Helping our High Streets

20th April, 2013 12:51 pm

Today one in seven of Britain’s shops lie empty. In some places it is as many as one in three. At the same time we are seeing a decline in the variety of businesses that make up our high streets; there are now more than twice as many betting shops on British high streets as all the cinemas, bingo halls, museums, bowling alleys, arcades, galleries and snooker halls combined. There has been a 20% increase in the number of payday lending shops in the past 12 months alone.

This is a tragedy. Our high streets and town centres are the hearts of our communities. They offer jobs, services, convenience and can be a place to bring communities together and anchor local economies. We need to help our high streets recover and thrive.

Some have suggested that the demise of the high street is inevitable as we increasingly turn to the internet for our shopping. While it is true that the rise in internet shopping shows no signs of slowing, we would be wrong to assume that the rise of the web has to come at the expense of the high street. The latest research shows that many shoppers use a combination of store visits and the internet to make purchases and that people still value shopping as an experience. As a result, the most successful high streets are those that have good mix of retail, leisure and services.

The Government should be supporting our high streets through this transition and ensuring that they are able to evolve in ways that reflect and benefit the local community. Instead, local authorities and communities feel increasingly powerless to shape their town centres or do anything to halt the over-concentration of certain types of premises, such as payday loan and betting shops, which can alter the character of a high street. This can put off people from visiting or investing in our high streets, and damages other businesses already there and independent retailers in particular, which rely on the highest footfall possible.

Labour wants to take action to empower communities and their elected representatives to create sustainable places where they and their neighbours want to shop. That’s why last week Ed Miliband set out how a future Labour Government will help high streets up and down the country. He announced that Labour would give councils the freedom that they have been asking for so that they can require certain premises, which are identified as a problem locally, to apply for planning permission so that they can’t simply take over shops without local people having any say in the matter.

Labour’s proposals will help communities up and down the country to play their part in creating places they want to live. But it is only the first step in a long process of looking at what else we can do to ensure that, as the heart of our communities and a spring board for new businesses, our town centres prosper.

In the run-up to the 2015 election we will be looking at innovative new ways of bringing together local businesses, councillors and members of the public to plan for the future of their town centres and giving them the tools and support to deliver on these strategies.

We want to look at how we can give areas the flexibility they need in planning policy to ensure that their areas can adapt to meet changing needs and demand. This may involve localising powers over permitted development rights and will definitely mean proper neighbourhood planning.

This will take time and input from our members and supporters across the country. But it will be worth it. Our high streets need help now, and Labour won’t duck the challenge. You can submit your views on the Your Britain website here.

Roberta Blackman Woods is a Shadow Communities and Local Government Minister

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