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 hon. Friend for those kind words of support. She rightly says that this is about accountability and ensuring that the people in our local communities are in charge of their high streets and can ensure that those authorities, which have the power to bring about change, are held to account for that and for their decisions.

Section 215 enforcement notices and other enforcement mechanisms will certainly be part of that mix. Unfortunately, section 215 powers, which are about enforcement where properties are in a bad condition and owners are not taking responsibility for their buildings, have not been used in our area. I made a freedom of information request recently about that and we found out that Stoke-on-Trent City Council had not used those powers once in the past 12 months. That is shocking, given the blatant need for a carrot and stick approach to address some of the concerns about our high street.

Change of use will also be another aspect of this, and having further reviews every five years ensures that improvement plans are living, nimble and able to respond to changing views and circumstances. Nor should we presume that a plan could consider every eventuality, so although it will be important to give consideration to improvement plans as part of local planning policy, they should not restrict and prevent positive development that may not have been envisaged when a plan was formulated.

Additionally, reviews can happen more frequently than every five years, if necessary. Again, that was further clarified through amendment in Committee. Importantly, the Bill does not prescribe that improvement plans must be fully implemented, complete and whole within five years. I want to clear up any confusion that there may still be about that. Rather, the Bill provides for plans to be more of a moveable feast, subject to periodic review to check on the progress towards delivery of what might be called an “ideal model envisaged”. That means that improvement plans can include longer-term ambitions, guiding principles and characteristics for high streets well into the decades ahead, with the ability to finesse those at least every five years.

Of course, there is the duty not to leave the plans covering dust on a shelf. Having a long-term vision that is delivered incrementally with maintained local support is the right thing to do. We can all think of examples of funding pots becoming available for so-called shovel-ready schemes, and many of us will have been frustrated when it turns out that nothing remotely shovel ready is on the books.

One of the great lessons of the high streets taskforce, which has been usefully embraced by a number of local authorities, including Longton, is the importance of getting a number of quick wins and a number of deliverable schemes within the shorter term, and having a longer-term vision and series of projects. The high streets taskforce has been an important and productive initiative for local councils of all colours, and I hope that its legacy, findings and best practice will live on through the Bill. It is work that deserves to be celebrated and continued, and we should all be grateful for the wealth of knowledge that the taskforce has contributed. The Bill is necessary to institutionalise that legacy further, developing it across local government and local communities. Having an improvement plan will help provide the basis for helping secure future funding, providing a more cohesive plan to help justify investment decisions, and will mean that certain schemes can be on the books whenever the funding is available. It also means that other projects that crop up can be knitted into the fabric to align better with the longer-term strategic vision and priorities for an area.

Without a clear vision of what a preserved and enhanced high street area would look like, I suggest that the spending would not be as optimal as it could, or should, be and the funding may not even be won at all. Much of the focus for Government investment would be better informed and would deliver better value for money through high street improvement plans. Indeed, local authorities and place partnerships will be able to engage with national bodies to push for certain optimal schemes or the refinement of them to help deliver greater benefits for our high streets within the spending envelope. That could mean infrastructure projects, such as with organisations like Network Rail and National Highways, environmental enhancements from organisations like the Environment Agency, or major housing delivery on some of our brownfields through organisations like Homes England. It is important that we improve the linkage of national organisations to better understand the needs of our local communities and high streets. Improvement plans can help do that through better co-ordination and clarity of direction.

High street improvement plans may also be important for Historic England in identifying areas in need of a partnership scheme in conservation areas, known as PSICA. The reviews of high streets will, in some cases, draw on conservation area appraisals as well. In some of those cases, that will expose the absence of appraisals and will help fill the gap, particularly where condition of those areas is poor. It has been exciting to work with Historic England in Longton to help save buildings on Market Street, and the heritage action zone funding we have secured has helped deliver on some of those buildings. However, it has not delivered on all those buildings, and we actually have a number of buildings that are still in a poor state. We have amassed knowledge and data about the ownership and condition of some of those buildings, and we need to move on to the next stage. I hope we will secure some additional funding for Longton through the heritage lottery fund to help improve and continue some of the good work already started through the PSICA scheme.

There is much more work to do, especially in ensuring that the traffic flow and public realm are optimised for footfall and dwell time in Longton town centre. I hope the use of some of the levelling-up partnership funding for the town centre will help. Also, some of the other plans that we have been developing, particularly around things like crime and antisocial behaviour, are important for many of our high streets and town centres. Longton has recently seen a spate of absolutely mindless crime and antisocial behaviour targeting a number of retailers. In the next few weeks, I will be meeting a number of them alongside Staffordshire police to discuss some of the issues.

I have been absolutely delighted to help secure more funding to address some of those issues. Working with our fantastic police, fire and crime commissioner, Ben Adams, we managed to secure extra Safer Streets funding for Longton, and for other parts of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent, to help deliver the improvements and create the secure high streets we need to see. In our case, they include additional CCTV throughout the town centre and gating off some of the alleyways that have attracted crime and antisocial behaviour. Those measures will help to ensure that people feel safe to visit, and encourage more people to dwell and shop on our high streets.

Only a comprehensive improvement plan can pull together the many factors and aspects that need proper co-ordination for a compelling high street experience. All that can be addressed in the guidance from the Secretary of State. I hope there will be a role for the Office for Place, now based in Stoke-on-Trent, in optimising the guidance. And it will be guidance, not prescription. I stress here that the Bill does not remove the power of article 4 direction that local authorities already enjoy to remove permitted development rights, if they see fit. That is a decision for them, and it will no doubt be part of the designation process to consider any PDR issues around a high street. In many areas, permitted development rights will actually be key to the enterprising spirit needed to revive high streets. Forward-thinking councils know full well that they cannot succeed in their regeneration ambitions if they allow themselves to have a reputation among developers of “council says no.”

The improvement plan process will ensure that authorities are comfortable as enablers of preservation and enhancements. We are blessed in Staffordshire, like in many parts of the country and particularly in north Staffordshire, to have many iconic high streets, whether in the more rural market towns of Stone and Cheadle, or in the pottery towns of Fenton and Longton that make up parts of the city of Stoke-on-Trent. But nearly all of them across the country have faced multiple challenges from online, out of town, and, of course, covid-19.

To conclude, we must act to address that decline, building on the work already being done by the Government through measures such as those set out in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023, and ensuring the powers in place have a higher likelihood of being utilised. It has been a pleasure to bring the Bill forward and to work with colleagues across all parties to discuss it, review it and improve it on its passage through the House. We all want to see our high streets reviewed and improved. We want them to be preserved and enhanced to celebrate their local character. We want greater footfall, driven by high streets that are safe and pleasant places to be. The Bill ensures that local authorities work with property owners, local communities and many others to realise that aim, according to their own local circumstances. It is muscular localism, and I commend it to the House.