161.In the very first evidence session of this inquiry, we were told by William Grimsey, Chair of The Grimsey Review and The Grimsey Review 2, that Government should immediately do two things:
Endorse a project to have a central data hub that we can populate with statistics and best practice for people to access, and to put in place a proper education and training model that enables us to get the right leaders into these local authorities, the right business plans in place and to help them drive forward a collective solution.
Therefore, the announcement in the Budget 2018 that the Future High Streets Fund would be accompanied by the creation of a Future High Streets Task Force was of interest to us. Little detail was provided beyond the statement that it would “provide hands-on support to local areas to develop innovative strategies to help high streets evolve, connect local areas to relevant experts and share best practice”.
162.Two months later, Sir John Timpson, Chair of the Expert Panel on the High Street, set out his aspirations for such a body; in brief, that it should provide cross-sector support to encourage collaborative place-making; share data; facilitate networks and build skills; share information and stories; provide expert help; boost local authority planning capacity; and find and support a Town Centre Champion. He explained when he gave evidence to the inquiry that the Task Force was an example of “upside down government […] allow[ing] the people close to the problem to go on and solve it for themselves”. These aspirations reflected the evidence we received. For example, Mark Williams of the Hark Group told us that there needed to be:
Some form of central resource from Government that allows local authorities to tap into expertise that they need for specific areas and, once it is done, they do not need that resource again.
When we asked what form central support should take, Julian Dobson of Urban Pollinators said:
Face-to-face dialogue, meetings, discussions and visits are hugely important in terms of people’s learning and understanding about how to apply evidence, and that that is what is needed much more than the provision of another website, another compendium or another set of policy guidelines.
In addition, we note that Ojay McDonald of the Association of Town and City Management said that the Task Force needed to do more than simply “advis[e] the industry [….] about what town centres should look like going forward […]”:
They were talking about the need for town centres to find their USPs [at the turn of the century]. I do not think the creation of a taskforce to tell BIDs and town centre managers what they knew 20 years ago will go down particularly well.
163.While we appreciate that plans for the Task Force are still being developed, we felt that the High Streets Minister’s answers to our questions did not match the aspirations of the Expert Panel or align with the type of support that we had heard was needed. Referring to it as a “national resource”, “a central knowledge base”, a “Wikipedia style open source repository of information”, he appeared to be describing a web-based database, rather than the proactive body providing bespoke expert support that our witnesses thought was necessary. When we asked him how the Task Force differed from the Future High Streets Forum, a group of industry experts which meets regularly to advise the Government on the formation and delivery of high street policy, he said “there will certainly be a big difference in scale […] It is of course a national resource, rather than such a narrowly focused resource like the Future High Streets Forum”. He also said, with regards to the Future High Streets Fund, that it was not “a Portas 2.0 that had lots of good ideas but not hundreds of millions of pounds behind it”.
164.We recall that our predecessor committee considered a 2013–15 task force on the private rented sector, which we believe provides an instructive example of how the Future High Streets Task Force could operate. Created by the Government on the recommendation in 2012 of Sir Adrian Montague, the task force acted as an “enabler”, providing expertise and support to stakeholders to overcome barriers to securing institutional investment in the private rented sector. Its role was to be highly pro-active; not only did it work to develop better data and understanding of the financial barriers to investment, it brought together specialists with front line experience who identified potential new actors and investment opportunities and then helped bring them to fruition. Although it only existed for two years, as was the initial intention, in that time it brought about a step change in terms of investment in the private rented sector.
165.We welcome the creation of the Future High Streets Task Force but we have serious reservations about the scale of the Government’s ambition for it. It must be much more than a forum for discussion and avoid becoming a ‘talking shop’ and, in combination with the Future High Streets Fund, must provide real and tangible support directly to local areas on a much greater scale than the Portas pilots. While centrally collated data, best practice and case studies will certainly be needed, given the enormity of the challenge they face, there is a clear need for local areas to have access to proactive expert support.
167.The Task Force should be equally wide-ranging in terms of its scope, providing support to local areas on the full range of issues pertaining to high streets and town centre transformation. Based on the evidence we received, we have identified some specific things that the Task Force should do:
328 HM Treasury, , October 2018
336 . In February 2012, the Government announced that it would support 12 ‘Portas Pilots’ and 15 more were announced subsequently. Pilots received funding of up to £100,000; a contact point in government to provide advice and support on local business growth; support from retail industry leaders and access to sector experts; and opportunities to share experiences and lessons learned with fellow pilots.
337 House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee, First Report of Session 2013–14, , HC 50
338 DCLG, , August 2012
Published: 21 February 2019