Jack Brereton MP is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent South.
The recent loss of Wilko on our high streets should refocus minds about the need for action to help improve the state of our town centres and high streets.
Once vibrant and bustling, high streets up and down the country have struggled to evolve. We have seen the loss of once much-loved brands, and towns becoming victim to drug fuelled crime. Increasing trends towards online shopping, out-of-town retail developments, and the pandemic have all contributed to the competition faced by traditional retailers.
There is no point attempting to reverse the new reality in which brick-and-mortar retailers have to operate. But we should do more to help our high streets remain relevant, and find their place in the modern world.
That’s why I recently called a debate in Parliament on the importance to high streets of their heritage assets, and the need to reclaim the many historic buildings and spaces currently standing empty in town centres up and down the country.
If there’s one thing most people dislike about the dwindling of the high street, it’s the way they have all started to look the same, as independent retailers and historic frontages give way to national chains and charity shops, devoid of all individuality.
Yet we have some pretty unique properties on our high streets, full of character the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. These quirky empty spaces can have an important role to play in supporting small businesses to grow – and create new skilled jobs too.
Key to reviving the high street is embracing change, and indeed accepting that change and evolution has been a constant feature of their history. For example, once upon a time we saw far greater numbers living above the shops in our town centres above shops.
In recent decades that trend shifted; today, too many of the upper floors lay empty and derelict, with very few people living in the centres of our towns and cities. Converting them to residential would put many more potential customers within walking distance of high-street shops and cafes.
There are some fantastic examples of how attracting in new commercial and residential tenants can breathe new life into town centres.
I have seen in my constituency with our local shopping precinct the Longton Exchange Shopping Centre the positive impact a good landlord can have. Here we have seen investment in the centre and more flexible, attractive tenancies which has nurtured new independent retailers like ‘So Very Dog’ and ‘Keep It Local’.
It was though my intervention in getting their business rates reduced to a more reasonable level that it wasn’t all over before it had even begun.
Unfortunately, barriers to change and barriers to innovation are all too great. Only this week, whilst out and about with police and council officers in the town centre, did I hear from one local food shop the difficulty faced in getting permission to install shutters to protect his business, and how terrified he was about the resultant risk of his windows being smashed.
This is wrong: it should not be a bureaucratic nightmare to make basic improvements to protect high street businesses from mindless criminals. Cracking down on crime is all well and good, but we must also make it far easier for our high streets to help themselves.
Yet too often it is just all too difficult, or the answer from officials is a repeated ‘no’.
That isn’t good enough. Of course focused investment from government is very welcome, and levelling-up funding has helped unlock new developments on derelict sites, such as the Crown Works in Longton.
But it can’t just be about extra cash from Westminster. We also need to create conditions which encourage private investment, and make it easier for local businesses to make common-sense changes (like shutters).
Our archaic planning system needs to evolve to meet the needs of our communities and support the delivery of levelling up. The current system is not responsive enough to the pace of change on our high streets.
Moreover, it is often no longer able to achieve the objectives for which it was originally devised: as I made clear in my debate, many of our conservation areas are rated at risk and in a very poor state of repair, the cost of full, compliant renovation too high for any owner to bring them back into use.
Carrots and sticks are clearly necessary, including proactive use of enforcement to help tackle absent and rogue property owners. Yet we’ve reached a point where the system has become so ineffective and the bar to intervention is set so high that almost no enforcement actually takes place, a problem exacerbated by the shortage of skilled officers especially when it comes to heritage enforcement.
I absolutely support the measures set out in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill around compulsory auctions to combat absent property owners, and increased penalties for those who neglect our heritage. However, this will only be of help if councils have the resources needed to make use of these powers.
We also need to further free up our planning system which is swamped with bureaucracy and deters new uses on our high streets. The introduction in 2020 of a new Category E mixed commercial usage was a positive step forwards; we should now take the next step by giving councils the power to apply this retrospectively to all properties within the designated town centre boundary. This sort of action would make it far easier and quicker for new business uses to occupy those empty spaces on the high street, removing some of the unnecessary hurdles to redevelopment.
Increasing the diversity of uses on our high streets and boosting footfall is essential. We need also to bust the backlogs faced in many local planning departments so a greater focus can be given to things people care about most, such the enforcement against those who neglect and damage our precious heritage.
The battle to save our high streets, and the important heritage so many embody, is not yet lost. If we get this right, with the right interventions that remove barriers and incentivise in new uses and investment, there can yet be a next chapter in the evolution of our much-loved town centres.