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Bolton High Street Redevelopment

Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2023

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government support for the proposed redevelopment of Bolton’s High Street.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I hope that while short, this is not an insignificant debate on the future of the town I am proud to represent.

Bolton South East is the 38th most deprived constituency in the United Kingdom. To say we need Government investment in our town would be an understatement. I invite anyone here to go to the town centre—I have invited the Secretary of State to do so and extend the same invitation to the Minister here today—to see first-hand the deprivation and lack of opportunity. That is the reality and I do not say that lightly. This is not about talking down Bolton or even criticising the council, the Government or the people. It is about getting a fair deal for my town to support good jobs and good businesses and make it a great place to live, work and shop. That is not the reality and frankly, we are not getting a fair deal from the Government. Instead, the reality is boarded-up shop fronts, derelict properties and more rental signs than we could possibly imagine.

Bolton used to have many fabulous independent shops and traders, and the high street was genuinely a great place to spend time. However, economic pressures and the changing world have meant that, naturally, many of those businesses have taken a hit. It is not just independent businesses that find it tough; even large chains are taking drastic action that is hitting our town. We just recently learned that Marks & Spencer—an anchor business and a major high street employer—is to shut its doors for good. Not only will that mean a redundancy process and staff livelihoods put at risk, but another major business has left our town centre because it is no longer a viable place to do business. That follows a range of other huge stores, such as Argos, HMV and Debenhams, which have left vacancies in our high street. Put simply, that can make the high street a miserable place to walk down at times. We need to see change and we need support for that to happen.

The council’s plan, while not perfect, could have been the start of a real regeneration, bringing together the Government, the council, businesses and more with a view to making Bolton one of the best places to socialise or start a business. Party politics aside, surely the levelling-up fund and mission must be about addressing regional imbalances and providing Government support to areas that need it the most. That is the manifesto pledge the Prime Minister and the entire party stood on. Can the Minister therefore outline exactly what levelling up means, both as the individual responsible for setting the policy and as regards her Government’s wider agenda?

I am also perplexed about the funding arrangement, to be frank. As I noted at the start of this speech, Bolton’s levels of deprivation are stark. Our unemployment levels are almost double those of the region and the national average. Almost 50% of children live in poverty. We have a housing crisis, and as a borough we are in economic decline according to all recent data. Ours was once a strong manufacturing industry, and we have huge brownfield mills that now sit empty and derelict. There is so much potential for not just the high street but the whole town, and levelling-up support could provide the impetus we need.

In the first round of levelling up, Bolton’s bid was successful, but its second was unsuccessful. That was because it was apparently submitted late by the Conservative council that runs Bolton. We then made another bid. With those facts in mind, can the Minister outline to me the wider formula behind the levelling-up award? I would like to know, as would many in my constituency, why exactly Bolton was not eligible for the bid to redevelop its high street.

Bolton’s industrial history runs deep in our town. Spinning mills developed into a booming cotton industry, which grew to dominate Bolton’s local economy. Naturally, that has since subsided as our economy developed and time passed, but the remnants remain. In and around out town centre we have large former mills that stand empty and unused. In my view, these pose the best opportunity to create mixed-use properties: homes for young families; a place for businesses to start and grow; and an urban park to create social spaces in a very limited area. I appreciate that this is slightly leftfield and specific, but what consideration has the Minister’s Department given to the opportunities to support the council, businesses and individuals to retrofit those buildings for mixed use?

Turning now to wider regeneration, I will discuss the role of the cultural and night-life economies. Our fantastic Octagon Theatre is a recipient of Arts Council funding, and does a great job. It is a living-wage employer, it produces great shows and it has become a mainstay in our town centre. However, a recent report revealed that the nearby Oldham Coliseum will close its doors after a 100% cut to its funding. Two constituencies in London have 20 projects funded to the tune of £10 million. Apparently, in the whole of Bolton, the largest town in the United Kingdom, there is only one eligible venue worthy of funding. What is more, in the remaining 24 constituencies of Greater Manchester, outside of the city, there are just 21 funded projects. In summary, that is less than one project per constituency, and yet just two London constituencies received 20 grants.

There is no levelling up if it is not practiced at every level. There appears to be an inequity perpetrated here that runs contrary to the levelling-up agenda. Can the Minister outline what steps her Department is taking to push forward a plan for levelling up across all levels of Government, each Department and arms-length bodies, as well as encouraging other sectors?

I am acutely aware of the role the night-time economy plays in Bolton’s local ecosystem, providing jobs, increasing revenue and adding to our local culture. It is particularly important for students and young people in Bolton, as the town is home to a university and various colleges. I recently met with the night-time adviser for Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Sacha Lord, to discuss how we can introduce a best-practice model of nightlife in Bolton.

For our night-time economy to flourish we need to make it safe for customers to enjoy a night out and socialise without fear of harm to themselves or their friends. Bolton’s pilot safety haven scheme will go a long way towards setting the standards for this when it is launched in two months. It will give people a place to rest, sober up, charge their phone, and access paramedics or mental health support, if they are experiencing an anxiety attack or a depressive episode. It is a preventive measure that means that people do not have to go to A&E, saving the police and paramedics money, therefore providing economic as well as human benefits.

This vibrant night-time economy plays a great part in regeneration, and there are numerous examples in other Greater Manchester boroughs. Altrincham, in Greater Manchester, went from being rated one of the worst high streets in Britain to being one of most desirable places to eat, drink and socialise; Radcliffe Market, not far from us, is becoming the centrepiece of the town there; and Prestwich Village is a vibrant spot to socialise. In Bolton, we need to modernise our night-time economy, so that independent businesses and bars, such as Northern Monkey in my constituency, can grow and support the growth of our high street.

We have an annual food festival, which is now the largest in the United Kingdom, and our town is home to the European Ironman. However, as these are annual events, they are not enough. We need further assistance to develop our town centre and high street. What consideration has the Minister’s Department given to the role of night-time venues, bars, clubs and pubs in the regeneration of the high street, not only in Bolton but throughout Britain? Has the Minister had conversations with her counterparts in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about that?

I appreciate that I have given the Minister much to ponder and reflect upon. I will wrap up shortly, but I must reiterate the grave situation facing Bolton’s high street. We needed that levelling-up funding, which was to build a conference hotel and other facilities. It was a lifeline for our town. Over the last 13 years, since 2010, we have had £250 million in cuts to our council, which have affected the people of Bolton. That £19-million fund would have been a lifeline for our town, yet some of the richest boroughs and constituencies in the country, such as the Prime Minister’s constituency, were given £20 million from the levelling-up fund, leaving us to wonder what levelling up means in the Government’s eyes.

It is interesting that the last two Conservative party general election launches have been in Bolton, and promises were made. However, I am sorry to say that none of the promises made to my constituents have been kept, and people in my constituency are living with the repercussions.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, I think for the first time since I became a Minister. I thank the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for securing this important debate. As elected Members, we show real passion for wanting our communities and our areas to be the best they can possibly be, and debates such this one are important in raising both the successes and some of the challenges that our local areas face. I am grateful to her for articulating powerfully the case for further investment in Bolton’s high street and in the town’s wider economy.

As the hon. Lady highlighted, Bolton has many strengths and assets, whether historical architecture or dynamic businesses based in the town centre and surrounding district centres of Farnworth, Little Lever, Westhoughton and Horwich. The town also hosts the famous Ironman UK race and the Bolton food and drink festival. She invited me to go and visit her constituency; I would love to take her up on that, although probably not to do the Ironman, as I am not sure I am fit enough. She mentioned the Northern Monkey bar, which sounds a little bit more up my street, so maybe we could tie that in.

While her constituency has many strengths, the hon. Lady is right to say that Bolton town centre is facing significant challenges. I think we can agree that those challenges have only been accelerated by the covid pandemic, through changing retail demand, more shoppers moving online and, as she highlighted, the loss of anchor stores, including Debenhams and Marks & Spencer. She also noted that her constituency is among the most deprived places in England. According to the index of multiple deprivation, Bolton is the 17th lowest rated local authority for crime, 44th for income and 42nd for employment. The Government recognise that towns such as Bolton are having to adapt quickly to the post-pandemic world and the rising cost of living, which is why in recent years we have sought to breathe life into such communities with a series of transformational funds that are specifically designed to spur growth, job creation and renewal in the places where that is most needed.

Through local growth and levelling-up funding, we have invested over £180 million in Bolton’s economy since 2014. As the hon. Lady knows, that included £20 million in her constituency from the first round of the levelling-up fund, which is creating a new highly advanced vocational and professional training facility, the Bolton College of Medical Sciences. That will mean that roughly 3,000 students a year, including 1,000 apprentices, will receive high-quality tuition and learn skills that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. It will also contribute to the tackling of local health inequalities.

The hon. Lady asked what levelling up means to me and how I define it. It is straightforward, which makes it much more difficult. It is straightforward in the sense that levelling up is about ensuring that any young person, wherever they grow up in the UK, has access to the same fantastic opportunities—that is the simple version. The more complicated answer is that that means there is a need for intergovernmental emphasis; to ensure equal access to opportunity, we must look at healthcare, as we have touched on in relation to the college; transport; job opportunities; the potential for growth; and of course education. She asked what the Government, and our Department specifically, are doing. There are a number of things, some of which I will come on to, but the most specific and relevant is the creation of an inter-ministerial group on levelling up, chaired by our Secretary of State, to look at what every Department is doing to ensure that levelling up is being prioritised in their activity. That is just one thing, but there are plenty more, as I will touch on with regard to devolution.

Bolton town centre is also benefiting from £22.8 million in investment from our towns fund. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for all her work on the town board to oversee that vital work, which includes projects such as the redevelopment of Bolton Central Library, Museum and Archive, which will improve the leisure and learning offer for local people; the improvements to Bolton’s historic market, as she mentioned, which will maintain a much-loved community asset and drive footfall in the town centre, which is crucial; and the innovative new Wellsprings business hub for the creative and digital sector, which will provide real opportunities for local businesses and entrepreneurs. That is backed by £6.3 million of Government funding, which will create a greener, more connected town centre through the planting of trees and shrubs, improvements to public spaces, and new cycle routes and walkways—a real game changer not just for the high street but for the town’s economy as a whole.

As the hon. Lady mentioned, everyone involved in Bolton’s application for round 2 of the levelling-up fund will have been disappointed by the result. I know that she was one of the biggest backers of the Bolton town centre north regeneration project, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) also threw his full support behind the De Havilland Way corridor scheme, which is a priority project for the region. There was an overwhelming response to the second round of the fund—over 500 bids, totalling well over £8 billion. In contrast, in the first round we received 300 bids, which was still oversubscribed, in the context of having just £2.1 billion to allocate. The hon. Lady will understand that we knew that a lot of places would be disappointed. At this stage, it would not be appropriate to comment on specific applications, but I know that officials in my Department and in the Department for Transport are currently feeding back on unsuccessful bids. Full written feedback will come imminently, and I hope that that will help explain the rationale behind the decision and help with improvements to the bid for any future funding rounds.

The hon. Lady asked how applications were judged. As in the first round, funding was targeted in areas most in need according to the index of priority places, which takes into account the need to address issues such as under-regeneration, low productivity and poor connectivity. Each bid was assessed by officials from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities against the published assessment criteria, and officials then came up with a shortlist based on the highest scores against those criteria. To ensure that there was a fair spread of bids across the UK, funding decisions were then made by Ministers, based on the assessment score but also taking into account factors such as geographic spread and past investments. A place’s relative need is also baked into the process. In this round, 66% of investment went to category 1 places.

The second round has predominantly gone to areas in Great Britain that have not received funding before through the levelling-up fund, in order to ensure that investment reaches as many places as possible across rounds 1 and 2. I want to emphasise a point that we definitely should not lose sight of: there will be a further round of the levelling-up fund. More details on that will be announced shortly.

It is worth stressing, too, that the levelling-up fund is by no means the only investment from my Department in the region. More than £13 million from our future high streets fund has been spent on improving the nearby Farnworth town centre. As part of our £1 billion investment in Greater Manchester through the city region sustainable transport settlement, we are improving bus services between Bolton and Wigan for a faster and more frequent service that residents can rely on. All of that is accompanied by better cycling and walking routes in both Bolton and Farnworth town centres.

We are therefore doing a lot of investment, but despite those many investments and the progress that we are seeing together, no one can deny that Bolton will still need significant support over the coming weeks and months as we seek to build a brighter and more prosperous future for the town. Crucial to that mission is recognising that Government investment alone, however great, can only go so far. We also need significant reform to the way in which we support people and places in the long term, recognising that the current system of funding local councils needs improvement.

That is exactly why we are pressing ahead with the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to revolutionise how Government, the private sector and charities fund and invest in communities. The Bill also liberates councils to hold high street rental auctions so that landlords are encouraged to put empty buildings to good use. It makes the temporary freedoms around al fresco dining permanent, so that we can create more buzzing, vibrant high streets. It makes it much easier for councils such as Bolton’s to issue compulsory purchase orders so that they can repurpose boarded-up shops and derelict sites. All those changes are accompanied by a series of common-sense reforms that mean that no council has to pay over the odds in “hope value” to landowners when they issue compulsory purchase orders. That is a small change but it will deliver big savings for the public purse.

The hon. Member for Bolton South East asked what cross-departmental work is happening around levelling up. One of the best areas where we can demonstrate that is the devolution agenda. Empowering local leaders through our White Paper devolution commitments and regenerating towns such as Bolton are fundamental to our levelling-up plans in the north-west. I am really pleased to see that our negotiations on a new, deeper devolution deal with Greater Manchester, focused on delivering new transport, skills, housing and fiscal powers, are progressing well. Indeed, the reforms to the bus network are a direct result of that deal. We want to go even further, delivering a London-style integrated transport system to further enhance the Bee Network and deliver an accessible and integrated multimodal transport system that better connects residents and businesses in Bolton with the Greater Manchester region.

This is not just about businesses and the economy; we also want the trailblazer deal to provide the combined authority with the ability to drive housing supply and improve the quality of existing stock. The hon. Lady may have seen that, in his recent speech to the Convention of the North, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced £30 million across Greater Manchester and the west midlands, to support improvements to social housing. In the same speech, the Secretary of State made it clear that crime and antisocial behaviour were more likely to flourish in communities that have suffered neglect and underinvestment. That view is clearly backed by public opinion. At the end of 2021, More in Common and Public First polled more than 4,000 people and found that, for much of the public, tackling antisocial behaviour is the prerequisite to levelling up. To quote one of their survey respondents in Oldham, a town less than an hour’s drive from the hon. Lady’s constituency:

“What’s the point in making the area look nice if it’s just going to end up getting vandalised in a couple of months”?

That, in a nutshell, is the problem.

That is why we will shortly publish a comprehensive action plan on antisocial behaviour, one that means stronger enforcement, tougher penalties for those who damage public property and, of course, more activities to help keep young people out of trouble. That will be accompanied by a renewed effort to tackle public drug taking, while making our streets safer overall, to prevent the intimidation and harassment of women and girls—something on which the hon. Lady has been a passionate campaigner. On the point about women’s safety, nightclubs and the use of spiking, which I know is a huge concern for people right across the House, we are crystal clear that anyone found committing such an appalling crime will face the full force of the law. On its own, the crime can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. The Government have worked closely with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to look at existing legislation, concluding that there is no gap in the law that a new spiking offence would fill, but we can all agree there is more to do around raising awareness of spiking and how to report it.

That is why the Government will undertake a targeted consultation on amending statutory licensing guidance, which could include specific reference to spiking—a definition of it, how to recognise it and how to report it to the police. It is worth noting, too, that in April last year, the Government reclassified so-called date rape drugs—including GHB and GBL—which historically have been associated with drink spiking. That measure, and funding through the safety of women at night fund and the safer streets fund, is supporting local initiatives to help to prevent this heinous crime. Our report on the prevalence and nature of spiking, as well as the action we are taking to tackle it, is due to be published by the end of April.

We do not want to talk about nightlife only in terms of the dangers and fears, because for many of us having decent nightlife in our town centres is one of the things that makes life so joyful. The hon. Lady spoke about support for night-time venues, particularly pubs. I am waiting for an invite to Northern Monkey, which sounds like a class venue. I am looking forward to visiting it.

Throughout covid, we ensured that additional measures were put in place specifically to help hospitality businesses, which was crucial because they faced the brunt of covid. There are still additional measures on business rates to try to support those venues, but if the hon. Lady has suggestions about what more could be done, I would appreciate her feeding those back to us.

I hope that my speech has shown the depth and breadth of our commitment to levelling up in Bolton—in infrastructure, public services, regenerating boarded-up shops on the high street, and tackling crime and antisocial behaviour. In response to the hon. Lady’s broader points about properly supporting and funding local government with its own capital programmes that generate real economic and social value, I have set out our ambitions with respect to devolution and our Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill for empowering local authorities and ensuring that councils and local leaders have the tools, resources and funding they need to regenerate, invest in their high streets and level up communities.

The Minister talks about the fact that local authorities must have the powers and abilities to do that, but she will recognise that over the past 12 years, Bolton Council has had £250 million of cuts. That does not allow it to do the things it wants to do. Specifically, what additional resources are we going to get to enable us to do that?

The hon. Lady will know that the local government finance settlement has been issued for the coming year, and investment in Bolton is receiving quite a substantial increase, although that is only part of the picture. I have touched on devolution, whereby Greater Manchester Combined Authority has received a swathe of public investment, as well as additional funds and powers, to tackle some of the core issues that Bolton and Greater Manchester face.

Under our new trailblazer devolution deal, we are looking at moving that even further, giving the combined authority the powers it needs to deliver, and with that additional investment. Obviously, I cannot provide too many more details at the moment, but I urge the hon. Lady to watch this space. I hope she will be pleased with the package that we put forward as part of the trailblazer deal.

Broadly, I have outlined our vision for Bolton, and indeed places across the UK that have been overlooked and where there has been under-investment for far too long. As levelling-up Minister, I am fully committed to working with the hon. Lady and Members from all parts of the House to make that vision a reality.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.