Boost for councils, but saving high streets will take years

LGA media release 30 March 2012

The debate about the future of local high streets across the UK has moved beyond the Mary Portas proposals, after the Government today accepted many of the views put forward by local councils. However, council leaders believe the plans will only succeed with sustained local programmes to improve high streets for years, building on those already in place.

Town halls will secure a series of commitments from ministers on tackling empty shops, introducing new ‘Business Improvement Districts (BIDs)' and holding a consultation on reforming planning ‘use classes', all policies that the LGA has pressed for. The Government has also accepted that local decisions need to be taken over high streets, including over issues such as parking policy.

Importantly, there is also recognition in the recent planning reforms that developers will have to use a ‘town centre first' approach when considering new shopping centres. Such a move will help protect high streets against the growth of out-of-town shopping centres, which have taken business away.

Councillor Peter Box, Chair of the LGA's Economy and Transport Board, said:

"Councils are keen to move on from the Mary Portas report and start tackling the major issues which are affecting local high streets.

"Recent polling shows that over three-quarters of local residents want councils to have more powers to improve their local high streets – including the ability to determine the make-up of the shops and services on offer.

"It is pleasing that the Government response to Mary Portas will accept many of the views raised by town halls – including greater involvement from local businesses and a funding boost for areas with high numbers of empty shops.

"We now need a sustained focus on improving high streets in the years to come, particularly in light of figures from the OECD which show that more and more shoppers are using the internet instead. 

"High streets across the UK have suffered a cardiac arrest and councils are keen to work alongside Government to deliver the necessary life support."

Town halls went direct to Government with a five-point plan to revitalise local high streets, which included: giving councils the means to take over empty shops; greater local control over transport and apprenticeship schemes; improved night time safety; less unnecessary red tape; and a greater role for business, for instance by introducing more Business Improvement Districts, giving them a genuine stake in their local area.

It is now clear that retail shops alone won't be enough to make a high street sustainable. Instead, councils have emphasised the need to make high streets more of a cultural hub for the community, which can help ensure their longevity. Such proposals might include a new sports centre or library as the centrepiece.

A recent LGA survey found that clustering of strip clubs and betting shops on high streets were considered major concerns by 57 per cent and 50 per cent of the public respectively. Other councils are concerned that betting shops have been taking over local banks and that community pubs are closing at the expense of supermarket chains. The LGA has been pressing for a new ‘super' planning use class to allow councils to restrict over-saturation of premises which don't positively contribute to the diversity, vibrancy and future economic growth of local high streets.

ends

Author: LGA Media Office
Contact: LGA Media Office, Telephone: 020 7664 3333

Notes to editors

  1. Retail shops alone are no longer enough to encourage people to visit high streets. Councils believe that cultural and community-driven plans are needed to revitalise local town centres. For instance, this might include a sports centre, tourist attraction, community event or local market as the centrepiece.
  2. Give communities new powers to decide the shops on their high street. This includes enabling councils to tackle the clustering of premises such as betting shops, fast food takeaways and late night off licences, and limit the power of the planning inspectorate to overturn local community decisions. Improving existing planning powers (known as ‘Article 4 directions') and introducing a new ‘umbrella' use class, in to which individual councils can place types of premises which they consider problematic, would both be important steps.
  3. Plans to encourage closer working between councils and local businesses. Councils understand their local high streets and the shops which exist there. Many are pleased that some proceeds from future business rates, which can now be kept locally, can be used for investment. However, further incentives to help businesses and communities improve their local areas, such as through Business Improvement Districts, are necessary.
  4. Cut red tape to help councils use their resources better to keep streets clean and safe. High streets with high amounts of graffiti, rubbish and anti-social generally are unattractive. This could include having greater powers to tackle issues such as littering, metal theft and fly-tipping. Additional income from late-night licenses could be invested in a wider range of services, such as street cleaning, to help achieve this.
  5. Greater local control over transport, such as bus routes. Councils should have greater control over transport funding, for example the existing Bus Service Operator Grants – which see public money given to bus operators even on profitable routes – that instead could be used to target new bus routes to best support local high streets. Effective council control over local parking can ensure that parking spaces are utilised effectively, leading to an increase in the number of people going into shops on local high streets.
  • More information on the proposed new ‘super use class' – This is an LGA suggestion that is being put to Government, proposing the creation of a new flexible ‘umbrella' use class into which the local planning authority could place any type of premises which is posing a local challenge or priority to the area. Councils can then attach special controls to that umbrella class, to deal with those premises which are an issue for their area.


2 May 2012

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