The final issue I want to address concerns the Local Government Finance Bill, which will commence its Committee stage tomorrow. The Bill provides that in the hierarchy of liabilities, a mortgagee who takes possession of a residential property will become liable for the

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council tax. That is a very important policy, which we should consider extending to business rates on commercial properties. This is a grey area at the moment, but I understand that as a general rule once banks have crystallised their charge on a property and taken possession, they are no longer liable to pay the business rates on it. If we made them pay those business rates, it would create an incentive for them to rent out such properties or, indeed, not to foreclose on businesses in the first place. No doubt the Minister will take some of these suggestions on board and we might consider some of this in Committee.

7.11 pm

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con): I, too, begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) for securing a very popular, as well as important, debate. [Hon. Members: “On this side.”] Indeed.

All too often, attention is given to our big urban centres, with insufficient attention being paid to the hundreds of towns across the country where most of our population lives. I represent three fantastic towns—Warwick, Royal Leamington Spa and Whitnash. The debate is very timely not least because I will be interviewed by BBC Coventry and Warwickshire tomorrow morning about what will take the place of the police station, the fire station and the courts in Warwick now that they have been lost. The excellent report we have been discussing will give us a basis for some answers.

Towns are smaller ecosystems than cities, and as a consequence they are more sensitive and require greater care and special consideration. I believe that all Members can agree with the main aim of the Portas report—to craft a “town centres first” policy approach to development. Town centres are key. They are at the heart of our communities and are the backbone of our local economies. Independent retailers, of which we are fortunate to have many excellent examples, find it difficult to compete with large out-of-town developments, and this can have a massive impact on other parts of our local economies.

This is not just about retail. When town centre businesses and shops leave or close owing to a lack of footfall, it can make towns look less attractive, which can reduce other income streams such as tourism. The cumulative effect can be that community amenities are significantly affected, creating a general sense of malaise. So this is not merely about keeping a few shops on the high street: it is about how we create vibrant, dynamic and sustainable town centres fit for the 21st century.

We need to remember that town centres and high streets are not the same thing. Town centres are more than just a selection of shops. They are centres for community organisations, public services and important local amenities. They require equally as much care and thought and should not be ignored. Town centres are like any natural habitat. When biodiversity falls, the ecosystem becomes weaker and more prone to collapse. Likewise, when we focus too much on purely retail issues in our town centres, we weaken rather than strengthen them. If we allow our town centres to continue to be too expensive for other sectors, we will limit their potential. People are not merely shoppers. They are sportspeople, music listeners, theatre-goers and seekers of new experiences. The Danish architect who is credited with transforming Copenhagen has said:

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“If you asked people twenty years ago why they went to central Copenhagen, they would have said it was to shop…But if you asked them today, they would say, it was because they wanted to go to town.”

It is also worth remembering that town centres depend on the loyalty of local people, and we need to ensure that those people have as big a say as possible. I welcome the fact that the Portas review plans to campaign to get people involved in their neighbourhood plans so that we create town centres in which people feel they have a say.

7.15 pm

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): I know that you will not mind, Mr Deputy Speaker, if we return to Wales for a few moments. I want to deal with the twin issues of rates and planning, particularly as they apply to coastal towns, which depend heavily on tourism, and especially towns that fall under the national parks planning regime, which has a significant bearing on their ability to undertake economic activity.

Let me deal first with rates. Tenby has a population of about 5,000 in winter and about 50,000 in the summer, but the ability to negotiate the rates is extremely limited. As a consequence, in the winter shops close, businesses reduce their output, boards go up in windows and people are laid off. That is avoidable, and I make a plea to the Minister. Taken over a short period, the withdrawal of rate relief, albeit predicted and albeit that businesses know about it, can reach ridiculous heights. For example, in local towns such as Narberth in my constituency, figures have reached as high as about 250%, with the consequence that businesses are winding down, shops are closing and people are being put out of work. I suggest to the UK Government and, indeed, to the Welsh Assembly that there must be a neater way of deploying transitional rate relief and a better way of accounting for the fact that seasonal variations in seaside towns can be absolutely huge. Why not have a system whereby rate relief can be more carefully applied in the lower winter months and made up when cash flow might be better in the more buoyant summer months?

The second issue I want to address is planning in national parks. I know that my friends in the Pembrokeshire Coast national park will be suspicious about what I am about to say. I should like to quote one example from the town of Tenby, where a very viable local estate agent applied to take over high street premises that had previously been an unviable pizza parlour. For some strange reason to do with enhanced national park planning policy, the application was turned down. A boarded-up shop that employs nobody and engages in no economic activity remains in the centre of that important town, whereas the alternative would have been to have the lights on in those premises for 364 days a year with six or seven people working inside. There would have been a sense of life and energy returning to an otherwise dormant part of the street, but the only excuse that the national park planning authority could come up with was that the application was outside “policy”. Surely, in such circumstances the answer is to change the policy.

If we want towns such as Tenby to be regenerated, if we want economic activity and if we want people to be encouraged to go into town in the quieter winter months, organisations such as national park planning authorities have to be flexible. Their policies must reflect today’s economic climate and they must point in the direction

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of the restoration of prosperity rather than getting too hung up on outdated planning issues. I hope that there are two particular audiences to whom the Minister will address his responses—national park planning authorities, particularly in coastal areas, and the Welsh Assembly Government, who occasionally glance in the right direction when it comes to these issues. However, more often than not, particularly with a Labour Administration, the emphasis has been contrary to the interests of high street regeneration rather than complementary to it.

7.19 pm

Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) for securing this important debate. I have to say in all sincerity that it is with great sadness that I rise to deliver my speech facing a sea of green Benches, which is particularly pertinent when we consider that the city of Wolverhampton is among the highest for the number of empty shops. If this is not a vital debate, I am not sure what is; but so be it.

The essential point has already been made. Town centres are not just about retail; the high street is at the very heart of any community. Many Members have referred to their constituencies. Following the riots, and in view of the fact that we have such a high number of empty shops in Wolverhampton, I conducted a survey of small shops and businesses in the city centre to find out why people do not shop there. I was surprised by the No.1 reason—chuggers: people who fundraise, perhaps aggressively. Again and again, shoppers said that the aggressive tactics used by some street fundraisers leave them feeling harassed and intimidated. I was disappointed to learn that people were being discouraged from visiting Wolverhampton city centre and I called for action to address the problem.

In Manchester, there is an agreement between the city centre management company, CityCo, and the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association, a self-regulating body that monitors face-to-face fundraising. They have found a balance between fundraising and leaving people in peace to shop. It is important that that fine line is drawn.

Although I support the incorporation of local communities in decisions about their areas, efforts need to be made to facilitate the process, so I welcome the Government’s local initiatives because that is where the solutions to many of the problems will lie. I should also like to offer the Minister some guidance on trust and clarity over tax-incremental financing, which is an issue for the developers of city centres. We have to go back to basics. If we are to see regeneration, we cannot look at the old model whereby development was funded only by bank lending; we need to look at partnerships between local authorities and businesses.

The important word is trust. Be it a local authority or a business, they need to trust each other. If, as has happened in Wolverhampton in the past, a developer wants to take a city forward and a local authority is promising this, that or the other but they get to point X without delivering anything, there is a breakdown in trust. If we are to have effective development and management in these difficult economic circumstances, it is vital that trust is at the core.

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Time is pressing and many colleagues have already spoken about parking. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) made a pertinent point about local communities when he spoke about Yarm. In all my travels, not just in my constituency but up and down the country, I have noticed that there are parts of our country where there are social issues and challenges. Southall high street, Soho road in Birmingham, Melton road in Leicester or even Dudley road in Wolverhampton are in areas where there is deprivation, but there are no empty shops on those high streets. I do not know why, but I believe it is because they are centres and hubs for their communities. We need to harness that in retail development and construction. We come back to the original point: town centres and high streets are at the very heart of our communities.

7.24 pm

Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) and the Backbench Business Committee on securing this important debate.

Much has already been said so I shall concentrate on two issues, time permitting. The first is my constituency. Many Members know that the town of Enfield, which is at the heart of my constituency, has a recent history, sadly, of being caught up in the riots. It has been fraught with that difficulty and the current economic climate that faces so many of us.

The wonderful “I love Enfield” campaign, which was started by Fast Signs, one of our local businesses, immediately after the riots tore through the high street, is a prime example of how local businesses, close to their community, are entirely in touch with the individuals and locations for which they provide services. Subsequently, our local Labour council started a “Love your high street” campaign, which I was fully behind, to try to bring traffic to the high street. It is thus all the more baffling that the council has persisted in introducing a steep hike in parking charges, including for Sunday parking, that is causing economic distress to traders and frustration to residents and is penalising churchgoers. It is not acceptable. As one of the local businesses said:

“If the council…are serious about regenerating town centres…then they need to consider one of the most simple ways of encouraging people to stay and shop in their community.”

At the heart of that is parking.

Since its election, Enfield’s Labour council has sought to force through drastic changes to parking regulations throughout the borough. Its initial proposals to increase parking charges, in some cases by more than 100%, and to increase the number of charging days to include Sundays and bank holidays, have created a difficult climate for local businesses. The changes faced massive opposition from residents, traders and our local newspapers—The Enfield Advertiser, which has launched a campaign, and the Enfield Independent. Despite that, the cabinet member for environment, Councillor Chris Bond, still claims that “fairness” is “at the heart” of the decision. However, as the Emma Claire hair and beauty spa salon says:

“All we constantly hear from our clients is that they no longer wish to shop or use our facilities due to the excessive amount of parking charges that Enfield council has implemented.”

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It is worrying that Enfield council has refused to explain where the extra income generated will be spent. The cabinet member for finance, Councillor Andrew Stafford, claims that it will be used “to gain additional revenue” for the council’s coffers. I question that judgment, because the guidance for the Traffic Management Act 2004 stipulates that merely raising revenue should not be an objective of parking charges. I support the campaigns by residents and newspapers to try to overturn the decision. The council must withdraw its plans, cancel Sunday parking charges, repeal the increases and help, not hinder, Enfield’s shops and businesses.

The issue is not all about parking, but we have heard consistently across the House that it is a problem that faces everyone. Our high streets will benefit in future from a long-term strategic view of how to take on our present-day challenges, but I fear that there is disconnect between landlords, retailers and local authorities in achieving a strategic view. To face the challenge for the future, a long-term, investment-led and holistic strategy will be needed that will drive people—with relief, I believe—away from their computer screens and internet shopping. If they see their high street become a destination of choice for social and cultural events, and not least for shopping, we can help to promote our town centres. In Enfield under the Conservatives, between 2002 and 2010, there was a commitment to expand the shopping precinct, and they moved the library and the museum. Now we can take things a stage further. Recently, even volunteer dance groups have appeared in the streets of Enfield, making it a good place to do business and I invite all Members to come and see what a great job our retailers are doing.

7.29 pm

George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) (Con): My constituency town centres—I suspect like those of many Members—have been subject to the development of supermarkets without any real control or the involvement of local people. In Bishop’s Waltham, when Sainsbury’s recently gained permission to build a supermarket, there was enormous turmoil in the community, and a “them and us” situation was created: half the community was for the supermarket, half against. I thought that I should do some work on PPS4, the regulation that allows unplanned, out-of-town supermarkets and retail outlets to be constructed.

By luck, circular 02/2009 requires any proposal for an unplanned out-of-town supermarket to be reviewed by the Secretary of State, so that he can see if he wants to call it in formally. Records were available for two years, so I could see exactly how many unplanned supermarkets had been granted permission and how many had been called in by the Secretary of State. The answer was that 146 unplanned out-of-town or edge-of-town retail stores had been given permission, and one had been called in. The simple lesson, for me at least, is that supermarkets are extraordinarily well resourced, powerful and practised, and they get what they want. In short, the local plan is not really an effective tool to restrain that undue competition for many of our high streets.

It is time to put people back in charge. Not all high streets are equal, and the quality of high streets varies hugely. However, some are truly more than the sum of their parts. They are the hub of the community; they are a forum for social interaction and a draw for tourists;

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they are a marketplace for local products, and a safety net for vulnerable people, particularly the elderly. People notice when certain people are not there, and shopkeepers are aware of those who need looking after. High streets can be heritage centres, and the value of those externalities is simply not contained in models such as PPS4—the method previously used to grant those permissions.

If we consider the needs of social services and GPs, as well as the delivery costs to new markets of businesses that are displaced, those are all costs that the models do not price and do not see. We need to do something about that and let communities decide. Local plans and notional neighbourhood development plans do not allow communities to turn around and say, “We do not want a supermarket here.” I believe that they should be able to do so, but there must be a high hurdle. There must be overwhelming community buy-in for the proposal, and we must ensure that there is competitive pricing in that community so that the less well-off are not marginalised. We must demonstrate that the local jobs that would be created are strategically important. If we put all those hurdles in place, is it not right that local people should be able to say no? If they can convince their community that they do not want a supermarket and that they have something special, should they not be able to turn around and say, “Stay away—we’re happy as we are”? I think very much that they should be able to do so.

I propose to the Minister that that should be included in the new national planning policy framework. When the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government looked at the issue and wrote a report on the NPPF, it agreed that it was a reasonable idea and it is included in the recommendations. I hope very much indeed that Ministers will consider that carefully and, yes, with high hurdles, ensure that people who live in valuable communities that they do not want to change have the right to say no.

7.33 pm

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) for securing this important debate. I work closely with him on the all-party parliamentary group for town centres, and I value his input tremendously. I thank the Backbench Business Committee, too, for granting the debate.

Town centres mean a lot to me, because they should be a reflection of a town’s character. That has emerged powerfully today in many speeches. A town centre should be a place where families go to relax and be together, where people can pass the time of day and enjoy themselves, and where consumers can shop, eat, relax and be entertained. As many of my colleagues have debated, it is about so much more than shopping: that is how town centres should work. In short, town centres should be welcoming environments where we all want to go. That is what they should be, but are they? The answer, with a couple of exceptions that have been made clear, is no.

I said that town centres mean a lot to me, but I should have said, given that many of my hon. Friends have taken the opportunity to discuss their own town centres, that Eastbourne town centre is particularly relevant. A few days before the general election, I talked to some independent traders in the town centre. As we have heard from many other Members, they had been fed up

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for a long time about the way in which the town centre was going, and how town centres generally were going. They were fed up, too, with politicians promising things and not delivering and so on. I spoke to the chap who chairs the Eastbourne independent traders group, and I said to him, “I give you my word, if I am elected, come what may, I will be down to see you the day after the election.” To this day, I remember a look in eyes of, “Oh yeah, I won’t see you for dust.” Sure enough, after the election, with only two hours’ sleep, I was down there at midday to say hello and to promise him that I was going to roll up my sleeves and get involved.

One of the first things I did in Parliament was to join the all-party parliamentary group. I am now vice-chair, and it is something to which I am strongly committed. I set to work on Eastbourne town centre. Unlike my hon. Friend, I did not have a great deal of expertise in that area. My background is in business development, not town centres, and I discovered the complexity of trying to get something done in town centres. It is really hard: one has to deal with planning, business rates, and byelaws. In Eastbourne, we have an astonishing number of byelaws that make it very hard to set up a street market—the sort of thing that would make a real difference.

Hopefully, the difference this time is the enthusiasm and commitment that I have shown, along with my local council. It was not always the case, but it is now a can-do council. I said that we had to get a good street market in the town centre, which would act as a catalyst or engine to get things going. The council said that there were a lot of byelaws but—and this is different—it said, “We will do something about it, Stephen.” Previous councils, whatever their political persuasion, would just say, “It’s too complicated. We’re not going to do it.”

It took a year and three quarters, but it has been through cabinet. In Eastbourne town centre, opposite the shop where I spoke to that independent trader, there will be a street market in late spring or early summer. It is a start, but as we have heard today, so much of this is about the drive and commitment shown by the Portas review, the coalition Government and the Prime Minister. As an Opposition Member said, this is an old issue that has been around 20 or 30 years but, finally, there is a chance that something will be done. I hope that that is the case because, to be honest, we all know about the state of town centres for the past 20 or 30 years. They have consistently become worse and, with some honourable exceptions, there has not been any real change or improvement.

We are all responsible—politicians, planners and the public—because everything has changed with the internet and the complexities of shopping today. This important debate—I really think that it is important—offers an opportunity so that, in a few years’ time, we will look back at 17 January 2012 as the day on which parliamentarians, the Government, the Minister and the public decided, “That’s it. We’ve had enough of our town centres simply deteriorating and going out of fashion. We’ve got to stop it.” We have to begin that fight. There are many reasons why it is important but, most important of all, town centres, when they work, are the heart of a town. I think that they are worth fighting for, and it has been a pleasure to speak in this debate.

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7.38 pm

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) for securing this debate and to the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. I pay tribute to Mary Portas for the hard work, passion and imagination that she put into her report.

We have heard about the challenges that town centres face from out-of-town food stores, retail parks and the internet. Poor town planning has also played a role in the decline of town centres, whether in granting planning permission for out-of-town stores in the wrong places on inappropriate terms, by making town centres inaccessible and difficult to reach by car or public transport, or by doing little to prevent the rise of “same street” syndrome and clone towns throughout the country.

To halt that decline, town centres should be able to compete on a level playing field. We have heard about the importance of retaining the “town centre first” policy. Moreover, Mary Portas points out that the high street can be a hard place in which to trade. We need to make it easier, with fewer rules, regulations and restrictions, and a more balanced tax and rating system.

As for parking, in some towns, such as in Lowestoft in my constituency, the council, working with town centre shops, has put in place more customer-friendly car parking arrangements. However, the Government still need to do more.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that what Gloucester city council has done, which is to reduce parking charges to £1 an hour, is exactly the sort of proactive work by local government that we need to help revitalise interest in our city centres?

Peter Aldous: I welcome that intervention, and I agree. Councils across the country are doing what they can, but the Government can do more. They should look at how parking at out-of-town stores is assessed for rating purposes. As a chartered surveyor, I do not believe that the current valuation approach truly reflects the value of that car parking to out-of-town retailers and the rateable values should be raised, with the additional funds generated being used to reduce car parking charges in town centres.

With rates, councils should be provided with more discretion over the discounts that they can offer, ratepayers should be able to spread their payments over 12 months rather than 10 months, and the anomaly whereby business rates are increased annually in line with the RPI, rather than the CPI, must be corrected as soon as possible.

Another challenge that needs to be addressed is the fact that there is a lot of unused space in town centres, both at ground and upper levels. We need to make it easier for that accommodation to be put to alternative uses, such as much-needed dwellings, doctors’ surgeries, gyms or other community uses. The use classes order, which for so long has acted as a straitjacket, should be relaxed and local councils liaising with local communities should have more discretion about what activities should be allowed.

In Kirkley in Lowestoft in my constituency, Desmond does not have a barrow in the marketplace; he has a superb coffee shop, with unique decor and a “Hancock’s Half-Hour” collection to rival the BBC’s. An episode is

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played at 10 am each day. Desmond wants to expand to provide hot food, but at present he cannot do so, as his use would be in the same use class as a kebab shop. That issue needs to be addressed.

Many town centres, including Lowestoft, are blighted by unkempt and dilapidated buildings that discourage people from going there. Councils should be given more compulsory purchase order powers to address such problem properties, and they should be able to serve empty shops management orders.

I agree with Mary Portas that markets should be encouraged. Markets were the procreators of town centres and they have an important role to play in their future. People like browsing around a marketplace. Markets bring people into a town, they provide an opportunity to showcase products or skills, and they give entrepreneurs the opportunity to get their foot on the first rung of the ladder that can lead to running their own business. Across the country, there are too many rules and regulations, too many hoops to jump through, before a market can be set up. Those need to be removed, and to be replaced with a presumption of favour of the right to trade.

Out-of-town parks have a major advantage over town centres in that they are in one ownership, subject to one management regime, with one common purpose. In the town centre there are many players and many stakeholders, with different goals and objectives. We need to help them come together to work as one to promote town centres, as they are doing in my constituency in Lowestoft, Beccles and Bungay. Business improvement districts, for which preparatory work is currently taking place in Lowestoft, can help as well, as can Mary Portas’s proposals for town teams.

In conclusion, Mary Portas’s report has highlighted a problem that is faced across the country, and this debate has helped move the discussion forward. I look forward to the Minister’s summing up and I urge the Government to respond to the report as a priority, so that we can all get on with the important task of bringing life and prosperity back to the country’s high streets.

7.43 pm

David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): I should declare an interest. I own commercial properties in Greater Manchester and I was a shopkeeper for 20 years. I had clothes shops and hairdressing outlets around the Greater Manchester area. For years I have been watching the decline of town centres, and I agree with more or less everything that I have heard from both sides of the House today about the state of our high streets and town centres.

Our shopping habits have changed, and we must recognise that. The internet has been a revolutionary step forward and, as we can all agree, it has good points and bad points. There is more choice on the internet, but the disadvantage is that people cannot hold, touch, see or experience the object unless it is in a showroom. Many town centre shop owners have said that they have become showrooms for the internet market. I know that many suppliers and manufacturers have taken measures to stop certain sales taking place over the internet, but the internet has had a large impact on town centres, as out-of-town shopping has on all our towns across the country.

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The good points are that those huge shopping centres provide security, diversity and more choice—but most of all, they offer free parking. They are accessible from the motorways. More often than not they are on bypasses that have been created because every town centre in the land has been pedestrianised. Correct me if I am wrong, but most town centres in this country have been developed through the centuries, most of them in Victorian times, as thoroughfares or crossroads where traders met and markets, and later towns, developed. For the life of me I cannot understand why every major town centre in the UK has been pedestrianised. Cars have stopped going in. The whole infrastructure of a town centre was based on traffic going through, in and out. To compound things further, what did we get in some, if not most, councils? Parking wardens. Private parking wardens—a way of raising money.

Let me tell it like it is. Where I am from, I still have commercial properties. If I nip into the local town or go to visit my children, I park, and I then have 30 minutes. By the time I have walked into the town centre, which has now shrunk, it is time for me to go back. When I get back, more often than not I have a parking ticket. That discourages people from going into town centres.

Look at what has become of our town centres. As one hon. Member said, they have become the home of charity shops, fast-food outlets and betting shops. A plethora of shops service retail industries. The large high street clothing shops—the Nexts and the Marks & Spencers—will not set up in a small town any more because the units are too small. We now have to look at the planning system. Over the past few years many town planners, rightly or wrongly, have been planning on the outskirts of the town. A bypass road has been built round the pedestrianised town and the situation has been self-perpetuating.

We must start thinking about the future of town centres. The circumference of the town centre will shrink, and the outer shops will more than likely become housing. The town planners should recognise that if we are to attract larger businesses into the town centres again, we must redevelop and create units that will house their current requirements, instead of what happened when town centres were built up, in some cases hundreds of years ago and in other cases as recently as 50 years back.

To sum up, we should re-open some of the pedestrianised towns where applicable, and we should start looking seriously at how to attract businesses back into the centre of towns. More than anything, we should try to work out a better system of parking. Free parking areas would be preferable, but in this day and age I know that that would be almost impossible. Thank you so much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for letting me speak in this debate.

7.48 pm

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris). I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing this debate.

I have the pleasure of representing a seat with three town centres, Alfreton, Heanor and Ripley, and there are various other high streets. I could go on all night

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and list them, but probably the three biggest are Codnor, Somercotes and Langley Mill. It will not surprise anyone who has heard the debate to hear that they all face the challenge, to varying degrees, of empty shops and an over-supply of charity shops, take-aways and betting shops. This seems to be true of the whole country.

I was slightly concerned by the local council’s report on the retail industry in Amber Valley. I first read the part about the most successful town in the constituency, Alfreton, which shows that in some parts footfall is below the national average. I thought, “That’s a bit of a problem, but hopefully we can find a way to fix it.” I then read the part about the weakest of the three towns, Heanor, which shows that footfall there is one third of that in Alfreton, which already has a problem. That shows the scale of the problem we face in that part of Derbyshire. Because of the history of old mining communities, there are many small town centres between one and five miles apart servicing 20,000 people, and the old diverse shopping mix, with people walking into town to use the shops, is history. That is no longer how we shop.

Before we look back to a golden age of town-centre shopping, we should think about what we do when we get back home on a Thursday evening at half-past 9 after leaving this place and find that there is no food in the fridge. We go down to the 24-hour Asda and do our shopping there. I am then busy all day Friday. What do I do at the weekend? I go to the supermarket. Those of us who know that that is wrong try to find the time to shop in local shops, for example by going to a local butcher rather than the supermarket. I have found that one of the privileges of being an MP is that I get to convince my girlfriend that we cannot go to the Meadowhall shopping centre, but we have to shop locally instead. According to the Portas review those huge shopping centres offer a great and enjoyable experience, but I am not sure that that is what I have found.

Understanding the problem is easy, but finding the fix is not. I do not think that the fix is for my local council to have to decide tomorrow night whether it wants to sell land on the edge of Ripley to another supermarket. I do not know who is bidding or how many bidders there are, but I do know that having a second supermarket will not help in a small town that is already struggling. The shopping centre might have a pharmacy, an optician, a mobile phone shop, an electrician —you name it, they have it these days—and the town centre already has vacant shops. It has three pharmacies, an optician, a Currys and other electrical shops, all of which will be under direct threat from a second supermarket, never mind the fact that there are already two supermarkets in the town centre that are themselves struggling.

We have to send out the message that if we are trying to save our town centres, we cannot add extra out-of-town shopping that reduces the footfall that town centres desperately need to attract. The council’s report states that we might need another supermarket in the Alfreton area in 2026. I look forward to catching HS2 to that supermarket in 16 years’ time, but in the meantime I am not convinced that we need it.

It would be remiss of me not to comment on parking, which is a long-running local issue. Our parking charges are actually quite low: 50p an hour is a typical rate. With the amount the petrol costs to get to the car park, I wonder why those charges are such a concern, but

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clearly they are, especially for the convenience store that has reopened in Heanor market place—I pay a huge tribute to Mr Patel for that. His problem is that there is a Tesco store down the road. If I want to buy a pint of milk I can park there for free, but if I want to buy it at his shop I have to find the change, find the machine and pay the 50p, and if I accidentally stay longer I get the privilege of a £25 fine. Finding a solution to that problem is key.

The most encouraging thing about Mary Portas’s review is that she did not try to take us back to the golden age of the 1950s or claim that this is just about getting all the shops back. She recognised that we have to do something different, and find different uses to get people using town centres again, whether that is a social use, a health use or something else. The challenge for all of us, and for our councils, is to find something that will work for each town centre, and find a way of making it happen. If that means shrinking the shopping area and moving shops to a viable area, rather than having them too spread out, or if that means finding other uses and allowing empty shops to become restaurants or café bars to try to get that footfall and find a viable use, that is the way forward, and that is what we need to do.

7.54 pm

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): Liberal Democrats believe that community politics should be at the heart of what we do. Decisions that affect individuals should be made at the lowest practicable level and, when it comes to our high streets and town centres, local communities should be given as much power as possible. That is why I welcome the Government’s commitment to protecting our high streets.

The independent Portas review, although not perfect, is a significant step towards undoing the centralising powers that were introduced by the previous Government. Key measures such as business rate reforms, town teams, the general power of competence and neighbourhood plans will enable local people, through their council, to make decisions about their own areas and that affect their own lives. There is much more that can and should be done. As the Portas review identified, the more powers local people have to control their own lives, the more likely they are to create a thriving community, and a thriving community is the bedrock of a successful economy.

In Cambridge, I am fortunate to have an extremely successful city council, headed by Councillor Sian Reid, who is fighting hard to protect our town centre, our local market and our local high streets. We have been doing this for years, so we are more than ready to identify where Government reforms are working and where they will not deliver as expected. However, the story is not all good. This year, Tesco is due to open its 13th store in Cambridge. Despite the best efforts of Sian Reid as council leader, Catherine Smart as deputy leader and myself as the local MP, we have simply not been able to find any legal means by which we can prevent supermarkets from opening ever more new stores on our high streets, even when there is significant opposition from local people. That means that supermarkets in general, and in our case Tesco in particular, will have a very large market share in one place.

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The problem is not Tesco itself. It and other supermarkets play an important role and people do choose to shop in them. The problem is supermarket dominance. There are a number of problems. First, there is a stranglehold on competition. A successful economy, both locally and nationally, is based on diversity and people’s ability to innovate, adapt and provide the services that people want. What can be done about the supermarket monopolies? The answer is not very much. It is perfectly legitimate under existing rules for a supermarket to have a reasonable market share across the country but a complete monopoly in some towns and high streets. The result is lack of choice for consumers, which is bad for the community and the economy. Breaking these monopolies up is not anti-free market; it is fundamentally pro-fair market and pro-community.

Secondly, local areas retain more money when it is spent in independent and locally owned stores. Local owners are more likely to serve their communities because they live there too. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister spoke yesterday about the need for the Government to support worker-owned enterprises. In the same vein, local planning powers should enable locally owned stores. When shops are opened by consent, with the support of local people and under the ownership of local residents, the economic and community benefits are huge and we should support that.

Many of these trends are likely to get worse. We have a housing problem in our country and need to build more housing, but as these new neighbourhoods are formed, we must ensure that developers, when they lease or sell their outlets, take into account independent retailers. I have been told that some developers will sell units only to companies that are prepared to buy 10 or more outlets, which squeezes independents out of new neighbourhoods entirely. For these reasons, I have been working closely with city councillors to see how we can better represent the interests of our constituents by supporting local stores. Local government must be able to influence whether new stores are chains or independents and whether they are small or large outlets, because that is want people want it to do.

One approach we tried was to see whether planning applications could take account of the diversity of shops in a town centre. The push by Cambridge city council became known as the “Cambridge amendment” to the Localism Bill in the House of Lords, and I spoke in favour of it in this place. The Government, however, did not accept that case, but they did suggest using local “use classes” to enable local people to control their high streets, which seems a perfectly reasonable proposal. It would mean that local people could determine that supermarkets are in a different category from small shops and that when shops merge, that would change the class. It would empower local councils, but we have not yet heard from the Government how those proposals would work and the details, despite letters from myself and the leader of the council. I ask the Minister to respond as soon as possible. It is not just about opposing supermarkets for the sake of it. We need to ensure that we have variety and diversity.

We also need to ensure that there is transport. I have been fascinated by the comments made about the need for more cars. There is lots of evidence that improving the walking environment increases retail footfall by

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30%, as a study in Exeter has found. People who walk in shopping areas and cycle there or take the bus and train spend more money because they have access. We have to promote sustainable travel. I call on Ministers to look at how we can empower our local communities and give them the powers they need to ensure that we have vibrant centres.

7.59 pm

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): I would like to join the long list of Members who have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who has carried out an exceptional role in promoting our town centres and high streets. I was very proud to co-sponsor the call to get this debate through the Backbench Business Committee, and we have been proved right that this would be exceptionally popular and justify the full six hours.

I am particularly interested in the issue, both as shopper, when following my fiancé round and carrying the bags. I support my local town centre and am the vice chair of the all-party parliamentary group for town centres, retail and small shops. I have set up a retail forum in my constituency; I support our excellent local bid company in Swindon; I invite retailers such as Lord Wolfson to visit and pass judgment on our town centre; and I grew up in a family of shopkeepers who modelled themselves on the “Open All Hours” sales technique.

Nationally, the last few years have been tough on high streets, with consumers wielding less disposable income, high-profile retail failures leading to large numbers of empty shops, the growth of out-of-town shopping centres and the continued boom in online shopping. For example, this December saw an 18% increase on last December in such shopping, and one in 10 consumers now uses their phone in-store to check the price of goods elsewhere.

For all those fans of Swindon—I know everybody loves Swindon—I must say that even we have had challenges. Over the past five years, there has been a 22% fall in footfall, and the number of empty units is up to 17%, but there is much hope on the horizon.

Turning to the excellent Mary Portas review, I, as her unofficial official No. 1 MP fan, am a great supporter of it, and for me the key recommendations included, very importantly, the need for a town team. We have the Forward Swindon company in Swindon, because developers and retailers want a single point of contact. Out-of-town shopping centres have a single point of contact, and that is what is needed on our high streets. It is important to empower bid schemes, which are essential for creating events, for marketing and for representing traders—for creating that reason to visit and for making the particular town a town centre. I wish the company in Swindon all the best in the referendum to get a second five-year term. I am sure it will.

It is very important to promote the national market days. We all say that we would like more markets in our constituencies, but the challenge is the lack of market traders, so I am delighted that today New college in my constituency and the Blunsdon indoor market have agreed to work with me to give business students the opportunity to man stalls on the market for free in order to get real-life experience.

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James Wharton: My hon. Friend has drawn on several things happening in his town of Swindon. Does he agree that they demonstrate that town centres, high streets and markets are not just centres of economic activity, but the beating heart of many communities?

Justin Tomlinson: I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent intervention. That is right.

By giving young people the opportunity to get real-life experience on the market, we may find that they become the next generation of market traders or, even, shop retailers, and they create the independent retail outlets that give our town centres unique character.

Many hon. Members and hon. Friends have discussed the importance of business rates, and I welcome the fact that we are giving greater powers to local authorities. As with all things, there is a limited amount of money, but I hope that if they target anything, they will provide incentives for start-up businesses and, perhaps in particular, young people’s start-up businesses.

Parking has been mentioned several times, and I am delighted that Swindon has been praised in the Portas review, because its local council took a brave decision—opposed by Labour councillors who seemed hellbent on abandoning our town centre—to introduce a £2 flat fee for four hours’ parking. That reversed the fall in footfall, we had a 10% increase and, crucially, dwell time increased, too. In fact, one café reported a 30% increase in takings, so where, previously, people went into town just to do their banking, now they stop off in a café to refuel and, then, carry on to do some serious spending, which is a real boost for our local economy.

It is right to highlight the need for town centres to be accessible, attractive and safe, and I was delighted to see the £20 million parade redevelopment in Swindon, and that the council has invested £2.8 million in the public, open space in the town centre. It is also important to recognise the transition between the daytime and night-time economies, and with the plans to introduce a late-night levy I suggest that the units paying the levy have a say in how it is spent, as they understand the night-time economy.

The exceptional sign-off rule for all new out-of-town developments has also been highlighted, but we had a town centre Marks & Spencer, and the company planned to build another store on the northern orbital, at an out-of-town site. A deal was struck, however, whereby it would refurbish the town centre store first, so it remained the anchor, destination store.

On affordable shops, it is important to secure the next generation of independent retailers, and I fully support the need for several small units as the entry point for those new businesses.

I fully agree with the comments about doing everything we can to tackle the number of empty shops, and I am delighted that our Brunel shopping centre has reduced its vacancy rate to just 4%, partly on the back of cheaper parking and partly on the back of pushing landlords to make the units useful.

James Wharton: In the light of many comments that we have heard on the Floor of the House today, did my hon. Friend just say—did I hear him right?—that cheaper parking has helped to deliver success at his local shopping centres? It would be useful if he clarified that point.

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Justin Tomlinson: Absolutely, and I know that my hon. Friend highlighted a campaign on parking in his speech. Footfall had fallen by 22%, but following the reduction in car parking charges it has increased by 10%, and dwell time has increased significantly, benefiting local businesses.

For all those fans of the various Mary Portas TV programmes, page 43 of the report touches on another area—the need for retailers also to step up to the mark, particularly in customer service and by offering something different. We will not stop supermarkets or out-of-town shopping centres, and arguably we should not have to, because it is up to the market if people choose to go to them, but there is an opportunity for retailers to offer something better and different.

There are two examples in my constituency. The Bloomfields deli in Highworth opened when people said that it was absolutely mad to do so, but because it offered unique products and exceptional customer service it has thrived and opened a further two stores. The Forum clothes store has been trading for 17 years and seen off all sorts of national chains, which have come and gone as fashions have changed, but by building on customer service and offering products that are not immediately available elsewhere it has remained standing much longer than the main competition.

All is not lost, and there is much positive work to do. Members, the Government, local authorities and retailers have roles to play, and I very much hope that, with my promotion of Mary Portas at every opportunity, we in Swindon will have an opportunity to secure our status as one of the pilot schemes, because we are all behind it.

8.6 pm

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): I shall take a slightly less supportive position on the Portas report than my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who just made a very effective contribution to the debate.

I recognise that our local communities want to retain their high streets and town centres, and ultimately it is in their hands: they will determine where they shop. My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) pointed out the attractions of supermarkets because of their all-embracing services at almost every hour of the day and night, but we certainly have to do something to restrict out-of-town developments and to retain the vibrancy of our town centres, because that is what the people we represent most certainly want.

My constituency boasts in Barton-upon-Humber a very good market town, and in Cleethorpes itself the main shopping centre on St Peter’s avenue boasts not only the MP’s constituency office, but a lively and excellent selection of shops. Another town in my constituency, Immingham, has a reasonable mix of shops, but it, like other places, is desperate. It wants Tesco as part of its regeneration, and I am pleased to say that it is almost about to happen, but we have to recognise that point.

I do not have time to touch on all the recommendations in the Portas report, so we can take it as read that I support most of them, but the town team recommendation envisages

“a visionary, strategic and strong operational management team”

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and, having served on a town team as a council representative for many years, I have to say that we struggled because of over-regulation, difficulty and the lack of funding—even at that time, with lavish support from the regional development agency, which achieved almost nothing. Town teams are fine, but nothing will happen without the driving force of a local authority, because it controls planning, traffic movement and car parking.

Much has been said of car parking. Of course, we would all love to see zero charges, but the reality is that car parking provides a net income. I wrestled with this matter when I was a member of my local authority’s cabinet, where car parking had a net income of £1.25 million. Yes, that can be reduced. North Lincolnshire council, which is another authority in my constituency, has brought in some imaginative ideas and encouraged growth.

Nigel Mills: Does my hon. Friend agree that when councils get the power to keep any increase in their local business rates, we will soon see whether they are convinced that by reducing parking charges, they can generate extra business rates and therefore extra revenue? Cutting car parking charges might not be a lose-lose game, but rather a win-win game.

Martin Vickers: My hon. Friend has made the point that I was just coming to, so I will skip a few points. However, we have to recognise the difficulties that local authorities face in this regard.

Recommendation 15 of the report talks about an “affordable shops” quota in large new developments. That idea sounds fine, but the businesses that would be drawn to such developments are probably those that are currently in secondary shopping areas, such as the long parades of shops that most towns have, where many of the shops are boarded up or are used as charity shops. The recommendation might lead to more decay and dereliction in those secondary areas. We must consider the knock-on effects.

Overall, the report is to be welcomed, if for no other reason than that it has generated a lively debate in the House today, with excellent contributions. That will feed through into our local communities, where the debate will continue.

While I have the opportunity, I will put one point to the Minister again. We hear much about the regeneration of our cities, which are indeed engines of economic growth. I ask him not to forget the provincial towns, many of which are a long way from a major city. There should not be too much concentration on cities at the expense of the many provincial towns in my region, such as Grimsby, Cleethorpes, Halifax and Huddersfield.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): How does my hon. Friend suggest we communicate politically the value of market towns as opposed to cities?

Martin Vickers: That is a challenging question. The reality is that we have been trying to revitalise our towns. As I have said, I served for a long time on my local authority. I was also a member of the Local Government Association’s urban commission. We had

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countless presentations from highly paid consultants on how this could be achieved, but many of the ideas fell flat because there was not the support of local communities.

The report mentions reinvigorating high streets with market traders. In principle, that is fine, but I remember being the councillor responsible for allowing that to happen and there was a mass uprising among existing shopkeepers, who immediately came to me saying, “I pay my rates and my dues and you are allowing these people to drift in, many of whom have no connection with the town and the community.” It is a difficult balance to achieve.

We have to recognise that the success or failure of our high streets and town centres relies ultimately on the customers. It will be determined by the market forces. I want to see our town centres and high streets thrive with imaginative ideas from local shopkeepers, but ultimately the customer is king. Past Times went into administration a day or two ago; we must hope that high streets do not belong to times past.

8.14 pm

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): That was a powerful concluding statement from my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who laid out the complexity of the situation.

The truth is that over the past six decades our policy on market towns and high streets has been an astonishing failure. Government after Government have tried almost everything. They have played around with parking and with rates, and they have changed the planning regulations. The result has been a catastrophic disaster. We have gone from 43,000 butchers in 1950 to 10,000 in 2000. We have gone from 41,000 greengrocers to 10,000. The number of fishmongers is now a fifth of what it used to be and the number of bakers is a quarter of what it used to be.

The question is, what do we do? We first need to be tough and serious in recognising the problem. The problem is not simply that out-of-town retailers are large, muscular bullies. First, their growth reflects the fact that it is more convenient to locate a business out of town. It is, of course, cheaper and easier to set up out of town. A shop can have night time deliveries, the rates are much more transparent and it is easier to develop a retail space that suits the retailer. Secondly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes said, customers are selecting out-of-town retailers for their shopping. Thirdly, we need to acknowledge that although out-of-town retailers have had a disastrous impact on our high streets and market towns, they have had a very good impact on the products in our shops. When my neighbour first moved to Penrith in 1955 from the United States, the only way in which one could buy olive oil was to go to the chemist and buy it in a bottle of about 25 ml for medicinal purposes.

So what are we going to do? As everybody has said in this debate, we need clearly to define the value of towns and high streets.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that in addition to providing a broader range of products, the supermarkets that he refers to have brought

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the benefit of reducing the cost of living for many people by reducing the price of basic essentials and the general grocery bill?

Rory Stewart: I agree absolutely. That is why the argument that we have to make is not an easy one. We have to make it because everybody in this Chamber—indeed, everyone in this country—believes deeply in the value of our high streets and market towns. It is not an easy argument to make because in terms of price, market competition and, fundamentally, choice, it is difficult to continue to defend the high street. In order to do so, we need to reach for more imaginative arguments.

We need to explain, above all, the value of public space. The great thing about any high street or market town is that it offers somewhere that is different from the workplace and the home: a civic space in which one interacts with other people. The point of it is not simply a shopping or retail experience, but those innumerable miniature encounters and exchanges of advice and wisdom that create the warp and weft of a community. That is a huge capital resource that we rely on when we talk about the big society, when we look for voluntary activity or when we fight for our local assets, such as in Penrith where we are fighting to save our cinema. We need that local identity and it is conveyed primarily in our lives through the experience of a town or high street.

Mr Marcus Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that the ambience and experience of the town centre is extremely important? The town centre manager in Nuneaton has a strong track record of putting on entertainment such as Punch and Judy shows, theatre shows, mini opera companies and brass bands. Does my hon. Friend agree that such things add to the ambience and experience when people go to our town centres?

Rory Stewart: Absolutely. Of course, that is a central insight of this debate: a town centre is not simply about a shopping or retail experience, but about a much broader community experience that can range from puppets to the visual elements and even the aesthetics. One reason that Appleby in my constituency is such an appealing place is its architecture. The extraordinary asymmetry and symmetry of our red sand stone, the castle on the top of the hill, the Moot hall and the market cross create something that it would be impossible to replicate in a modern retail space. Those things are not about shopping.

The other important point from Nuneaton is local leadership, which is what we need to represent a town centre and compete with an incredibly able retail manager at a Tesco or Waitrose. That is why we should look again at local democracy and elected local mayors. If we ask why a French town is vibrant and able to say no to a local supermarket, whereas in Penrith a Sainsbury’s appeared even though I reckon 90% of the community opposed it, we realise that a great deal of that is due to the lack of a local leader and champion, the elected mayor, who can say no.

We can also do an enormous amount to support councils by getting rid of regulations and ensuring that if, for example, Penrith wished to challenge the supermarket, it could be confident in the judicial review process and confident that the planning laws would suit it. There could perhaps even be insurance if it were defeated, so that it did not feel horribly financially exposed.

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Finally, and most importantly for Conservative Members, we must understand that this is a fundamentally conservative campaign in the best sense of the word. It is not about a grand vision of central planning and rationality, or a notion that some expert in a capital, or in Tesco’s headquarters, can define exactly what is required for every community. It is about taking what is already there—our historic inheritance. It is often an inconvenient inheritance for parking, rates or the space for shops, but we can make something of that history and tradition. Above all, we can have not simply shopping but a sense of the warp and weft, the interaction and the human spirit of community that once made us proud to be called a nation of shopkeepers, which will be difficult to retain without any shops at all.

8.21 pm

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) for securing the debate and ensuring that the Backbench Business Committee listened to his remarks. The depth of the conversation that has taken place today has clearly indicated the leadership that he demonstrated.

Before I go any further, may I declare an interest? I still have shares in a company that I set up some five or six years ago, which deals in giving advice to property developers on how to manage public consultation and on ensuring that they get their political messages across. I suspect that in the next five minutes I will demonise myself as being responsible for an awful lot of the problems that have occurred. Some of the people with whom I ended up working were from supermarkets and food retailers, so I have some understanding of what they do.

First, I wish to talk about Plymouth, which is the largest urban conurbation west of Bristol. It is a low-skilled and low-wage economy, and as Members know it is the home—or I should say a home—of the Royal Navy. My constituency runs south of the A38 and from the River Plym to the River Tamar. It has a city centre in it, and I am uniquely a very strong urban Tory. I therefore hope that I can talk about the impact of what is happening.

We were badly bombed during the war, and a lot of the property in the constituency is now beginning to look a little shabby and needs work doing to it. However, we do have a university, which is a key part of ensuring that regeneration takes place. I would be grateful if the university considered how it could include some retail activity on its premises, because there are major implications for the city in July and August when the university has gone down.

There is a proposal by English Heritage to list the city centre, which I do not think is a very clever thing to do. All that will do is put the whole thing into aspic and discourage the growth of the retail sector.

Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): I am interested by what my hon. Friend says about universities and students. In my constituency we have a large university in a town of 50,000 people. Does he agree that when councils and shop builders plan town centres and retail offerings, it is important that they think about not only

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the student market but, as he says, a year-round market? They have to appeal to both students and non-students for the whole 12 months.

Oliver Colvile: I fully agree, and licensed premises are also incredibly important. We now have more licensed premises in Plymouth city centre than there are in the whole of Liverpool, which is quite a striking fact given that the population of Plymouth is about 250,000 and Liverpool’s is significantly bigger. There has been a tendency for local authorities of all political parties in the area to move the culture of Union street, of which those who know Plymouth will be aware, out to Mutley Plain and the Barbican. That has had real implications, including for the local police’s work to maintain law and order. We need a much more balanced approach.

When I was working commercially—Members will be delighted to know that I am not any more, although I do have an interest in my own business—I was aware of how defensive some landowners could get about looking after their stakeholdings. They wanted to ensure that if there was development, it would not affect their commercial interests badly. There was one city in the south of England where we did a lot of work, and I had a client there who owned about £40 million of assets in the town centre. He had great difficulty in talking to the local authority and getting it to work with him to develop his part of the town. It became a very big problem, and it ended up with the local authority trying to get his land by compulsory purchase order, with all the implications that went with that. It is very important that local authorities should not try to be developers by proxy, because that is a disaster. It has delayed the regeneration of that town by a significant time.

Mr Marcus Jones: Will my hon. Friend comment, on the basis of the professional expertise that he has just outlined, on the suggestion that we heard earlier that the abolition of the upward-only rent review might benefit the regeneration of our town centres?

Oliver Colvile: We need to do everything we can to encourage as much footfall as possible in town centres. If I were a retailer, I would want people passing by to come into my shop. One thing that I learned at a very early stage when I got involved in the whole business of development was that planners liked to have one anchor store at one end of the town and another at the other end. I think that is quite a positive story, because people end up walking from one side of the town to the other and doing their shopping in the small shops in between.

I am very keen to ensure that town centres are the major places in which we encourage investment, but we must understand that in so doing we put up rents and some smaller shops cannot operate. We need to encourage people to set up niche businesses, such as bakers, butchers, fishmongers and so on.

We must ensure that we deliver a master plan approach. When development is taking place in our towns, we need to look at the sites and get the local community involved in making the decision on what they want there. There must be community benefits. When I gave advice to developers, including Sainsbury’s, I would always say, “When you are looking at your campaign, you have to consider what consumers and electorates

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will think is in it for them,” which means developing good community consultation. We have worked hard on that key aspect in my constituency.

Conservatives have a good story to tell. After all, Nicholas Ridley introduced the planning process in the first place, and John Gummer, as Secretary of State for the Environment, introduced the concept of planning policy statements—we are now on PPS 4, which is on ensuring that stuff goes into the town centre. We have a good story to tell, but there is further to go. I very much encourage my right hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that the Portas report is used and implemented.

8.29 pm

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing this debate on this vital subject. It is an important day for town centres around the country, but it is also a very important evening for Macclesfield Town football club, who are playing a well-deserved replay at the Reebok against premier league Bolton. [Hon. Members: “What’s the latest score?”] Nil-nil. We will win yet.

I welcome the Government’s decision to set up the high street review and congratulate Mary Portas on her exceptional work and on producing an action-oriented set of recommendations. Most of all, I pass on my thanks to the shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, and business men and women around the country who work tirelessly day in, day out, to put our high streets at the heart of our communities. They do so very capably, particularly in Macclesfield.

Macclesfield is an historical and energetic town, nestled beneath the hills of the Peak district. It has real character and an independent spirit. In Georgian days, Macclesfield was the world’s biggest producer of finished silk, and the town continued to thrive in prosperity for centuries after, but in recent years the town centre has suffered from the opening of the Trafford centre and the Handforth Dean retail park, and the uncertainty of future plans for the town centre that were stalled by the credit crunch. By its own successful standards, the town centre felt tired, and in 2008 or 2009 there was a growing appreciation that something had to be done.

The response from the community was terrific—positive and action-oriented. I am particularly keen to share that experience and hope that it is of interest to colleagues and those who might be listening, just as we are keen in Macclesfield to learn from other communities.

We have learned through our efforts in regenerating and revitalising the town centre that the key ingredients are belief, confidence and building momentum. A critical milestone for us was re-establishing the Barnaby festival in June 2010. Barnaby was a centuries-old tradition that had fallen into decline, but it was completely reinvented and resurrected as an arts and culture-led festival by the community, for the community.

Barnaby was a huge success and led other community entrepreneurs to establish a monthly treacle market. That market, which again is run by the community, for the community, has gone from strength to strength.

As confidence has grown, more events have followed. There was a programme of events to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the Macclesfield town charter, and last December, as if from nowhere, a schedule of events

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called the “WinterFest” helped drive footfall across the whole month. That was vital at that critical time of year.

To build that momentum, it was vital that we sought to engage stakeholders more fully. We needed to get local businesses, community groups and the council together, so we created a business breakfast. It was not so much a “town team” as the Portas report describes, but more a good old-fashioned town hall meeting. In engaging those businesses and community groups—about 120 come out every couple of months—we have created a real agenda for progress.

We have created our own brand identity—by the community, for the community—and an economic forum. That really is our “town team” as defined by Mary Portas. However we define it, that partnership, and—dare I say it?—that coalition has helped to create and strengthen our initiatives to help to take the town forward.

The creation of the economic forum led to a whole-town vision, which has helped to create the confidence for local businesses to invest. Wilson Bowden is considering a town centre development in Macclesfield—one of the few being considered across the country—and Tesco has expressed an interest in dramatically increasing the size of its edge-of-town unit as well as its town centre Metro store. My message is similar to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies): at these moments in the life of communities such as Macclesfield, it is vital that national retailers and developers show that they are going to be part of the solution, rather than exacerbating the problem. It is vital that they show commitment and energy in supporting the community, just as so many other stakeholders are doing, up and down the country.

In my remaining 10 seconds, I would like to say to the Minister and to Mary Portas that Macclesfield stands ready to take part in one of the pilots. We think that we would be a leading light in culture and heritage-led regeneration—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. There is no injury time for football scores, I am afraid, and the hon. Gentleman has run out of time.

8.34 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I was born and brought up in Dudley. Dudley has been somewhat disparaged this evening, but I want to tell colleagues that it used to be the place to go. For me, Cranage’s coffee shop was the place to hang out. For my mum, it was Cook’s or Beattie’s department stores. However, following the closure of a huge local steelworks called Round Oak, Government subsidies were used to create a new shopping centre called Merry Hill on that site—with free car parking, of course. Merry Hill sucked the lifeblood out of Dudley. Cook’s was lost, but Beattie’s stubbornly hung on for many years. It was a family firm determined to buck the trend and keep the town together.

Today, as the MP for Solihull, I have fought, along with my party and local residents, against an Asda superstore being built on precious parkland on our high street—the Stratford road in Shirley. We lost. The Conservative-led council forced the decision through. We are about to find out whether we are right to believe that the Asda will suck the lifeblood out of the small independent shops on the high street, or whether the

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developers are right in saying that it will attract more people who will magically spill out on to the high street and create more footfall.

Now the Conservatives are planning to introduce car parking charges to Shirley for anything longer than a 30-minute stay. That is crazy. It will mean that the hard-working shopkeepers will be starved of business because people will be unwilling to pay the charges, especially when there is free parking down the road at an out-of-centre Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Councils should be looking for ways of encouraging people to use local shops, not discouraging them from doing so. I have big worries that this will be the last straw for Shirley.

That is what is happening now, but what of the future? Do we have to march inexorably down this road? Are the town centre and the high street doomed? Tonight we have heard many facts about the decline in trade and in the number of high street shops, but I do not think that they are doomed. There will always be a need for town centres. They are not just places to get commodities; they are venues in themselves, incorporating restaurants, entertainment and places to meet up with friends, to socialise, to browse and to be seen. Touchwood, in the centre of Solihull, is an excellent example; it demonstrates how a good shopping centre can thrive.

A recent Experian report identified that frustrations with online shopping are driving consumers back to the high street. Deliveries can be slow or even non-existent, and the goods often do not match the online descriptions. When we go shopping, we can see exactly what we are getting, and have the instant gratification of being able, in most cases, to take our purchases home with us.

The high street must respond to changing consumer expectations and offer a great experience to shoppers. On the whole, business improvement districts have done well in concentrating on that, and they can do more. I have been banging on for years about local communities’ need for empowerment in relation to the design and character of their shopping centres. Developers who come in with a “we know best” attitude could be in for a fight, as was the case in the Shirley development.

I support the Association of Convenience Stores’ sequential test to ensure that all sites close to a town centre are considered before out-of-town developments are allowed. Both the ACS and the Portas review support a presumption in favour of town centre development, and I totally agree we should have a “town centre first” principle in the national planning policy framework.

As for parking charges, out-of-town centres clearly have a competitive advantage, and I support the idea of councils being given new tools to raise revenue specifically to support access to, and the regeneration of, high streets. Given that business rates can now be repatriated to local authorities, I am sure that a way can be found for that to be done. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and we must find a way to even up the playing field so that all retailers have a fair chance to get a fair market share.

8.39 pm

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing this debate, in which it is a great privilege to

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speak. I represent Llandudno, the second most popular shopping centre in north Wales—unfortunately, the most popular one was the subject of a hymn of praise from my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley). However, Llandudno is a very attractive shopping centre, mainly because it has retained its character as an old Victorian seaside resort. Llandudno is known as the queen of Welsh resorts, and that is still very much the case. The credit for that has to go to Mostyn Estates, which owns the freehold of a large percentage of the town.

That is why I am so concerned about certain aspects of the Portas report. There are many good things in it, but when a landlord is willing to work extremely hard to retain the retail centre in Llandudno—Mostyn Estates works extremely hard and constructively to do that—it is of concern to read comments in the report stating that landlords with vacant spaces must be further encouraged or possibly penalised. We have an issue with empty property rates relief lasting only three months for retail premises, and I would be loth to see Mostyn Estate’s ability to support the development of retail in Llandudno damaged by a further penalty for having empty properties. They are often empty not because of any failure by Mostyn Estates to market them properly, but because of economic circumstances.

I shall try to explain that in detail. I spoke recently to the chief executive of Mostyn Estates, and he made the important point that when a small business looks to locate in a retail centre, it will have a certain amount of money available for rent and rates. In Llandudno, the rates are so high that the rent paid to Mostyn Estates is often lower than the rates that the same businesses pay out. Time and again, Mostyn Estates has been willing to reduce its rents to keep a tenant in place even though the rates have not been reduced. I am concerned, therefore, about that proposition in the report.

I am also slightly concerned about the tendency in this debate to view the supermarket chains as a danger to the retail high street. Yes, that can be the case, especially if the development is out of town, but Llandudno has seen the development of retail parks and centres within walking distance of the high street, and some footfall has gone from the supermarkets to the high streets. Yes, the centre of gravity within the town has changed, but the town has retained its attraction to shoppers.

I was taken by the speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who highlighted the fact that a town centre must be more than just a shopping centre; it must be a focus for public engagement and enjoyment of life. In Conwy, another small town in my constituency, that is exactly what we have seen. Some 10 or 15 years ago, Conwy was on its knees, yet an enterprising local butcher, as it happens, decided to invest significantly in developing his local shop, which resulted in the business going from strength to strength. Indeed, Edwards of Conwy, the maker of the finest sausages in the United Kingdom, recently won a major contract to export its produce to Malaysia, in addition to supplying all the supermarkets.

That investment is important. It created the feeling in Conwy that they could develop and revitalise the town as a shopping centre by highlighting the food offer. In Conwy, we now have wine shops, delicatessens, restaurants,

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high-quality hotels and, to crown it all, the food festival every October, which is a huge success. In other words, Conwy has decided to reinvent itself as a destination.

When we consider the future of the high street, it is important to recognise that we cannot fight the tide of history: we cannot fight the fact that people now buy from Amazon. Before Christmas, I went to the Llandudno post office and was struck by the number of parcels from Amazon. We cannot fight that type of development, but we can offer something completely different. We can say to people, “Come to Conwy. Come and shop in Conwy. You’ll see something completely different offered by small, independent retailers who will sell you something that you will not see anywhere else.”

So I have two examples in my constituency of where we have seen the ability of a good landlord, in Llandudno, and innovative local retailers, in Conwy, to make a real difference; and yes the supermarkets can contribute to footfall in high streets, but they can also be a danger. In Llanrwst, another small town in my constituency, there is a proposal for a Tesco store. The one comment made to me by a shopkeeper was: “Why can it offer to build a school or swimming pool for the local authority? If I did that, I would be accused of taking advantage of the system.”

8.44 pm

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): I add my name to the list of those congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing this important debate and I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on arranging it. At this stage of the debate, there is little left to add to the excellent contributions of so many hon. Members, particularly of my hon. Friends. I want to highlight one or two of the concerns I share with others for my Mid Norfolk constituency, but as we move to the close I want to focus on some of the positives, as I believe there are a number of reasons for being positive about the future of our market towns, particularly our rural market towns.

Mid Norfolk is not an affluent constituency. We are not part of the celebrated Norfolk triangle, and we are not part of the “gold coast”; Burnham market is a long way from my constituency. Our average income is about £17,500 a year; we have four market towns and 114 villages. Many of the problems described today are all too evident as one travels in Dereham, my capital, the ancient heart of Norfolk. We have recently seen the closure of Chambers, the celebrated and historic store. I was recently delighted to receive a petition from the town’s residents to the Co-op, asking it to change its decision to close.

In Wymondham, home of the great abbey and the place of Robert Kett’s rebellion, I have the pleasure this Friday of chairing a meeting at which 400 residents are due to come to talk about the town’s plan, as it faces an application from Asda for a development in the middle of the town. There is a huge appetite to discuss issues around sustainable development, facilities for the young and the old, and ensuring that we have a genuine long-term plan that looks at the needs of Wymondham over the next 20 years—not just for Wymondham either, but for the surrounding villages that rely on it, too.

In Attleborough, zoned for development under Labour’s regional spatial strategy and to be doubled in size with 4,000 houses, the challenge is to come up with the right

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level of growth that can provide the infrastructure levy that will fund the bypass we need, while keeping Attleborough as the beautiful market town in which people want to live and work. In Watton, the heart of the Wayland valley, there are huge pressures on the high street, with closures of traditional stores and huge local concern that the town centre is losing its viability.

Why, then, am I optimistic? After several decades in which our town centres, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), have been “woefully badly catered for”, I believe that we have serious grounds to be optimistic. First, because people care—and such care has been demonstrated today in the level, strength and depth of opinion voiced in this debate, while our residents also care, as evidenced by the 300 or 400 people due to turn up on Wymondham on Friday evening.

Secondly, I am confident because around the country there are inspiring examples of enlightened local council leaders, town councils, residents associations and, indeed, of best practice, which have shown that it is possible to combine the one-stop shop convenience of an out-of-town supermarket that people with busy lives need with the heritage, community and authentic local community experience of a well run and well organised town centre. These things are not beyond the wit of man.

I am confident, thirdly, because of the Government’s measures, including the Localism Bill, community planning measures, the big society, the emphasis on the rebalanced economy, the localisation of business rates and the support for small business generally.

Fourthly, I am confident because the public themselves are showing in their retail habits a growing demand for the local, the artisanal, the authentic and for an increased interest and involvement in the retail experience seen as an authentic part of the community of which they are part. I am confident, fifthly, because of the measures on broadband.

In my Mid Norfolk constituency we might have been neglected by successive Governments for 30 or 40 years, but if we put all these measures together, along with the investment in the Cambridge-Norwich railway line, in the A11, in rural broadband and in science at the Norwich research park, I would submit that our area is on the cusp of a renaissance—a renaissance that we describe and seek to promote locally through a project called the Norfolk way, a renaissance of small businesses coming back to the countryside in converted barns and converted turkey sheds, empowered with globally competitive information technology and trading between the hubs of Cambridge and Norwich.

If we can have a vibrant rural economy, we will have a chance to have vibrant market towns. For no one are those market towns more important than for the people trading in the rural economy. I close with the suggestion that we can be optimistic provided that we take the energy of today and channel it into the enlightened policies of tomorrow.

8.49 pm

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): I join others in thanking the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) for securing the debate.

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The real added value of high streets is their importance to our communities. Our high streets are literally at the centre of town life, and are a vital part of our towns’ identities. One of my first campaigns after I was selected as the candidate for my seat was a fight against proposals to close local post offices. The loss, or downgrading, of local services such as post offices in our town centres has taken away many of the reasons for people to come into the high street rather than travelling to out-of-town shopping centres. That has had an impact on high street traders who were already facing significant challenges as a result of changing shopping habits.

Cradley Heath in my constituency has recently had direct experience of the difficulties faced by local high streets. Three years ago, a large supermarket was built on a bypass going past the town centre. It is almost as if everything, from the positioning of the store to the road layout, had been designed with the express intention of taking as many people as possible away from Cradley Heath high street, and the effect on local traders has been enormous. Had Sandwell council acted with more care, there could surely have been an alternative that would have kept trade from supermarket shoppers in the town helping high street traders. That is a lesson that must be learnt for future development.

We need to find ways of making town centres more attractive so that people want to be in them, and to take advantage of the things that they can offer and out-of-town centres and online stores cannot. We have seen that in the town centre of Halesowen, the largest town in my constituency, which grew from being a market town after the war to being a “border town” at the edge of the Birmingham and black country conurbations. That had an effect on the town centre, which found itself facing strong competition first from Birmingham city centre and then from the new Merry Hill shopping centre that was built in the 1980s. Familiar local names disappeared from the centre, to be replaced by chain stores and empty premises.

In recent years, however, Dudley council, the chamber of trade and other partners have worked to turn the town centre around. A new bus station has been built next to the main shopping area, there is an indoor market plaza to help small traders to set up in the town, and there have been initiatives such as Halesowen in bloom. None of those constitutes a “magic bullet”, but each helps to make shopping in Halesowen a more pleasant experience. The results can be seen in an increased footfall in the town, and in reports from local businesses that things really do seem to be picking up.

We need to find new ways of giving people a reason to come to the high street. We should consider initiatives such as town centre loyalty cards to retain business in our towns. We also need local authorities to exercise more flexibility to ensure that town centre premises do not remain empty for too long, and we need Government help to make that possible. In December, Halesowen police set up a “cop shop” in a vacant shop in the town centre, offering crime prevention help and advice to Christmas shoppers. It brought together other public services and agencies, and proved very popular.

More such initiatives would be possible if local authorities were able to offer business rate holidays, or similar support. Although councils have legal powers to do that

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in many instances, the financial cost prevents it from being a viable option. Councils that offer business rate relief in such circumstances still have to pay the money to the central fund although they are not receiving the revenue from the rates. The Government’s proposals to allow some or all of the revenue obtained from business rates to be retained locally could be used to allow more discretion in the way in which local authorities offer business rate holidays and other reliefs. I hope that the Government will consider that as they develop their proposals in the Local Government Finance Bill.

At their best, town centres such as Halesowen make shopping more than a purely commercial transaction. We should be proud of the work that is being done to enable high streets to compete in an age of Amazon and eBay, but we must also continue to look for new ways to make our town centres more attractive. That means a partnership between local and national Government, local businesses and the wider community that will enable local solutions to address local challenges.

I welcome the Government’s commissioning of the Portas review. I look forward to seeing its recommendations being put into practice and action being taken to help put our high streets at the very heart of our local communities.

8.54 pm

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), on stimulating a lively, interesting and largely well-attended debate. We must support our town centres. If we do not, we will witness their demise, and the economic, environmental, retail and community value of those centres will be lost. Anyone who has visited the United States, where there are fewer planning controls than we have had in the UK, will have seen many towns with holed-out centres where there is little life or activity, but also with a doughnut of development all around of large-scale retail shopping centres.

My constituency has fared rather better than most in relation to the recent changes in town centres. The Association of Convenience Stores states that the average level of vacant shop units is 14%. The situation in Rugby has improved, however. The vacancy rate was just 3% in 2007. It then rose to between 8% and 10% at the peak of the recession in 2008. Since then the proportion has fallen back to 6.25%. That compares very favourably with the national average.

As elsewhere, there have been recent shop closures in Rugby as a consequence of difficult Christmas trading, but I pay tribute to our progressive forward-thinking council. It is aware of the problem and has taken action to deal with it, including through adopting a flexible approach to planning and introducing “moving in” grants of up to about £5,000, which often go to smaller independent businesses. The total spend on that has been £70,000 over three or four years, and it has been an effective investment.

This is a national problem, however, and we all must consider what to do to halt the decline in high street retail. It is important to understand what is happening in retail. Many Members have referred to the influence of the internet and have rightly stated that we cannot fight the power of the internet. According to the House

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of Commons Library, just 3% of retail purchases were made on the internet in January 2007, but the internet now accounts for 12% of UK retail trade.

Local communities have two options. With a decline of 12% in retail trade, it is clear that the number of retail outlets and the amount of retail space must fall, not necessarily by the full 12% but certainly to some extent. Alternatively, the population in the local area must grow. I am delighted that Rugby is taking the latter approach, with a substantial development of 13,000 homes about to start on the Gateway site as well as development due for 6,200 homes on the Mast site.

There are many reasons why communities should embrace new housing. Our young people need homes, and the new homes bonus provides an income stream for local councils. New housing also supports our existing town centres. Communities should not complain about the decline of their town centres if they do not accept more housing where that is possible. In areas where new housing is not possible and town centres shrink, properties at the edge of the town centres should be able to be used for retail—indeed, many of them were originally developed for retail use. We must react fluidly in order to adapt to times of growth and decline.

Communities should also develop their independent stores. Rugby has a very successful independent sector in the Regent street and Albert street area, and The Rugby Observer report on Christmas 2011 trading highlighted the success of independents in Rugby that give great service and flexibility in the range of products they sell. As elsewhere, chain stores did badly. I believe that people are now bored by the uniformity of multiples, and independents offer something different. We need more support for independent retailers, especially as that would effectively be backing winners.

That was recognised in the Mary Portas review. She visited our town and said in her report that she had been very impressed with the “champions of change” she met in Rugby. They were not managers of national multiples, but independent entrepreneurial traders. They must be encouraged. There is much good news and much that can be done, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the debate.

8.59 pm

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Colchester’s Daily Gazette today reported that the parent company of three shops in Colchester—Peacocks, Bon Marché and Past Times—had gone into administration. I know that they are national firms, and my hope is that buyers will be found and the businesses will continue, because they are an important part of the retail mix and they employ local people. Indeed, it was at Past Times that I bought a poster that said “Keep calm and carry on”, and I trust that that is what will happen. However, it is not all doom and gloom. I am told by those who know about these things that Colchester has fared better than most places for retail sales. Indeed, our department store, Williams & Griffin, one of those great local stores that is now part of an independent group, has plans to expand its floor space by 50%.

Colchester High street is the oldest high street in Britain. It is built along the Roman road, which goes back to the time when Colchester was the first capital of Roman Britain. I am anxious to ensure that Colchester

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does not become part of clone town Britain. National Government and local government have parts to play in that, along with local initiatives, both individual and collective. The Government need to be careful about expanding further out-of-town shops and other moves in that direction.

A local initiative that I wish to promote is one that I call “centurion’s walk”, which is to involve just over 100 small, mainly locally owned independent stores, all built on top of the Roman wall in the southern part of the original Roman city of Colchester. In addition, the East Anglian Daily Times has a “shop local” scheme and the East of England Co-operative Society sources from local suppliers; that is very successful and I certainly recommend it. One way in which the national Government could help is by having a scheme where the first 500 square feet of retail space is free of business rates; I would like the Portas report to be adapted here. The money could be reclaimed by a levy on out-of-town supermarket car parks. I do not see why that could not be done.

Park and ride is vital for Colchester and for many other regional shopping centres. Unfortunately, Essex county council, which is responsible for this, has not provided one single park and ride facility for Colchester, yet Chelmsford has two and Ipswich, over the border in Suffolk, has two. Our principal competitor towns, Ipswich and Chelmsford, have been provided with park and ride, but Essex county council has not provided the same for us. Colchester is the only part of Essex that is not Tory, and I suspect that that may be the reason why we are being discriminated against.

On localism and sustainable communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) quite properly drew attention to the number of empty floors above shops, and it is important that we try to use those wherever possible. I also pay tribute to the Essex chamber of commerce and the Association of Convenience Stores, which are battling in this area. This is not just about the high street, because our neighbourhoods, suburbs and community centres are involved.

The Federation of Small Businesses has drawn attention to the Portas review’s recommendation that the Government should consider whether the business rate system can support small businesses and independent retailers better. I invite the Minister to look at my suggestion that we can help smaller shops—community shops and village shops—by giving them a business rate holiday. I would also like to mention indoor markets, because they have a lot to commend them. Keep Britain Tidy, too, points out that its awards scheme is a way of encouraging local pride in our communities. Finally, I wish to mention our good friends at the British Retail Consortium, who say:

“it is essential that Local Authorities across the country work with retailers, cultural and heritage organisations, landlords and other local stakeholders to maximise the inherent advantage of an individual area’s local heritage”.

9.4 pm

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker, as we are about to have—and are having—a very important debate. In my constituency a number of small towns are all demonstrating the importance of localism. Stroud, Dursley, Berkeley, Painswick and others are all effectively manifesting what is necessary through the provision of strong local

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leadership and the delivery of sophisticated outcomes, because people know and understand what happens in their local areas. That is one of the strengths of localism, which is reinforced by the activities of chambers of trade, which should also be saluted in this project. A good chamber, it seems to me, is one that knows and understands the shops and so on in its high street and works hard to generate collective activity in generating business and in interfacing with the local authorities and other agencies. I salute such chambers.

We need to drill down on several issues, one of which is the night-time economy. It seems to me that it is really important to recognise that there are different phases in the high street timetable, one of which involves what happens after the shops close. The restaurants, pubs and cafés generate more activity, which is linked to what happens in the shops. It is important for all our smallish communities—that is what I am talking about from the vantage point of my constituency—to think in terms of the night-time economy. Some years ago we had a seminar about that subject in Stroud, at which pub closures, the impact of night clubs and the absence of restaurants were all mentioned, but over the last few years all those factors have begun to point in the right direction for a lively night-time economy in Stroud. I pay tribute to people who think in those terms.

Another aspect of the question that has come across quite forcefully in the debate, and rightly so, is the fact that we are not just talking about shops, although they are very important. We are talking about, for example, the cultural life of a high street. In Stroud, Dursley and Nailsworth, farmers markets generate a lot of business and activity. They have made an impact in my constituency in delivering extra verve in high street life. It is valuable for such activities not just to be started but to be seen to thrive. It is vital that we think beyond the normal expectations of people who think about high streets and go into new areas and new opportunities. Farmers markets definitely fall within that category.

I also want to talk about unused houses and flats above shops in our high streets—an important matter in terms of our attitudes to housing. If we can get people to participate in and live in their community, that is great, and we should consider how we can encourage shop owners and owners of general commercial properties on our high streets to make better use of the properties, and the floors above the shops that we all walk past. If all of a community—shop owners, shoppers, residents, café and pub owners and so on—is part of a multi-dimensional high street, we can start to get a strong nucleus of useful influence that can work towards developing the high street.

I welcome the report we have discussed tonight, and the Government’s enthusiasm for promoting high street activity. I salute the very strong work in my constituency, in the towns I have mentioned and in others, which demonstrates that some really good results can be produced in high street and town activity.

9.9 pm

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I particularly relish the opportunity to speak in this debate because it really is the hot topic in my constituency at the moment,

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and it is nice to see that it is also such a hot topic in so many other constituencies. There are two reasons for that in my constituency, the first of which is that we have a very successful high street in Lindley, north of Huddersfield, which I shall talk about in a moment. Secondly, like many other colleagues in the Chamber, we have worries about a proposed out-of-town supermarket superstore.

My constituency is one of the biggest in the country. I have 81,000 constituents, but only one major supermarket —a Morrisons in Meltham, which heavily overtrades. It is incredibly busy, particularly at 5 o’clock on a Saturday evening. It is just up the road from where I live. There are a couple of medium-sized Co-ops and a sort of Sainsbury’s Express in Salendine Nook. The supermarket companies have identified that situation and both Tesco and Lidl are looking to come into the outskirts of Holmfirth.

Holmfirth is the “Last of the Summer Wine” town from the BBC television series, which is home to Compo, Foggy and Cleggy—not that Cleggy of course, but the one from the television. It is a very popular tourist destination and a lovely market town, but Tesco is looking to situate a big new store 0.7 miles from the outskirts of Holmfirth and has put in a planning application to do so. Many people are very concerned about that and there was a protest by traders in Holmfirth over the weekend when they boarded up their shops to show what the place could look like if Tesco arrives. There are also big transport issues to consider. However, there could be positives if Tesco comes, such as 175 jobs and greater accessibility to goods at a reasonable price. At the moment, a lot of people go to superstores on the other side of Huddersfield.

There are big concerns about having an out-of-town supermarket, but on the other hand, as Mary Portas noted in her review, local shops can be successful if they specialise in specialism, experience and service. That is shown particularly well on a very successful high street in Lindley in the north of my constituency, which is a lovely little community and is very busy because the big hospital, Huddersfield royal infirmary, is in that area. I would like to name some of the different types of business on a little street called Lidget street which really demonstrate Mary Portas’s point about service, experience and specialism. We have Concepts Beauty and the Forget Me Not Trust children’s hospice charity shop, which is a local charity shop to which people feel very close emotionally. We have Garry Butler’s top quality butchers, Hartley’s confectioners, Branch One food emporium, the Bubble and Squeak deli, Lindley Fine Wines, Pure Occasions of Lindley, the Hair Room, Soor’s of Lindley, the Saddle pub, the Caspian gallery, Wagstaff’s Shoes and Eric’s restaurant and bar, which uses local produce. There is also a pharmacy, the local library, Sugarcraft Creations’ wonderful sugar craft to go on the top of cakes, Cosy Kitchens, an opticians, the Dress for Less discount store, Lindley Spice, Carl Livesey’s butchers, the Children’s Book Shop, Lindley’s café and deli, and the Number 10 bar and kitchen—how appropriate is that? That is a fantastic range of local shops that are locally owned and offer that kind of service, experience and specialism.

Linked to that area is a wonderful community spirit because people organise a superb Lindley carnival in the summer and there is the Lindley Christmas market

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in the first of week of December when the thoroughfare is closed, everyone comes out on to the street and all the shops are open, offering mulled wine and mince pies. Those local shops really engage with the local community and are something to behold. There is also two hours-worth of free parking—something that has been mentioned very much in this debate—in a major car park at the end of the street. People can also park up and down the street in bays and quickly pop into one of those wonderful local shops to make quick purchases. That is exactly what a community needs. High streets can be successful if they follow that kind of model and I think that all hon. Members, including myself, need to encourage our constituents, ourselves and our families to shop locally and support these wonderful local shops.

9.14 pm

Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): The whole debate so far has reminded me of when I was waiting to make my maiden speech, listening to potted descriptions of every town and city in the country, learning a lot about geography as well as politics. I shall now do roughly the same thing, talking from a city perspective about my Bristol West constituency, which covers the whole city centre and the shopping centres of Broadmead and Cabot Circus in the regional capital of the south-west of England. The constituency is also a patchwork of distinct neighbourhood shopping centres and high streets, bookended by Clifton village and Stapleton road, with the unique areas of Park street, Whiteladies road and Gloucester road running through the middle. Gloucester road may not be the oldest high street in England but it is certainly the longest. It has been argued in many media outlets that it is the greatest high street in England, with 2 miles of independent shops.

In the 1990s, as you will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, as a fellow Bristol Member, our city centre faced great challenges from out of town, but it has fought back. Bristol city council worked in partnership with the private sector and we have a new shopping centre, but more important, thousands of people now live in the heart of the city of Bristol. I do not think it has been mentioned in the debate that we need more residents in town and city centres. I certainly endorse the recommendations in the Portas report for town centre teams and for a presumption in favour of town and city centres in the planning regime.

High streets, whether in cities or towns, certainly face multiple challenges; indeed, as has been said, they are at crisis point. Rationing of parking spaces has been referred to. Control of crime is another issue, as is the switch to online retailing. Every time I make my traditional Christmas visit to the Montpelier Royal Mail sorting centre, I am struck by the sheer number of Amazon parcels of the books and DVDs my constituents are buying.

The other major threat to all our high streets and locally owned businesses comes from the large national chains and multiples. Supermarkets have been mentioned many times during the debate so I shall not say too much more about them, but I am probably the only Member in the Chamber who has experienced a riot in his constituency caused by the opening of a branch of Tesco. It took place over the Easter and royal wedding bank holidays in April last year. I certainly do not condone the antics of those constituents, but I very much share their frustration. Large businesses do not

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work with the grain of local opinion. It was not that people did not want a Tesco; they just did not want another Tesco in an area where the brand was already at saturation point.

There are also national chains of bars, restaurants and cafés. They use their lawyers and large planning departments to circumvent local authority planning decisions. In my constituency, we have an example involving Costa Coffee—a brand owned by Whitbread, the brewers—which has opened three outlets in Bristol; in Gloucester road in my constituency, in Clifton Down and in Westbury village in the neighbouring constituency of Bristol North West. The company has flouted the decisions of Bristol city council; Costa’s managing director wrote to me to say that Costa was “re-energising and revitalising” high streets and

“regularly complements independent retailers…to offer a wider range of choice.”

That sort of banality infuriates local residents when they think they cannot work with the system to get what they want. We certainly need to reform the planning system to combat uniformity and promote diversity.

Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): As a fellow Bristol MP, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman and I hope we might work together to share our experiences of local high streets. Kingswood high street is a valuable part of my constituency. Does he agree that if a planning application for a major store is rejected, there should be a breathing space and the large store should not be allowed to re-enter the system straight away?

Stephen Williams: Yes. I thank the hon. Gentleman—an MP for Greater Bristol—for that intervention.

The other flaw in the planning system is that when permission is refused by a committee of local councillors, the applicant goes ahead and opens the business because they know that an appeal will take a long time. That is a loophole that Costa has certainly exploited and it needs to be blocked. We need to reform the planning process, but we must also reform local government finance.

The use classes have been mentioned many times. Surely, it is common sense that the A1 retail use class cannot apply equally to Tesco, Sainsbury’s and all the other retail multiples and to Mrs Smith’s corner shop; none the less, that is how our planning system works.

What we need is to let go so that we have more localism, so that local councils, whether Bristol or South Gloucestershire, are sufficiently granular at the local level to micro-manage what they want in their high streets. If they do not want any more supermarkets or chains, they should be able to say so emphatically, and there should be no ambiguity in the classes of use to allow the large companies to drive a coach and horses through local opinion and local democratic decision making. Local communities could then promote the shops that they want, and democratically elected councillors could block the sharp practices of the large multiples.

Finally, finance has been mentioned a couple of times. The uniform business rate needs to be reformed so that local councils can offer waivers to businesses that they wish to attract to an area. Gloucester road has shops with most uses, but it does not have a book shop, so perhaps a rate incentive would attract a book retailer to the area. Business improvement districts have made a

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huge improvement to Bristol city centre, but I would argue that any shopping centre would benefit from a BID in which landlords are incentivised to take part as well. That is a key recommendation of the Portas report, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and which I have thoroughly enjoyed endorsing in this debate.

9.20 pm

Mr David Amess (Southend West) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on introducing this debate. I have decided to make a speech because, having heard many colleagues wax lyrical about their shopping centres, I have to tell the House quite firmly that the finest shopping centre in the country is in my constituency of Southend West at Leigh-on-Sea.

There have been many, many reports before, and all hon. Members know what the problems are: it is the solutions that challenge us. This morning, my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and I were at the Olympic stadium. Indeed, we both ran round the stadium and did the 100 metres in under nine seconds, so Usain Bolt should be worried. We then went to Westfield shopping centre. Having been born in the area, I found it all very impressive, and we were told that Stratford has a better Westfield than west London. I looked around for elderly people, and thought, “Where do they go?”

When I was Member of Parliament for Basildon, we had the biggest covered shopping centre in the country. I have enough enemies without naming a particular supermarket, but in Basildon, we started off with one giant store. We ended up with another giant store, and a third one at the other end of the town. I had a terrible row with the then chairman of that supermarket, because not only did it sell groceries but white goods, and it then decided to have a post office in-store: it was completely out of control.

We were told that we had the so-called biggest covered shopping centre in the country, but we were then told that Gateshead had the biggest covered shopping centre. Then the honour went to Lakeside, then Bluewater. It goes on and on and on. As the former chairman of the small shops group, I want to make a plea for small shops and for older people. I worry where older people, who do not shop online at Amazon and so on, are going to shop. They cannot go round the supermarket; they cannot go to the big covered shopping centres. In Leigh-on-Sea, we have an absolutely brilliant range of small shops. Indeed, my predecessor, Paul Channon, used to take Princess Margaret to shop in the local shops, which are still there today. It is a wonderful village atmosphere.

It is all very well and good Members coming to the House saying how marvellous small shops are, but this is the toughest time that I have ever known for businesses, let alone small shops. If we do not use them, we will lose them. We must all be realistic: in this day and age, it is down to price. For older people, it is great that we still have these little shops, where the shop owner has the time to swap stories and listen to people talk about their aches and pains and the rest of it. I worry that with the increasing Americanisation of the UK, if we are not

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careful, the whole country will be run by one rampant supermarket, and we will end up with all these covered shopping centres.

Having represented two constituencies, I am in a good position to judge what happens. Given the lead that my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton has taken today, I am sure the Opposition spokesman and our excellent Minister who will respond to the debate will have all the solutions. I hope we will not just park the issue and leave it at that one report. Each Member of Parliament who has local stores should lead by example and shop locally. We must remember that if we do not use it, we lose it.

9.25 pm

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): We have changed the way we shop. Fifty years ago mothers in Beckenham and other towns in my constituency went to the shops daily to get the food that they needed for their families. Many more people lived in town centres. Today mothers and fathers normally get their week’s food at one time. Supermarkets provide the family living essentials. They do so at the lowest price possible and they are open all hours. Internet shopping offers unbeatable value.

High streets cannot compete with that, so all our high streets must think about how they change. I am slightly disappointed that the Mayor of London’s outer London fund has not given additional funding to my constituency, but I am very pleased that Bromley has been given another £5 million to help redevelop its town centre, as it is the major shopping centre that many of my constituents use weekly. Beckenham high street caters for local people from Copers Cope, Kelsey and Eden Park, Shortlands and Clockhouse. Our high streets must be designed with that in mind.

I shall end by making a few points, many of which have been made earlier. We need to make town centres places where people want to go, not just to shop, but to socialise and simply be there. I agree that parking and parking charges are a problem that needs to be addressed, but in my constituency people sometimes drive 30 minutes to Bluewater because of the free parking there, and it costs them a tenner in petrol.

Pedestrianisation is a two-edged weapon. I like the idea of shared space for vehicles and people together, and I want buses to go down Beckenham, West Wickham and Hayes high streets, bringing people in and out of the town centres. I like the idea of calming traffic but not stopping it, but pedestrianised town centres and high streets can be lonely and dangerous places at night. Cars passing sometimes help to mitigate the threat.

Beckenham, West Wickham and Hayes are ideal places for niche shopping. Everyone wants a mixed retail experience but now much of what we shop for is in supermarkets. I want to see reduced business rates and rents, if possible. These will help small businesses make a decent offering. I am glad that the Government are considering keeping back a portion of business rates for the local community.

As a society we must have decent and vibrant town centres. They are under threat and of course we are trying to do something about that. I am glad that we have had the opportunity to debate this matter today and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) for securing an important debate. Finally, I

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must place on record a personal lack of interest. As hon. Members might expect, shopping does not float my boat very much. In fact, I detest it.

9.30 pm

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) and the Backbench Business Committee on securing the debate. I must say that I am in completely the opposite category to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), because I am an avid shopper, which is why I am particularly interested in the debate. Unfortunately, I seem to have passed the shopping gene on to my daughter, who occasionally seems to think that she is personally responsible for keeping some of the retail sector in Durham afloat—something I am sure many parents recognise.

The huge number of hon. Members who took part in the debate—54 in total—shows that the topic is relevant to many constituencies. I will not be able to mention every contribution, as just listing the Members’ constituencies would probably use up most of my time, but I will comment on some of the points that were made. I think that all hon. Members who spoke, right across the Chamber, were tremendous advocates for their town centres and high streets, whether they were celebrating their successes, particularly in these difficult times, or arguing strongly that the challenges they face need to be addressed.

A few issues stood out in particular. Almost all Members who spoke mentioned parking and the need for a level playing field with out-of-town developments. That was sometimes coupled with a concern that out-of-town shopping centres had perhaps expanded too much in recent times, with an adverse effect on town centres, although I think that there was more debate about that. There was also some unanimity on the need to amend use class orders, particularly so that there is more flexibility on change of use. A number of hon. Members were keen to see more community involvement in shaping town centres and high streets, particularly in order to get greater diversity and to have an offer that goes beyond retail and includes leisure and social facilities. Many Members celebrated the advantages of markets, including indoor markets, and wanted them to increase in a number of towns and cities.

Several Members mentioned the need for more flexibility in rents and rent setting and business rates. In particular, they stressed the need to give local authorities more of a say in the level of business rate that should be applied and even to give a business rate holiday if that seems appropriate, as part of a package of measures, for regenerating particular areas. We know that changes to the business rate regime are coming, and the Minister might comment on that when he sums up.

There was a great deal of consensus about the fact that the Portas review is a very good thing and that the Government need to respond to it more quickly. I congratulate the Government on commissioning the Portas review and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills report on understanding high street performance, carried out by Genecon, which went alongside it and provided us all with a lot of valuable information for our contributions to the debate.

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There has been much consensus throughout the Chamber, but I am perhaps going to break it for a few moments, because, although I acknowledge that many of our high streets have struggled for several years, there is no doubt in my mind that the actions of this Government are making things much worse, particularly in disadvantaged areas. The downturn has hit our high streets hard, and, although thousands of jobs have already been lost in the retail sector, many more are at risk. We heard yesterday of yet more job losses in the sector throughout the country, and every day and every week more retailers seem to be going out of business.

Let us be clear about how serious the situation is. The latest shop vacancy report, compiled by the Local Data Company, found that town centre vacancy rates in Great Britain stand at 14.3%.

Derek Twigg: My constituent Liz Howard, of the Curiosity Bookshop in Runcorn, has raised several issues with me, not least those of unfair competition with supermarkets and of parking, but one issue in particular is derelict and unused buildings—some that have to be knocked down and others that are still unused. That is an area of real concern, so I hope that the Government will act upon it to improve the situation.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I will turn to empty shops in a moment.

Void rates are another real issue, especially in secondary shopping areas, but the most recent wave of closures and the downsizing and retrenching of the retail sector are clearly causing a problem even in primary shopping areas.

There is a set of challenges for the high street, and that is not to mention the difficulties caused by the rise in internet shopping and by out-of-town centres.

Rory Stewart: Does the shadow Minister acknowledge, however, that internet shopping can be immensely beneficial to small, high-street shops? For example, in our constituency, the John Norris fishing supplies shop makes £12 million of sales over the internet but only £1 million through the door—and that allows it to keep going.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: I do accept that point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) made very well earlier. Nevertheless, the internet is, I think, an additional challenge for high streets and town centres.

I say all that not to talk down our high streets, however, because, as several hon. Members have said, the town centre or high street in their constituency is weathering the economic storm. I say it to demonstrate the extent of the problem, because not all town centres are thriving and we have to be clear about the action that needs to be taken.

In government, we had a strong “town centre first” policy, but even with that policy there was recognition that more needed to be done to revitalise high streets, so there is a particular challenge for this Government. They need to do more to bolster consumer confidence, as their austerity programme—cutting too far and too fast—coupled with their VAT hike last January has squeezed incomes, reduced consumer confidence and led to further job losses on the high street. In a YouGov poll last year, four fifths of retailers said that the VAT increase would undermine sales.

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The Government have so far also ignored the recommendations for a stronger “town centre first” policy, and they need to think about amending the draft national planning policy framework to reintroduce the sequential tests for town centres, because we really need that to encourage more town centre development.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Would the hon. Lady not acknowledge that the recently passed Localism Act 2011 gives real power to local communities and councils, such as Crawley borough council, to make town centre policies a priority where they think it is important?

Roberta Blackman-Woods: That is not the case if offices are taken out. Of course we all want more localism, but the Government also have to attend to their economic policies, which are damaging our high streets and town centres.

There are other issues that the Government need to address, such as business rates, the need for local flexibility to tackle unemployment, the lack of credit for small businesses and whether property values are artificially inflated in some areas. The big challenge is to respond positively and quickly to the Portas review. We welcome the review, not least because it champions high streets and town centres as community hubs where social, leisure and retail activities can take place. People are passionate about their town centres and want them to thrive.

I hope that we hear from the Minister how he will strengthen the “town centre first” policy. He will know that a number of large retailers, including the John Lewis Partnership, have said that the sequential test as it stands simply is not strong enough.

I am pleased that the Portas review touched on use class orders, which have been raised by many Members. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for campaigning on this issue, in particular for a separate category for betting shops. I wish my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) well with her private Member’s Bill, which is trying to put a change in use class orders into legislation as quickly as possible. We must be careful to ensure that if use class orders are changed, they are accompanied by safeguards, so that there is not abuse and misuse of the new guidance. For example, local communities do not want a change in use class orders that makes it easier for fast food outlets to be set up.

Empty shops are a particular issue. We urge the Government to follow through with the recommendations of the Portas review, many of which reflect the policies that Labour championed and carried out in government. We introduced the empty shops initiative, which enabled councils to pursue innovative uses for empty shops and reinvigorate high streets. For example, vacant units could be used for cultural, community or learning services, rather than be left empty. We hope that the Government will introduce such a policy as soon as possible.

It is important that we spend a bit of time thinking about how we redevelop high streets. We need to give councils more tools to do that. We want a more proactive use of compulsory purchase orders. That is mentioned

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specifically in the Portas review and it needs serious consideration. We also think that her suggestion of an empty shop management order could be pursued.

We are keen to see the town teams that Mary Portas recommends. We hope that they are active and vibrant local partnerships that work closely with business improvement districts. They should also work closely with the local community to make neighbourhood planning a reality. It is important that neighbourhood plans cover town centres and that every effort is made to involve local people in drawing them up. A number of hon. Members have made the point that if life is to be put back into town centres, particularly those that are failing, the involvement of the local community in shaping them is really important.

I finish by saying that in addition to following through with the Portas recommendations, we want the Government to pay some attention to our four-point plan to save our high streets—cutting VAT, giving local people the power to put the heart back into the high street, repeating Labour’s empty shops initiative and promoting a fair playing field for our high streets.

9.44 pm

The Minister for Housing and Local Government (Grant Shapps): I join virtually every colleague who has spoken in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing the debate—a truly inspired move—and the Backbench Business Committee on ensuring that it happened.

I have had the pleasure of sitting through most of the debate and hearing the many by and large excellent contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I have enjoyed it tremendously in the run-up to the Government’s response to the Portas review. Of course, the debate has very much been spurred by the Mary Portas report, which was undertaken after the Prime Minister personally asked her to go out, look at what was happening in our town centres and high streets and make a series of proposals to make things better. There are 28 proposals in all, many of them quite detailed and many of which Members have touched on.

It has been fascinating to weigh up Members’ representations. As one Member suggested, it has been like an afternoon and evening of sitting through maiden speeches, because every Member mentioned every town and village in their constituency. It made the debate much more enjoyable.