MP highlights importance of “town centre first” policy

Peter Aldous backs ideas to make the high street an easier place to trade with fewer rules, regulations and restrictions, and most importantly a more balanced tax and rating system.

Mr Aldous was speaking in a Back Bench Business Debate on the Future of Town Centres and High Streets in the House of Commons where he mentioned a number of the difficulties experienced in town centres in the Waveney Constituency.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) for securing this debate and to the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. I pay tribute to Mary Portas for the hard work, passion and imagination that she put into her report.

We have heard about the challenges that town centres face from out-of-town food stores, retail parks and the internet. Poor town planning has also played a role in the decline of town centres, whether in granting planning permission for out-of-town stores in the wrong places on inappropriate terms, by making town centres inaccessible and difficult to reach by car or public transport, or by doing little to prevent the rise of “same street” syndrome and clone towns throughout the country.

To halt that decline, town centres should be able to compete on a level playing field. We have heard about the importance of retaining the “town centre first” policy. Moreover, Mary Portas points out that the high street can be a hard place in which to trade. We need to make it easier, with fewer rules, regulations and restrictions, and a more balanced tax and rating system.

As for parking, in some towns, such as in Lowestoft in my constituency, the council, working with town centre shops, has put in place more customer-friendly car parking arrangements. However, the Government still need to do more.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that what Gloucester city council has done, which is to reduce parking charges to £1 an hour, is exactly the sort of proactive work by local government that we need to help revitalise interest in our city centres?

Peter Aldous: I welcome that intervention, and I agree. Councils across the country are doing what they can, but the Government can do more. They should look at how parking at out-of-town stores is assessed for rating purposes. As a chartered surveyor, I do not believe that the current valuation approach truly reflects the value of that car parking to out-of-town retailers and the rateable values should be raised, with the additional funds generated being used to reduce car parking charges in town centres.

With rates, councils should be provided with more discretion over the discounts that they can offer, ratepayers should be able to spread their payments over 12 months rather than 10 months, and the anomaly whereby business rates are increased annually in line with the RPI, rather than the CPI, must be corrected as soon as possible.

Another challenge that needs to be addressed is the fact that there is a lot of unused space in town centres, both at ground and upper levels. We need to make it easier for that accommodation to be put to alternative uses, such as much-needed dwellings, doctors’ surgeries, gyms or other community uses. The use classes order, which for so long has acted as a straitjacket, should be relaxed and local councils liaising with local communities should have more discretion about what activities should be allowed.

In Kirkley in Lowestoft in my constituency, Desmond does not have a barrow in the marketplace; he has a superb coffee shop, with unique decor and a “Hancock’s Half-Hour” collection to rival the BBC’s. An episode is played at 10 am each day. Desmond wants to expand to provide hot food, but at present he cannot do so, as his use would be in the same use class as a kebab shop. That issue needs to be addressed.

Many town centres, including Lowestoft, are blighted by unkempt and dilapidated buildings that discourage people from going there. Councils should be given more compulsory purchase order powers to address such problem properties, and they should be able to serve empty shops management orders.

I agree with Mary Portas that markets should be encouraged. Markets were the procreators of town centres and they have an important role to play in their future. People like browsing around a marketplace. Markets bring people into a town, they provide an opportunity to showcase products or skills, and they give entrepreneurs the opportunity to get their foot on the first rung of the ladder that can lead to running their own business. Across the country, there are too many rules and regulations, too many hoops to jump through, before a market can be set up. Those need to be removed, and to be replaced with a presumption of favour of the right to trade.

Out-of-town parks have a major advantage over town centres in that they are in one ownership, subject to one management regime, with one common purpose. In the town centre there are many players and many stakeholders, with different goals and objectives. We need to help them come together to work as one to promote town centres, as they are doing in my constituency in Lowestoft, Beccles and Bungay. Business improvement districts, for which preparatory work is currently taking place in Lowestoft, can help as well, as can Mary Portas’s proposals for town teams.

In conclusion, Mary Portas’s report has highlighted a problem that is faced across the country, and this debate has helped move the discussion forward. I look forward to the Minister’s summing up and I urge the Government to respond to the report as a priority, so that we can all get on with the important task of bringing life and prosperity back to the country’s high streets.

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Peter holds regular surgeries at various locations in the constituency. Please call 01502 586568 to make an appointment.

Next Surgeries - 2018: 
Lowestoft, Wednesday 8th August



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