High Streets (Designation, Review and Improvement Plan) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons am 12:05 pm ar 26 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Ceidwadwyr, Basingstoke 12:05, 26 Ebrill 2024

I very much welcome this Bill and I congratulate my hon. Friend Jack Brereton on getting it this far and on advocating so passionately for our high streets. This Bill, which requires local authorities to designate streets in their area as high streets and develop an improvement plan, especially without that upper limit of three streets that can be designated as high streets, will provide a framework for our many local authorities to do more to support this important part of what my hon. Friend called the beating heart of our communities. He is absolutely right to term it in that way.

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken. I was particularly struck by her drawing out of the concept of neighbourhood high streets. Although she obviously represents a far more urbanised area than I do, in my constituency we have both a town centre and other neighbourhood high streets, which need the support and help of our local authority just as the town centre does. That is an important thing to think about as this plan goes forward, and I am sure the Minister will reflect on that in his comments.

A picture has been painted already of the importance of high streets, so I will simply add that a recent poll found that 80% of respondents thought it very important that their high street was kept alive and healthy. That said, our town centres are incredibly fragile at the moment and they do need more protection. I think this Bill will incentivise local authorities to do the right thing and to have plans in place.

The economic benefits of town centres to our local economies are huge and considerable. Certainly in Basingstoke my town centre and high street service and support one of the largest centres of employment in the south-east. Not only residents but workers who come to Basingstoke, day in, day out use it. Town centres and high streets in our town centres promote civic pride and social cohesion and, as Mary Glindon said, they are places where we gather. That is an important part of their role as well.

However, high streets and town centres face considerable challenges, which is why I am speaking in support of this Bill today. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster referred to shoplifting, and I think every hon. Member taking part in this debate will recognise the incredible way in which shoplifting has been turned into, frankly, organised crime. Individuals are organising themselves to go into shops regularly to steal large quantities of often high-value items.

I am pleased to say that the police and crime commissioner in my county of Hampshire, Donna Jones, has gone above and beyond in addressing the issue of shoplifting, particularly by supporting facial recognition technology, which will help our local retailers on our high streets immensely to do something about that appalling crime. She has reinstated the important beat bobbies in every single one of my communities—not just in Basingstoke, but throughout Hampshire—and made sure that they will be there to collect the evidence and intelligence on the gangs and individuals organising shoplifting. The police forces in our various parts of the country have an important role to play in the future health of our high streets. I know my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South will be looking for ways to ensure that they are absolutely at the heart of his Bill, so that our high streets are healthy for the future.

As has been said, the reality for many retailers and service providers is that what they traditionally offered face to face can now—perhaps more conveniently for some—be purchased or procured online. Shopping habits and consumer behaviour were already changing before the pandemic, but the change has accelerated enormously, forcing our high streets to think carefully about their role in the future. It is not just retail parks that are a threat to the future of our high streets; it is more fundamental than that, so it will be important that local authorities take consumers’ and shoppers’ behaviour into account when they look at the Bill as it is rolled out.

My “high street” in Basingstoke—the town centre is a network of streets and one very large shopping centre—has been considering this issue for a number of years. Back in 2021, thanks to the leadership of then council leader Simon Minas-Bound, we put in place a blueprint for our town centre that is very similar to what my hon. Friend is calling for in his Bill. It was approved in December 2022 under the then Conservative administration. It is called the “Town Centre Strategy”, and it is designed to attract more footfall to the town centre, based on changing consumer needs. It looks at how the environment can bring greater vibrancy, and therefore greater prosperity, to the town centre. The strategy was developed with extensive public engagement: there were more than 3,000 responses to the consultation. The masterplan that has been developed uses the historical layout of Basingstoke to reimagine the current town centre, not for the next five or 10 years, but for the next 30 years, so that our town is fit for the future.

That town centre plan must look at the heritage of our community. I felt it was important, at the heart of the future of Basingstoke, to recognise our incredible history. Jane Austen, the novelist, used to go shopping in Basingstoke, and I was very pleased to work with a number of local people, including the sculptor Adam Roud, to put a lasting memorial in my town centre to that incredible Hampshire citizen. The hon. Member for North Tyneside talked about remembering one of the sons of her community, and I made sure we were remembering one of our daughters. Jane Austen is a fantastic person to have as part of our history.

There is also the Willis Museum and Sainsbury Gallery and the marketplace. All that history and richness has to be central to the way we press forward with Basingstoke. Consumers’ changing needs and demands mean that they may not go to their local high street only to shop, even though we continue to value the independent retailers and the pubs and clubs that populate our town centre. They are also looking for experiences and entertainment, and our history will enable us to make a unique entertainment offer in our town centre.

I absolutely agree that this Bill promotes a way for our local authorities to ensure that they do the utmost to support our high streets and make the most of them as a way of creating successful communities for the future. It will put the beating heart into our communities, and I very much commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South for all the work he has done to bring forward the Bill.