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High Street Regeneration

Volume 687: debated on Monday 11 January 2021

The Government’s priority throughout the pandemic has been to protect lives and livelihoods, with substantial support flowing to high street businesses through business grants, the paying of people’s wages and tax deferrals. Just last week, the Chancellor announced an additional £4.6 billion in new lockdown grants to support businesses and protect jobs. I was pleased that on Boxing day we allocated £830 million from our future high streets fund to 72 areas to transform underused town centres into the vibrant places to live, work and visit that we all want to see after the pandemic.

Online sellers, global giants and supermarkets have enjoyed a virtual monopoly since the pandemic started, whereas small businesses in Bracknell, Crowthorne, Sandhurst and beyond are often on their knees. What is my hon. Friend going to do to address this growing imbalance?

That idea lies very much behind the comprehensive package of support that the Chancellor has made available, with £200 billion specifically targeted at supporting small businesses on the high street. It is also why we have brought forward the further top-up grants, worth up to £9,000, to help small businesses through this next—and hopefully final—phase of the pandemic. We will of course continue to review the situation. Such concerns lie at the heart of our plans through the towns fund, the high streets fund and now the future levelling-up fund.

Just before Christmas I met businesses on the Oxted high street. Even with the unprecedented Government support that the Secretary of State has laid out, it has been a difficult and anxious year for them, with many going above and beyond for their customers. Surrey County Council and the Surrey economic growth board, on which I serve, are doing important work to revitalise and transform our high streets; will the Secretary of State meet us so that we can share our ideas on how we can best support such hard-working family businesses?

I praise my hon. Friend for her hard work to support Oxted high street in Surrey and the work of her local councils. The truth is that the pandemic has not so much changed things but magnified and accelerated enormous market forces that were evident even before the pandemic. There will now be a very significant role for local councils in bringing forward imaginative plans to bring private and public sector investment back to the high streets over the course of the year, and to make good use of the licensing and planning reforms that we have already brought forward and that we will bring forward more of in future. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to hear her plans for Oxted.

Waterlooville town centre in my constituency was struggling as a shopping centre even before the pandemic, and is now really suffering, with closed shops and a lack of investment. There is a vision for the town centre, but we need money to develop it. Will my right hon. Friend point out a fund of money that I could approach to make this happen?

As I said, I was delighted to announce over the Christmas period the 72 places that have benefited from the future high streets fund, but I appreciate that hundreds of high streets throughout the country will be thinking about their own futures. We will very shortly bring forward the levelling-up fund, from which all parts of the country, including my hon. Friend’s in Hampshire, will have the opportunity to benefit. I also direct my hon. Friend to look at the planning reforms that we have brought forward, because it is not simply about more public investment; we also want to support entrepreneurs, small businesspeople and small builders through the right to regenerate, the changes to the use-class orders and the new licensing arrangements—such as the ability to have markets, keep marquees outside pubs and have more tables and chairs outdoors—that I would like to be put on a permanent footing so that the al fresco dining we saw in the summer can be replicated this year.

As we have been hearing, high streets are struggling like never before. When will the Government level the playing field on business rates between high street retailers and online businesses, so that they can compete on equal terms?

The Chancellor announced earlier in the year an unprecedented business rates holiday, which is benefiting thousands of businesses the length and breadth of the country, and he will be considering what further steps are necessary. I know that he is making a statement later today, and we will bring forward a Budget in March. We all want to support small independent businesses on our high streets, which is precisely why I encourage the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to support the planning reforms that we have already introduced, such as the ability to build upwards, to bring more homes on to the high street and to turn a derelict or empty property in a town centre into something more useful for the future. Those are the ways that we attract private sector investment and enable small builders and entrepreneurs in Croydon, in Newark and in all parts of the country to face the future with confidence.