High Streets (Designation, Review and Improvement Plan) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons am 11:46 am ar 26 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Ceidwadwyr, Cities of London and Westminster 11:46, 26 Ebrill 2024

The hon. Lady is right, and what she says relates to an important point about the regeneration of our high streets. We have to have people around high streets to use them and to benefit from the facilities and the services that they offer. That is one aspect I looked at in the regeneration of Oxford Street when I was the leader of Westminster City Council. We were looking at changes to our planning policy, because we know that with the changes in people’s behaviour with online shopping, not as many people are now coming to buy. They may come in to browse, but they do not necessarily buy. That is why I consider that for somewhere like Oxford Street, we should protect the ground floor in particular, and perhaps the first floor and the basement, for retail. Above that, often there are five or six floors. Shops such as John Lewis and House of Fraser as was do not need all that huge floor space any more, because of the changes in behaviour. I was more than happy to look at introducing residential aspects or hotels.

I thought that if we could have residential in Oxford Street, the type of people who would live there, on a high street, would not necessarily be families or older couples. It would be somewhere that young professionals, students or whoever would live, and they want access to retail at all hours of the day, restaurants, cafes and whatever. The hon. Lady makes a good point that we need to look at residential aspects, but we do not want to turn our high streets just into residential areas. We need that commercial zone, but local authorities need to box clever when they are considering not only how they can help the existing small businesses in their high streets, but also how to attract new ones in.

The Government are committed to supporting retail businesses of all sizes. Investment has been made in the high street through the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, as well as the future high streets fund, which is worth £830 million. These initiatives help boost our local economies by creating more jobs and homes, while improving skills and infrastructure. We also had Government support worth £373 billion to the economy during the pandemic. We must never forget how much support this Government gave to secure hundreds of thousands of jobs in this country during the pandemic.

As I said earlier, online shopping continues to grow. The retail sector in high streets suffers from that. We saw that through the pandemic, and it continues to grow. Indeed, it is now easier than ever to shop online, with next-day delivery and free returns. There is less of a need for people to visit the high street to buy an outfit for that special occasion or the important interview they have coming up. This evolution of shopping is having an impact on the high street. Footfall is in decline, and the sector is grappling with a seismic shift in consumer habits. I therefore welcome the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, which gets to the crux of the issue. It is important that we support our high streets in the evolution that is happening as we speak. As I said in my intervention, I fully support how the Bill puts an onus on local authorities to step up and protect their local streets in the face of changing customer behaviour.

Although it is true that my constituency is home to many thriving high streets, we cannot ignore the significant change in how we use our high streets today. As I mentioned, the candy stores on Oxford Street are a problem, and I really hope that Westminster Council will sort that out. It is becoming an increasingly common problem around the country when landlords want to secure as much rent as they can—that is understandable—but that demonstrates how we need to adopt a long-term approach to ensure that our high streets can thrive in a sustainable way. The Bill promises to do exactly that by presenting an opportunity to push local authorities to better use the tools they have to address these problems. As I said, the Bill will allow the residents of the town, the city or the area to hold their local authority to account and have a say, and if they are not happy with what their local council is doing, perhaps they could even vote out their council.

One way in which I have seen the issue successfully tackled is by changing the use of properties from shops to activity-based venues. As I said, I had the idea of perhaps attracting more residential use into parts of Oxford Street, but, just down from here on Victoria Street, two units that I think were previously a clothes shop and a restaurant have reopened as a bowling alley and a karaoke bar. Now, that might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I have to say that I have partaken in the bowling alley activity; I took my team there last week. I will not give hon. Members the results of the competition, but I did not do very well.

There are also wider concerns about rising crime levels on our high streets. Shoplifting is at eye-watering levels. Late last year, I joined local people on a walkabout on Marylebone High Street and was shocked and appalled to hear that an increase in shoplifting has led several retail stores to lock their doors and allow people in only if they know who they are. I spoke to shop managers, particularly of clothes shops—those shops’ staff and managers tend to be women—who were very concerned about their own safety. People were coming in, grabbing clothes off the rails and running out.

We have heard a report today on the BBC about shoplifting in Manchester and the real threats that local shop staff face on a daily basis. Local people have reported that Waitrose on Marylebone High Street has removed products such as alcohol from its shelves to protect itself from being targeted by organised crime. It is often organised gangs who are involved in the dreadful crime of shoplifting. We call it shoplifting, but we should call it retail theft, because shoplifting does not really get to the crux of how it is theft, often with the threat of violence. We need to take it more seriously.

According to the Metropolitan police service, Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street were hit by nearly 18,500 crimes in the year to July 2023, and more than 80% of the area’s crimes that year were theft. Police and crime prevention are key to preserving and enhancing the character of our high streets. I welcome the fact that the Government have prioritised the safety of our high streets and policing with their retail crime action plan and the safer streets fund. However, it is clear that our local authorities need to do more to support those efforts and I hope this Bill will help in that process.

Through this Bill, local authorities will be encouraged to work more with local businesses and stakeholders on our high streets to develop new ideas, to encourage growth and to tackle the obstacles facing our high streets today. I therefore welcome the Bill and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South for introducing it. It presents an ambitious and necessary plan to reawaken our local high streets and bring them roaring back to life so that they can better serve our local communities and boost our economy by attracting more visitors.