The House of Commons Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee published its report of its recent inquiry "Supporting our high streets during COVID-19", to which the Institute of Place Management and The BID Foundation provided written evidence. Professor Cathy Parker also attended an oral evidence session, as Co-Chair of the Institute of Place Management and was asked to comment on the High Streets Task Force, which is led by IPM and for which Cathy is the Research Lead. There are 58 references in the report text to evidence provided by IPM and TBF, demonstrating the usefulness of the research and practical knowledge we provide to parliamentarians.
As we have come to expect from this committee, the report is an exhaustive and informed identification of key issues affecting high streets, town and city centres - in the current context of COVID-19.
The report makes a number of recommendations, highly relevant to place management and leadership, which IPM fully support. This shows the value of MPs serving time on specific committees and building up significant knowledge and understanding of an issue - in a way many Ministers (and sometimes civil servants) just don't have time to do.
You can find a link to the report here: https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/8172/documents/83568/default/ but main areas of relevance to IPM Members and Partners are summarised below:
The committee had praise for the Government’s decisive and quick action “to implement a wide-ranging package that supported high street businesses during the covid-19 pandemic”. We were also pleased to see that the committee offered “praise (for) local authorities, Business Improvement Districts, the High Streets Task Force, and others, for their work on the ground to protect high streets and the public’s health”. In talking about the High Streets Task Force (HSTF) the report said it “is clear that the High Streets Task Force is highly prized and should be commended for its excellent work in its first two years of existence, in particularly difficult circumstances”.
Although the report was published on the 10th December 2021, one of its main recommendations was “to monitor the impact of the full range of covid-19 business support that affects the high street with a view to being prepared to adjust such support in case of a serious new variant or variants.” In the light of the spread of the Omicron variant this was prophetic advice. As we have heard from our Members, in The BID Foundation particularly, the situation facing hospitality and other high street businesses is dire and BID Foundation Members along with many other locations and support organisations have lobbied strongly for immediate support.
The report recommends that Government undertakes a full, immediate, review of the impact of the pandemic and policy on high streets and town centres – taking into account impacts by geography and by sector. The review should also cover how well high street businesses have been supported to implement Covid-19 public health measure as well as identify opportunities arising for future policy development that can help high streets and town centres evolve. IPM is ready to respond fully to such a review, including evidence of both place and sector impact from TBF.
With reference to the report’s view on the longer-term strategy for high streets, as outlined in the Government publication “Build back better high streets”, the committee picked up on important omissions that we agree are integral to success such as, “the absence of a plan for ensuring local authorities have the capacity to develop effective place partnerships and place leadership; disparate, competitive funding streams for town centre regeneration; and extended permitted development rights”. The report rightly states that these “will thwart the development of holistic, comprehensive strategies for building back better high streets”.
Specific recommendations the committee identified related to these omissions were:
Other proposals include a reiteration of recommendations made in the previous report on Permitted Development, and an overarching evaluation framework for all funds that support high street regeneration. Progress on this last point has been made on the Future High Streets Fund and Towns fund, as joint monitoring and evaluation strategy for these funds has now been published.
Nevertheless, that just covers two funds. IPM favours a set of simple, sensible but mandatory indicators that measure both the short-term vitality and longer-term viability of high streets and town centres. This is a transparent way to show, conclusively, the relationship between funding, interventions and success. On behalf of the High Streets Task Force, the IPM has recently completed a year-long research study into developing a simple indicator tool and this will be available in 2022 for any English town centre, high street, local authority, BID, community group or place partnership to use to monitor longer term viability – a tool that can also be used by Government. We look forward to sharing news on the adoption of the viability tool if we are called to a forthcoming committee.
The committee has always taken a keen interest in Business Improvement Districts and were pleased to report some of the recommendations they have made in the past have been actioned. For example, The BID Foundation keeps a register of all BIDs, there are many networks in which BIDs share best practice and the High Streets Task Force is mapping place partnerships – as we know the most effective BIDs develop from existing partnerships. Reference was also made to the forthcoming review of community representation on BIDs and best practice guide, to be published by TBF/IPM.
There was a recommendation that consideration should be given to ensure BIDs can be most effective. IPM/TBF will be keen to report to future committees their commitment to standards, professionalisation and evolution of the BID industry, including best practice in community involvement.
Other recommendations included:
The committee were pleased to identify that the terms of reference of the High Streets task Force covered many of the recommendations made by previous committees. It also praised “the excellent support provided through the pandemic” saying the work was very well received. This shows the high regard in which the Task Force is held and we are grateful to The BID Foundation and other IPM Partners for not only supporting us win the contract, but their role in making it successful; either by contributing to its governance and/or co-delivery. We also appreciate the IPM Members who work as HSTF Experts, Facilitators and Mentors who provide us with regular feedback, ideas for improvement, and useful resources for the HSTF repository.
The committee identified, from the evidence supplied, the lack of capacity and skills for partnership working and place leadership across England, the scale of which was beyond the scope of the High Streets Task Force. “We are particularly concerned that the High Streets Task Force is being held up as the solution to a gap in skills and capacity for place leadership at a national level, when it is warning that it lacks the resource to do so”.
The recommendation was that “Government should review the size and remit of the High Streets Task Force as soon as possible, with a view to increasing its budget.” Whilst we agree there is more the HSTF can do with more budget (for example work with more high streets and work directly with other organisations, not just local authorities) there are other organisations and bodies that have a role to play in building skills and capacity for place leadership, not least the Institute of Place Management, as the representative professional body, as well as trade associations and other membership organisations such as the Local Government Association, ATCM, British BIDs etc. We believe we need to move to a situation where partnership working, and professional place management and leadership is the norm in every town and city. The Task Force is a very useful way to introduce the importance of place partnerships, multifunctional and experiential high streets, the net zero agenda, place leadership and place management, but ultimately, places need the people, skills and structures to do this all the time.
The report also covered business rates, and welcomed the outcomes of the recent review (more frequent valuations and the 12 month holiday for improvements) whilst criticising the Government for reneging on its commitment concluding “they do not amount to long-term or fundamental reforms that will make a significant different to high street businesses”.
They had a number of recommendations related to business rates:
The report welcomed the legislation introduced by Government in 2020 covering commercial rent arrears with the recommendation that explicit guidance will be required to define exactly what is meant by ringfencing arrears and the periods to which ringfencing applies.
There report identified a concern that the Government’s Build Back Better High Streets strategy does not mention Company Voluntary Arrangements and so recommends that the Government consults stakeholders to determine whether a review of Company Voluntary Arrangements is needed.
Finally, the report welcomes the Government’s decision to review the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954, Part II and reiterated the need to make commercial property ownership more transparent and property owners more easily contactable, such as through a national register of landlords. This is a recommendation previously accepted by Government and a register for private landlords is (we believe) being developed. We will follow up the commercial version with DLUCH.
The committee picked up on the lack of support for high street employment and jobs.
“We are concerned that the Government lacks a joined-up approach for generating jobs on the high street and ensuring that those working on the high street have the opportunity to develop appropriate skills” The recommendation was that Government should set targets for high street employment and skills relate these its plans for skills and jobs and devolution.
There was a clear steer from the committee that high streets should “minimise car use and increase public transport and active travel”. Other recommendations regarding transport included:
At 79 pages this is a comprehensive review of issues facing England’s high streets in the context of COVID-19 as well as current government policy couples with a suite of sensible recommendations. The report has come from listening to the diverse set of high street interests over many years – so it is a valuable source of evidence to guide both policy and practice. IPM and TBF should identify which of the recommendations they can take forward as well as explain how our future plans can provide more solutions to the recommendations made.
With a new Secretary of State in the Department, Michael Gove, and a Levelling Up White Paper to come there is a real opportunity to ‘fix’ those issues the committee have identified (supported by IPM/TBF evidence) that are thwarting the transformation of high streets; out-of-date or narrow plans that are unrepresentative of the aspirations of business or the wider community, weak partnerships, poor place leadership, too many disparate and competitive funding pots, and the risk of inadequately sited or poorly executed permitted development.
Of course, the inquiry was announced in response to COVID-19 and it’s important to end by reflecting on what is happening now.The swift and decisive support by Government to support high street businesses recognised by the report is in sharp contrast to the confused messaging and delayed reaction by Government now.. Most of the other recommendations in the report whilst important are at great risk of being irrelevant if many of the businesses that make up the high street offer do not survive the next few weeks.
You can find a link to the report here: https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/8172/documents/83568/default/