High Streets (Designation, Review and Improvement Plan) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons am 11:03 am ar 26 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Ceidwadwyr, Stoke-on-Trent South 11:03, 26 Ebrill 2024

I thank my right hon. Friend for that excellent point and I entirely agree: that heritage, that historical character of our high streets in particular, in many of our towns and cities right across the country, is so important and we need to make more of that heritage, particularly when thinking about attracting new uses to our high streets. Many of those heritage properties can be converted into excellent spaces for a whole range of new uses, attracting footfall and new businesses to the high street.

As I was saying, the Bill is also about ensuring that local authorities conform to a national requirement and that they undertake the process of designation, review and improvement in accordance with their local circumstances, with assistance from national datasets and best practice analyses that already exist and can be signposted through the Secretary of State’s guidance. Getting the balance right between local differences and national requirements is a concern. It was clear from colleagues that the original Bill, which specified that the local authorities should designate no more than three high streets, was not getting the balance right, and that the maximum number of high streets designated in each area should be a decision for each local authority. That change was secured in Committee; if local authorities wish to fund designations and reviews in addition to the three that will be funded by Government, they now can do so.

Of course, there will be numerous disagreements around which areas to designate as high streets and when. My own area is a city made up of six towns, and there are many other high streets right across north Staffordshire. There may well be spirited debate locally about how to improve them. There will even be disagreement, I am sure, about what the Secretary of State’s guidance should include and what central funding, if any, should be available. This Bill sets out a supportive and predictable framework in which such debates can and must take place, bringing the focus and direction that our high streets desperately need.

The Bill directly addresses a problem highlighted in December 2021 by the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee in its excellent report, “Supporting our high streets after Covid-19”, namely the absence of a plan for ensuring that local authorities have a capacity to develop effective place partnerships and place leadership. The Bill introduces the mechanism of designation and review, under guidance, and this is supported with national funding for up to three improvement plans that will be developed in partnership locally, led by local authorities.

I completely understand the reaction that local government often has when it feels as though it is being told it needs to do more. My background is at the coalface of local government policymaking. That is why I stress that the Bill seeks to get local government not so much to do more as to co-ordinate what it does better, with wider input and agreement, and a wider contribution of effort, in implementation and delivery from a range of interested partners in our high streets, ranging from community groups to our high street businesses. I am enthused by those authorities that can already see the benefits of having an improvement plan, and I am pleased that the money resolution means that the authorities that have been held back by the cost of formulating a plan will have that barrier removed.

The Bill provides the policymaking structure for motivating action in the use of the many powers that already exist and are at the disposal of local authorities, and in giving better accountability as to their use. The Bill ensures that our communities and high street businesses are empowered to call for the improvements that should be outlined in each plan.