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Putting the life back into our towns and cities

MPs convene to discuss the future of the High Street – highlights from the debate

By • Jan 19th, 2012 • Category: frontpage, News

Over 50 MPs from constituencies across the country met for 6 hours on Tuesday (17.1.2012) to discuss the changing role of the high street and potential measures to assist its future safeguarding and development.

AMT issued a briefing note to inform MPs before the debate.

Alison Eardley, AMT’s Policy Manager, comments on Tuesday’s discussions:

Action for Market Towns has long championed the high street which plays a vital role in the sustainability of our small and market towns, but which has been hard hit over the past few years.

This is due to many reasons including high rents, increased competition from out of town and internet-based stores, lack of (and perceived lack of) accessible parking, and a lack of co-ordination across all levels of governance to oversee development.   All this against the backdrop of recession with the latest ‘double dip’ scheduled to continue until at least 2013 (latest figures from The Ernst & Young Item Club and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR)).

Mary Portas’ review into the future of the high street therefore came at a very key moment and it was particularly pleasing that so many MPs participated in Tuesday’s debate, and expressed their commitment to safeguarding high streets and small towns:

“the future prosperity of British high streets is one of the biggest challenges the country faces. There is no simple solution to the problem. It seems, however, that with innovation, team work and an understanding of the needs of the people, high streets could once again flourish in this country” (the full transcript of the debate is available at Hansard).

Points raised included:

Car parking and accessibility

A very visible issue for many town centres and many of the MPs touched on the subject.  Many, including Andrew Percy MP (Brigg and Goole), promoted the value of offering reduced or free parking and Stephen Mosley MP (Chester) gave the example from Chester where free parking is offered from 3pm, a model which has raised footfall by 23% and which is being emulated elsewhere. The challenge will be how local authorities can consider options which might have a negative impact on their budgets.

Andrew Bingham MP (High Peak) mentioned the challenges posed by access into small towns, perhaps pointing towards a need for more integrated transport policy when thinking of future development.

Planning

Chris White MP (Warwick and Leamington) made the case for small towns where over one fifth of the population lives.  He put forward the case for them to be viewed as smaller ecosystems to cities, requiring greater care and special consideration.  He and others pushed for acceptance and strengthening of the ‘Town Centres First’ policy with town centres being the backbone of communities and local economies.

Neighbourhood Planning was viewed as a positive policy for enabling local people to have a greater say over development in their towns.  In addition Jonathan Reynolds MP (Stalybridge and Hyde) talked about the potential that change of use orders could bring by making it easier to alter the current use of shops and properties.

The impact of edge- and out-of-town shopping

There was much debate about the impact that large developments have on an existing town centre.  James Gray MP (North Wiltshire) spoke passionately about the impending developments in the market town of Malmesbury and the need to bring in measures to encourage development in centres as opposed to outside.

The other side of the coin, however, was that larger stores do provide much needed jobs and can in some cases provide a magnet for bringing shoppers into adjoining high streets.  Sarah Newton MP (Truro and Falmouth) talked about the significance of BIDs (Business Improvement Districts) as a model for small and large stores to work proactively together.

George Hollinbery MP (Meon Valley) called for people to be put back in charge of their high streets and felt that the local plan is not effective in restraining development that puts undue competition on the high street.  He called for the Minister to consider including in the emerging NPPF the recent proposal to require any unplanned out-of-town supermarket to be reviewed by the Secretary of State to see if it should be formally called in.

Business incentives

A number of MPs raised the difficulties in finding banks to lend to new and existing businesses.  Peter Aldous MP (Waveney) agreed with the Portas Review’s call for trade to be made easier on the high street by reducing regulations and restrictions and introducing a more balanced tax and rating system.

Enhancing activity in the town centre

Debate focused around the need to bring more activity into the high street and open spaces.  Bringing together local performance groups to take part in the wider life of the community, making the high street a place to come to walk, relax and have fun.

Carol Dineage MP (Gosport), Paul Uppal MP (Wolverhampton South West) and others made the point that high streets are about much more than simply business and retail, rather they provide the heart of the community – this resonates, of course, with what AMT has said for a long time.

Empty Shops

Many MPs raised this issue which can be a real blot on any high street. The challenge is to explore how to bring empty shops back into use including the use of pop-up shops, the use of Section 215 to take action at the local authority level, providing further disincentives to prevent landlords from leaving their units vacant or in disrepair, encouraging flexibility and short-term lets in the rental market.

Shop local initiatives

Comments focused on the role that the business and local community can have in helping to increase footfall and loyalty in town centres.  Rehman Chishti MP (Gillingham and Rainham) talked about the success of Medway Council’s local discount card while Karen Bradley MP (Staffordshire Moorlands) shared her experiences from Leek, where the totally locally Leek initiative has been developed by independent shopkeepers.

The idea is that if everybody who lived in Leek spent £5 each week in a local shop rather than on the internet, it would be worth £4 million to the local economy.

Stuart Andrew MP (Pudsey) mentioned their Shop Local campaign which has led to a series of events and media opportunities.

Local leadership

The idea of ‘Town Teams’ was welcomed as a way of bringing partnerships together to lead the debate locally.

The Government’s Response

In his response to the discussion, Grant Shapps stated that Government intends to implement as many of the Mary Portas review recommendations as possible.  He also called for MPs across the country to continue the debate back in their constituencies to start bringing together the partnerships needs to revive town centres.

Key to the debate is learning from what already works and is tried and tested, and finding innovative ways to share and learn from this.  As Chris Ruane MP (Vale of Clwyd) said on Tuesday, “If best practice is out there, let us bring it back to our high streets”.

Of course, this is where AMT and our members can help! Do continue to keep your MPs informed of the best practice we share.

The Government intends to select a number of high streets to undertake pilots for initiatives. High streets are extremely variable and differ greatly depending a host of factors.  AMT urges the Minister to pick a wide range to allow for the greatest learning that can be adapted and shared.

Many MPs whose constituencies include small towns participated on Tuesday. This augurs well for a continuation of the discussion at a Reception being hosted by Action for Market Towns on 6 February in the Palace of Westminster.  Over 30 MPs will find out more about the work of AMT as well as having the opportunity to speak in more detail with some of our recent Annual Market Town Award winners.

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is Jamie is AMT's Communications Manager and works for AMT for 2 days per week looking after press, external affairs, website content, social media, marketing, some events and some membership support. A freelance consultant to charities, social enterprises and small businesses, Jamie co-founded and was managing director of the respected 'New Start magazine' (now owned by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies) and has worked in a PLC. Jamie lives in Sheffield, is an active rock climber and mountain biker, and is a volunteer board member for a local social enterprise.
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