21 Oct 2021
The debate heard opinions on the trends, investment, incentives and plans that are vital to the future high streets of the UK. This included measures already enacted and those which locals and place leaders would like to see to boost town and city centres.
Over the course of the hour-long event, MPs discussed topics ranging from taxation, footfall and retail, to place leadership, independent business, and inquality.
During the session, the work of Business Improvement Districts was recognised, specifically in Truro, Falmouth, and Newham, but more broadly as a model of place leadership and support that has contributed to the resilience and recovery of many areas in the UK.
Cherilyn Mackory MP said:
“Within my constituency I have two high streets that benefit from business improvement districts: Truro and Falmouth. Both have exceptional teams and are worth their weight in gold.
Both of the BIDs do so much for the high street businesses and for the shoppers. High streets have struggled, but the BIDs do everything that they can to keep it lively, thriving and pretty. For example, if there is an empty unit on the high street, they are on the scene to cover it over with bright and helpful graphics. Their branding is second to none, particularly in Falmouth, and they did Cornwall proud during the G7 summit earlier this year when it was showcased by the world’s media. I put on record my thanks to the BIDs of Truro, Falmouth and Newham.”
Responding to many of the points raised during the debate, Neil O’Brien MP, Under Secretary of State and Minister with responsibility for high streets, highlighted the range of financial support for high street businesses and infrastructure investment from various government funds, such as the Levelling Up Fund and Future High Streets Fund.
Speaking about the challenge of regeneration and transformation, Neil O’Brien went on to say:
However, significant though such interventions and all that spending are, I think we all agree that, no matter the scale of Government investment, money alone cannot solve all the problems that businesses on our high streets face.
That is one reason why my Department has recently published the “Build Back Better High Streets” strategy, which has a bold and imaginative vision for the future of our high streets—a future in which businesses and communities have the freedoms and flexibilities to innovate and adapt to a new post-covid world.
Some of the range of contributions during the debate are highlighted below, and you can read the full transcript via Hansard, or access a video recording of the Westminster Hall session.
Speaking about the inequalities across the UK and their impact on high streets, Stephanie Peacock MP said:
“As footfall recovers, we need to look more closely at how the impact has been distributed across the country. In Exeter, Aldershot and Reading, for example, at least two-thirds of neighbourhoods are likely to have been able to save through the pandemic. That is true for fewer than 25% of neighbourhoods in Hull, Blackpool and Barnsley, however. That will have a real impact on consumers’ ability to spend money in their local economy. In reality, the pandemic has hit poorer areas harder, and we need to consider how we address that.”
Alex Cunningham MP, Stockton North, drew attention to the well publicised and ambitious approach to regeneration in the town, as an answer to the declining appeal of template retail offers in town centres:
Against that challenging backdrop, I have a small kernel of hope to share, thanks to the visionary work of our Labour-led Stockton council and the odd handout from the Government as well.
To quote my good friend, Councillor Nigel Cooke:
“This is an existential threat we are facing. If people are not coming into town to shop at Debenhams because there is no Debenhams, there is no Marks & Spencer and so on, what are they going to come in to do?...You have to be proactive and have some ambition.”
Fortunately, Stockton council has ambition in bucketloads. It has bought the old Castlegate shopping centre so that it can be torn down, opening up space in the town centre to build a vast urban park, a library and a leisure centre, linking Stockton town centre with the beautiful waterfront of the River Tees.
Opening the debate, and speaking just over a week before the Autumn budget statement, Janet Daby MP commented on the difficulties for many high street businesses and how the current place-based taxation system may be addressed:
“Taxation is simply too high for small and medium-sized enterprises, especially after an insurmountable fall in revenue since March 2020. The current system of business taxation is outdated and unfair. It punishes small businesses aspiring to serve local communities and allows online empires to grow only stronger. In 2019, it was estimated that the eight largest tech companies operating in the UK avoided a combined total of £1.5 billion in tax”
Read more about the debate.