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Clive Betts: Our high streets don't have to become ghost towns

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Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic shift in British consumer behaviour. At present, almost 20% of retail sales take place online; a trend that will only continue. 

It is essential that our idea of what the high street is for must equally change to avoid the disastrous possibility of ghost towns dotted around the country. We need to recognise that it may no longer be the case that the high street is the dominant centre of retail, but also with the right intervention there can be renewal and it can thrive. With new, locally led, well-funded strategies our high streets and town centres can be reinvigorated to remain the centre of our communities. In our report published today, the Commons housing, communities and local government committee has identified what needs to change to make this happen.

“We must consider if mechanisms such as use classes allow the flexibility that is needed for businesses”

First and foremost, there will always be a place for retail on the high street, it provides convenience and personal service that cannot be replicated online. The current business rates system is not giving town centre retailers a fair chance to compete with the ever-growing challenge from online. We need urgent reform to provide relief to struggling businesses. It need not be wholesale change, but the government must provide a level playing field. An online sales tax is one option, but there are other viable solutions including replacing business rates for retailers with a sales tax or an increase in VAT. We urge the government to start work on finding a solution and implement it at speed to provide relief to high street retailers through reductions in their business rates.

But this is not just about taxation, we need to rethink what each local high street and town centre is for – work to their strengths and solve their weaknesses. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Only locally-led, evolving strategies that ensure these centres remain places that we want, and need, to spend our time will work. We must look to promoting green spaces and opportunities for leisure, arts and culture to create a pleasant, joyful environment, and also consider how health and social services can be provided in these areas. As retail floorspace reduces more residential accommodation can bring life and footfall to town centres, and provide an environment in which remaining retail can thrive.

All local authorities should develop an overarching vision, in consultation with their local communities and businesses, that sets out the future direction of their towns and high streets in detailed Local Plans. These must be living documents regularly updated to reflect changing trends, anticipating and reacting to the changing commercial environment. Recognising the significant cuts to planning departments in recent years the government must work with local authorities to ensure they have the capacity to strategically plan their areas.

There are aspects of our planning system that fail to create the conditions that allow local solutions to develop. We must consider if mechanisms such as use classes allow the flexibility that is needed for businesses to react to changing consumer demand.

Fundamentally, at a local and national level, government must create a framework that allows high streets and town centres to thrive. Local authorities must have the foresight to develop evolving strategies tailored to the needs of their local communities and drive the large-scale transformation needed. Central government must give them the powers, and back them financially – and for this we suggest using some the revenue generated from reforms to business taxation - to allow them to put this into practice. If government, local government, retailers, landlords and the local community can seize and act on the changes we propose there is a bright future for our high streets and town centres which will ensure they prosper for generations to come.

Clive Betts, chair, Commons housing, communities and local government committee

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