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House of Commons Hansard
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Coventry IKEA Store Closure
13 February 2020
Volume 671

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Maria Caulfield.)

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I am very pleased to have secured my first Adjournment debate, and on a topic of real importance to my constituency. The Tuesday before last, IKEA announced that it will be closing its flagship store in Coventry this summer, putting 352 jobs at risk. The store is in the city centre, at the northernmost point of my constituency. The announcement came out of the blue for many, including its workers.

Coventrians have been in touch with me to express their shock and sadness at the announcement. Over 3,300 people have signed an online petition calling for the store to stay open. People have expressed their “devastation” at its loss, seeing it as “an iconic part” of the city’s landscape. It has been part of the city’s scene since 2007, when it became IKEA’s first city centre shop. It is indeed distinctive; its blue and grey walls, standing seven floors tall, can be seen from a distance. Since it opened, it has become a major site in the city’s shopping ecosystem, attracting people from across the region to the heart of Coventry. Its closure will be felt hard by the city—mostly, of course, by the workers and their families, who risk their livelihoods being devastated, but also by the many people who enjoyed spending time in its café, the small businesses that benefited from the people it attracted to the city, and the many students who relied upon it to fit out their university rooms. A friend even told me how sorely she would miss its meatballs.

The closure speaks to two much broader trends that have significance for Coventry and beyond. The first is the rise and fall of industry and the effects of what we now see in Coventry and across the midlands and the north: deindustrialisation. Where we now have low-paid and insecure retail jobs, there was once strongly unionised, relatively well-paid and stable employment.

Industry has always come and gone in Coventry. As with capitalism generally, it uses, exploits and discards working people as it pleases. This was true with the textile industry in the 17th century, which began with the labour of Huguenot refugees and at its height employed 25,000 people in the city, only later to crash and leave workers ruined. It was also true of the manufacturing of cycles and clocks, which in the late 19th and early 20th century became the backbone of the city’s industry. By the mid-20th century it was the motor industry that was booming, this time on the back of Irish migrants, and it provided the city’s working class with work.

By the 1970s, Jaguar, Standard-Triumph and Alvis all had manufacturing plants in what was then dubbed “Britain’s Detroit”. With it there came good, unionised jobs and Coventry enjoyed relative prosperity. However, as had happened to the industries before it, at the whims of bosses in search of cheaper labour, much of the motor industry moved abroad, again leaving the city’s working class abandoned. Unemployment exceeded 20%, and by the early 1990s discontent triggered riots across the city. This abandonment was felt so much that it is even said that the city’s very own The Specials based their classic “Ghost Town” on the sense of loss felt in the city.

The city has never fully recovered from deindustrialisation because today there are not the mass, well-paid, highly-skilled and secure employment opportunities for kids growing up in Coventry. This is clearly shown by the fact that where the IKEA store stands today there once stood the site of a General Electric Company factory.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that we are in urgent need of a clear strategy to maintain and grow our city centres? The UK must remain a place of thriving town centres, with security and well-paid jobs, and places such as Coventry must be at the centre of this work.

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I thank my hon. Friend for making a really important point. I will be coming to the decline of the high streets and regional investment in a moment.

The General Electric Company factory was a six-storey building, employing thousands of people in relatively decent and unionised work. With deindustrialisation, Coventry has seen secure and well-paid jobs replaced by insecure and poorly-paid work. This is the first story that the loss of the IKEA store speaks to. The second is the decline of the British high street.

Coventry city centre, like all our city centres, is more than a place to shop. It is the beating heart of the city—a place that should provide community, culture and character. But in the last decade, the retail sector has been increasingly hard hit and empty shops are becoming commonplace. As one Coventrian said at the news of the store’s closure, the city risks becoming a ghost town again.

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As someone who has bought numerous furniture items from IKEA and spent frustrating hours putting them together, I understand the IKEA furniture concept. Does the hon. Lady agree that the potential loss of 352 jobs is horrific, and that there must be an onus on a chain store as large as IKEA to go the extra mile by placing members of staff in other stores or ensuring that they are trained for new jobs? It is not enough to just up sticks with a “too bad, too sad” attitude; that just will not be accepted.

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Absolutely. The priority has to be every single member of staff whose job is at risk. IKEA should prioritise their needs, and ensure that they are redeployed to other stores or offered skills and training.

The words of The Specials risk becoming true once more. But there is a broader trend; there are now roughly 25,000 empty retail spaces around the country, which is a vacancy rate in excess of 10%. Last year, 57,000 retail jobs were lost, and a further 10,000 were lost last month alone. The market is only too happy to put workers on the scrapheap the moment that the profit motive demands, and there is a real danger that these IKEA workers will be discarded too, but they must not be forced into unemployment with all the strain and pain that it brings.

I know how grim unemployment can be. I know what it feels like. I know the sense of shame for people who stand in the queue at the jobcentre. I know the loss of confidence they feel, the impact it has on their self-esteem and the fear they feel that they may lose their skills. I have been there. For the sake of these workers—and workers across Coventry and the country who are at risk of losing their jobs, are stuck in insecure work or are already out of work—I tell the Minister that it is his responsibility to ensure that this does not happen. It is his responsibility to protect workers from unemployment and to ensure that the training, reskilling and job opportunities exist to give everyone the chance to have decent, well-paid and secure work. We cannot have a Government who oversee the opening up of food banks and the closing down of good workplaces.

The Prime Minister likes to talk about “levelling up” the country. Well, I hope I am forgiven for not believing a man whose party drove the deindustrialisation that now blights the midlands and the north; whose party slashed the funding of public services that working people rely on, cutting more in the midlands and the north than in the wealthy shires; and whose party continues to prioritise the City of London, which dominates the economy, and concentrate spending on the capital and the south-east. After all, in his own words, nobody “stuck up for the bankers” more than he did.

If the Prime Minister were to follow up on his promise to invest in the region, here is what he would do for workers in Coventry—here is what he would do to ensure that the 352 workers at the IKEA store would not have to fear unemployment. It means reversing decades of deindustrialisation and instead investing in new green industries to kick-start the green industrial revolution, including manufacturing electrical vehicles to bring back the motor industry to the west midlands, but now reducing emissions and improving air quality. It means investing in Coventry’s public transport, opening up new rail lines and bringing them into public ownership to make travel free and green. It means reversing cuts to local government, whereby councils have lost 60p to every £1, so that Coventry City Council can support the local community as it wants to. It means rejuvenating Coventry city centre and high streets across the country by giving local councils the power to open empty retail spaces to start-ups, co-operative businesses and local community projects. It means not pretending that you are not to blame for the collapse in bus services, when Conservative Governments have cut £645 million in real terms from buses, and instead putting real money into our bus services and letting under-25s travel for free. That is how we can rejuvenate Coventry city centre and high streets across the country.

Coventry is the city of culture 2021; it is a city rich in culture and industrial history. But the closure of IKEA will be the latest episode in what happens when Governments do not invest in all regions, allow deindustrialisation to go unchecked and let our high streets empty. That must not continue. I give my solidarity to the workers at IKEA at what is a difficult time for them and clearly state that I am here to fight for them and for all workers.

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It is very good and pleasing to see you back in your rightful place, Mr Deputy Speaker. I concur with remarks that have suggested that the tone in this Chamber has significantly improved since the last election.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) on securing this important debate. She has shown in her brief time in this House a real concern for her constituents that is very much noted and very impressive, particularly in the context of this sad news from IKEA.

I have no doubt that the announcement from IKEA is of great concern to employees, their families and the wider community in Coventry. I am sure that the House will be sympathetic to all those whose livelihoods have been affected, or are likely to be affected, by this announcement. I understand that IKEA is currently in consultation with its staff, and it would not be appropriate for me today to make any assumptions about the possible outcome of those conversations and that consultation. IKEA has made it very clear that its ambition is to retain as many workers as possible. I can assure the hon. Lady that the Government will work closely with IKEA to ensure that all affected employees are provided with the required support to move to their next employment quickly or to be reassigned within the company.

The retail sector, as the hon. Lady observed, has been going through a period of unprecedented change. Companies across our economy need to merge, expand and sometimes contract and reorganise in the light of quickly changing economic and commercial circumstances.

It is important to understand why IKEA proposes to close its Coventry store. The business has stated that the reason for announcing this closure is that, when it opened the shop in 2007, it was testing a new format to meet its customers’ changing needs and expectations.

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From the meeting I attended with IKEA alongside my two colleagues in Coventry, I understand that the Coventry IKEA store was a pilot store. There was no other city-centre IKEA like it in the UK. Infrastructure was built around this project. Does the Minister agree that pilot stores should face more scrutiny before they are built or large units such as IKEA stores are purchased?

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That comment makes sense after the event; I have no doubt about that. Like the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I have shopped in IKEA, but, I am sure, with considerably less success in putting together the items of furniture I bought. I remember that at the time, it was hailed as a significant step. People welcomed the employment opportunity and the opportunity to shop in the centre of Coventry. It now transpires that it has not worked out as people anticipated. The hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) is right; there needs to be a measure of scrutiny, but I would be reluctant to introduce legislation that would prevent other companies from innovating and opening pilot stores in the way that IKEA did in 2007.

The store attracted significantly less footfall than IKEA originally forecast. It was built over seven floors, and there were issues with how easy it was to shop from the top and then go down to where the payments were made. The company found it very challenging, and the operating costs were high. When the company conducted a full review last year, it felt that the only option it had, or the easiest and most profitable in terms of the entire company and its employees, was to review the operation of the store. The company felt that the bespoke nature of the store design and the high costs involved meant that it had to reconfigure the unit, and sadly, it has decided to close the store. I understand that it looked at other options aside from store closure, and it maintains that this is an exceptional case.

I welcome IKEA’s recent news that it is investing £170 million in the acquisition of Kings Mall shopping centre, which demonstrates the fine balance between investing in new facilities and making difficult decisions about existing ones. IKEA has confirmed that it remains committed to this country and to its ambitious growth plans, and it will continue to invest in stores and provide jobs, employment and economic opportunities to its staff. It has not turned its back yet on the city-centre format, and it is also looking at digital capabilities.

I now turn to what the Government are doing to support retailers. We are all aware of the difficulties in the sector. People rightly talk about business rates. My Department is conducting a review of business rates, and my colleagues at the Treasury are committed to a fundamental review of that tax. It is vital to provide the right tax environment for businesses to invest and grow. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), co-chairs the industry-led Retail Sector Council with Richard Pennycook, chairman of the British Retail Consortium. The council’s objectives are driven by industry and by consumer needs. It wants to make positive change, increase productivity and ensure that the sector remains robust and sustainable.

The hon. Member for Coventry South mentioned the need to create new forms of employment in areas that have suffered from deindustrialisation. As a Government and as a society, we have to think about new forms of industry and job creation. My Department is at the centre of that. We are driving innovation in green jobs. She will know about the strides we have made in offshore wind, which I know is not necessarily directly associated with Coventry. The fact remains that through environmental innovation, our environmental concerns and the green agenda, we are looking to create hundreds of thousands more jobs in that sector across this country than exist today. The statistic I remember is that we have 460,000 jobs in the green economy today, and by 2030 we hope to have 2 million, which is a four times increase in the number of jobs. This is a hopeful subject not only for constituents up and down the land but for the UK economy and the fight against climate change.

In concluding my remarks, I would like to speak generally about the high street. Coventry has a great high street, as many of our towns and cities do. As constituency MPs, we all appreciate how important the high street is, what a centre it is and how it forms the heart of many of our communities. People care about high streets. They are hubs for local people, job creators and nurturers of businesses of all shapes and sizes. I fully understand the devastating impact that the closure of IKEA in the centre of Coventry and the loss—the potential loss, because those people have not lost their jobs yet—of 352 jobs. We all understand the massive and depressing effect that that can have on the high street.

People up and down the land rightly feel very passionate and concerned about their local high street. We in the Government also recognise that this is a problem, and we share the passion and concern. That is exactly why, in July 2019, the Prime Minister announced a £3.6 billion towns fund to re-energise local economies. This included an accelerated £1 billion for the future high streets fund, which is going to support and is already supporting local areas in England to renew and reshape town centres and high streets in a way that not only improves the experience but drives growth and a future economic path. I acknowledge the fact that Coventry city centre was among the first 14 places announced as taking part in the high streets taskforce pilot. This Government feel that the high street is at the centre of our national life, and we are absolutely committed to maintaining its strength.

I hope that these schemes demonstrate our commitment to communities across the country, especially Coventry and the wider midlands. The Government will not just stand by and watch valuable retail industry fade away. Nobody in this Government fails to recognise that retail is absolutely vital to our economy and our various communities. The Government are committed to working with industry to address the key issues of concern and to drive positive change and innovation. Retailers remain a crucial part of our regional economies.

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Will the Minister set out how the Government are encouraging more innovation in the retail industry? It is no secret that shopping behaviours have changed, so the industry must change too. The Government must lead the way in helping small and medium-sized businesses to adapt and survive these changes.

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This is absolutely at the centre of the strategy. The hon. Lady will know that we have many schemes in BEIS, such as local hubs, and we also encourage people to work with their local enterprise partnerships. As I have stated, we have already announced a £3.6 billion towns fund. There are opportunities, and perhaps she would like to meet me and officials in my Department to discuss how we can drive some of these issues further and how we can tap into or unlock some of those resources. There are those schemes, and there is an absolute commitment on the part of this Government to make sure that our retailers do not fade away.

In conclusion, I know that in the immediate aftermath of that announcement there is little the Government can do to soften its immediate blow, but I am convinced there is a way through this. I believe that IKEA’s commitment to this country means that it will bend over backwards to ensure that as many people as possible can be redeployed and found other employment. If that is not the case, the Government are willing and eager to engage with representatives, and Members of Parliament from across the House, to consider ways to provide security, employment, and a better future for our citizens across the country.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.