By Daniel Hunter
The debate about the future of local high streets across the UK has moved beyond the Mary Portas proposals, after the Government today accepts 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' and holding a consultation on reforming planning ‘use classes', all policies which 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.
"Councils are keen to move on from the Mary Portas report and start tackling the major issues which are affecting local high streets," Councillor Peter Box, Chair of the LGA's Economy and Transport Board, said.
"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 makeup 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 takeover 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.
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