Peter Gibson is the MP for Darlington
Nobody can doubt the scale of the challenge facing our high streets and town centres as we look to rebuild our economy following this pandemic.
As many towns bid against one another looking for funds from the ambitious Future High Street Fund, my patch of Darlington included, it is necessary to acknowledge that fundamentally what our town centres lack is people.
The bustling high street of yesteryear, stacked with BHS and Woolworths, will never exist again. We have generations of decisions to thank for that: out-of-town shopping, pedestrianisation making access and collection ever more difficult, and local authority car parking charges, to name just a few. Buttressed by shifts in lifestyles and technology, these changes have led us to a world in which every conceivable item can be purchased online.
Our town centres are firmly rooted in the idea of the marketplace, around which local economies have grown. Yet you no longer need to buy your bread from the baker or your meat from the butcher. Now the supermarket will deliver it. You don’t even need to drive into town because the inner ring-road circumnavigates it.
Planning in more recent times has either been the guardian or, more often, the be-devilment of the beating heart of our town centre. Our current restrictions are not fit for purpose and are damaging the very essence of our communities.
The classification of property into use-classes – tablets of stone that allow town halls up and down the land to tell us what we can and cannot do within our property – are the embodiment of this red tape, blocking the renewal of our high streets. They prevent vacant commercial property from being reclassified as residential property. Our enterprises need flexibility and adaptability in order to innovate and grow. As Conservatives, we should do all we can to unlock that innovation and growth.
At a time where we are seeing more and more vacant commercial properties in town centres, and with speculation rife that in a post-COVID world many more will be working remotely, this means red tape has been getting in the way of an enormous opportunity to build homes.
This is not only bad for city-dwellers, who lose out from housing shortages and get priced out of the market by a lack of supply, but also a missed opportunity for the economy, which could benefit from a low-cost way of mobilising private capital to improve macro-productivity.
Even before this pandemic truly struck our economy, we knew that swathes of our retail landscape were surplus to requirements. In March, figures showed a vacancy rate of 12.2%. And though the Government has provided unprecedented levels of support to our high street businesses – no business rates this year, the furlough scheme, and small business cash grants, to name just a few measures – we know that vacancy rates, sadly, will rise significantly over the next few months as these schemes are unwound and some businesses never return.
Many towns’ arterial roads that were filled with houses that have become shops and offices now see vacant spaces opening up, leaving gaps and sapping the spirit of the town centre. We need to enable those properties to more easily revert to residential use, and as the need for commercial and retail space in the centre contracts we need to ensure that a diverse range of people move in. Not just students, not just starter homes, but homes suitable for our elderly who can easily walk into town, homes suitable for our disabled people enabling them to access services directly, and homes suitable for growing families with children.
While businesses will always rise and fall, our national ‘animal spirit’ will always endure. This is why the planning reforms announced by the Prime Minister this week are so welcome. By removing the red tape around the use of property and brownfield land, we are giving high streets and town centres a chance to be reborn – as a place to live, take your kids, meet your friends, or whatever local people – rather than planners – want.