other professionals, and they were responsible for, among other concerns, overseeing the stock of council housing and adding to it. Such housing provided shelter for a large proportion of the population.

The policy that gave the right to buy to council tenants was initiated in 1982 during the Thatcher era. It divested the authorities of much of this housing stock, and they were prevented from replenishing it. The planning departments lost much of their personnel and their sense of initiative.

The present Government have aimed numerous poorly funded initiatives at addressing the decline of the town centres and high streets. Many of these fall under the so-called levelling-up agenda. The current web page of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which is from July 2023, lists a bewildering variety of funds aimed at urban regeneration. I have counted 15 of them. The overview on the web page states:

“In the Levelling Up White Paper, the government committed to setting out a plan for simplifying and streamlining the funding landscape and to help local stakeholders navigate funding opportunities”.

This testifies to the difficulties and expenses incurred by local authorities in making applications for funding.

A common testimony of local authorities is that insufficient resources are available for developing a bid, which may be accompanied by a judgment that it is not worth their while to do so. Even if these impediments were overcome and if the money for regeneration were amply available, a more fundamental impediment could block the progress. Local authorities lack sufficient influence over the activities in high streets to address the problems of urban regeneration.

Few occupants of commercial town centre properties are also their owners. A figure of 12.8% has been cited for the proportion of private individual landlords and owner-occupiers. The ownership of the majority of properties resides in the portfolios of real estate investment trusts and other private interest companies, such as insurance and pension funds, where individual properties feature as lines on a spreadsheet.

The rent payable to owners places a heavy burden on the retailers. The burden is heaviest in times of economic recession when the income from trading is reduced; it may force the retailers into bankruptcy. There is little direct engagement of the property owners with the tenants. Although both parties are charged with the upkeep of the properties, there is little incentive to enhance them since much of the benefit from doing so will accrue to the other party. When properties fall vacant, there seems to be little urgency on the part of owners to find new occupants, and there may be good reason for this. The principal characteristic of a property from the point of view of an investment fund is its capital value, which is tied to its rent. To reduce the rent in an attempt quickly to attract a tenant will destroy that value.

Short-term letting to independent retailers may be unprofitable. Among the inducements to a new tenant there are liable to be deferments of rent and contributions to fitting-out costs, which cannot be afforded easily by small independent retailers. Whereas, in the past, retail leases could be for as long as 20 years, they are now expected to be of a limited duration. Moreover, the high rates of failure among small start-up enterprises deters property owners from accepting such tenants.

The planning departments of local authorities face an intractable problem in motivating a collection of remote and disengaged agents to co-operate in any plans they might have for urban renewal and regeneration. Matters were quite different in the early post-war years, when urban reconstruction was an urgent priority. Much of our modern environment was created in that era. One can conjure up an image of a post-war architect or planning officer airily waving their hand over a tabletop model corresponding to a large derelict area that was set for redevelopment. The tabletop would be covered with small, white rectilinear boxes representing buildings in the modernist style. The person demonstrating the plan might have been dressed in an imitation of the sartorial style of the Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known commonly by the pseudonym Le Corbusier.

We have come to regret the depredations of the cheap modern architecture that accompanied this post-war redevelopment; we should remember its vigour and ambition, which we might wish to recapture. We look for contemporary examples of such enterprise, but they are rare. Some of them are the result of private sector initiatives. The Built Environment Committee has witnessed one such example recently, which is from a firm that began working on town centre redevelopment some 30 years ago. The firm is based in the Sheffield area of South Yorkshire. A typical example of what the firm has achieved has been the redevelopment of an extensive site of a derelict steelworks. This degree of enterprise is rare and it cannot be relied upon to achieve the reconstruction that is called for. Only by engendering the same spirit of enterprise within many local authorities can a major transformation be achieved. It is appropriate to remember that once, in the not-so-distant past, they did embody such a spirit.

It is advisory, which means you do not need to go to five minutes; you can go shorter than that. Every one of the previous speakers was below five minutes. It is not mandatory but I remind the House that we have speakers who will speak later on this afternoon, when other Members who have already spoken will be at home.

My Lords, I warmly support this Bill. As set out by the noble Lord, Lord Whitby, in his introduction, high streets have faced numerous challenges in recent years for a variety of reasons, notably the falling consumer demand for retail shopping, the increase in online shopping and the presence of out-of-town retail parks and shopping centres. In many towns this has led to shop closures, declining footfall and a loss of appeal of the high street.

This House’s Built Environment Committee, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, is currently undertaking an inquiry into high streets in towns and small cities. I have been privileged to be a member of that committee, along with the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth. Our committee has received more than 60 submissions of evidence from many organisations and individuals and heard from a large variety of oral witnesses. Views differ on what should be included on high streets to meet the needs of the whole community while, at the same time, supporting a thriving local economy. It is clear that this will very much depend on local circumstances. Each high street or town centre is different. Correspondingly, local authorities will have different views as to what improvement plans would be most appropriate for the designated high street in their area.

The Local Government Association was the only organisation that gave evidence to our committee to specifically refer to this Bill. It also commented ahead of the Bill’s Committee stage in another place. It has raised concerns that the Bill is legislating to give local authorities responsibility for something that they increasingly have limited control over, due to the impact of national policies. The LGA particularly emphasises permitted development rights, introduced in 2013, which allow changes of use between offices and residential uses. These were extended in 2021 to allow change of use between the very wide range of use class E properties and residential units. The LGA argues that these development rights should be revoked because they undermine a council’s place-making and strategic planning ambitions; property owners can change or remove high street uses without needing to seek planning permission from the council. In the context of this Bill, the LGA surely makes a good point.

The Bill will require local authorities to have regard to an improvement plan when exercising planning functions. How, if at all, would this relate to permitted development rights, and will such rights that allow significant changes of use without planning permission potentially impede the effectiveness of a council’s improvement plan required by the Bill? When the improvement plan is reviewed within five years of its publication, as required by the Bill, that review will presumably be by the council itself. When assessing the effectiveness of its own improvement plan, the council will have to take into account any changes of use under permitted development rights during the previous five years. Those changes of use could be very significant and, outside the council’s control, have adversely affected the council’s improvement plan.

Regarding financial implications of the Bill, the Government have allowed £26 million, the bulk of which will be for all local authorities in England to prepare and review up to three improvement plans for their designated high streets. Is this enough funding? Our committee has heard compelling evidence of local authorities being increasingly deprived of funds; they are already finding it difficult to allocate resources for planning and applying for the many government funding schemes, as referred to by the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth. Moreover, this £26 million probably covers only the costs of preparing the improvement plans; it almost certainly does not cover any significant costs of the actual improvement. In practice, this means that in preparation of improvement plans local authorities will be restricted to confining their plans to relatively unambitious, low-cost improvements.

I commend to noble Lords the excellent book, recently published by the RIBA, High Street: How Our Town Centres Can Bounce Back from the Retail Crisis. One of its authors, Dr Lucy Montague, from the Manchester School of Architecture, is a special adviser to our Built Environment Committee’s inquiry. She and her colleagues undertook a three-year study of over 100 high streets, which highlighted the importance of broader policies, such as town centre first planning policies. The book is refreshingly optimistic about the future of the high street, arguing that the crisis on the high street is a misleading term. There is indeed a crisis in big retail, and town and city centres dependent on multiple retailers have certainly suffered, but the authors argue that the high streets more reliant on independent retailers and emerging new sectors have a brighter future.

In summary, this is broadly a very positive Bill. By requiring councils to designate a priority area and propose high street improvement plans, the Bill has the potential to pave the way for future government policies specifically to support that designation and those improvement plans. The Bill may be less useful in isolation if other government policies are not introduced or modified in alignment with the Bill. Nevertheless, the Bill’s principal objective is to create thriving high streets, and this is to be warmly applauded.

My Lords, this Bill is about high streets. In my early life, I had the enjoyment of a great high street. Although I was born in the small Lancashire village of Grimsargh, from which I take my title, when I was seven my parents moved to the seaside resort of Southport. My local high street was therefore Lord Street, Southport. Lord Street was developed in the early part of the 19th century, and has all the merits of that vigorous Victorian age. It is straight and wide, it has covered arcades each side, and it is tree-lined throughout. One feature of Lord Street is the Westminster Tea Rooms. If you ever go to Southport, I thoroughly recommend it; everyone in the House would feel very much at home there. The story goes that the young Louis Napoleon, when in exile in England, took a flat off Lord Street. When he became the emperor of France in the 1850s, he remembered Lord Street, and called his architect Georges-Eugène Haussmann to say, “Remodel Paris. I want a central boulevard like Lord Street, Southport—only bigger”. Thus was born the Champs-Élysées—arguably the greatest high street in the world—all based on Lord Street, in Southport.

It is difficult to verify the truth of this story, but it does show the importance of high streets. We all love a good high street: it cheers us up, gives us pleasure and enhances local pride, as well as being good for business. A recent survey by the Nationwide Building Society showed that 72% of people judge the vitality of an area by its high street. I therefore welcome my colleague Jack Brereton’s Private Member’s Bill to help high streets. Jack was the cabinet member for regeneration, heritage and transport on Stoke-on-Trent Council before becoming the MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, and therefore has a great grasp of all these issues. The Bill is sponsored in the Lords by my noble friend Lord Whitby, who of course was a great leader of Birmingham City Council and is still a very successful businessman, as well as having a continuing interest in these matters.

The object of the Bill is to preserve and enhance high streets as places of economic benefit and growth. I particularly like that it has all-party support, and I congratulate my colleague Jack Brereton on achieving that—he has done better than most Prime Ministers in recent times. It brings all local people together, including local businesses. It develops an action plan. There is the possibility of some government funding. It gives local authorities fresh responsibilities, but it is not too heavy-handed. It is, by design, flexible and light.

The Local Government Association, I am disappointed to say, believes the scheme is unnecessary. I think that is a bit of “not invented here”. The fact is that it is necessary to emphasise the importance of local businesses to high streets, and I think their views should be taken into account more than they have been in the past.

I said that I spent my teenage years in Southport. I now live in south Fulham, and a perfect test case for the Bill will be the Wandsworth Bridge Road, which goes through south Fulham and is a vital artery. It is perfect for the sort of action area specified in the Bill. It is a great Bill, and I hope it is adopted throughout the country.

My Lords, I declare my position as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I am afraid I bring a somewhat different perspective from that of the earlier speakers. It reflects the views that I presented in much discussion on the levelling-up Bill. The last thing our local communities, particularly the most disadvantaged, need is more meddling and more statutory requirements laid on them from Westminster, without the resources to deliver them. As the noble Lord, Lord Mair, pointed out, the Government are offering money to draw up the plans but not to deliver them. It is not within the power of your Lordships’ House to put down an amendment to demand that there also be funding from the centre, but, were it within our power, I would be very tempted to do so. I direct this comment particularly towards those on the Labour Front Bench: should they be in the position of implementing the Bill, I hope they would look at providing such a financial provision.

We need Westminster to get out of the road of local communities: to stop sticking its oar in and give people the power and resources to make decisions locally. One example from the framework of the Bill is that artificial time periods for review are set out here in Westminster, saying, “You will review this every five years”. But it may be that local circumstances are different: maybe everything is going swimmingly and everyone can see it, or maybe something is going wrong in another area and resources need to be moved. That is an artificial imposition from Westminster.

I note that we are in a situation where councils overwhelmingly need a long-term funding settlement—they face a £4 billion gap over the next two years—to protect their statutory services and to provide what is needed on the high street, such as cleaning and maintenance. They are under enormous pressure because there is simply not the money, and this is just one more imposition being laid on.

It is interesting to think about what the guidance will say. There is a question of powers but there is possibly some ability to use the guidance for an issue that was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mair: permitted development rights. Your Lordships’ House has heard from two noble Lords not currently in their place—the noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Crisp—who highlighted the terrible nature of the housing that has been developed under permitted development rights. Some 100,000 dwellings have been created since 2013, but many lack fire safety standards, adequate ventilation and natural light—imagine housing without natural light. They do not have the facilities, such as schools and health facilities, that are needed. The Government have ruled out giving councils control over this within these zones, but is it possible to put anything in the guidance that might help to address this issue?

I will particularly focus on privatisation, because public land ownership in Britain is in crisis. Since the late 1970s, half of all of what was public land has been sold off: 2 million hectares in total, or 10% of Britain’s total land area. Can the Minister—or the Labour Front Bench in the future—comment on whether the Government would consider making a recommendation in the guidance that there be no further privatisation of public space in these high street plans? That is absolutely crucial to our politics.

I am going to declare an interest here, because I believe that our high street should be a place of political activity —something that privatisation has often led to the exclusion of. My declaration of interest is that I was with Occupy London on day one, when it was driven out and unable to occupy what many people think of as a public space, Paternoster Square—a long-term historic political space in London. Now, of course, it is owned and managed by the Japanese group Mitsubishi Estate, which was able to close that square off, and Occupy London ended up in front of St Paul’s instead.

I hope that we might see some guidance on this. I hope that we might also see in the guidance whether the Government are going to provide all kinds of prescriptions to make sure that we protect small independent businesses against large multinational companies.

Finally, I will put on the record that I did really struggle with this—but eventually I decided that, however limited and controlling from Westminster it is, it provides a little bit more in the way of resources to local councils. So it is not my intention to seek to slow the progress of the Bill, despite the very deep concern of the Local Government Association and local authorities.

My Lords, I broadly welcome this Bill, promoted by my honourable friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South. I congratulate him on bringing forward this initiative, but I have some doubts as to whether his Bill is the panacea he believes it to be. The question of the decline of the high street is multifaceted and complex. It has not happened just recently; it has been going on for many years, and I believe that it was started by the move to establish out-of-town shopping complexes. They provide convenience, of course, with a multiple choice of outlets, ease of parking and much more. I am not against them by any means, as they hit a good note with shoppers, whose aspirations and needs were changing in any event. The customer in general had less time and a busier working life to browse the high street.

If one couples this with the increasing financial burden of rates and rents on small shops, together with the withdrawal of banks and building society branches and the lack of adequate and convenient car parking, along with online shopping, the writing has been on the wall for some considerable time. Slowly, the high street has become the home of coffee shops and charity outlets. In my local towns in the north Midlands, there appears to be a constant and rapid turnover of outlets starting up and then rapidly closing down again.

Parking is a very serious problem, especially for the elderly and less mobile. In Ashbourne, for instance, which is the gateway to the Peak District, the town lacks a bypass. The locals have been crying out for one for years, but to no avail. Currently, all the heavy lorries travelling to and from the Buxton area, from the limestone quarries and elsewhere, have to drive through the centre of the town. There is no other way. This causes dreadful congestion and parking problems that rebound on the high street shops and shoppers.

In numerous cases, local authorities appear to be more interested in closing or curtailing parking facilities to make way for residential developments. Of course, they need the money. The rates and rents in the high street are far too onerous, and it is a very brave soul indeed who opens a high street shop these days.

In addition, specifically concerning this Bill, with a considerable amount of pressure being placed on local authorities, coupled with their restricted resources, I find it difficult to believe that they will be either willing or able to put into practice the plans promoted in this Bill. Both national and local government have come up with all types of ideas for some considerable while to try to halt the decline of the high street, but the decline continues nevertheless. I hate to be negative, but I cannot see this Bill altering the situation. It is yet another ambitious and well-intentioned initiative to complement a number of previous ones, and I am afraid that it will serve to add a further layer of bureaucracy to an already overstretched system. I do support the Bill and I wish it well, but I simply do not have the confidence that it will achieve its aims.

My Lords, it is common ground across your Lordships’ House that many of our high streets are in a mess. Whether this is symptomatic of our rundown country, who of course knows? We see boarded-up shops and closed pubs and post offices—and, obviously, the sub-post offices have not been helped by the Horizon scandal. We now see often an excess of estate agents and—dare I say it?—antiques shops.

I cannot compete with the noble Lord, Lord Horam, and the Champs-Élysées, but I can say that not every high street is in a mess. My own high street in Tisbury still has a thriving butcher and bread shop as well as a small supermarket and a hardware store and two thriving pubs—so all is not lost in Tisbury.

Our high streets have continued to deteriorate over the past 20 years, despite a number of initiatives by the Government. It was as long ago as 2011 that Mary Portas came up with her 25 recommendations to deal with the problems of our high streets. If you look at the list of recommendations, you will be hard pushed to say how many of them have been effectively implemented. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitby, indicated, and the noble Lord, Lord Mair, touched on, a number of funds have been established: the future high streets fund, the town centre fund and the local growth fund—to name but three. Have they really done anything significantly to improve the status of our high streets?

Rather like the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the Labour Benches, my party will not oppose the Bill, but it fails to address, as a number of noble Lords have indicated, the two key problems. First, there is the planning system, which the noble Lord, Lord Mair, touched on. There have been successive extensions to permitted development rights, which are a serious block to local people’s abilities to create the sorts of communities in high streets that they want. The noble Lord, Lord Mair, referred to the continuous changes to and increased use of the national use class order, which again restricts the ability to control the content of the high street. As he indicated, class E buildings can now be redeveloped as residential properties in the high street without any resort to the planning situation.

Secondly, we have the issue of council expenditure. As noble Lords have indicated, the Government are allocating the money to develop and draw up the plans, but not to implement them. All the speakers on the Bill have reservations as to whether this will produce any actual implementation. This is in the context of the overall shortage that local authorities are currently looking at—I think the LGA indicates that there will be a £4 billion shortfall for local authorities over the next one or two years. Inevitably, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, indicated, that will lead to cuts in street cleaning and maintenance because, increasingly, local authorities are able to focus their finances only on essential services, which those do not count as.

So, as I have said, we on these Benches are not opposing the Bill. It is a very small step indeed to deal with a very large problem. I might say cynically that perhaps that is why the Government are supporting it.

My Lords, I draw attention to my registered interests: I am one of the proud members of the growing number of vice-presidents of the LGA; I am also a serving county councillor on Hertfordshire County Council.

It has been an interesting debate and very helpful to hear from members of the Built Environment Committee —I am grateful for their input. I say from the outset that we will not oppose the Bill, on the basis that doing something, even something that represents a drop in the ocean, is usually better than doing nothing. However, I have much sympathy with the view of the Local Government Association, which characterises the Bill as unnecessary and a distraction from what councils really need to protect and enhance the future of their high streets. It recognises that what is really needed is a stable policy environment for high streets and planning, with sufficient resources and long-term growth and regeneration funding.

Much of my last eight years has been spent engaged with partners on the £1 billion regeneration programme for Stevenage town centre. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Horam, that it is not quite the Champs-Élysées, but our town centre in its early days was very influential in the development of Rotterdam.

We were very fortunate to have excellent advice from the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, in the early days, and the support of the noble Lord, Lord Porter, when there were unnecessary and unhelpful roadblocks put in our way, and we have ongoing support from the High Streets Task Force. We are now well under way with our project, to the extent that the noble Lord, Lord Harrington, in his excellent review of foreign direct investment last November, used us as a positive case study, saying:

“This approach is reflected in the collaborative work between Reef and UBS (developer and funder), and Stevenage Borough Council as both Local Planning Authority and landowner, to secure a new £65 million headquarters for Autolus Therapeutics. This development is the first of its kind globally and there is no other Town Centre advanced manufacturing cell and gene therapy facility across multiple floors”.

That was a really big plus for us.

I will talk more about purposefully driving footfall in this way in a moment, but I have mentioned this because I fear that there is an element in the Bill of pointing the finger of blame at local councils, many of which are currently trying to scale some of the obstacles that we too faced. As the tumbleweed of this Government’s 14 years of economic failure rolls through our town centres, both in actual and symbolic terms, it leaves communities feeling bereft, neglected and forgotten. Just this morning, we heard that the dreadful milestone of the 6,000th high street bank to close had been reached. Too many post offices that sat at the heart of neighbourhood high streets have been closed, presumably by the same dreadful decision-makers who imposed such misery on their own sub-postmasters.

The Government seem to stand by paralysed as the rise of overseas online retailers, such as Temu, almost literally steals the clothes from our retailers’ backs, with loss leaders that are surely paid for in less than ideal terms and conditions for workers. The uncertainty of the economic climate holds back investment in our high streets, and those brave enough to try, as the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, pointed out, find themselves penalised by an antiquated and inflexible business rates system and soaring energy costs. The catastrophic funding crisis facing local government, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Hanworth, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, leaves too many councils too paralysed by pressures on adult social care, children’s services and temporary and emergency accommodation to give the necessary focus to economic development and place-making.

A combination of the impact of the cost of living crisis on our communities and a perception that public spaces feel unsafe drives people further towards online retail. I also point out that our attempts to amend the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill to further level the playing field between online and high street retail fell on deaf ears, sadly. We cannot turn the clock back on internet shopping, but we can surely ensure that it does not continue to enjoy the very significant financial advantage it currently has over high streets.

As well as these national issues, councils will face all the issues we did over complex ownership. There are more than 60 owners of property in my town centre to be worked through, as so ably articulated by my noble friend Lord Hanworth. Then there is the challenge of how we preserve heritage and history, and the constant challenge of successive funding pots, all with different demands and constraints and draining scarce council resources to put bids together, not to mention the issue of permitted development riding roughshod over our local plans, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Mair, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett.

We have a positive story to tell in Stevenage, but this was achieved in spite of the barriers and obstacles we encountered. Following the wise principles set out by Bill Grimsey, we started with master-planning, engaging our community, developing strong cross-sector partnerships and attracting key private sector partners, concentrating on driving footfall, with new homes, workplaces and flexible workspaces in the town centre to support existing retail and offer new hospitality opportunities. Our public sector hub, planned with colleagues from both councils, the NHS, the police and others, will soon be in the development phase and we have developed a whole culture and leisure strategy to reinvigorate our town centre, with event space, new leisure and sport facilities and green spaces. We have capitalised on our strategic transport location with a station gateway project, including the development of a new bus station and linking our 45 kilometres of cycleway to the town centre network. We are focusing on the skills of the future by bringing a new science and technology training facility into the heart of our town centre, and after several years of absence, we are delighted that Marks & Spencer is now back.

If it is the intention of the Bill to follow up the plans it implores local councils to make with funding, planning changes and powers that will enable them to happen, it will not be a bad thing. I would be grateful if the Minister could shed any further light on the mechanism for incorporating these high street improvement plans into local plans.

We all know that our citizens want to see thriving community hubs in their town centres. If my party is given the opportunity to serve in government after the next general election, our six pledges announced yesterday will make an immediate start on supporting councils to do what they need to do. We will create the necessary economic stability by modernising the business rates system so that it works equally for sole traders and small businesses as it does for huge corporates.

We will crack down on anti-social behaviour with real action on shoplifting and town centre patrols, so that people and shopworkers feel safe and are safe. We will have a blitz on planning powers, working with local government to ensure that planning helps the builders not the blockers.

There will also be new powers for mayors so they can get on with the job of regenerating our communities after 14 years of not just stagnation but going backwards. But that is for the future, whether July, September, October or whenever the Government let the country decide. In the meantime, let us hope that the Bill will help our high streets a little while we wait for the change our residents want to see.

My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Whitby for his sponsorship of the Bill through the House, as well as the words of support from others in the Chamber—albeit some of them fairly caveated. I also take this opportunity to thank the honourable Jack Brereton MP for his leadership in the other place on this important issue.

Our high streets are evolving. In the face of challenges—such as the rise of online retail and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic—high streets have had to adapt. However, it is clear that some have been able to adapt more quickly than others. That is why the Government are working with local communities to help them navigate the change. We have introduced measures, such as the long-term plan for towns, which will invest £1.5 billion across 75 towns to drive regeneration, as well as the £830 million future high streets fund, which has already helped more than 72 high streets across the country to recover from the pandemic. It is why we are supporting the Bill, which will ensure that local authorities are prioritising high streets in their area, as well as fully utilising the powers already at their disposal.

On the specifics of the Bill, it will make the designation of high streets and the creation of high street improvement plans a statutory requirement. Each local authority will need to designate at least one street or network of streets in their area as a high street. Local authorities will be able to designate as many high streets as they want. However, the Government have committed to funding the costs of up to three high street designations, and any designations beyond this number will need to be funded by local authorities themselves. Local authorities will then have to create plans for improving the vitality of the designated high streets, which should be reviewed at least once every five years.

Partnerships are vital for the success of high street regeneration, which is why local residents, businesses and others will have a real say on the improvement plans. Local authorities will have a requirement to consult both on the high streets they designate and on the related improvement plans. The Bill will also mean that local authorities will have to take into account high street improvement plans when exercising their planning functions, supporting already strong protections for mixed-use high streets.

Taken together, these measures will ensure that local authorities not only prioritise the health of their high streets but use their existing powers to drive forward improvements—such as Section 215 powers to require land to be cleaned up when it is detracting from the surroundings. The Government appreciate the action that many local authorities have already taken to improve their high streets, which these new requirements will complement.

Following Royal Assent to the Bill, we will be issuing guidance for local authorities on what an improvement plan should look like. We know that local authorities are best placed to judge what high street improvement plans should cover, which is why officials in my department have already begun engaging with local authorities on this matter and will continue to do so as they further develop the guidance.

It is crucial that these plans are not just a tick-box exercise but remain relevant and assist local authorities in regenerating their local area. This is why the Bill requires local authorities to update their plans at least every five years, although it can be earlier, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, suggested. We believe it will provide a balance between giving the plans enough time to have an effect and ensuring that they remain useful documents.

The Government fully recognise the pressure that local authorities are currently under, which is why, as my noble friend Lord Whitby said in his introductory remarks, extra funding will be provided, so that local authorities are able effectively to deliver the measures in the Bill. Alongside this funding, my department will be working closely with local authorities to ensure that they input into the development of guidance for the Bill, ensuring that it gives local authorities the agency and discretion to determine what is best for their area.

In response to the various noble Lords who have raised it, local authorities can already use Article 4 directions to suspend permitted development rights in designated areas which allow them to protect shopping areas. We agree—

I will revert to the noble Baroness with a response to that when my department gives me the numbers.

I agree that it is important that we consider the effect of all these things on the high streets, which is why we can include this in the guidance to local authorities. We will certainly consider how we can build this in to assist local authorities, to make sure that they can determine what is best for their area and use all the powers that they have.

The Bill is one part of a broader strategy to create thriving high streets and town centres, building on the wider work this Government are doing to regenerate the high streets. This work includes the high street rental auctions and high street accelerators, which also work alongside the long-term plans for towns, which is backed by £1.5 billion overall to drive ambitious plans to regenerate 75 towns across the UK over the next decade. The broader levelling-up fund of £4.8 billion is already being put to work.

The Bill also complements the work of the towns fund and the future high streets fund, where we have now already allocated over £2.35 billion-worth of town deals and over £830 million of future high streets funding across 170 high streets. We hope that local communities in England will regenerate in order to help create jobs and build more resilient local economies and communities.

To conclude, the Government fully recognise the serious challenges faced by high streets up and down the country and are committed to helping them turn things around. I appreciate, as I am sure all noble Lords do here, just how crucial the health of our high streets is for local communities. For many, places that they should be proud of are currently a shadow of their former selves. The Bill, alongside wider government measures, will help to regenerate our high streets and help to create places that people are proud of.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in today’s important debate. Each contribution has underlined our collective passion for preserving and developing our high streets. If I may, I will make an observation or two.

Before I came here, my life, the journey I had made and my political contribution to society was through local government. To me, it is the essence of a democracy. My intellectual and philosophical journey throughout has been about devolving down to the people you are looking after and are concerned about. The noble Baroness, Lady Green, I believe, mentioned the interference of a top-heavy state. All I would say—

I apologise—a rose by any other name.

However, the point made about top-down interference is something I understand, as the leader of a metropolitan borough. I was the leader during Tony Blair’s period, and I liaised with him regularly. I was the leader while Gordon Brown and then David Cameron were Prime Minister. I share with noble Lords the frustration over the evolution of devolution. I know at what pace it goes, and I know how we aspire to accelerate that.

What I believe that this Private Member’s Bill introduces to that debate—I welcome this because all noble Lords have appreciated it—is a move in the right direction, even though it may only be an incremental movement to what we might perceive as utopia. To me, it is a tacit understanding that the Government realise that the movement is bottom-up, through the guidance that we will inform and the consultation that everyone ought to have. The Bill aims to align the munificence of the Government—I think it is almost £15 billion-worth of money through a whole plethora of pots—with the aspirations of local communities, which is what we all believe in.

I thank all noble Lords for expressing tacit support. I am sure that the observations that they have made will inform the guidance that the Government and the Secretary of State will write. We are happy to work with noble Lords and other stakeholders as we develop the guidance. As it is a Private Member’s Bill, an amendment would have killed the Bill, so I thank noble Lords again for their support.

I reiterate my thanks to the honourable Jack Brereton for both selecting me to take the Bill through the House and his leadership in the other place. I also thank my noble friend the Minister and her ministerial colleague Jacob Young in the other place for all their hard work on the Bill, as well as all the DLUHC officers for their work on it. I look forward to taking the Bill through the remaining stages. I beg to move.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.