It is essential that high streets offer more than just shopping. Too many high streets look the same and offer the same as each other, so they need a diverse range of attractions. High streets are facing an increasing range of challenges. Yes, the economic downturn has hit the high street hard, and it continues to do so. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton said, internet shopping has also had an impact. High streets that offer something different can often flourish. Farmers’ markets draw people into the high street and continental food markets are also extremely popular. Ensuring that there is a permanent residential population in the town centre is important, too, in order to avoid high streets looking

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like ghost towns after dark. Having an effective town centre forum or chamber of commerce working with local councillors and planners can help to ensure that ideas and plans are thought through before they are implemented.

What I welcome in Mary Portas’s report is her support for a team approach to high street planning. I also support her suggestion of tackling the number of empty shops we see in the high street. We should not single out banks, which she suggests we should, but should target all retailers on this issue. Her report suggests that councillors should be given the power to tackle situations where, as the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) pointed out, there is a problem with the number of betting shops in a particular area. I disagree with Mary Portas, as we should not single out betting shops; we should adopt the same approach to all retailers and prevent any one kind of retailer from monopolising a particular street or particular part of the high street.

In conclusion, 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.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Given that a number of Members wish to catch the eye of the Chair, I shall now reduce the time limit to five minutes. I want to ensure that everyone can contribute, so I ask Members to exercise some restraint in interventions. Members who wish both to intervene and to speak will be placed lower on the list. Let me reassure Members that I want to treat everyone as fairly as possible.

4.49 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): We all want our town centres to be successful, and to provide employment and high-quality goods and services for the local community. In my constituency, more than 5,700 people are employed in the retail sector, but, like other town centres, Stockport is facing the challenges posed by changing shopping habits. One of the challenges is undoubtedly the growth in internet sales, which currently account for 12.2% of all sales. Some estimates suggest that e-commerce accounted for nearly half of the retail sales growth in the United Kingdom between 2003 and 2010, and we have seen a dramatic increase of more than 500% in “m-commerce”—sales over mobile devices—in the past two years.

In every town centre the well-known retail brands have a presence, and, together with independent retailers and markets, they have been the face of the high street in town after town. However, it is becoming clear that because of changes in shopping habits, retailers are going to need fewer shops. Some big names have announced that they are considering whether they have the right number and size of stores, including Arcadia, the owner of BHS, which is examining the future of 260 stores.

I believe that the challenge is for retailers to harness the power of the internet in ways that can benefit them and stop the decline of town centres accelerating as

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some well-known brands pull out. A growing school of thought believes that the internet, and specifically the evolution of multi-channel and social media, provides a significant opportunity for the future success of our towns and cities. The good news is that about a fifth of all internet transactions in the UK involve some in-store research, so internet shopping does not mean that people are abandoning the high street.

Analysis by Experian has revealed that one in 10 consumers use their mobile phones or “tablets” in stores to check the price of goods elsewhere before deciding whether to buy, and that nearly 31% of the UK population now fall into the category of multi-channel shoppers: those who use the internet, trips to stores, price checks on mobile devices, and advice from friends and their “virtual” networks to decide whether to make a purchase. It is clearly not as simple as shoppers deserting the high street for their computers or mobile devices. Indeed, a factor identified in the same report is the frustration with online shopping that is driving consumers back to the high street. The report states that 60% of online shoppers have expressed frustration about the arrival of deliveries while they were out, and that 50% have received products that they did not consider to match the online description.

It is for those reasons that many high street stores are offering more flexible “click and collect” purchasing, which enables customers to shop online and collect in stores. The number of non-food retail purchases to which that applies is expected to increase from a fifth to a third by 2020. Some companies are also encouraging customers to browse online in kiosks in their own stores, or are providing showrooms where customers can browse and receive specialist advice. All those factors are attracting shoppers back to the high street, and are providing opportunities for retailers who get their strategy right to survive.

Big names with collection points and web kiosks that have embraced the internet could in future provide an attractive anchor for town centres, and draw people into the high street. That in turn could increase investment in town centres, and enable each town to develop its own unique offer of, for instance, markets, independent specialist shops and cultural attractions. That, as Mary Portas says, is the key to high street success.

Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab): Last month Eastwood lost its only shoe shop because Jonathan James went into liquidation. Does my hon. Friend agree that a healthy economy is central to a healthy high street?

Ann Coffey: Absolutely, and the difficulty that retailers currently face is partly due to the consequences of the wider economic conditions. I also agree with Mary Portas that it is important for town centre partnerships to work together to meet the new challenges, and for councils to provide access to shopping and adequate parking. Innovative retailers can harness the power of the internet and e-commerce to change the way in which they do business.

Rehman Chishti: Does the hon. Lady agree that local authorities need show stronger leadership and come up with more innovative ideas, such as Medway council’s card that gives people discounts when they use local facilities such as restaurants and theatres?

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Ann Coffey: I entirely agree. In a debate before Christmas, I talked about a unique offer in Stockport that combined discounts at cultural venues and in shops. Locally, there is a lot of similar innovative thinking about how we might attract people back into our town centres.

In October 2011 a well-known retailer opened a store without any stock. Customers select their product on iPads for delivery to the store or to their homes. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills research published alongside the Portas review noted that this was

“an innovative use of bringing the internet to high street”.

Another big retailer has also reported “strong multi-channel” sales growth and plans to extend web kiosks in small stores to give access to a wider range of products, and a further influential company said that the success of its “click and collect” option had been so great that it planned to double the number of collection points in its stores. That is good news for town centres and it illustrates the fact that we should not see internet shopping as a threat—it can be harnessed to bring vibrancy and shoppers back to our high streets.

Like many people, I shop on the internet but also enjoy the social aspect of shopping in my local town centre and Stockport market. Like many of us, I do not want to lose the socialising opportunities that a vibrant town centre and market can offer or the sense of being part of a community that they provide, but nor do I want to lose the convenience of shopping online in the evening. We need to get the balance right for both to thrive nationally and locally. That is the challenge facing us all in reviving and developing our town centres.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. As so many Members are seeking to catch my eye, I shall reduce the time limit on speeches still further if there are frequent interventions. I hope colleagues will heed that warning and try to restrain themselves.

4.56 pm

Mike Crockart (Edinburgh West) (LD): I welcome today’s debate and the opportunity to discuss this most important issue. When thinking about my contribution today, I was reminded of the following headline in The Guardian in 2009: “Empty, unlet and unloved: the new British high street.” Over the past few years, we have become very aware of the demise of our high streets. Challenging economic circumstances, stretched consumers and a new breed of large out-of-town shopping centres and supermarkets are all part of the problem, but we in central and local government must also shoulder some of the blame. Above all, we must take the problems seriously and act now to halt the damage already done. I therefore welcome the independent Portas review and its recommendations on the future of our high streets. The findings seem sensible and offer a pragmatic, systematic way forward.

When choosing where to shop, many people become flippant about the struggle our high streets face. I, too, am guilty of that. We do not automatically associate our shopping transactions with the survival of the high street. We think someone else will shop there or use its services. That attitude needs to change.

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My constituency of Edinburgh West is a collection of communities close to a major city centre. Corstorphine is at the heart of the constituency and has what would probably best be described as a traditional high street: linear in appearance and with all the usual amenities one would expect, including a butcher, a baker—but no candlestick maker—hairdressers, dentists, estate agents, charity shops and pubs.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that another facility we would expect to find on our high streets is a branch of a bank? However, in my constituency Barclays has closed its branch in Rhayader high street and HSBC is going to close its branch in Presteigne. Such closures pull our high streets still further downwards. We should let banks know that we expect them to respect the communities they serve.

Mike Crockart: That is an important point, but we can hope that that problem will be addressed by the welcome widening of competition through Virgin Money, the Co-operative Bank and others opening on our high streets.

High street businesses and the services they provide would be missed if they were to go, but the majority of people still do their shopping at the Tesco Extra, or other superstore, down the road. It has parking, everything is under one roof and for some products it is more competitively priced. I fear that many high street shops do well because of an older generation for whom they provide a social amenity. That is worrying for their future.

The high streets in Kirkliston and in Davidson’s Mains, which are also in my constituency, are surviving but they are arguably not thriving. People can walk to the shops and businesses, which are friendly and provide a focal point for the community, but not many new businesses are moving in; growth has stalled, it would appear. But in another area, South Queensferry, the high street is bustling. Why is that? It is because it is a completely different entity. It is a tourist attraction, where small independent shops are found alongside well-respected one-off hotels and restaurants. It has a clear strength and is playing to it. In the other areas, it would be a positive step if the local communities, authorities, planners and business leaders were given the opportunity to talk frankly about the direction in which they should and could move.

The Portas review makes 28 recommendations, covering many things that I do not propose to discuss in any great detail. All of them are important parts of the solution, but the experience in Edinburgh shows that the solution for each area—each separate high street—will be different and will need different elements of all these suggestions and many others if there is to be success. Local involvement will be key to delivering that. In England, the focus will be on the national planning policy framework, but in Scotland I await the national planning framework 2 monitoring report from the Scottish Government to see whether progress will be made.

Finally, I wish briefly to discuss new technologies, which were mentioned by the previous speaker, and their role in the success or decline of our high streets and town centres. The growth of online shopping has often been associated with the decline of familiar high street names—

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Woolworths and HMV, to name but two—and I cannot argue wholly against that view. Indeed, Interactive Media in Retail Group forecasts from last year suggested that high street spending would drop by 2% over Christmas while online spending would increase by 16% and that 25% of seasonal shopping would take place online, with 12% being made via a mobile. Some 58% of large stores now have mobile websites; m-commerce is beginning to have a huge impact.

However, modern technology is not always the enemy. In the more rural part of my constituency, residents and business owners face cripplingly slow broadband connection speeds. I am campaigning for improvements, because not only do residents have a right to fast, reliable internet connections, but businesses need them in order to flourish and grow. I have been contacted by numerous business owners who say that the poor connection slows down card transactions in their restaurants, that without a website that they can update quickly and easily their business suffers and that any subsidiary online shopping facilities are limited because of the poor provision. If the connection could be improved, the online might not always lead to off-street sales.

The key to saving our high streets lies in allowing them to diversify to meet diverse demand. In some areas, such as South Queensferry, this will be achieved through tourism, whereas in others, such as Corstorphine, it will occur through meeting local needs. I believe that this Government are willing to work with local communities, authorities and businesses large and small to turn the tide. It is a refreshing and very welcome attitude.

5.3 pm

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I welcome the Portas review, which is well researched. It makes 28 excellent recommendations, many of which I agree with. Portas mentions out-of-town supermarkets and shopping centres. My constituency has not had any of those for 15 years; it has had town centre supermarkets and town centre shopping centres, which are a lot better than those out of town. However, in Prestatyn, in my constitutency, Somerfield and Tesco each owned half of one such site, and I believe that some of the supermarkets have land banks. These are not so much about developing their own stores as about keeping other stores out, and that issue needs addressing if we are to develop town centres. Where town centre developments are coming, the time scale should not be 15 years; it should be a lot shorter. When these town centre shopping centres are built, the impact on the local community should also be assessed. While there is a lot of building, disruption and road works, the Valuation Office Agency should be proactive and should give businesses the forms to apply for a rate reduction. This should not be left to happenstance or accident.

Let me also pay tribute to Tesco. When it said it was going to establish stores in my constituency, in Prestatyn and at the Cathco site in Denbigh, I wrote and asked whether it would take 50% of its employees from the dole register, and it agreed. There can be some positive benefits. If companies are developing near the town centre, they need to be integrated as far as possible with the town centre, with lots of coach parking that will benefit not just the shopping centre but the high street, too.

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My constituency is blessed with a long-established market in Prestatyn. A market has just been established in Rhyl by a man called Ray Worsnop without a penny from the public purse. He set it up, he made mistakes but it is now up to 50 stalls strong in the centre of Rhyl high street. When someone is trying to establish a new market there are often tensions in the community. As Mary Portas says, we should establish markets and even car boot sales in the town centre.

Jim Shannon: As the hon. Gentleman says, the Portas review is very important. It mentions America and France, but not good practice in Northern Ireland. One example of that is the chamber of trade working with the council to provide financial incentives, such as reduced car parking charges and a transport system that brings people from the edge of towns to the centre.

Chris Ruane: I absolutely agree. We should look not just to England but to England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and beyond. If best practice is out there, let us bring it back to our high streets. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.

Markets, as Mary Portas said, will be integral, but how do we establish new markets? What are the lessons to be learned? She also mentions the social aspect of town centres. In Rhyl, we are trying to bring the town alive. The piazzas and public performance areas are empty. Young children who have trained for the children’s eisteddfod go down to Cardiff to perform, but do not perform in their own high street. We have a folk club, a jazz club, a music club and an operatic society: they should be doing public performances. There should be dwell time within a town centre, so people can sit, listen and talk. That is what Mary Portas is saying and we should be listening to her. In Rhyl and Prestatyn, which are seaside towns, we have promenades. The word “promenade” means “to walk”. We do not do enough walking or socialising. We are all on this treadmill of work, work, work and work. We need time to relax and we should be relaxing in our high streets—[ Interruption. ] Especially in Rhyl.

Mary Portas also addresses the issue of empty shops, and a lot more can be done. Empty shops and derelict properties bring a bad image to a town. In my home town, Rhyl, about six or seven derelict properties were filmed by national TV crews over 20 years. A sign outside one of the properties had been altered so that it read that it was Rhyl’s biggest receiver of stolen goods—nothing had been sold there for 20 years, but the TV cameras would come along and pan across the sign. I went up a stepladder with some black paint and painted it out—two years later, the building was demolished. It should not be left to the antics of a maverick MP to blot such things out; it should be done by the local authority.

Agreements are already in place; councils have section 215 powers. I believe that Hastings council is one of the best in the country in this regard, and I urge other hon. Members to look into it. It sent me a full pack that said exactly what our councils could be doing. Section 215 action can be taken against derelict properties that bring the neighbouring properties into disrepute. Those measures are already available, but they are not being used. Compulsory purchase orders should be used and the whole procedure should be streamlined.

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There are many excellent suggestions. Mary Portas also mentions providing a disincentive to landlords to leave premises empty, especially when children’s groups, local artists and voluntary groups are looking for places to use. It is much better to see a light on in a building and actors performing, painters painting or children gathering together, than to see windows shuttered and covered in Billy Smart’s circus posters, seagull faeces and all manner of detritus. Empty shops should be converted into something positive for the community.

5.9 pm

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I shall be brief because a large number of hon. Members are trying to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, and because I suspect that a great many of them, including the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), want to say the same kind of thing and are generally in agreement with the excellent Mary Portas report, to which I shall not refer further except to say that I broadly support most of its 28 proposals.

Hon. Members with an idle moment or two might find it amusing to look at my first-class website, which was done not by me but by others, where they will find among other things, very wickedly, a video clip of my maiden speech. If they watch that they will see a fresh-faced, dark-haired, slender and keen young fellow speaking from these very Benches some 15 years ago.

Chris Ruane: What happened?

Mr Gray: This is what happens when someone represents North Wiltshire for 15 years. In that speech, I went to some lengths to address some of the issues that we are talking about, namely that my constituency had a number of small market towns surrounded by beautiful rural countryside, and how we could prevent that countryside from being built on. That shows both that nothing changes and, I hope, that I have done a reasonable job of living up to my promise and preventing developers from building all over my beautiful constituency.

My constituency provides a case study of these issues; indeed Mary Portas or others might want to use it as a case study or it could be part of one of her pilot studies. We have a variety of market towns, some of which have more flourishing high streets than others. The most famous of those high streets, internationally, at the moment is that of Royal Wootton Bassett, where we have a superb community spirit. Why do we have that spirit? Because Royal Wootton Bassett has a flourishing, vibrant high street and no out-of-town shopping. There is a very good Sainsbury’s, which is 100 yards away from the town hall at which we all stood in silent remembrance of our passing fallen soldiers until very recently.

Equally, in the town of Calne, we have a first-class supermarket right in the town centre. In Malmesbury so far we have no out-of-town shopping, but in the neighbouring town of Chippenham, which is just outside my constituency, there is a large number of out-of-town shopping centres and I am afraid that Chippenham high street is not as vibrant and great a place as it once was. I expect that my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames), who I think will be speaking in a moment or two, will seek to explain why that should be.

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This is not just about shopping, it is also about housing. Chippenham is currently looking to expand by 4,000 or 5,000 houses. This very afternoon, people in Trowbridge at Wiltshire council’s headquarters are considering a strategic way forward for areas such as the Birds Marsh estate, which is just outside my hon. Friend’s constituency but in my constituency. I very much hope that they will listen to local people, some 600 or 700 of whom have said they want no further expansion of the town of Chippenham into my constituency. The same issues apply elsewhere. We have to keep our high streets vibrant by preventing developers from spreading out into the countryside.

That brings me finally to a very interesting case in point—the town of Malmesbury. At the moment, two applications are in place, one from Waitrose and one from Sainsbury’s, to build out-of-town shopping centres outside Malmesbury. They claim those centres would provide x hundred new jobs, and of course they might, but in reality they would be jobs that currently exist. They claim that Malmesbury would benefit under section 106 agreements because there would be buses from Sainsbury’s car park into the town centre and there would be a staircase from the Waitrose up to the town centre. They say, “There would be all sorts of benefits for the people of Malmesbury. Aren’t they lucky to have us, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, coming to build in the town?” But, no, we are not lucky at all. Waitrose and Sainsbury’s are going there for one reason only: to make a profit for their shareholders out of selling groceries to passing trade. That is of no benefit whatever to the town of Malmesbury, and I very much hope that the local authority, when it considers this matter, will turn down both applications—from Waitrose and Sainsbury’s.

Malmesbury has a vibrant and superb high street with a great community, which is not dissimilar to that in neighbouring Royal Wootton Bassett. If we allow the building of two new supermarkets on the outskirts of the town or of housing, which has also been threatened around the outskirts of Malmesbury, we will land up with urban sprawl of the worst possible kind and with a reduction in the vibrancy of the high street, which would become similar to those in one or two other towns in our area. I appeal to the planners who are sitting in Trowbridge this very afternoon considering these matters to realise that if we allow developers to build on greenfield sites, that is precisely what they will do because they want to build on greenfield sites. Only by preventing them from doing so will we force them to build in our town centres, to redevelop brownfield sites and to redevelop and add vibrancy to our town centres.

5.14 pm

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) and the Backbench Business Committee on their work in securing this interesting debate.

Given the time available, I shall deal with just two or three issues, in particular what can be done generally. VAT is a big issue and Members have already talked about how we could improve business rates. We should consider how we can do more to encourage the private sector to invest in town centres and high streets, by being proactive with councils and in the local community. We also need to look at some of the laws and regulations

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in terms of what could be done better to streamline compulsory purchase and to promote fairer competition between small and large retailers. Although supermarkets get a lot of criticism, they provide many jobs, as the likes of Morrisons, Asda and Tesco do in my constituency. Indeed, Tesco is about to open a new superstore and we also have a major distribution centre. In Widnes, those companies are all in the town centre and add to it, although there is an impact on some other shops.

The situation is different in Runcorn.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): The hon. Gentleman talks about getting more private investment into town centres, with big and small retailers working together. Does he agree that business improvement districts, such as the one we have in Truro and Falmouth, are an excellent mechanism for doing that?

Derek Twigg: I completely agree that it is important to get small and larger retailers working with the local community and the local authority. I should also like reinforcement of the powers of councils to stop too many takeaway or betting shops setting up in town centres, which is a problem in many areas.

I want to compare two towns in my constituency: Runcorn and Widnes. With a chemical industry heritage, Widnes has done particularly well. The town centre has been turned around, and there are a number of large supermarkets; in fact, Asda moved from an out-of-town site to the town centre. There has been good development of land in the area to promote such initiatives, which involve leisure as well as retail. We have a cinema and a bowling alley and an ice rink is coming. Widnes has done well to attract retailers and other investors to the town centre.

A key factor in attracting people has been Halton borough council’s deliberate free car parking policy. It has also ensured that car parks were built. As other Members have said, it is nonsense to try to rule cars out of town centres; people want to use their cars and we should encourage them to do so, while of course improving public transport links to our town centres and high streets.

In Widnes, there has been some impact on local retailers and a number of the older businesses that were there when I was growing up are there no longer, although Geddes bicycle shop still provides the same excellent service for the community. However, other shops have been set up in the town centre to serve niche markets and that is an important factor.

On the other side of the river is Runcorn, whose town centre has not done so well, despite Halton borough council’s excellent investment in development. One of the problems, and perhaps a lesson for the future, is that when Runcorn new town was set up, some individuals decided that we needed a new town centre a mile or two away from the existing one. It is called Runcorn shopping city, and although it is not a great success it had an impact on the traditional town centre. That has been a major problem, so when new towns grow in future and there are developments with significant numbers of houses we should learn the lessons from what happened in Runcorn.

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The council has not had the success it wanted, so a year or two ago I took the initiative and set up a working group involving local residents and retailers, the chamber of commerce and the local authority. We explored how we could work together to bring developers to Runcorn town centre to try to regenerate it with more shops and retail. That means, as has already been said, that we need more people living in the town centre.

In Runcorn, we are particularly blessed with waterways, such as the Bridgewater, Mersey and Ship canals, so there is an attractive area to be developed in the town centre. There is great desire for that among my constituents, but great frustration that nothing has happened. The town centre is typical in that it has been harmed by other developments that have taken place over the past 10 to 30 years. Supermarkets have not been built in the town centre, but away from it. The town has many attractions, and that is part of the issue. We have to build on a town centre’s strengths. We heard that town centres should not all be the same, and should not all look the same, and the way forward is niche shops and a different type of design, building on an area’s strengths. In Runcorn’s case, the waterways can make it an attractive place to live, shop and eat.

Those are the sort of things that we must explore for our town centres in future. Involving the local community is crucial, and if we can develop residency and housing, that will bring people to the town centre, so that it does not become a ghost town at certain times of the day or night. I believe strongly that the Mary Portas report introduces many good ideas. Some powers already exist for councils to use, but we should look at how we can further improve powers to level the playing field and make it easier to develop those areas and bring in extra investment.

5.20 pm

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): I would like to speak about a modern, British high street success story, rare as that is. Despite the obvious challenges facing the retail industry, the proactive approach in Chester in the past few years has resulted in resounding success. Our high street is the epitome of what towns and cities across the country should aim to achieve.

As many Members will be aware, Chester is a beautiful, historic city with a long history as a market town. Like every other part of the country, we face a threat to our traditional economy as a result of increased competition, internet shopping and out-of-town retail parks. Over the past three years, however, Chester’s high street has beaten the recession, and the statistics speak for themselves. As the Portas review highlights, excluding central London, high street footfall has fallen nationally by about 10% in the past three years. In Chester, however, we have had three years of consecutive growth, and our high street vacancy rate is similarly outperforming the rest of the UK. Compared with the rest of the country, Chester has proved to be remarkably resilient.

In the foreword to her review, Mary Portas speaks of the complex web of interests and stakeholders involved in the health of a high street, noting that many of those parties simply fail to collaborate or compromise for the greater good. Her solution is to put in place a town team to provide vision, strategy and strong operational management for high streets.

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Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that success and resilience are the result of empowering local people to make the decisions that will affect their local area, and in towns such as Romsey that is exactly what should happen when there is an out-of-town planning application for a Tesco store?

Stephen Mosley: I cannot speak for Romsey, but in Chester, that is exactly what we have done. That approach was identified by the Conservatives when we took over the council in 2007, and resulted in the creation of Chester City Management, a body of local stakeholders, independent of the local authority, whose sole focus is on bringing footfall to the city. Many of the areas highlighted in the Portas review were identified by Chester City Management as the key to future success.

I should like to focus on one of those areas to showcase the way in which a little ingenuity and flexibility can make a significant difference to footfall. Town centre car parking, as we have heard, is vital to the economy of any city or town centre. Car parking that is too expensive, or a lack of car parking, has just one effect: to discourage people from visiting town centres, encouraging them to travel to out-of-town shopping centres instead. In Chester, we had year after year of inflation-busting increases in parking charges. Car parking was treated as a cash cow rather than as a tool to help local business. When I took over as the executive member responsible for car parking on Chester city council in 2007, I was all too aware of the detrimental effect of limited, high-cost parking on our high street. Along with the city centre manager, Mr Stephen Wundke, I thought up and launched Chester’s free after three scheme, offering free parking after 3pm every day in three of the city’s major car parks. The scheme was specifically targeted at local residents to encourage them to visit the town centre after school pick-up or work. Unlike the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), the local Labour party did not like it and claimed that the reduction in car parking income would mean higher council tax and that residents would end up subsidising visitors to the city.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): To give my hon. Friend a further example on the same point, this very day my own council, which we took control of from the Labour party last May and which introduced free car parking, has been criticised by the Labour group for daring to reduce its income from car parking. In our area free parking, as my hon. Friend described in Chester, has increased footfall substantially.

Stephen Mosley: Absolutely. My local Labour party complained not just about that, but about the extra cars that were coming to the city. But despite Labour’s objections the free after three scheme was launched. It was supported by a huge publicity campaign in the newspapers and adverts on local radio, backed and funded by local businesses, and it was a huge success, seeing a massive increase in footfall in the city after 3 o’clock. Three years later it is still free after 3 in Chester, and footfall is now up by 23%. Free after three has been copied in towns and cities across the country, and it has even made its way into the Portas review, on page 27, as a model of best practice for others to follow.

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In Chester, we have worked harder and smarter than most to keep our city and our high street vibrant. It is a credit to the local authority and organisations such as Chester City Management that we have been able to beat the national trend. It just remains for me to extend an open invitation to all right hon. and hon. Members and people outside the Chamber: if they wish to see first hand a thriving and successful high street, they are all very welcome to come to Chester, put their hands in their pockets, spend their money and enjoy their visit.

5.26 pm

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing the debate. I warmly welcome his speech and the tone of it.

My constituency covers the towns of Hyde, Stalybridge and Mossley, as well as some smaller localities, all with their own high streets. The people in these towns care very much about the future of their town centres and high streets, and they are concerned about the decline that they have seen. I welcome the chance that we have today to discuss the Portas review.

Over the past year I have been working closely with local businesses, particularly in Stalybridge where the decline has been the fastest, to try to find ways of supporting our town centre. I welcome the support and inspiration that that report has provided. The review points to many of the concerns that have been highlighted by people I have spoken to in Stalybridge, such as fewer reasons to visit the high street and limited parking when they do. It presents a number of measures that could attract shoppers back to the high street in greater numbers. I want to say immediately that I support very many of the ideas contained in it.

Creating strong identities, providing greater strategic vision and ensuring that towns have a range of outlets and opening hours that match the needs of their customers are among the sensible measures that could be used to make a real difference. The acknowledgement that it is not just about retail is crucial. In addition, the review contains specific proposals, such as reclassifying the use category of betting shops, and suggesting measures that could rid our town centres of the blight of empty and derelict buildings—things that I very much support. However, it is important to recognise that a number of elements in the report would require significant investment, whether that is reduced business rates or free parking. It is difficult in the present climate to see where those resources might come from.

Today I want to share with the House some of the challenges faced by traders in my local towns. For those Members who have not yet been lucky enough to spend time in Stalybridge, I shall say a little about it. Stalybridge is a former mill town which has the Huddersfield narrow canal running through it. It has benefited in the past from regeneration to open up that canal and the area around Armentieres square. Many of the former mills have been transformed into loft-style apartments by companies such as Urban Splash. It has a population of over 20,000 with a range of incomes and housing, from social housing to properties currently on the market for more than £1 million, so it should be able to support a decent town centre.

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In the past the focus has been on the night-time economy, leading some people to dub us “Staly Vegas”, but on its own the night-time economy is too limited a vision to sustain a thriving high street and town centre. Stalybridge has good transport links to Manchester and Leeds, and it could be an ideal choice for those seeking a leisurely cappuccino by the canal or an afternoon browsing in the shops.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman, whose constituency neighbours mine, agree that one of the problems is getting people into and out of town centres? I am sure that he does, as we are having a joint meeting on Friday to discuss roads. I have spent many hours on Mottram road trying to get into and out of Stalybridge. We have a joint problem with roads and access that is further cramping the town centres of Stalybridge and Glossop in my constituency?

Jonathan Reynolds: I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I agree with his comments. In this case it is not just about traffic going through Mottram and Hollingworth in my constituency, but about how we can open up the asset of the Peak District national park in his constituency, which would be very much to our benefit.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you could spend a pleasant afternoon in Stalybridge, given its location and amenities, but unfortunately alongside our picturesque canal there is currently a burnt-out health club, which is an eyesore, and a once thriving pub that is now boarded up. Frankly, it looks a bit like a bomb site. There is an empty former police station and a former NHS clinic nearby, and an increasing number of shops on the high street are empty and shuttered up. As a result, few people now think of a visit to our town centre as an afternoon out.

Derelict buildings are a blot on our townscapes. Landlords are often reluctant to maintain their buildings or sell them, particularly if their value has fallen, and the powers to force those owners, who might not even live in this country, let alone the community, to take any action can be cumbersome and difficult to enforce. I have been working with my local authority to try to rectify the worst cases, particularly the burnt-out health club, but I recognise that it is very difficult, and that we are asking local authorities to incur significant liabilities at a difficult time, which they are not always in a position to do.

I am pleased that the Portas review recognises the detrimental impact that empty properties can have and calls for an exploration of further disincentives to prevent landlords from leaving units vacant. Removing empty property rate relief from landlords who fail to invest in their properties, or fining those who keep a significant proportion of their portfolios empty, are both measures that should be looked at. Dealing with derelict buildings would make a real difference in Stalybridge, and I would be keen for my town to pilot any scheme that would help. I suspect that I will not be the only Member making that request today. Indeed, this is such an important part of the review that I believe that it could have gone even further.

As has been mentioned, parking is a significant factor in the health of our town centres, particularly when supermarkets and out-of-town developments can offer

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free parking. The review’s solution is to suggest free parking schemes. Appealing as that might sound, we must recognise the reality that many local authorities are struggling for resources and, if they were simply forced down that route, might choose to sell off their car parks instead.

Our town centres could have a very strong future. The report recognises that retailers change but there is still a role for town centres if we get the offer right. I welcome the opportunity to discuss it today. I would like the Government to tell us how they will take forward and implement the report. I hope that it can be used as a springboard for communities such as mine to take a lead in designing their town centres in future.

5.33 pm

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): I am grateful for being called to speak, and I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing this important debate. The number of Members present indicates how important this matter is, not only to us but to our constituents.

I shall start by outlining the situation in my constituency. Sherwood comprises a number of small former coalfield towns with high streets and market areas. They are all are under enormous pressure, but those individual towns face very different challenges and vary greatly in their approach to them. In summary, there is no silver bullet that will solve individual problems, which have to be sorted out at local level, and many different challenges have to be addressed. Some of those challenges affect all the towns and are similar wherever we go. Many Members have talked about the rateable value of properties once they become empty, and the challenge of how to put pressure on landlords to let them.

Landlords have a role to play, however, because when they are approached by individual retailers about empty properties, the rent that they want to charge and the length of the lease that they want to offer on shops can sometimes be an enormous challenge to anybody wanting to start a small business. Somebody who has not run a shop may want to dip their toe in the water, and then take the big leap and start their own business, but if they approach a landlord who wants an extraordinarily high rent and a very long lease, they can find it daunting to commit themselves to that process and sign on the dotted line, knowing that they might expose not only their business but their home and other assets. So landlords have a role to play.

Local authorities have a role to play as well. Members have mentioned parking schemes, and it is worth reiterating the impact on someone’s decision-making process of the cost of parking a vehicle. They may want to buy just a newspaper or a pint of milk and think, “Where am I going to do that?” If they have to pay 50p to park their car to buy milk, they will choose somewhere free of charge, rather than somewhere where they have to pay almost the price of the bottle of milk to park before they can buy it.

I compliment the councils local to me that have taken the trouble to abolish parking charges so that residents can make that choice, but we have to understand why charges are in place. In my constituency there are places where, once charges have been completely removed,

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other residents use the spaces to park and ride into the city of Nottingham, blocking up car parks and preventing shoppers from using them.

There is also an enormous emphasis on consumers. Many Members have mentioned supermarkets located close to a high street, but they will not be successful unless consumers make use of them by going in there and spending their money. Consumers are very good at saying, “We want our high street to be successful,” but sometimes they talk the talk and do not walk the walk: they use supermarkets rather than supporting their high street. Consumers cannot have it both ways, however. They have to make use of the high street and ensure that they support the shops in their community.

We also need to look at the physical size of the high street. In certain towns it may be possible to convert some properties from retail to residential use and thus shrink the high street, to make a more concentrated area of shops, where we can address their quality, fill the empty ones with shops from the periphery and allow for the residential use of the peripheral properties. That would have the knock-on effect of taking the pressure off the green belt around our towns, and we could include residential areas on our high streets.

I am grateful for having had this opportunity to speak, and I encourage my constituents to go out and make use of their high street. The strapline for this debate should be “Use it or lose it”.

5.38 pm

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing this debate. The future of the town centre and the high street is a subject that probably affects every constituency in the country. I shall take this opportunity to describe my experience of town centre development, because ever since I became a Member at the 2007 Sedgefield by-election, the future of Newton Aycliffe town centre has been an ongoing issue. In fact, my first Adjournment debate was about the town centre and the problems that it was facing.

Newton Aycliffe was one of the first new towns established under the New Towns Act 1946, and work on it started on June 28 1948. William Beveridge was the first chair of the Newton Aycliffe development corporation, the first row of shops in the town was built in 1952 on Neville parade, and construction of the town centre itself began in 1957.

In those early years the town centre was seen as a bustling environment with thriving shops, and everybody of a particular age in Newton Aycliffe has fond memories of it, but then, in the 1960s, things began to stall. The planners could not make up their minds about the future direction of the town and its predicted population, and as a result hesitation stepped in. There were plans for a new town centre, which were eventually rejected.

In 1963 Lord Hailsham’s report on the future of the north-east predicted an increase in the town’s population, but because of hesitation and a poor decision-making process, it took 12 years from the Hailsham report and the consent of a Secretary of State before a few shops were built. In 1974 a leisure centre was built. By the 1980s the town’s biographer, Garry Philipson, said in his book “Aycliffe and Peterlee New Towns” that there was

“indecision and consequent lengthy delay regarding the new towns’ target population and, subsequently, the form of town centre redevelopment.”

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The delays and setbacks have continued into this century, but I think that we have started to turn the corner over the past three years. About 10 years ago Tesco built a store about 500 yards from the town centre. Today that is taking £1 million a week out of the town, which has a population of about 28,000. People might comment on the superstore’s hold on the town centre, but everyone still seems to use the shop.

The town centre is still making progress. The old dilapidated health centre has been demolished, Wilkinson has opened a new store, and the row of shops in Dalton way has been demolished. That will make room for a new Aldi supermarket, which will be built and opened in the course of this year, adding welcome competition for Tesco. The leisure centre is to become the site of a community hub with a new library, newly configured health provision and a community space. The structural monstrosity known as “the ramp”, which links the centre’s two floors and the car park is to be dismantled, and a row of shops near the leisure centre is to be demolished, creating a thoroughfare. That will open up to the outside world a town centre that currently seems enclosed and uninviting to potential customers.

For the residents of Newton Aycliffe, the history of their town centre has been laced with a good dose of frustration. In the past few years I have experienced that frustration myself. To bring a halt to the delays and ensure that progress could be made, my predecessor arranged for the planners, developers and other stakeholders to sit down around the same table to thrash out their problems at the beginning of 2007. That was the first time that those people had sat down together in the same room to work out the problems.

There have still been frustrations. For example, before planning could be agreed for the Aldi store, a stopping-up order had to be in place on a footpath. That process could not run concurrently with other planning issues, but had to happen sequentially, which caused unnecessary delay, given that the path has not been missed and the process was holding up economic development and job creation. The planning regime does not need wholesale reform, but some common sense must be applied when implementing the existing planning regime.

Even with the best will of the developers, planners and stakeholders, the bureaucratic nightmare generated by the utility companies was a problem. The gas and electricity companies would arrange to sort out problems on the building site of the new supermarket and then knock back the date. They found pipes that they did not know were there. I have spent many phone calls to the utility companies trying to get them to stick to the plans. Some Members might argue that such incompetence is the preserve of the public sector, but I can guarantee that it is not.

I believe that we are now turning the corner in Newton Aycliffe. I say to my constituents in the town that although they might walk through the centre and think that things are not happening, they can rest assured that they are. We look forward to having a prosperous town centre in Newton Aycliffe.

5.43 pm

Dr Phillip Lee (Bracknell) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) and the Backbench Business Committee on securing

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this timely debate. It gives me an opportunity to speak about ongoing town developments in Bracknell, which I celebrate and support. I will talk about those developments, Bracknell itself and make some personal suggestions of what might enhance the town and make it more sustainable.

Bracknell is geographically at the heart of Berkshire. More than 100,000 people live in the Bracknell Forest borough. It is surrounded by some relatively affluent areas. Consequently, a town centre development is a viable proposition. The Work Foundation last year named Bracknell, jointly, the location likely to recover best during the economic recovery. It has a growth sector in technology, with 11 of the 15 biggest software companies in the world based in or near Bracknell. However, the town centre itself needs development. It is fair to say, and a widely shared view, that the centre of Bracknell does not look its best. It has long needed a development plan, and one has long been in the pipeline.

I am very pleased to say that although the majority of town development plans were being shelved because of the economic downturn at the time I was selected as a candidate in 2009, one of the four that were not was for the development of Bracknell. It is ongoing, and one has only to come to Bracknell to see the first stage of it: the Waitrose store that was opened recently. It is 36,000 square feet—a massive store—and we are extremely pleased with it. We have a long association with Waitrose, as its distribution hub for the entire country is in Bracknell. Indeed, it is the largest private employer in my constituency. There is widespread belief that the first store there will lead to others. I gather that a couple may be in the pipeline, to be announced soon, which would lead to further stores.

Of particular interest to the people of Bracknell is Winchester house, widely referred to as the old 3M building, although that great company has now relocated to another part of Bracknell. It is a big building in the middle of Bracknell and not particularly attractive, and I gather that a planning application will be put forward for its demolition and its replacement with new residential units and leisure and retail facilities. There is also planning permission for a £2 million transformation of the Princess square shopping centre frontage.

In the next couple of months there will be a presentation by the Bracknell regeneration partnership announcing the next stages of the town development. Originally it was going to be a £1 billion development to happen in one go, but economic reality means that it has been broken down into a series of developments. I have every confidence that it will be completed by the end of this decade.

I have my own suggestions. First, if there is one thing that we have learned in the past 10 or 15 years, I hope it is that consumption is not everything. I would very much like to see some culture in the Bracknell town development. I believe that feeding the soul is just as important as feeding the stomach, and I should like to see a theatre or cinema there. One has only to go a couple of miles to South Hill Park to see a wonderful arts centre. I am not suggesting for a second that it has not got wonderful grounds, but it is remarkable that a centre that is struggling for funds cannot be tied into

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the town centre development. I would certainly support that. There is also an absence of a museum celebrating Berkshire life. There is a long history of royal links and so on in Berkshire, and if a Berkshire museum were to be set up, I believe it should be centred in the county’s geographical heart, which is Bracknell.

Bracknell is going places. It has always been an economic hub, and I have every reason to believe that it will strengthen its position, particularly with such outstanding town development plans. The local borough council is to be congratulated on its leadership, as of course is Bracknell regeneration partnership, which is co-owned by Schroders and Legal and General, which own the great majority of the land. We need to ensure that the plans are sustainable, so we need to consider public transport, perhaps including links with Crossrail. The town’s sustainability and its contribution to the long-term health and happiness of all my constituents are of paramount importance to me.

5.48 pm

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): The main high street in my constituency was rocked by the riots on 8 August, but the effects of the riots have not been the main problem for the high street. It was already struggling, and businesses now tell me that turnover is down by between 25% and 45%, and footfall down accordingly.

The impact of Westfield in Stratford has been dramatic. It has even affected the high street chains in Mare street, as they have bigger stores in Westfield to which people go for the wider choice of products that they can offer. Often, people use local shops for convenience during the week but tend to go to the bigger shopping centre at weekends when they have time to choose their retail centre.

The council and its partners in the town centre forum have been proactive in running events and activities to address that decline, such as ice rinks and personal appearances by celebrities and sports stars, but such things cannot be done on a weekly basis and do not help on their own. There are long-term plans, including for an outlet store offer to build on the success of the Burberry outlet store, which is a well visited international shopping space in Hackney—for those hon. Members who are keen to get a cheap mac, it is in Chatham place. Mare street also has the only Marks & Spencer in east London, so it is a shopping centre that has many things to offer, including independent stores such as Mermaid Fabrics, Argun Printers and Stationers, and others.

Some of the improvements that Mare street needs can be led or supported by the private sector, but local leadership, which takes many forms, is needed. Additionally, the council is looking into pedestrianisation and support for businesses to improve their retail offer very much along the lines of what Mary Portas outlined in her report. With the Hackney Gazette, I have launched an award scheme for local shops to encourage them to up their game. Local residents will vote for their favourite shops in a number of categories.

Planning powers, particularly in respect of bookmakers, are a big issue. Hackney has more bookmakers than any other London borough, and we need a change to the law.

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Dame Joan Ruddock: My hon. Friend will know that I have a private Member’s Bill that establishes a separate use class for betting shops. It is due in the House on Friday. Does she agree that if the Minister chose to let that Bill through and provide it with time, we could solve the problem of the proliferation of betting shops on our high streets?

Meg Hillier: I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. I hope the Minister is listening to the debate and to the support on both sides of the House for that private Member’s Bill, which will make a difference.

I have focused on Mare street, but in the time remaining I want to touch on some of the other high streets in Hackney. Three main markets sum up Hackney: the Ridley road market, which is a traditional fruit and veg and general market, is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott); the Hoxton street market, where you can buy three pairs of knickers for £1, should you so wish, Mr Deputy Speaker; and Broadway market, which I also recommend, where a loaf of bread costs about £2.50, but is very nice. As hon. Members may gather, each market represents a different aspect of my constituency.

Broadway market, which is on a small street off London Fields, is an example of what can be achieved with local determination and drive. Traders and residents took matters into their own hands and established a Saturday street market in 2004. It has been a great success for local businesses and created an attraction for visitors. Andy Veitch of the traders and residents association told me recently that they like to think of the market as more friends, less frenzy. That pitch sums up some of today’s debate. We want Hackney shopping centres to be friendly and welcoming places to shop, which is a different offer from the out-of-town malls, particularly Westfield.

Broadway market began a customer survey at the end of last year because traders and residents there are aware that they need to keep up the best of what they are offering, particularly in this recession. They are also aware that they need to work together. They are fearful that a new Sainsbury’s Local will open nearby, but they are proud of what they have achieved, maintaining a mix of the low-cost, useful shop, and niche shopping with a thriving café culture. One local delicatessen employs 27 local people, which is quite different from some of the metro stores that open.

Hoxton street market is in the most southerly part of the constituency. It has not been thriving, but with a vibrant business man newly working with the council, we hope that that will change. It is early days, but I am hopeful. I put on record my respect for Councillor Philip Glanville of Hoxton ward, who has done an awful lot to get that moving.

Tesco has been mentioned a number of times, and I cannot speak about retail in Hackney without mentioning it for two reasons, the first of which is that it was in Hackney’s Well street that the young Jack Cohen started out in 1919 with a market stall, selling a few days later the first branded tea—Tesco tea. Secondly, Tesco now has stores across Hackney, including a large one in Morning lane and one in Well street. Not all residents are happy about the number of Tescos, but that makes it an important player, even in a borough that prides itself on its independent shops.

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I was heartened when I spoke to the manager of the Well street store. He made it clear to Tesco headquarters that he did not want a fresh meat counter in his 2012 revamp because there is a good and well-used local butcher outside his door. Of course, the desire to support local businesses is not entirely selfless—Tesco and other big retailers will benefit from an environment that attracts shoppers—but it is important that businesses work together, which they often do not do enough.

I have not had enough time to mention Chatsworth road, but there has been great local innovation there too; or the Shoreditch Boxpark, which has become a shopping centre because of an innovative approach by the council—containers have small shops in them on short-term leases to allow retailers to experiment.

The Portas review is important, and I wish to highlight a few key points. Regeneration led by businesses works best. Too many of one type of shop is not good. In Hackney, we have too many bookies and money shops. We have quite a lot of Pound shops too, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington has a 98p shop in her constituency—ever the discount in the recession. We need more local control, but that needs to be well thought through to avoid perverse outcomes, and we need to harness technology rather than see it is an enemy. We should encourage local websites and local linking of the internet with local shopping.

5.54 pm

Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing today’s debate and the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on her interesting contribution.

Before I entered the House, I spent 15 years working in the retail sector for three of the biggest names on the UK high street. I welcome the Portas review, for it contains many valuable points. It has taken us away from the traditional debate, in which it was said that the demise of the UK high street is down to out-of-town supercentres and supermarkets. The report identifies salient points, and it is a credit to the House that we have focused on them today.

In the time allowed, I do not want to go over ground that other right hon. and hon. Members have gone over—I want to move on to some fresh territory—but I wish to highlight the importance of landlords, particularly for small independent shops. Far too often, people who want to have a go and set up a shop face long-term leases of five or 10 years—added to the cost of rent, shop-fitting and staff, such leases become a deterrent. I appeal to the Minister and landlords: let us encourage flexibility and short-term lets.

In recent years, we have seen the trend of pop-up shops, where people are encouraged to take up a three or six-month lease agreement. Far too often, such shops sell fireworks or Christmas trees. I encourage landlords to be far more imaginative and to give people who want to have a go the opportunity to succeed or fail.

Meg Hillier: The hon. Gentleman might be interested to hear that a scheme for young people was set up in a derelict shop in Hoxton street. In order to do that, the property needed a shop front. It is now the Monster

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Supplies shop, where people can buy jars of snot and eyeballs. It attracts a certain type of visitor—it is very popular at Halloween—but is that a good example of what he is talking about?

Mark Menzies: That is a very good example. I never thought that Fylde or Lytham St Annes would have anything to learn from Hackney, but perhaps in this case it does, and I suggest we do so.

When shops are left empty, they are far too often left in an appalling state. As the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who represents Rhyl, pointed out, they are left with posters on windows or boarded up. That does not make them good neighbours, so I encourage local authorities to use all the powers at their disposal—we perhaps need additional powers—to force landlords to leave empty properties in a state that makes them good neighbours and not an eyesore for the community.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as well as encouraging landlords, we need banks and finance houses to help small businesses? People who want to start small retail businesses cannot provide the security that banks require. We need to alleviate the difficulties with banks to encourage people into entrepreneurship.

Mark Menzies: Our friends the banks of course have a role to play, but I wanted to focus on landlords, because, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees, bank support for small businesses has been well covered in previous debates.

One sensitive item—I wish to be as non-controversial as possible—is the role of charity shops. Charity shops take up a disproportionate number of shop units in many high streets. I would not wish to decry the role that charity shops have to play—the income raised by them is important, particularly for small, independent, local charities—but perhaps now is the time to review some of the considerable benefits that are given to them.

Landlords often prefer to sign a lease with Oxfam than to take the risk with an independent retailer. The security of Oxfam versus the uncertainty of a start-up independent can distort the local market. Also, charity shops do not have the bigger costs that many retailers face. The biggest cost for any retailer is the one that walks through the door on two legs—namely, the staff. Charity shops often trade on the generous support that they receive from volunteers. Given that backdrop, I do not think that it would be wrong to put the support that we give to charity shops on to the table for a timely review, to see whether we need to move past that.

It is also worth pointing out that charity shops do not always sell stock that has been donated by members of the public. We often see items for sale such as books that look brand spanking new. They might have dropped out of a major retailer’s chart and, rather than being sent for pulping, they might be sold on at nominal cost or donated to the charity for resale. Oxfam has more shops selling books than Waterstones, and that imbalance needs to be addressed.

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I want to mention briefly the importance of carrying out trials. Several Members have offered their high streets as hosts to trials today. I must advise the Minister that, when he picks towns in which to carry out trials, he should remember that no two high streets are the same. A seaside town is very different from the suburb of a city centre, which in turn is very different from a rural market town. It is therefore important to pick a wide cross-section of perhaps 20 or 30 town centres for the trials. The amount of money needed to be invested in such trials would be negligible, because, if they were done properly, the private sector could become involved. I urge the Minister to look at one of the recommendations in the Portas review, which relates to getting the major chains and supermarkets involved.

In 2007, I won one of the few awards that I have won in my life. It was the IGD/Unilever social innovation award for work that we had done in a town called Huntly in the north-east of Scotland. We were opening a supermarket there, and the independent butcher and baker in the high street were under threat, but if we can get the major retailers involved in the right way and at the right level, they can be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. That can also help to mitigate some of the costs.

Like other Members, I would like to offer up a town in my constituency to take part in a trial. It is the town of Kirkham. In it, there is a lady who runs a bookshop. She also sells ice cream and runs a tearoom in the shop. As the leader of the retailers in the town, she would be willing to lead a pilot scheme. If we want to send a signal that Britain is open for business, I cannot think of a better way of doing it than getting our high streets open for business.

6.2 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): In common with Members on both sides of the House, I welcome the Mary Portas review. I want to talk specifically about one of its recommendations, which pertains to betting shops and the planning regulations that apply to them. I want to talk about the scourge of betting shops, partly because I have campaigned on the issue for some time and partly because they are a particular issue in Hackney and other inner-city areas. Unless people live in an area such as Hackney, which has seven or eight betting shops on one high street, they cannot understand the scourge that the proliferation of those places represents.

We have seen a surge in the number of betting shops over the past decade, particularly in inner London. I think that there are now 90 in Hackney, which is three times the national average. That is why I am glad to have this opportunity to address the House on the subject. There are nine betting shops on Mare street alone. On that street, next to the historic St John’s church, we have a beautiful 19th century town hall, on which millions have been spent on renovation. It had been leased to the Midland bank since the 1930s, but in the 1990s the council sold the freehold to the bank—now HSBC—which promptly sold it on to Coral the bookmaker. That is the pitch that we have reached in the inner cities: that heritage building is now a bookmaker’s.

Let me say something about bookmakers for the benefit of Members who do not know much about them or who do not go into their premises. In many

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cases, they are the equivalent of casinos, with highly addictive fixed-odds betting terminals. Often, there are many of these in one shop. Members might say, “Well, it is people’s choice if they want to place a bet. Why is she being so prudish?” I have no moral objection to betting shops; my objection is to their proliferation. As I have said, there are between six and eight on our high streets, and children might have to pass four or five of them on the way from home to school in Hackney.

I also object to the predatory nature of the betting shops in the inner city. As I have said, there are eight or nine on Mare street, and nine on Green lanes in Harringay. Betting shops put nothing back into the community, and they add no vibrancy. The pattern of new betting shops opening within the M25 shows that they have targeted the poorest areas with the highest unemployment and poverty. There are three times the number of betting shops in Newham as there are in Richmond. What could be more predatory than that? The people who can least afford to bet are being tempted by four or five betting shops in a row. Furthermore, hundreds of public order offences are committed outside betting shops every week, contributing to low-level social disorder.

I have campaigned on this issue for many years. I have written to and met Ministers and council leaders, and I have tabled early-day motions. The problem is one of planning. Betting shops fall within use class code A2, which covers financial services. That means that it is possible to turn banks and building societies into betting shops. It is even possible to switch the use of restaurants and takeaways. The Gambling Act 2005 does not give local authorities any real scope to limit the number of betting shops. Year after year, my own Ministers wrote back to me saying that they believed that local planning authorities had strong planning powers available to them to control the development of betting shops. That was not true; it was clearly the line that officials took, but it was not true.

I very much welcome Mary Portas’s recommendation No. 13, which covers the planning regime for betting shops. It is headed: “Put betting shops into a separate ‘Use class’ of their own”, and I support her when she says:

“I also believe that the influx of betting shops, often in more deprived areas, is blighting our high streets.”

After many years of campaigning by local residents, and of local authorities finding themselves caught between angry residents and a Government who claim that authorities already have the necessary powers, I suggest that now is the time, following the trigger of the Portas report, for Ministers to give local authorities the power, in this one respect, to give the high streets back to the local communities and to end the scourge of predatory betting shops in some of the poorest communities in our country.

6.7 pm

Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing it. I do not think that I have ever taken part in a debate in which snot and knickers have been mentioned, so I look forward to reading Hansard tomorrow.

I welcome the Government’s review—it was long overdue. Let us face it, the problems of town centres are not a new thing: they have been occurring for some

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time. We need to create vibrant areas that are exciting to visit and in which social gatherings can be held. It is therefore important to deal with this issue. Mary Portas’s analysis is a good one. Shopping has changed, as have our habits. Where we go to do our shopping has also changed. There is much to think about in the report, and there is much in it that I support, although there are other bits with which I have a few issues.

I think that we are all in danger of simply repeating our maiden speeches today, because we are all, quite rightly, talking about our own constituencies. I shall do the same. The name of my constituency does not fully describe the area I represent, because I represent not only the town of Pudsey but the many other towns and villages around it. I want to talk about two examples today. In the Farsley and Calverley area of my constituency, there is a large out-of-town shopping centre, containing one of the biggest branches of Asda as well as one of the biggest branches of Marks & Spencer. It has had an impact on the towns of Pudsey and Farsley, because people travel out to the site.

Local enterprises are trying to get people back, however. Pudsey Business Forum, for example, has an excellent Shop Local campaign newspaper. It has also printed its own bags and held lots of events in the town. Recently, we were delighted to welcome back Pudsey bear at a Children in Need event, which was superb.

A local councillor in Farsley, Andrew Carter, should be congratulated on working closely with shopkeepers who are putting on street events to encourage people to come along. The church is also getting involved in the community. Many of the towns that I represent are old mill towns, and far too often mills have been knocked down and new houses built on them. In Farsley, encouragingly, two mills are renovating their buildings to attract businesses. One has all different types of businesses, including high-tech businesses, but the other is considering attracting retailers so that it can become an exciting place to visit. That is really good.

Another part of the constituency, in Guiseley, Horsforth and Yeadon, has been helped by the fact that the main supermarket, Morrisons, has built on the high street, which has encouraged people to go through the town centre on their way to do their weekly shopping. There are many lessons to be learned there, because we have changed our habits.

Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many supermarkets act as hubs within towns? For years, my area has had a Tesco in town, and people do their shopping in town and finish in Tesco. People now do weekly shopping, not daily shopping.

Stuart Andrew: I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman. We can see the difference. The town centres are still struggling—these are difficult times—but the fact that there is a major supermarket on the high street encourages people to do their weekly shopping there and then have a look at the other shops.

In many constituencies, parking is the big problem. Far too often, in the towns that I represent, from early in the morning through to fairly late at night, commuters take up the parking spaces that would otherwise be available to shoppers. In fairness, councils are trying to deal with the problem by introducing shorter-stay parking.

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Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): My hon. Friend is making some powerful points. Is there not a big issue with the loss of parking in certain areas because councils are looking to retail their assets and use parking assets to fund council projects? We are losing parking spaces, which is having a big impact on town centres.

Stuart Andrew: I concur. It is important that where there are limited parking opportunities, we do everything possible to ensure that the parking is right for the area. I am delighted that my areas are now introducing time limits. I have one problem with a supermarket in Guiseley, however, that has caused huge problems by not working with the council. I hope that I can use this debate to encourage it to do so.

Finally, I want to talk about empty shops. My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) had a go at charity shops. As someone who used to work for a charity, I found them an invaluable source of income. In some cases, they can bring life and vibrancy to a town centre—it is important to say that—although it might not always be desirable. In Armley, people have used their shops as centres or beacons of art, as a result of which they have not remained empty and unattractive. That has encouraged people to go along and have a better shopping experience.

It is good that we are having this debate, because it shows that we are in touch. MPs get criticised all the time but we are in touch with what is going on and we care about our town centres. We were once described as a nation of shopkeepers, and long may that continue.

6.14 pm

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I commend the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) for securing this timely debate. It is clear that there is concern about these issues across the House. The problem has come to a head recently because of the wider economic climate, but it is important to remember that this is not a new problem—it predates the recession by a number of years. There is evidence in my constituency of town centre decline stretching back at least 20 years. There is no single cause; instead, a malign constellation of circumstances combined to erode the viability of independent and family-run shops.

The trend towards larger supermarkets and out-of-town retail parks is undoubtedly the key underlining issue—others have alluded to it—but it is not the only one. As others have mentioned, there is the growth in online retail, changes in demography and working patterns in local economies, people commuting to work, less time to shop and changing tastes. I can also think of a range of long-standing family businesses where proprietors have reached retirement age and found no one else in the family willing to take it on. In the current climate, it is difficult for newcomers to get into the market or take on that kind of commitment, even if they can get the finance, which is a major challenge.

Turning that around is a challenge not just for national or local government; it also involves traders and, perhaps most importantly, our role as shoppers and citizens. If we want thriving town centres, Governments and local authorities need to work together to play their part. We should not, however, dodge the dominance of the large supermarkets and its consequences. There is no doubt

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that they are hard to beat on price and range and that they offer free parking and many other things that people have mentioned. Furthermore, those who think that supermarkets are the closest thing to Dante’s third circle of hell can now order all their shopping online and get it delivered.

That is all very well but small shops cannot compete on price and range of goods, or provide free parking. Those of us concerned about the demise of our town centres need to put our money where our mouths are, use our shops and not do all our shopping in one shop. If we do all our shopping in the large supermarkets, they will quickly become the only places where we can shop.

It is important to consider alternatives. People have come up with lots of good suggestions today, but in my constituency the small business bonus scheme, introduced by the Scottish Government, has provided a lifeline in recent years to smaller, independent shops. Shopkeepers in my constituency have told me in no uncertain terms that their business would not have survived the past three years had their rates bill not disappeared. Furthermore, the small business bonus is arguably a huge incentive for new businesses and entrants to the marketplace because it reduces start-up costs and mitigates some of the costs associated with a new retail business.

The £60 million town centre regeneration fund introduced in Scotland in 2009, with cross-party support, has also played a part. We have seen projects across every local authority area devised by local stakeholders. They have enabled communities across the country to improve the appearance of their facilities, make them more accessible and create more than 1,000 jobs. Local authorities have a particular responsibility to push forward regeneration, to take action on parking charges, which others have mentioned, and to ensure that planning decisions do not undermine town centre regeneration.

It is important that local authorities enforce the planning conditions that they place on big supermarkets outside town. The hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) mentioned Huntly. That was a great scheme in theory—it is not in my constituency— but in practice there has been much controversy because planning conditions placed on Tesco have not been enforced by the local authority.

Mr David Hamilton: May I point out what happens when local authorities try to challenge big companies, such as Tesco? We are talking about small local authorities taking on a multinational company, the legal department of which is often bigger than the local authority so it can take the local authority to court and win. That is part of the problem.

Dr Whiteford: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the challenges and pressures on local authority legal departments. As citizens and shoppers, we have a chance to address that.

Mark Menzies: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dr Whiteford: I would love to but I am conscious of the time and of the fact that lots of other Members want to speak.

Some towns in my constituency are doing well and managing to swim against the tide, largely because the supermarkets are in the town centre. However, it only

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takes one or two attractions in a town, whether civic or shopping attractions, to make it an attractive place to shop. That has a knock-on effect for everybody. Although many local trade associations feel that they are swimming against the tide, many are doing the right thing and trying to become more attractive to shoppers: many are selling online from their shops, trying to compete with other online retailers, and trying to develop niche markets. They are also working with other traders to raise the profile of a town and make it an attractive destination.

We must recognise that although shopping patterns have changed, retail might not be the only option for our town centres. Banff in my constituency has an exceptionally high concentration of listed buildings. Shopkeepers face eye-watering repair bills in maintaining such buildings. They often cannot perform the renovations they would like to do, and their signage can be limited. It is a bigger issue for the wider community when buildings fall into disrepair or disuse, so we need to look at how to turn businesses, residences and offices back into housing in some cases.

I have been encouraged by all the great ideas that have been suggested in today’s debate. I shall certainly take some of them back with me, but I do not think there is one magic solution or a one-stop shop on this issue.

6.20 pm

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): As the 21st speaker and one of the motion’s proposers, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on the quality of his speech and on all his excellent work on the all-party group for town centres. I declare my interest as a member of Kettering borough council.

I know that I have fewer than five minutes to cover the four high streets in the Kettering constituency: Burton Latimer, Rothwell, Desborough and Kettering itself. The three A6 towns of Burton Latimer, Rothwell and Desborough are all small town centres, all different in their ways. Burton Latimer has a supermarket, a mini-supermarket, a variety of small shops and a successful farmers market once a month. Rothwell has a variety of small shops as well as a mini-supermarket and a growing reputation for niche and specialist shops as well as attractive places to eat. Desborough is a former Co-op town where the Co-op supermarket has been around for many years, but the Co-up itself has restrictive covenants on a large number of small shops in the high street, which I would contend has been to the detriment of the town centre. Two supermarket chains are now bidding to build supermarkets in and near to Desborough—Sainsbury’s on an edge-of-town site and Tesco on a town-centre site—and it is fair to say that the town is split on which of those should go ahead. Kettering borough council has the unenviable task of making the decision on that—next week, I believe.

That brings me to the town of Kettering itself. It is the No. 2 retail town in the county of Northamptonshire after Northampton. It is fair to say that Kettering town centre excites a lot of local comment, favourable and otherwise. In fact, Kettering town centre has weathered the recession extremely well. In August 2009, 88% of the town centre’s units were full, which has increased to 90% where the national average is 86%, so Kettering is bucking the trend.

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It is also fair to say that there are many myths about Kettering town centre. Local people believe that Kettering borough council sets the rents on all the local shops, when it is really up to the local landlords. There is, of course, a big contrast between Kettering, where there are many local landlords of shop premises, and neighbouring Corby, where there is one landowner in the town centre. It is a lot easier to get things moving in Corby with its one owner than in Kettering with its many. A £5 million Government investment has gone into the new marketplace in Kettering, with new developments in Market street and the Horsemarket. With all this public sector investment, the prospects for the town centre are good.

Now for the bad news. Just down the road, outside Rushden, there is a proposal for a major out-of-town development. According to the local Evening Telegraph, this site, which is 224 acres, will be the location for 20 leading UK retail chains, including a large Marks & Spencer, a cinema, a leisure centre, a garden centre, a hotel and a new lake marina. One of the major investors in Kettering town centre has written to me to say:

“From the plans we have seen and negotiations that we understand they are having with traditional ‘High Street’ retailers, we are convinced that should a scheme of this nature go ahead it would seriously curtail our ability to invest in Kettering town centre and attract new vibrant retailers to the town…we are concerned that a development of this nature would have a seriously detrimental impact on town centres throughout North Northamptonshire”.

In my view, the Rushden Lakes development would be a disaster for Kettering. It is completely against policy 12 of the core spatial strategy for north Northamptonshire, to which all the local councils signed up. I would like to take the opportunity provided by this debate to urge the Government to call in this application once it is registered with East Northamptonshire district council and to turn it down. If the development goes ahead, it will have a seriously detrimental impact on Kettering town centre—as I said, the No. 2 retail centre in the county of Northamptonshire.

6.25 pm

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): I am pleased to be called to speak, and I want to cover supporting town centres and the important issue of parking. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on sponsoring today’s debate.

Too many valley town centres are in decline in south Wales. With the closure of Woolworth’s a while ago and Peacocks today, important cornerstones of the high street are fading away. Let us hope that Peacocks is quickly rescued.

On parking, as Mary Portas says, there are good environmental reasons why we should not use our cars, but if town centres do not accommodate the car at a reasonable price, shoppers will not be tempted to them. Furthermore, I have in recent weeks gained an insight into how a bad parking machine at a key town centre spot—at Ebbw Vale in Blaenau Gwent—can help to undermine shopping. Following a new private operator taking over the running of a car park there, I witnessed a large number of penalty notices being issued to blue badge holders, taxi drivers and others, which has swelled my postbag and prompted much anger. Good value and easy-to-use parking matter.

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Bob Stewart: In my Beckenham constituency, it is not just parking that is the problem. It is the fact that trying to get into the car parks is made more difficult by road works that go up, go down, come again, go again and come again. It is sometimes just appalling. There should be much more planning of how road works are instituted and then stopped and controlled. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Nick Smith: I do. Local authorities and utility companies need to liaise much better.

If parking becomes a problem, there is a danger that shoppers will stay away. What does Portas say about car parking charges? She warns councils not to see parking as a soft touch for revenue raising in cash-strapped times. The bottom line is that if we want to rejuvenate our town centres, we have to be sensitive to the needs of car park users. I believe easy-to-use and easy-to-understand parking systems are important, too. People should do the right thing, and pay and display. My constituents are both intelligent and compliant. However, the problems some of them have faced are illustrated by one clear example.

Following the arrival of a new parking operator, Excel, 29 disabled blue badge holders were issued with multiple penalty notices. It became clear to me that they were not to blame. Indeed, when they saw a new sign saying “normal conditions apply” and saw no signage in disabled parking bays, they thought that they could continue to park for free. Well, they assumed wrong, and they received penalty notices of £60 a time. After much advocacy, some are starting to have them taken back.

My experience over these last few weeks suggests that signage is important. If the signage is right, people understand the rules and comply. When I identified the confusion and sought simplicity, I was not surprised to see that my request for a sign saying, “Everybody has to pay at this car park—24 hours a day, seven days a week” did not find favour. That makes me and many others think that some operators are using ambiguity rather than clarity to clobber motorists and boost their profits. If the signage is difficult to understand, the fine print is complex and the font is small, people will be confused—then penalty notices get issued and drivers stay away, so it is the high street that suffers.

Let me share some of the complaints I received. One local resident—I have plenty of similar anecdotes from others—said:

“The ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) camera is big brother at its worst, with the £60 fine…ridiculous for the ‘crime’ (this is how they make you feel)…These fines will put many people off going into town, as they will be too scared that they might get another if they make a mistake entering their registration number…I am not disputing the fact that you have to pay to park, just the way this company is bullying people who have innocently been caught out”.

Since the onset of the rash of penalty notices and local controversy, I have engaged in protracted correspondence in an attempt to secure fair play for local disabled drivers. As a result, I have learned that when penalty notices are issued—partly, in my view, as a result of poor signage—Excel profits considerably. That cannot be right. Last year a £100,000 bonus was paid to the company’s only director, Simon Renshaw-Smith, and in 2010 he paid himself a salary of £398,947—nearly £400,000. Nice work if you can get it.

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All that has led me to conclude that independent regulation and appeal services are required to ensure that fairness for drivers is given the priority it deserves. I hope that I have made it clear in my focused contribution that parking is an important issue, and that getting it right will help to achieve our overarching objective: the creation of busy, dynamic and regenerated town centres.

6.31 pm

Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): I, too, congratulate my colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing this important debate.

Two town centres define my constituency. Ealing and Acton are part of the same borough, linked by the Uxbridge road and sharing parts of the same community. They are very different in themselves, but a walk along either high street demonstrates that both are experiencing a noticeable decline. Both have been chilled by the effect of Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush. But we are lucky, because help is on the way: Crossrail trains will stop at both Ealing Broadway and Acton main line stations, which should kick-start a renewal. The potential is there, provided that we are ready to take advantage of it.

A regeneration programme continues apace in Acton, including work to completely revamp the town hall, a huge but empty building which has cast a long shadow over the high street for far too long. Work is also being done to refurbish the nearby South Acton estate. Encouragingly, just off the high street, Churchfield road is responding admirably. It has a parade of shops, cafés and restaurants that create a buzz and the incentive to shop locally for a new generation of residents.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of Acton high street. We do have a Morrisons right in the middle, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) that it provides an invaluable service, sitting at the heart of Acton and even providing car parking, but smaller shopkeepers along the high street complain of a toxic combination of rising rents, increased business rates and dwindling footfall. Clearly none of that is good for their business, although I believe that the local government funding proposals will help.

Ealing was once described as the queen of the suburbs, although the crown sits a little awkwardly these days. The town centre around Ealing Broadway is nothing like it once was: it feels tired. Yet there is much to build on. The centre retains its own distinctive character, which is appealing. It has a strong, mixed community, including young people who often choose to go on living there even when they have left the nearby parental home because it is a good place to be. It has great transport links, and also generous green spaces. Haven Green, Ealing Green and the common are just a few minutes away. Most interesting of all, it has a large vacant site up for sale right next to Ealing Broadway station. If properly developed in tandem with Crossrail, that could be the elusive silver bullet to get Ealing town centre back on track. However, it is a big “if”.

The Arcadia site has been the source of much friction and disappointment in the community. The last owners had their plans turned down by the inspectorate, and then went bust. We are all desperately keen for the site to be sold off as a single unit by the administrator, but so far no developers have turned up with the right

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money. We must hope that someone does soon, because otherwise it may be broken up, which would be a tragedy.

What are the magic ingredients for a successful town centre? A strong community who are prepared to support their local shops and play an active part locally; good shops providing everything that the community requires, and perhaps a decent department store as a magnet; decent pubs, cafés and restaurants to provide a buzz. Businesses are more likely to locate themselves in lively town centres where there are also good transport links. In Ealing, the Arcadia site could provide all that, but it should not be just about shopping, important though that is. Obviously housing is an inevitable component of a new development, but can we please ensure that it does not all consist of box-sized flats for singletons? Some at least must be decent-sized family housing which will help to build the community for the future.

Town centres should provide their communities with other activities as well, such as arts, fitness centres, libraries, street markets, and open spaces for socialising. There should also be a decent cinema. Ealing, of all places, does not even have a cinema, and has not had one for years. We have been hoping that the old cinema will be resurrected by its owners, Empire, but we are still waiting.

The Mary Portas report makes some interesting recommendations. It suggests that there should be more business improvement districts, plenty of convenient parking —especially at weekends—and a more flexible relationship between landlords and tenants. Perhaps most important is the suggestion that local people should become involved in neighbourhood plans. Obviously there are more such recommendations, but thank you, Mary Portas.

I welcome—at last—Government proposals to repatriate a large percentage of the business rates to local authorities. That is what we need if we are to redevelop the relationship between councillors and their local businesses and, hopefully, allow a new flexible relationship to flourish.

There is so much more that could be said. Our town centres, especially in constituencies such as Ealing Central and Acton, are essential to the life of the community. Governments can help, local authorities can enable and businesses will drive the regeneration, but local communities must be central to the vision.

6.36 pm

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): I did not really intend to speak in the debate, but I have found it interesting to hear many of the views that have been expressed. I believe that we have been given a genuine opportunity to explore a number of different issues.

There is clearly a considerable amount of consensus about what needs to be done, but when I listened to some of the comments about cars and parking, it occurred to me that we ought to be careful what we wish for. I was slightly alarmed when a Member suggested that there should be no objection to people parking their cars in pedestrian zones in order to nip in and fetch their milk, bread and newspapers, because I think that that would be a hugely retrograde step. People do not buy things from shops when they are inside a car; on the whole, they buy things from shops when they walk past them and are interested in them. My constituency contains the historic Royal Mile, where shopkeepers have complained

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that if parking outside their shops is not allowed, they will lose business. In fact, that is the opposite of what actually happens. There are some fascinating shops in that stretch of road, but I never see them unless I am walking past them. It impossible to see what is on offer in their windows without having the opportunity to stroll past them.

Many Members have pointed out that people need to be able to park reasonably close to shopping centres. Of course we do not want to price people out of places, but we also do not want to prevent the kind of atmosphere that generates trade and business and makes a place pleasant to be in. I do not want to walk through a pedestrian zone knowing that the next minute someone is going to be up my backside with their car because they want to stop and buy something.

It is interesting that so many Members on both sides of the House have recognised the importance of public expenditure as a way of making town centres better places in which to be. However much people want the private sector to come up with all the money, it has not done so in the past. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford)—the other Scottish Member who has spoken today—when Governments invest money in improving the quality of town centres, they make them places to which people want to come. I do not think that it is good enough to say that a town centre will be improved if there is no good public investment to prime, and make possible, the kind of private investment that we want to see.

There is another point, which I do not think anyone else has mentioned today. In one part of my constituency, which is a regeneration area, members of a community group are setting up a community development trust. They want to open a local café, to be run on commercial lines. They do not want it to be a cut-price place—they want to make it a destination of choice—but they need capital, because without it the project will not work. Yes, it will be a social enterprise, and we hope that they will make a profit that they will be able to invest in their community, but they are finding it difficult to get it off the ground. Lots of warm words are uttered about how good such ideas are, but community trusts and social enterprise also need money behind them in order to get going. The public sector has an important role to play in supporting the private sector in that regard.

My next point may not be particularly consensual. The primary reason why so many shops are currently closing down is that there is simply not enough consumer demand. No matter how good an idea someone might have for a charming shop with high-quality goods, it will not work if people cannot buy them. Portobello is a seaside area of my constituency. Many interesting shops open there, but then close very quickly. Demand is key.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): My local traders tell me that their biggest problem is getting our banks to lend to them. Does my hon. Friend hear that, too?

Sheila Gilmore: Lending is clearly one part of the problem, especially in relation to starting and then expanding a business, but there must also be a market for the goods; there must be people who can come along and buy things.

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The current economic climate is very difficult. No matter how many interesting ideas there are for improving the physical environment of shopping areas, if people do not have the income—and for the first time the financial position of people in work is deteriorating—we will continue to see a decline. As I have said, economic growth is key.

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend believe that the Government cuts will help stimulate consumer demand and support local shops?

Sheila Gilmore: May I welcome my hon. Friend to the House? I do not think that cutting back in the way that cuts are being made now has been a success. We can be accused of being over-reliant on public sector employment, but we must not take that away too quickly.

Recently, some constituents of mine came to see me because their small shop had experienced a sudden downturn. That was a result of private sector, not public sector, employment factors. They had relied on people in the financial sector in Edinburgh coming into their shop to buy a newspaper or some sweets, and they were going under because that market had gone; the people they had relied on were no longer there. No matter how hard they worked and how many hours they stayed open, they could not make that business work. As I have said, economic growth is the key factor.

6.43 pm

Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to take part in this important debate. As has been said, our town centres provide more than a place to do business; in many ways they are the focal point of our local communities.

The community spirit and character of my constituency of Gosport is perhaps best represented by our bustling twice weekly market days in the town centre. The market offers an incredibly diverse range of goods, from sophisticated garden ornaments to truly enormous thermal underwear. It offers the chance to pick up a bargain, but it is also a great social event; people almost always see someone they know and have a chat. The retail shops are busy on market day as well, as it is almost the only time when shoppers are attracted over on the ferry from Portsmouth.

The contrast with normal days on our high street is stark, as it is suffering from a severe bout of depression at present. The number of vacant shops in Gosport now stands at 18. Fortunately, that is nowhere near the worst number of vacant premises in the country, but an inactive high street can demoralise a town and ward off potential investors. Gosport would make a perfect pilot town for the Mary Portas proposals. It has all the necessary components for a winning town centre: a world-class marina, a spectacular waterfront location, a thriving market and, above all, a dogged perseverance, which is so vital in the current economic climate.

Those advantages are, however, counteracted by the disadvantage of being on a peninsular surrounded on three sides by water. As a result, we do not have a

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particularly wide customer catchment area, and, sadly, a few rogue shops do not help the shopping experience either. For at least the last three years the post office on Gosport high street has been in a state of permanent refurbishment. With pipes and wires everywhere, it is more akin to a building site than a fully functional retail environment. That can only have a negative impact on the fortunes of the high street and undermine the overall perception of Gosport town centre as attractive and economically healthy.

The importance of regenerating the retail sector in Gosport cannot be overstated, as it accounts for almost 15% of total employment and is crucial to the resurgence of our local economy. The slow demise of the high street has occurred in stages over a number of years, with independent retailers being replaced by large chain stores, which then suffered a downturn in their own fortunes as a result of the growth of out-of-town shopping malls and the rise of internet shopping.

However, a British Council of Shopping Centres report has revealed that some internet shoppers are being driven back to the high street by frustration with delivery times and goods failing to live up to product descriptions. We often see successes when areas have come full circle, with independent traders offering a unique or more efficient service slowly resurrecting the high street, and often doing what the internet does but doing it better.

It is also crucial to learn lessons from shopping centres that are doing well. Stubbington in my constituency bucks the national trend, with unit occupancy rates of almost 100%. I put that success down to free parking, easy access to the shops and a large number of independent retailers offering goods and services that cannot be found locally anywhere else. Furthermore, business owners have engendered a real sense of community; I always love attending the annual carol concert organised by the local business community and voluntary groups. Such events help foster a sense of togetherness. However, the council has recently been consulting on introducing parking charges for the area. I hope that the 6,000-signature petition and strong campaigning by the local Conservative councillor—as well as my speech today—will encourage the council to ensure that that crazy idea is dropped.

I understand very well that business, like life, is not always plain sailing. Where businesses in my Gosport constituency are continuing to thrive, that is a testament to their hard work and the support of the entire community. Sadly however, for every success story there is always another business that is struggling to make ends meet or being forced under. I therefore welcome the work Mary Portas has done in looking at the future of our high streets. Without further intervention, we run the risk of undoing any progress we have already made.

I commend the Government on putting high streets at the heart of the new national planning policy framework, and I look forward to their response to the Portas review in the spring. If the recommendations are endorsed, I hope that they will go a long way towards improving the health of our high streets for many years to come.

6.48 pm

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Until recently, Chippenham council was at the forefront of a community-led plan to realise the potential of its town centre.

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The efforts were led by Chippenham Vision on behalf of Wiltshire council and were hailed by the chief executive of Action for Market Towns as

“beacons of localism in practice.”

Sadly however, I have to report that that progress has stalled following a council planning committee decision to approve the massive expansion of an edge-of-town Sainsbury’s, which prompted the resignation of the hugely committed Chippenham Vision chair, John Clark. The town has lost—albeit only temporarily, I hope—an impressive advocate.

Such supermarket developments can only be a drain on town centres—in this case not only in Chippenham, but in nearby Corsham too. That is in direct and stark contrast to the Government’s stated intentions. Last month I sought and received the backing of the decentralisation Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), for the “town centres first” policy. He clearly stated that the Government’s commitment to it

“with all the tests that it requires, is firm.”—[Official Report, 5 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 15.]

The evidence from Chippenham suggests that the Minister’s words are not being heard.

We are not alone in facing the prospect of substantial out-of-town supermarket development. Property consultants CBRE reported last month that over 40 million square feet of new supermarkets are already planned for this year. It appears that “town centres first” simply is not happening out in our constituencies. We must address this in the national planning policy framework. There must also be a robust test in respect of qualifying for the presumption in favour of sustainable development; local councils must not adopt a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to planning policies, as Wiltshire recently did.

That is what we face in Wiltshire’s draft core strategy, which my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), referred to in his speech. It is set to conform to the old unlamented south-west regional spatial strategy. Despite the fact that that never came into legal force, council planners choose to claim that it is necessary for their local plan to conform to it now. Their report to the council’s cabinet this week states:

“Until the full provisions of the Localism Act come into effect through secondary legislation, the Pre-submission Draft Wiltshire Core Strategy needs to be in general conformity with the Regional Spatial Strategy for the South West unless new up-to-date evidence indicates otherwise.”

I had thought that this Government had done something about that, because as far back as July 2010, the decentralisation Minister was good enough to confirm to me on the Floor of the House that he had issued guidance to inspectors saying that they should consider unadopted regional spatial strategies as immaterial. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) is welcome to intervene on me now to give Wiltshire councillors that guidance, ahead of their imminent decision, and confirm that their officers’ instructions on this matter are simply wrong. If he does not do that now, I hope that he will manage at least to cover the point in his speech.

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The future of town centres lies not in rolling them back to the way they were decades ago, or even in maintaining them just the way they are today, but in giving them the freedom to redefine their role according to local strengths and opportunities, and then in ensuring that the public bodies in the local area co-operate with that ambition.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we also need something to shift the balance from edge-of-town and out-of-town retail to town centres? That could be some form of small business relief, which does help to tilt that balance. We have done some of that work in Northern Ireland and I am sure that other parts of the United Kingdom could benefit from tilting that balance, to give small business people and small retailers in town centres a bigger advantage. At the moment, they suffer because out-of-town shopping centres have an unfair advantage.

Duncan Hames: We do need to tilt that balance. That has been the thrust of my speech, and I think that the planning system has an opportunity to do that for us.

Melksham, in my constituency, is to benefit from a central community campus hosting a leisure centre, a library and a youth centre. The council’s original intention was to locate the campus out of town, but the decision was reversed as a result of vigorous campaigning by the local community, including local councillor Jon Hubbard, and Melksham Without parish council. Local people are not short of good ideas for the future of the communities that they make their home. One tool that people and their councils can use to help their towns is the bottom-up process established by the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, whereby residents, together with their councils, can put proposals to central Government for action to promote or protect thriving local communities. I note that a quarter of the recommendations in Ms Portas’s review are ideas that have come forward as proposals under that Act. Unfortunately, it would seem the process has been put on hold, and we are still awaiting the regulations that will get things going. They are required by the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Act 2010, and I hope very much that we shall see them soon, so that people and councils will be able to get involved.

As we have heard in this debate, pernicious parking charge hikes, along with people ignoring the “town centre first” policy, the insistence of councils on conforming to the old regional spatial strategies, and edge-of-town, edge-of-bypass development will guarantee that it is easier to move things out to the perimeter than to regenerate town centre locations. Over the longer term, reinvigorating town centres requires innovative ideas about what their future role should be. The future of our market towns should not lie in being dormitories with hollowed-out cores which send commuters out into large cities but have no life of their own. That is not sustainable socially, economically or environmentally. As we have heard, there is no shortage of ideas as to how we can approach this challenge, and Parliament must ensure that the planning system listens to and reflects the ideas of the communities who will have to live with its decisions.

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6.54 pm

John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): This debate is extremely timely, as many of the issues that have been raised are of great relevance to my constituency, where a potential large development on the outskirts of Carlisle is in the pipeline. We have a well-supported city centre, with a large number of shops, both national and local. The pedestrian city centre is very attractive and well used, and it often holds continental markets during the year. There is reasonable access to the centre for buses and cars, although that could be improved. In general, the city centre is considered to be vibrant and well-supported, and to have much going for it. Vacancies in the city centre are few at the moment, although I accept that there are a larger number of vacancies in respect of secondary shopping and that we may need to address associated issues. I, like many people in Carlisle, want to see the city grow and develop while retaining a vibrant and popular city centre.

The area does have a major development opportunity on the horizon. The local football club wants to relocate its stadium from the centre to the edge of the city, but to achieve that it needs to have an enabling development to make the move financially viable, and that undoubtedly means some sort of retail park. This is a major economic opportunity for the city: we would have new football facilities and supporting facilities, which would be very welcome; a large number of jobs would undoubtedly be created; and there would be a further and improved retail offer. However, there are potential consequences for the city centre that are in line with the thrust of this debate. We have to ensure that our city centre continues to survive and, indeed, thrive while not preventing other development elsewhere. Getting the balance right is crucial for Carlisle and, as has been made clear in this debate, for other parts of the country.

Before I put forward some ideas, I wish to make a few simple points. First, we must accept that we cannot fight against the tide; internet shopping is here to stay and it is likely to grow. Often we cannot prevent developments on the outskirts of cities and, again, we must accept that they will take place. We also have to recognise that no one size fits all; different parts of the country have different problems requiring different solutions. The Portas report raises a number of issues and I support many of her suggestions. I am less sure about others, but we should embrace those that are worth while.

We must fundamentally acknowledge that town centres and high streets cannot stay the same; they must change, innovate and develop new ideas. So what can be done? Many things can be done, but it is local leadership that will matter. I am talking about local leadership creating local solutions. Councils have to take an active and leading role. The development of business improvement districts is a real opportunity for councils. In many respects, councils should treat the city centre as a metro-centre or a shopping centre, and they should be proactive in managing their centre. Planning should be flexible and, crucially, councils should make sure that the city centre is an attractive place to which people want to come. Councils, as well as businesses, must also be investors in the city centre.

However, we have to accept that change will take place: we may have to encourage more residential property in and near the city centre; some parts of the country should embrace tourism—Carlisle should certainly do

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so; and we may have to accept that there will be fewer shops in the city centre, although there may be more cafés, restaurants and so on. Access is also crucial, and this relates not only to cars, which many hon. Members have mentioned, but to buses and other public transport. The overall goal must be to offer an improved experience, be it of tourism, shopping or something else in our city centres.

Many of the solutions lie with local government, but I wish to discuss one solution that central Government can be involved in, which is providing for standardised commercial leases for terms of up to five years. Basic lease clauses that are accepted across the industry would be enormously beneficial for traders. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that rent reviews should be “market rent only”, not “upwards only” and not retail prices index-related. That would give confidence to the traders in city centres and could improve our city centres. We already take that approach towards agricultural leases, so I see no reason why we cannot do the same for commercial leases. I believe that city centres do have a future and we just need to make it happen.

6.59 pm

James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): Hon. Members from both sides of the House have spoken eloquently about the strength of some of the local high streets in their constituencies across the country and about what those high streets and town centres contribute to the economies in the communities they represent.

In my constituency, there is a small town by the name of Yarm, which lies on the south bank of the River Tees. It is in the old north riding of Yorkshire and, by accident of local government reorganisations, it has found itself in the borough of Stockton-on-Tees. The town has a vibrant high street, a range of independent shops and a strong community. In 2007, the BBC Breakfast show voted it the best high street in Britain—an accolade of which it is very rightly proud. To the great concern of local residents, however, the borough council has decided to interfere in business that is rightly otherwise seen to be that of Yarm and its community.

There has been a long-running debate about parking and traffic through Yarm. That is a problem faced by the town and the solution, which is universally agreed on, must ultimately be one or more long-stay car parks, providing long-term parking provision for the town and freeing up spaces on the high street for trade and visitors. Despite that long-running discussion, however, the borough council has decided to push ahead not with a long-stay parking solution but with the introduction of parking charges—at this time of all times, when national reports specifically recommend free parking as a strong prerequisite driver for successful high streets. The borough council in Stockton risks choking off the growth and success of one of its most successful market towns and local economic drivers because it is failing to listen to what the community in that town says that it wants and needs.

Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): In my constituency, all the parking is free in all the villages and community centres, such as Wombourne, Codsall and many others, and that creates vibrant, thriving

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local areas. Does that not show the great contrast between a Tory-controlled council and Labour-controlled Stockton?

James Wharton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a Labour council is driving forward parking charging proposals against the wishes of local people and the community, to the detriment of the economy in the town of Yarm, which I am proud to represent.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): In that case, will the hon. Gentleman have a word in the ear of his fellow Conservatives on Gloucestershire county council, since they held a public consultation on imposing parking charges in the Montpellier shopping district of my constituency and, despite the fact that nobody supported the idea, imposed them anyway?

James Wharton: My hon. Friend is very lucky, because his council has held a consultation. We have had promises of consultation from Stockton-on-Tees borough council, but what have we had in reality? An independent survey was commissioned, the results of which are clearly and demonstrably flawed. For example, it overestimated the value of the economy of the town by a factor of three. The flawed survey was then presented to the town council, which sat and listened to the findings and made its observations. It was told, “Thank you very much, but the report has already been written and this counts as consultation in our book.” Consultation for Stockton borough council, it seems, means deciding what to do and then telling people about it, not seeking their opinions and input to develop a policy that has local support.

Sadly, the proposals and the report went through Stockton borough council’s cabinet in December, just before Christmas. What is happening now? Good hard-working local councillors in Yarm and surrounding communities have signed the necessary forms to have that decision scrutinised. Andrew Sherris, Mark Chatburn and Ben Houchen, who are the borough councillors in Yarm, and Phil Dennis, a borough councillor for the neighbouring town of Eaglescliffe, joined forces to call in that decision so that Stockton borough council would have the chance to look at it again, to think again and to make a decision that better reflects the needs of the community that the council is supposed to serve.

In addition, a row has been running in the local paper; I am sure that everyone will be greatly surprised at the thought that the introduction of parking charges would excite a bit of a row in the local newspaper. Specifically, one of the borough councillors, Mark Chatburn, raised his concern at the lack of consultation before the proposals were pushed forward and Mike Smith, a cabinet member, came forward and attacked that idea, saying that there had been lots of consultation and that the council had consulted over an extended period of time. All I can say to that cabinet member, as someone who has followed this case closely and has talked to Yarm’s borough and town councillors, to traders and to residents, is that they do not feel that any meaningful consultation has taken place at all. Had it done so, I can guarantee that Councillor Smith would be getting the message loud and clear that the council’s proposals are not the right step for the future of that town.

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Last Thursday, there was a public meeting in Yarm to discuss the proposed changes. About 250 members of the public came along on that cold night to attend the meeting, to make their concerns known and to discuss the proposals. I attended, and so did Yarm’s town councillors and borough councillors. Borough councillors from neighbouring communities also came along on a cross-party basis—well, on a coalition basis, I suppose, as the Liberal Democrats turned up, as did the Conservatives, but the Labour party did not send a representative—[ Interruption. ] And the same is the case in the Chamber right now. More significantly, despite a request from town and borough councillors and from me personally to the chief executive, Stockton borough council refused to send a representative to that public meeting. It refused to listen to the concerns of the people it is supposed to serve and represent.

You will have gathered, Mr Deputy Speaker, that this is a matter of great concern to my constituents, particularly those in Yarm and the surrounding communities, to which much traffic could be displaced if parking charges were introduced. It is a matter of concern not just because of the plans being proposed but because of the way in which this is being done, because of the high-handed and arrogant manner in which Stockton borough council is driving forward proposals without any consultation, against the will of local people, and because of the way in which officers on the council, such as Richard McGuckin, who heads the highways department, are listening solely to the cabinet members who control what they do and implementing those decisions against the will of local people. People in Yarm, a successful and vibrant market town in my constituency, are losing confidence in their borough council. They feel that they have not been listened to and that their views have not been properly taken into account and they are worried that the decisions being taken now by others who are not representing their views will have a long-term detrimental impact on the communities in which they live.

We have an opportunity, when the proposals go back to scrutiny on Thursday and are then, we hope, referred back to Stockton’s cabinet for the decision to be reconsidered, to change the situation and to put things right. In the light of Mary Portas’s report and of parking’s importance in securing the long-term success of our high streets and town centres, I want to take this opportunity to ask Stockton borough council to think again and to warn the cabinet members that if they do not, the people and traders of Yarm will not forgive them.

7.6 pm

George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), on securing this very important debate. In my constituency, all three towns—Camborne, Redruth and Hayle—have faced challenges on the high street and, two years ago, before the last general election, I organised a local conference to discuss some of the issues. Conscious that such events are often attended primarily by councillors and local government officials, I walked through all the town centres and went into every single retail shop to discuss their concerns.

Let me outline the three key areas that repeatedly came up. The first was that the term “town centre regeneration” had very negative connotations for a large

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number of small retailers. The reason for that was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) earlier, and it is the disruption that regeneration can cause, of which local authorities often do not take enough account, whether the regeneration involves pedestrianisation or the introduction of one-way systems. In Redruth, for example, the local authority was going to resurface the main car park in the town, but to keep down costs it decided to do so progressively in between other jobs. As a result, it took six months to sort out the main car park in the town, which had a hugely detrimental effect on footfall and trade. The town has struggled to recover. First, we must apply the precautionary principle of “do no harm” if an authority is going to embark on regeneration.

The second major issue to come up was car parking. I disagree with what the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) said earlier: most small retailers recognise that the single biggest reason why they cannot compete with supermarkets is that supermarkets can offer free car parking. I always remember the managing director of one of our large retailers saying that if a survey is conducted of the public, they will say that they want a picture postcard high street with a fishmonger and a butcher, but when it comes to how they vote with their wallets, 97% do their grocery shopping at a supermarket because they want to open the boot, load everything in and go home. We need to consider the issue of parking and I want to see local authorities using their retained business rates to try to offer some free car parking.

The third issue was business rates. It is a crying shame to see small retailers with new businesses that have sometimes been set up for only six months—who take huge pride in their shops and did not need mentoring by other retail experts or training as they knew what they were doing—find that the rigidities of the business rate system means they go backwards, losing money month after month, which is not sustainable. I think we need to look at ways of making our business rate system more flexible so that we can give more breaks to new businesses that are doing a good job and that, given the time, could achieve so much more.

Much has been said about the report by Mary Portas. I want to pick up on an issue that was touched on by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) regarding recommendation 20 about the problems caused by banks. I disagree with his comment that we should not pick on banks. I think we should, because the issue is not about the banking estate and their high street branches, but about properties that they have repossessed, often in a trigger-happy way. We need to look at ways of making it harder for banks to repossess businesses, perhaps by requiring them to get a possession order from the courts before being granted possession of those businesses. That would give the courts the ability to take into account any proposals that banks or receivers have to bring those businesses or shops back into use quickly.