High Streets (Designation, Review and Improvement Plan) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons am 12:29 pm ar 26 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 12:29, 26 Ebrill 2024

I thank my hon. Friend Jack Brereton for his leadership on this very important and worthwhile private Member’s Bill, and for his unwavering commitment and efforts to champion our high streets.

This has been a fantastic debate. We have learnt a lot about the heritage of different high streets: Thomas Brown Street, in the constituency of Mary Glindon, was named in honour of the world war two hero who retrieved the enigma codes at sea; the 800-year-old high street in Basingstoke was the home of the author Jane Austen; the 126 years of Rowells in Stapleford; and the most famous high street in the world, Oxford Street, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken. We also heard about the towns fund in Broxtowe, which has given £21.1 million to Stapleford, and the transforming cities fund in North Tyneside, which has contributed towards its new transport hub and piazza. Sadly, we did not hear from Justin Madders about the levelling-up fund, which has given £13.4 million to transform Ellesmere Port town centre.

As we heard in the debate, everyone here recognises that healthy and vibrant high streets are vital not only for local economies, but for the quality of life and pride of local communities. However, the challenges currently faced by our high streets are significant, whether from the lingering impact of covid-19 on footfall or the ever-present challenge of competition with online retailers. While some have been able to weather the storm, many have struggled. The Government are committed to working with local communities to help turn that around. The Bill will play an important role in that mission, alongside other Government interventions, as part of our broader strategy to help high streets reinvent themselves. They include injecting billions of pounds into high street regeneration and renewal, including the long-term plan for towns, which will invest £1.5 billion across 75 towns to give them the tools they need to build a better future for local people.

One of the towns selected as part of our long-term plan for towns is Canvey, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Rebecca Harris. Canvey, like all the 75 towns in our long-term plan for towns, will receive £20 million over the next 10 years to invest in local people’s priorities. I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend, who has for so long championed the people of Canvey Island. Without her advocacy and brilliant campaigning, we would not be able to give them that £20 million cash.

Our long-term plan for towns will sit alongside high street rental auctions, which will require landlords to rent out vacant commercial properties to willing tenants such as local businesses. That will help to create lively high streets with increased footfall. Of course, no high street is the same, with local areas best placed to find solutions to local problems, which is why strong local partnerships on the ground are key to successful regeneration. We want to support councils, local businesses and local communities to give them the resources and powers they need. I think of high streets in my own constituency, such as those in Redcar, Marske, Eston or Normanby.

Normanby is probably the smallest of the towns I have just mentioned. At the moment, it is beset with roadworks that are expected to continue for around three months. That is already having a huge impact on local businesses. It is important, obviously, that when local authorities plan such major roadworks, they give serious consideration to the damage they can do to local businesses. Mr Deputy Speaker, I cannot mention Normanby High Street without thinking of the late Kenny Surtees, who for as long I can remember had a card shop on that street. I think he would have had a few choice things to say to the local Teesside Gazette about how those roadworks are going.

The Government recognise that many local authorities have regeneration strategies already in place, but the Bill will make the designation of high streets and the creation of high street improvement plans a statutory requirement. That will ensure local authorities not only prioritise the health of their high streets, but use their available powers to drive forward improvements, such as section 215 powers, to require land to be cleaned up when it is detracting from the surroundings.

The Bill will require each local authority to designate at least one high street or network of streets in their area. Local authorities will be able to designate as many high streets as they want. However, the Government have committed to funding the costs of up to three high street designations. Any designation beyond that number would have to be funded by the local authority itself. Local authorities will then have to create plans for the designated high streets, which should be reviewed at least every five years. Local residents, businesses, community organisations and others, including Members of Parliament, will rightly have a real say on the action plans, and the local authority will be accountable for delivering them.

Accordingly, the Bill will require local authorities to consult on which high streets are chosen. Different areas will have different challenges, so the improvements we can expect to see will vary. The focus in one area might be on tackling antisocial behaviour—again, something we have heard about in the debate, and we have heard some fantastic examples of what police and crime commissioners are doing to tackle it—while in others it could be creating more green spaces to rest and socialise. What is crucial, however, is flexibility to ensure that local authorities have the agency to enact the best change for their area.

The Bill will also create a duty on local authorities to take into account high street improvement plans when exercising their planning functions. That will support the already strong protections for mixed-use high streets and the complementing tools available to authorities, such as changes to the use classes order in 2020 to create the commercial, business and service use class—class E.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank hon. Members for their suggestions for strengthening the Bill during its passage through the House. We worked with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South to make some small amendments in Committee so that the Bill is as effective as possible. Those changes included ensuring that local authorities can make as many high street designations as they wish, with the Government funding up to three of those designations. That will give local authorities with a large number of high streets the flexibility needed to designate more than three, if they desire. I note my hon. Friend’s point that Stoke-on-Trent is a city of six towns, so there will clearly be more than three high streets that the local authority might want to intervene in.

We have also updated the wording of the Bill to allow for the designation of a network of streets, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, as the Government recognise that high streets are complex ecosystems that are not always limited to one street, but could be made up of a network of connecting streets.

Additionally, the Bill now sets out that local authorities must review their improvement plans at least once in every five-year period, with guidance to follow up on the circumstances in which local authorities should consider undertaking a review, such as where the area of the designated high street is expanded or reduced. That will ensure that plans remain meaningful and relevant. Following Royal Assent, we will issue guidance on developing the improvement plans.

The Government recognise that local authorities are best placed to know what their high street improvement plans should cover. Officials in my Department have already begun outreach with local authorities on the guidance and will continue to work with local authorities and other stakeholders as the guidance is developed. It is important that the plans are not left to gather dust but remain constantly relevant, as the hon. Gentleman reminded us. That is why the Bill requires local authorities to update their plans at least every five years, which we believe strikes the right balance between giving the plans enough time to have a meaningful effect and ensuring that they remain relevant to the reinvigoration of our high streets. We recognise that the measures should not come at the cost of overburdening councils that are already under pressure. As I have already mentioned, we will ensure that local authorities have the extra funding they need to be able to deliver the measures in the Bill effectively.

I am grateful that proposed new clause 1 was not moved on Report, as it would have removed all permitted development rights, not just those that change the use from commercial to residential lettings. I appreciate that that is a challenge in the constituency of Daisy Cooper, and I note that the LGA has echoed her concerns. I will meet both of them as the Bill progresses to understand the issues further and see what can be done to mitigate them.

As already stated, the Bill forms one part of a broader strategy to help regenerate and level up our high streets. Part of the solution is funding, with the Government investing billions of pounds into helping high streets navigate the difficult environment they face. The latest of that funding is the £1.5 billion long-term plan for towns, which will power ambitious regeneration projects over the next decade.

However, it is not simply about funding. With the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023, we gave local authorities new powers to reduce vacancies in their high streets through high street rental auctions. That will help to create lively high streets with increased footfall and activity that attracts people and businesses, increases pride in place and avoids the long-term presence of vacancies.

The development of strong partnerships, be it between national and local government, or between local businesses and communities, will be vital to the regeneration of our high streets. One such partnership is the high street accelerator programme, which I have the pleasure of leading and which will bring together businesses, residents and community organisations, with their local authority, to develop a long-term vision for revitalising town centres.

In addition, we have introduced significant planning flexibilities so that local decision makers can better manage the use of buildings in town centres and ensure that high streets remain places of commercial and social activity. That includes by converting class E properties; allowing a change of use without the need for individual planning applications; and using permitted development rights to introduce movable structures in pubs, cafés and restaurants, and to allow local authorities to hold outdoor markets. Permitted development also provides freedom to change more premises from commercial to residential use, so that much-needed new homes can be created in high streets and town centres, providing a mix of users, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster led on during her time as leader of Westminster City Council.

Alongside that, as I have mentioned, we are investing in our high streets across the country, with £15 billion of levelling-up funding since 2019 going to communities the length and breadth of the UK, including in Hyndburn and Haslingden, where my hon. Friend Sara Britcliffe has secured more than £50 million for her area. She has undoubtedly been the best MP that her constituency has had. I was pleased to visit it recently to see the historic town hall and the plans for the market hall, where, before serving as the MP, she used to have a stall, if I recall correctly. She is a brilliant champion for her constituents and I am pleased that we are able to help support her area.

Another area we are supporting is Nuneaton, which is also significantly benefiting from Government funding. I know that is particularly welcomed by the Deputy Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend Mr Jones. It is receiving a town deal worth more than £23 million and future high streets funding of more than £13 million, thanks to his advocacy. As part of that funding, we will help to build Grayson Place, which is named after Nuneaton’s famous Larry Grayson. His famous phrase, “Shut that door!”, has a particular significance for me as the MP for Redcar. This is disputed by the Deputy Chief Whip, but the first time Larry Grayson said that was when he was doing a tour in Redcar and the wind from the seafront kept banging the door on Redcar pier—he said “Shut that door!” and so it became. I hope that the good people of Nuneaton will use their vote next week to back their fantastic Conservative council to finish the job and continue to improve their area.

Of course, I could not omit to mention Stoke-on-Trent, which has had not one, not two, but three successful bids for levelling-up funding, as well as a levelling-up partnership, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South is keen to see investment in Longton. Stoke-on-Trent has never had such a focus from any Government, and I credit him for all his campaigning as a great MP over the past seven years.

To conclude, this Government are fully committed to breathing new life into our high streets, whether that is through the long-term plan for towns, the high street rental auctions or this Bill. Like my hon. Friend, I appreciate just how much this matters to the communities that we represent. Again, I offer my gratitude to him for introducing this Bill, to the Members who have supported it throughout the entirety of its Commons stages, to the Clerks and to my fab team of officials, who have helped with the Bill. I also pay tribute to the many fantastic council officers, who are often unnamed and unknown but who work day in, day out to improve their communities. The Government are backing this Bill and backing our high streets to navigate this period of change and emerge stronger for it. I look forward to supporting the Bill from the sidelines as it progresses through the other place and eagerly anticipate its becoming law.