The Future of the High Street – Westminster Hall debate

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) for securing this important debate. It is important to recognise that the Government cannot do everything to fix the high street, but they can help to ensure that the conditions that allow it to flourish are put in place, whether that involves business rates, insurance, transport or encouraging the community to take ownership.

What the hon. Gentleman said about charity shops was interesting, but I do not agree with everything he said. Going into the details of what they are selling and doing might end up being more burdensome. We must be careful to ensure a balance between big national charities, which provide opportunities for volunteering and other jobs, and small, community-based charities, which may also want shops on the high street to sell their wares and produce their products.

I want to talk about some measures that the Scottish Government have put in place to help to support businesses and the high street, and to create conditions for small businesses to flourish. I agree with the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) that high streets should be at the heart of every community. They are not only a place to shop, but a place to meet where valuable social interaction takes place. I am lucky to have in my constituency not only Glasgow’s amazing and vibrant city centre, but several smaller local high streets, most notably Argyle Street in Finnieston and Victoria Road on the Southside. I also have theHigh Street, which is the historical old part of Glasgow. I am proud to have located my constituency office just off the High Street, because I firmly believe that we should locate to high streets whenever we can.

The Scottish Government, who have embedded the “town centre first” principle and worked with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on that commitment, have said:

“Government, local authorities, the wider public sector, businesses and communities put the health of town centres at the heart of proportionate and best value decision making, seeking to deliver the best local outcomes regarding investment and de-investment decisions, alignment of policies, targeting of available resources to priority town centre sites, and encouraging vibrancy, equality and diversity.”

That is a significant step, because so many public bodies in our country exist in local areas and can form the anchor of town centre strategies. As the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) said, cycling and pedestrianisation are important to make a greener business community. If people do not have to take cars into town centres and can get to them by public transport or cycling, it is better for everyone because they become greener and more attractive.

The Scottish Government’s approach to our high streets is the town centre action plan from November 2013. It is a long-running strategy and part of what the Government do. Investment has gone into ensuring that action supports the revitalisation of town centres and assists local action—the hon. Member for York Central mentioned this—to support smaller businesses and organisations in the community to do that.

The hon. Member for Ealing North referred to the importance of housing in our town centres. The Scottish Government have set up a £4 million town centre empty homes fund and a £2.75 million town centre housing fund, both of which help local communities to bring life back to town centres. The hon. Member for Fylde may be interested to know that they include Irvine and Ardrossan, which have seen great benefits from those funds, because people have started to come and live there and are therefore using local services. That will have a positive effect in regenerating the towns.

The Scottish Government have also introduced the regeneration capital grant fund, which is significant and has seen great benefits across communities in Scotland. They asked what was wrong with a community and what they could do to support community action and regeneration in the area. In my constituency, the historic Barras market has had investment of £1.4 million, as part of the Calton Barras action plan to bring derelict floor space in the area back into use. Empty shops and buildings in our town centres may become a blight on the area, but Government action to pump-prime and invest in those areas can bring underused places back to life. The Telfer gallery is a great example and is bringing artists’ studios to the heart of the Barras. It is a great opportunity to bring in new people and different types of businesses to improve and enhance what is there already.

The hon. Member for York Central made great mention of the community leading the change in regeneration. In Scotland, we have taken action as part of the town centre action plan to encourage charrettes. The Scottish Government provides up to £20,000 to support charrettes, which are led by community organisations. Most recently, east Pollokshields charrette was led by the local community council and featured a series of workshops on various aspects of community life, housing, facilities, transport, safety, leisure and other community amenities. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Bill Fraser and others on the community council who have driven the change and made it a central part of their plans for the local community. They are leading on this, and it is important that community organisations, individuals and businesses feel that they have a role in changing things, because that is when things works best.

Stephen Pound: I apologise for my southern ignorance, but I am not familiar with “charrette”. Will the hon. Lady explain what it means?

Alison Thewliss: I do not think it is a Scottish word. It is a process by which community organisations come together to discuss their future plans for an area, which then become part of the planning process. The community starts on that and builds it together, which is a positive way of doing things.

Stephen Pound: Sounds good to me.

Alison Thewliss: It seems to be working quite well. It is fairly new to Scotland, but communities have really embraced it. It needs support from local councils and other people, but it is worth doing.

Hon. Members have stressed the importance of business rates in the mix of encouraging community development. The Scottish Government have also accepted that. The fresh start relief was introduced in 2013 and gives occupiers of shops or offices that have been empty for at least a year a 50% discount on their business rates for 12 months. Other reliefs include new start relief of up to 100% to owners and developers of new build empty properties for up to 18 months to encourage speculative development and investment, and to help to increase the supply of new premises for businesses in communities. These reliefs are provided on top of the small business bonus scheme, which has been excellent in Scotland.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) mentioned business rates and removing them for small businesses. The small business bonus scheme applies to businesses with a rateable value of £35,000, with a scaled relief system up to £35,000. If the rateable value is under £10,000, no business rates are payable, which is really good for small businesses, particularly in these difficult times, and has been a great success in encouraging small business development. Across Scotland, the small business bonus scheme delivers rate reductions for 100,000 firms, with 46% of rates bills removed or reduced. Councils in Scotland also have the ability to reduce rates through the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, so greater flexibility is provided.

The Scottish Government are moving towards a review of non-domestic rates to make sure we are supporting investment and growth in Scotland. The Scottish Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that town centres and high streets across the country are hubs of innovation, community cohesion and social interaction.

Hon. Members today have referred to opportunities to offer something different for our town centres, not just malls, to which the hon. Member for Ealing North referred. There has to be a range of different things, whether coffee shops in Strangford or jazz festivals and Mary Portas. Different things are going on in different parts of the country. There are many different opportunities to offer something different from the large malls, with a bit of additional value to make town centres somewhere that people go to and, more importantly, spend money in. The Government have a big role to play in creating the conditions for that to happen.