Friday 9 July 2021
On Monday 5th July, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee heard evidence from Ministers on the topic of ‘supporting our high streets after COVID-19’.
Luke Hall MP, Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government, and Paul Scully MP, Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets, responded to questions from MPs on topics ranging from footfall recovery to long-term national funding for place transformation.
The committee, which heard evidence from Professor Cathy Parker and other expert witnesses on the same topic in November 2020, focused on the lessons learned from the crisis response in towns and cities and how that support for places could be continued, through policy making and funding.
Speaking about the immediate challenges posed by COVID-19, Minister Scully noted that footfall had fell significantly in city centres compared to smaller centres and that getting workers to return to town and city centres is critical to their recovery.
“(we need to) encourage people back to workplaces to get the spend up, get the ecosystem back up and running…”
“…If you don’t go into your place of work, don’t expect that town or that city to look the same as a result. So if we value it, we’ve got to use it.”
In order to support centres in welcoming people back, Minister Hall, discussed the range of data from local authorities and external sources, including the Professional, Research and Data Group which IPM convenes as part of the High Streets Task Force. In later evidence about the role of the Task Force in supporting places, the Minister referred to the importance of data again, at a national level for policy and for local authorities in their own decision making.
“We’re providing capacity and training to councils through the High Streets Task Force, and that’s providing a lot of information on local leadership. If you look at the work that’s been done through COVID, to support places on the high street and regeneration, it’s published a COVID recovery roadmap, its published a lot of data about footfall.’
In a section of strong questioning from the Committee Chair, Minister Hall reflected on how the range of current funding pots support different policy objectives related to place transformation, and said that the Ministry was ‘taking into account’ different options as to how future funds such as the UK Shared Prosperity Fund will be awarded. The Chair continued to ask for practical examples of how, at present, the different funding pots can be joined up within a place to achieve a bigger impact. The Minister responded that this could be done and that MHCLG have been discussing these opportunities at local authority level with bidders.
It was noted that what is critical for places looking at multiple projects and sources of funding is to have an overarching vision for the high street, town or city centre. The Committee Chairspoke about developing a ‘long-term strategic view’, with Minister Hall responding that work on local visions can be integrated into work on funds and bidding processes, to ensure that each separate project is joined up in a meaningful way.
The hearing also discussed two of the most contentious place policy issues; business rates, and permitted development reforms.
Given the impending report on business rates, due in the Autumn, there was little speculation about the potential reforms or replacement of the current rates system. However Minister Scully did reflect that “what comes next (should be) more agile and responsive” in terms of reflecting the value of properties and the market.
On permitted development, which the Institute provided evidence on in another inquiry led by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Minister Hall spoke about the need to address vacancy rates on the high street and the benefits of increasing town and city centre populations. The Committee Chair reflected some of IPM’s own evidence in questioning the impact of ground floor residential conversation, instead asking if living ‘above the shop’ may be a more sustainable strategy for housing stock that retains active frontages in centres.
Speaking after the announcement of changes to Article 4 restrictions – a policy which enables Local Authorities to restrict permitted development rights in defined areas – Robert Jenrick MP recently echoed this point saying that councils should “recognise the value to housing supply and increasing resident town centre footfall from supporting ‘flats above shops’” and can “consider applying different policies to residential conversions above ground floor level”.
As the evidence session drew to a close, Minister Hall spoke about his confidence in the High Streets Task Force, led by IPM, and the impact of its early work, drawing special attention to the importance of broad stakeholder engagement in place transformation.
“The advice seems to be working really well, from the High Streets Task Force, where the local authority is able to bring together lots of different stakeholders. So where it’s bringing together people – whether it’s the local shopping centre owner, the business improvement district, the LEP and potentially other business groups. Where they are coming together to have a conversation it’s proving to be very effective and very informative.”
Watch a recording of the evidence session