John Howell (Henley) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). She has highlighted the structural changes that are occurring in our high streets. She is right to point out that the retail sector employs a lot of people and is therefore extremely important. It is also fair to point out that rent and rates play their part.
I want to stress the structural changes, which the hon. Lady hinted at, and the move away from face-to-face to online shopping, which we are all doing. In those circumstances, a retail strategy is very difficult to bottom out. It is very difficult to come to a view on how an overall strategy should be managed, because the decline that is occurring takes place in different ways in different businesses. I will illustrate that in a moment.
I want to make some general points about things that might help. To start with, I welcome the future high streets fund. It is a much better way of facing the future, rather than harking back to the past and "how things always were". If we look around the country, there are a number of different councils that are doing things in different ways. Great Yarmouth, for example, is developing cultural quarters as a way of encouraging businesses and people into the centre of town. It is all about the creation of place. Others, including Henley, see themselves more as events destinations; the Henley regatta has just finished. It is interesting to note that shopkeepers in Henley always have a difficult view on the regatta; they claim that when it is on, they lose business because young people are all tied up in the regatta and cannot go shopping.
Sir Mark Hendrick
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that city centres have to look at other offers as well as retail to help enliven them. Preston has tried to do that through leisure. Unfortunately, the major business interest that was driving the leisure offer has just gone bankrupt. On the future high streets fund, Preston, a city that is much in need, has just had its bid rejected. That is not good enough. These little pots of money are put there to act as sticking plaster for town centres.
The future high streets fund is looking at how high streets can be transformed for the future, not harking back to how things were done in the past. It is looking at imaginative schemes to take things forward. Two things that the future high streets fund grants funding for are improving transport access to town centres, which is absolutely crucial—if people cannot get in and out, the town centre is likely to die—and increasing vehicle and pedestrian flows, which follows on from that. That is a major improvement for the functioning of our town centres.
I have two examples of different types of business that are handled in different ways. The first is pubs. The reduction in the number of pubs has been going on for a number of years, for many reasons—we all seem to want to reduce our alcohol consumption for health reasons; there are the changes in the law on smoking, although they have largely worked their way out; there is a case for saying that many pubs have not got over the recession and are still struggling; and there is also the pricing of alcohol, which means it is often much cheaper to drink at home than in the pub. Alongside that, however, employment in pubs and bars has remained quite steady, and has even increased slightly, which needs to be considered in parallel.
My second example is banks. The decline in banks has been going on for 30 years. It is even more significant now with the rise in online banking. I have probably not visited a bank in two or three years—I do all my banking online because it is much more convenient to do that.
My final point is about the integration of housing in the mix. It is important to try to get people to live in the centre of our towns again, so that there is a mix of retail and living accommodation. In my role as Government champion for neighbourhood planning, I will give an example. The town of Thame had about 700 houses earmarked in its neighbourhood plan. It deliberately chose to spread them around the outskirts of the city rather than to have a big development at one end of the town, which would have meant creating a new area and a new shopping area. The reason it spread that housing all round the town was to increase the flow into the centre of town. That is a very good example, which I would endorse, to everyone who is looking to sort out how their towns are organised for the future.