Town centres are once again in the national spotlight today, as a report published by the housing communities and local government committee (HCLG) says local authorities need more help – including extra funding – to redevelop town centres.
The report comes just days after M&S confirmed it was to close its Bedford store.
The chair of the committee, Clive Betts MP acknowledged that: “…the heyday of the high street primarily as a retail hub is at an end.”
“This need not be its death knell. Local authorities must get to grips with the fact that their town centres need to change; they need to innovate, setting out a long-term strategy for renewal, reconfiguring the town centre and finding new ways of using buildings and encouraging new independent retailers.”
The HCLG committee report says the government “needs to go further and faster” to help those with traditional high street shops.
The report suggests an overhaul of planning regulations, preventing developers from turning offices into flats without special permission and a rethinking of the cumbersome and expensive planning rules that obstruct local authorities utilising underdeveloped properties using compulsory purchase orders.
Other suggestions to revive ailing high streets include:
- Taxing online sales, deliveries and packaging
- Cutting property taxes for retailers
- Business rates reforms
- Putting health, education, leisure and administrative offices in town centres alongside retailers
- Increasing government funding and private sector investment if “meaningful change is to be achieved”
The committee found the introduction of permitted development rights (PDRs), allowed property developers to convert offices into homes without planning permission and meant that town centres were less busy during the day. The government was urged to suspend further expansion of PDRs and evaluate their impact on footfall.
As well as M&S, numerous other high street names have disappeared from our town centre as they struggled to cope with online competition, rising business rates and the lower value of the pound against the dollar and the euro.
Mohammad Yasin, MP for Bedford said: ‘The HCLG committee report makes interesting reading. These are complex issues and there is no doubt that the nature of retail is changing, but this does not need to mean streets of boarded up shops.
“Labour’s vision is for thriving high streets which are the hub of communities, with a mixture of independent shops, community spaces, innovative retail stores, restaurants and cafes.
“Bedford already has a head start here – while the loss of big stores like Marks & Spencer will undoubtedly be a blow to any high street, we’ve got some fantastic independent shops, restaurants and cafes already, and a thriving market.
“The disparity between the tax treatment of traditional and online retailers and the planning powers of councils to shape their town centres both need to be addressed. I agree that tax reforms are needed to level the playing field between online and high street retailers – an online sales tax could very well be part of the solution, but reforming business rates is also very necessary “
The report acknowledged that Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have an important role in the fight for town centre survival.
“At Government level BIDs, of which there are now 300 and of which Bedford was one of the founding 12 in 2005, are now recognised as a way to bring together the best business expertise in any town centre location,” said a Bedford BID spokesperson.
Recommendations in the report include a government review of community involvement in BIDs and greater collaboration between retailers, landowners, local authorities and BIDS if they are considering closing a store.
The Bedford BID spokesperson continued:“The business-funded Bedford Business Improvement District (BID) organisation which is behind Love Bedford, works closely with the council, and other agencies, across a variety of local and nationally-led initiatives and we naturally welcome all and any ideas which encourage entrepreneurship or which ease the challenges facing our town centres.”
The HCLG report welcomes the government’s Future High Streets Fund, designed to help reinvent town centres. Local authorities can bid for grants of up to £25m each from the £675m fund.
Bedford Borough Council, Bedford BID and other relevant agencies are collaborating to put Bedford’s case forward.
However, the committee says the fund is not big enough and does not meet the scale of the challenge.