Bristol West MP Steven Williams speaks up for local high streets

From Steven Williams’ blog of 18 January 2012

Parliament yesterday spent over 6 hours debating the future of our high streets and town centres. The debate came on the back of the Portas Review of the High Street, commissioned by the PM and DPM. Mary Portas made 28 recommendations, most of which I endorse.

Bristol’s retail scene has been a hot topic for all of the period that I’ve been involved in the city’s public life. As the councillor for Cabot ward (all of the city centre) from 1993 to 1999 I was involved in decisions about the future of Broadmead and also smaller shopping districts like Park Row and Christmas Steps. There were also the problems in Whiteladies Rd and Cotham Hill where too many bars and cafes were being opened. Now as the MP for the much larger area of Bristol West I probably have the largest number of shops of any constituency MP in the south of England.

The debate was fascinating, with contributions from over 5o MPs. There was huge interest among Lib Dem and Conservative MPs but the Labour benches were empty for most of the debate. Draw your own conclusions!

I’ve pasted below the Hansard record of my speech. Bear in mind that this is a 5 minute speech on a strict time limit – the Commons Chamber even has a countdown clock so MPs don’t over-run! I took one intervention from Kingswood MP Chris Skidmore. I gave some thoughts on reform of local government planning and finance and specifically mentioned two contentious local issues – Tesco on Cheltenham Rd and the three Costa coffee shops.

You may also be interested in two previous blogs on the High Street:

http://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/an-audience-with-mary-queen-of-shops/

http://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/how-can-we-save-our-shops-and-high-streets/

9.14 pm

Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): The whole debate so far has reminded me of when I was waiting to make my maiden speech, listening to potted descriptions of every town and city in the country, learning a lot about geography as well as politics. I shall now do roughly the same thing, talking from a city perspective about my Bristol West constituency, which covers the whole city centre and the shopping centres of Broadmead and Cabot Circus in the regional capital of the south-west of England. The constituency is also a patchwork of distinct neighbourhood shopping centres and high streets, bookended by Clifton village and Stapleton road, with the unique areas of Park street, Whiteladies road and Gloucester road running through the middle. Gloucester road may not be the oldest high street in England but it is certainly the longest. It has been argued in many media outlets that it is the greatest high street in England, with 2 miles of independent shops.

In the 1990s, as you will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, as a fellow Bristol Member, our city centre faced great challenges from out of town, but it has fought back. Bristol city council worked in partnership with the private sector and we have a new shopping centre, but more important, thousands of people now live in the heart of the city of Bristol. I do not think it has been mentioned in the debate that we need more residents in town and city centres. I certainly endorse the recommendations in the Portas report for town centre teams and for a presumption in favour of town and city centres in the planning regime.

High streets, whether in cities or towns, certainly face multiple challenges; indeed, as has been said, they are at crisis point. Rationing of parking spaces has been referred to. Control of crime is another issue, as is the switch to online retailing. Every time I make my traditional Christmas visit to the Montpelier Royal Mail sorting centre, I am struck by the sheer number of Amazon parcels of the books and DVDs my constituents are buying.

The other major threat to all our high streets and locally owned businesses comes from the large national chains and multiples. Supermarkets have been mentioned many times during the debate so I shall not say too much more about them, but I am probably the only Member in the Chamber who has experienced a riot in his constituency caused by the opening of a branch of Tesco. It took place over the Easter and royal wedding bank holidays in April last year. I certainly do not condone the antics of those constituents, but I very much share their frustration. Large businesses do not work with the grain of local opinion. It was not that people did not want a Tesco; they just did not want another Tesco in an area where the brand was already at saturation point.

There are also national chains of bars, restaurants and cafes. They use their lawyers and large planning departments to circumvent local authority planning decisions. In my constituency, we have an example involving Costa Coffee—a brand owned by Whitbread, the brewers—which has opened three outlets in Bristol; in Gloucester road in my constituency, in Clifton Down and in Westbury village in the neighbouring constituency of Bristol North West. The company has flouted the decisions of Bristol city council; Costa’s managing director wrote to me to say that Costa was “re-energising and revitalising” high streets and

“regularly complements independent retailers…to offer a wider range of choice.”

That sort of banality infuriates local residents when they think they cannot work with the system to get what they want. We certainly need to reform the planning system to combat uniformity and promote diversity.

Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): As a fellow Bristol MP, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman and I hope we might work together to share our experiences of local high streets. Kingswood high street is a valuable part of my constituency. Does he agree that if a planning application for a major store is rejected, there should be a breathing space and the large store should not be allowed to re-enter the system straight away?

Stephen Williams: Yes. I thank the hon. Gentleman—an MP for Greater Bristol—for that intervention.

The other flaw in the planning system is that when permission is refused by a committee of local councillors, the applicant goes ahead and opens the business because they know that an appeal will take a long time. That is a loophole that Costa has certainly exploited and it needs to be blocked. We need to reform the planning process, but we must also reform local government finance.

The use classes have been mentioned many times. Surely, it is common sense that the A1 retail use class cannot apply equally to Tesco, Sainsbury’s and all the other retail multiples and to Mrs Smith’s corner shop; none the less, that is how our planning system works.

What we need is to let go so that we have more localism, so that local councils, whether Bristol or South Gloucestershire, are sufficiently granular at the local level to micro-manage what they want in their high streets. If they do not want any more supermarkets or chains, they should be able to say so emphatically, and there should be no ambiguity in the classes of use to allow the large companies to drive a coach and horses through local opinion and local democratic decision making. Local communities could then promote the shops that they want, and democratically elected councillors could block the sharp practices of the large multiples.

Finally, finance has been mentioned a couple of times. The uniform business rate needs to be reformed so that local councils can offer waivers to businesses that they wish to attract to an area. Gloucester road has shops with most uses, but it does not have a book shop, so perhaps a rate incentive would attract a book retailer to the area. Business improvement districts have made a huge improvement to Bristol city centre, but I would argue that any shopping centre would benefit from a BID in which landlords are incentivised to take part as well. That is a key recommendation of the Portas report, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and which I have thoroughly enjoyed endorsing in this debate.

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