How town centres can pull together to shape the future of their own high streets was the key message delivered by Marcus Jones MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, at his address to the BCSC conference.
Jones was appointed in May as the minister responsible for the high street, town centres and markets portfolio. Interviewed by new British Council of Shopping Centres chief executive John Coyne, Jones delivered an optimistic message about the Government’s view of the retail sector, but firmly placed responsibility for the success or failure of town centres and high streets in the hands of the local area.
“The retail market is finally improving, and overall vacancy rates are at their lowest since 2010,” He said. “But we must all now help the high street to remain at the heart of communities. The opportunity is there for those who can quickly react. But there is no one size fits all approach as every town is different. It is up to each area to decide what they need.
“The Government’s vision for the high street is to be a vibrant and viable place, with a mix of uses across retail, leisure and residential. I firmly believe we’re at a cross roads with the future of High Streets and we need to think very carefully about the way forward.
“Many town centres are ill-appointed to deliver what we need in the 21st Century. Alongside retail, many town centres can also deliver residential needs on brownfield sites, but many have struggled to bring this forward.”
Despite strong feeling in the room in regards to the upcoming business rates review, Jones would not be drawn on the specifics of what the new system would look like and in what way the changes would be implemented.
“Following the business rates changes announced in the 2014 Autumn Statement we are looking further at the rates process, the result of which will be announced before the Budget in 2016,” he said.
“However there’s only so much the Government can do, and everyone needs to play their part. Businesses, local authorities, retailers and residents all need to work together. The future is going to be built by strong partnerships which can adapt to the needs of the sigh street.”
In response to a question from David Atkins, chief executive of Hammerson and BCSC president, about local authority struggles with planning and licensing staff resourcing, Jones said: “We as a Government need to get across to local authorities the importance of resourcing these areas and backing them effectively. With the retention of local business rates, local authorities need to use this money effectively in order to then bring in more investment.”
When asked by Place North West about whether a different strategy or initiatives would be required to help failing town centres in the North, Jones said: “There is a very variable situation from one location to another, but that’s not necessarily a North South thing. There are places in the North doing extremely well, and places in the South that need attention.
“What is significant is where local areas have realised that particularly there is structural change going on within retail, and that change needs to be addressed, and they have started looking more innovatively at how they deal with things and how they attract people into the town centres.
“Where areas are doing that things are really starting to turn around, and there is great hope, not just in certain parts of the country but across the country. We can break barriers down as long as local areas are willing to work hard to improve their local towns. I’m confident that there shouldn’t be any lost causes.”