High Streets (Designation, Review and Improvement Plan) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons am 12:14 pm ar 26 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections) 12:14, 26 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to respond to the debate and we have heard a number of interesting and broad perspectives from Members of all parties. I thank Jack Brereton for tabling the Bill and for working constructively with Members from across the House, with the many stakeholders who inevitably had a view and with the Department so that the Bill gained Government support. He described high streets as the beating heart of our communities, and that was an absolutely apposite description. I agreed when he talked about Members of Parliament having a leadership role in guiding their communities and making sure that they are fit for the future, and he drew attention to a very sensible amendment that added greater flexibility so that a collection of streets, rather than one street, could be determined by a local authority as a high street.

Recalling what Dame Maria Miller said about the historical elements of high streets, I want to reflect on my own town centre in Ellesmere Port, which is, of course, the one I know best. The original town centre was somewhere different to where it is today. It has been moving westwards and southwards over the years, but a number of important historic buildings remain in the older parts of the town that need a focus as well.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South also made an important point about how antisocial behaviour can be a blight on town centres and the important role of the police and other authorities in tackling it. He mentioned gating off alleyways, which has been a successful policy in my constituency. There is also a worry that it tends to move challenges and problems around rather than dealing with them entirely, but that is why enforcement is so important in such matters. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke gave an important perspective and articulated well the importance of crime prevention in making sure our high streets are attractive and welcoming places for people to visit.

My hon. Friend Mary Glindon gave us a glowing gallop through her part of the world and spoke with great local knowledge and pride about North Shields. She was right that the key to all this is how we bring communities together. Her particular point about how town centres used to be the place where people would see friends once a week on a Saturday afternoon speaks to the challenge. Of course, thanks to the internet and mobile phones, we can pretty much speak to anyone we want to at any point, at any time of the day, from anywhere in the world, so the importance of that central meeting point in a community has diminished in recent years. My hon. Friend also spoke glowingly about the work her council does, and I think most councils work well within their limitations in trying to breathe life into their high streets.

Councils certainly have an important role as, for want of a better description, anchor tenants in the town centre. My council has made a strategic decision to base its headquarters for the whole of Cheshire West in Ellesmere Port, which has resulted in a certain critical mass of people coming into the town. My hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside also talked about the importance of public toilets. We sometimes overlook that, but we need to be confident that there is somewhere we can escape to in an emergency. It is also important to pay tribute to the council workers whose job it is to make sure that those toilets are clean and in good working order, because, as we know, from time to time they can attract the wrong sort of attention. It is important that we acknowledge the role of the entire public sector in making sure that our town centres are clean and inviting places. I know that my community in particular has a has a lot of respect for Bernie, who spends every day trundling up and down Ellesmere Port high street, making sure that the streets are clean and tidy. He is well respected and admired for that because, rain or shine, he is always there doing that important role.

Darren Henry gave an important perspective when he talked about the impact of the withdrawal of banks from many communities. I congratulate him on his success bringing back some of that facility. I am afraid there has been a national exodus from the high street. I have spoken on other occasions about the importance of having a physical presence for important services such as banking, because some people will not want to or be able to deal with a computer. When talking about financial transactions, the security of a face-to-face interaction is important to people.

Nickie Aiken, perhaps understandably, had a different perspective about the importance of international shoppers to the high streets in her constituency. She identified a shared problem of all high streets: the rise of online shopping, which has made it much more of a challenge to attract people. It is great that we can now order anything we want at any time of day, and it will be on our doorstep probably the next day, but that has not come without downsides. That is why the hon. Lady’s point about a need for a broader approach to the high street was important, as was her discussion about residential and activity-based destinations. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke had a neat way of expressing that as experiences and entertainment—something that we all seek on a regular basis.

All Members spoke with great passion and sincerity about the challenges facing their high streets. It would be fair to say that there has been a decline in our town centres in recent years. Many are blighted by boarded-up outlets and pavements verging on empty. It is hard to escape a wider sense of malaise because, in many respects, town centres and high streets are the faces of the places that residents and visitors see on a daily basis. They are the individual identity of the area for those who work, socialise or shop there.

That importance has been reflected in studies conducted into the value of high streets to local people. Nationwide found in 2020 that more than seven in 10 people felt that their local high street was an important part of their community, but almost two thirds of people thought that high streets have been neglected and more than two thirds believed that they have fallen into decline. I am sure that those figures will be even higher in some constituencies.

Shop closures in recent years speak for themselves. The British Retail Consortium estimated last year that Britain had lost 6,000 retail outlets since 2018. That translates into vacancy rates that are unequally spread across the country and the type of shopping area. My hon. Friend Liz Twist noted on Second Reading that the loss of shops was more pronounced in the north-east, where the vacancy rate is nearly a fifth, compared to a rate of one in 10 in the south of England.

A similar pattern is noticeable in the type of vacant shopping outlets. According to the Local Data Company, in the final quarter of 2023 high streets and shopping centres had vacancy rates of 14% and 17.9% respectively, yet retail parks had a vacancy rate of only 7.6%. That experience is mirrored in Ellesmere Port, where we have the high street, Port Arcades in the town centre, and we also have Cheshire Oaks as the out-of-town retail destination.

We have all seen the big names go and the shift away from in-person banking in our town centres, which has accelerated the decline that we all have been talking about. It is of note that the footfall in high streets last year was still 10% less than before the pandemic. That trend has a potential compounding effect on high streets and town centres, as the businesses that remain are harmed by the diversion of local people to alternative areas. It can be increasingly difficult on the back of that to attract new investment. There are huge challenges ahead to break the cycle of decline, and I see these trends in my constituency: where once we had a bustling town centre and big-name stores on every corner as well as an arcade full of shops, we now have far more empty shops and therefore fewer people coming to the town centre. What was once a lively place is now, sadly, looking a little empty.

People want to have pride in their towns and when they see boarded-up shops and empty streets they feel that something has gone amiss, so I can see the good intentions from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South in bringing this Bill forward. I think we all agree that something needs to be done to support our local communities and get them back to how we remember them—bustling, lively and full of energy and economic activity. However, the Bill also implicitly suggests the approach so far from the Government is not delivering the kind of changes we want. There is little indication that we are reversing the decline over recent years despite the many schemes launched by the Government —the strategy for high street regeneration, the future high streets fund, the high streets heritage action zones, the high streets task force, and most recently the long-term plan for towns and the high street accelerators. If all those schemes had been a success, we might not have needed this Bill now, but they are limited to specific areas or times and require competitive bidding processes, which, as the Public Accounts Committee has noted, have so far failed to deliver anything of note.

This Bill adopts a different approach, creating a duty on all local authorities to designate their high streets and create improvement plans, meaning in theory at least that all areas will be placed on an equal footing. These plans will set out proposals for the preservation and enhancement of designated high streets, with councils required to review them every five years and consider them when exercising planning functions. And as we heard from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, this will be a rolling review, and that is right: we should not let these plans just remain in stasis, because the retail environment is challenging and ever-changing.

It is refreshing that it is recognised that local authorities are the best vehicle to make decisions about their local areas. However, more needs to be done to tackle the problems our high streets face, because after a high street is identified and an improvement plan is made there appears to be no mechanism for the allocation of resources to ensure these plans are implemented. Given that council budgets have been stretched to breaking point since 2010, I see little scope for any improvement in the foreseeable future.

It would be useful to understand when the Minister responds what steps will be taken to ensure that local authorities are supported to deliver on the ambitions that we all share to regenerate our high streets. He made the important point on Second Reading that these plans should not be left to gather dust on the shelf, so what mechanisms does he envisage being made available to ensure there is real delivery of these plans? I hope—perhaps he will be able to explain and answer this—that the delivery of the plans will not depend upon councils having successful bids from whatever the next iteration is of the levelling-up fund and that there will actually be five-year investment programmes set out from central Government to match the plans. The reality is that any Government focus, however small, on regenerating high streets is to be welcomed, but much more needs to be done.

The most effective way of delivering substantial improvement to our high streets and cities across the country is not just through plans dictated from central Government, but through devolution and local government liberation. This will hand authorities, who have a much better understanding of the conditions on the ground, the right tools to make the right interventions for their local area. We support this Bill, but we also recognise that much more needs to be done to deliver the change we all want to see.