Thank you for taking the time to send in your comments as well as opening up the debate with your constituents and others through your online diary. Your thoughts, and those of the respondents to your website, are very welcome as we take forward the government’s response to the Portas Review. Indeed, many of the recommendations you offer, as well as those submitted by respondents to your website, are covered in Mary Portas’ Review, particularly around regulation, access and parking, and the creation of ‘Town Teams’.
With regards to regulation, we have already carried out a retail themed Red Tape Challenge, and we will work with local authorities to address their own regulatory functions. We are very keen to identify and remove any unnecessary regulations impacting on the high street.
As far as access and parking is concerned, Mary Portas suggests the lack of free parking puts high streets at a disadvantage to out of town shopping centres, and that more should be done to make shopping in the high street easier. Although this is an issue for each local authority, we would urge councils to look closely at their parking provision and charges and to consider the different options that are available, and think about new schemes to ensure they are working to do the best for their area and bring vitality and success to their high street.
Last year, we removed a number of barriers to tackle parking rules, including the policy that encouraged councils to set car parking charges to discourage the use of cars. The draft National Planning Policy Framework follows through on these changes by removing the restrictions which impose maximum numbers of parking spaces in new non-residential developments. This in turn will relieve pressure on on-street parking and support local high streets.
We have also made a number of proposals to help businesses. We have listened to concerns about the Retail Price Index (RPI) increase for 2012-13 business rates bills, and are therefore giving businesses the option of spreading the increase over three years. This will give businesses flexibility to manage their rates bills in the current economic climate, help their cash flow, and give them time to adjust to the impact of inflation.
Additionally, we have also doubled small business rate relief for two and a half years, which will include the whole of the 2012-13 financial year. Over half a million businesses in England are expected to benefit, with approximately a third of a million businesses paying no rates. We are ensuring that all eligible ratepayers automatically receive the small business multiplier, and we are removing the legal red tape requiring ratepayers to fill in paperwork to claim the relief.
In addition, government is giving local councils new powers to levy local business rate discounts, for example, to support local shops, community pubs, new business parks or vital local facilities, via the Localism Act. The new power will be available from April this year.
With respect to rent levels, I agree with your opinion that this is a matter which the market should largely resolve and it is an area where government intervention should be measured. Tenants who are in leases with upward only rent review clauses will indeed find that their rent does not move downwards in accordance with market values; however, research suggests that the average lease length is now around 5 years and as such the majority of new leases do not feature rent reviews; this makes upward only rent reviews far less common that they once were. We are working to make sure that progressive, fair and flexible leasing terms continue to form the basis of standard leasing practices across the sector. As per Mary’s recommendations, we, in conjunction with BIS, are supporting and promoting the 2007 Code for Leasing Business Premises which sets out advice for prospective tenants and landlords aimed at ensuring tenants secure the best leasing terms possible, including considering alternatives to the upward only rent review clause. We have challenged key industry players (RICS, the British Property Federation and the Law Society) to consider how they too can do more to raise the profile of this valuable tool.
Mary Portas recommends that Town Teams should be considered. She clearly set out in her report how key to the success of high streets visionary, strategic and strong management can be. We will look at ways in which the Government can support and encourage town centre management, and we would expect town teams to work with local partners to develop a joint vision for their local high street.
I recently announced a competition to choose twelve towns and cities across England to create Town Teams, with successful bidders benefiting from a share of £1 million to turn around their local high streets. Those bidding will need to demonstrate a real transformational vision on how they can breathe new life into their high street or shopping parade and should have the strong support of their local community and a range of local partners. Further information and the prospectus can be found at: www.communities.gov.uk/publications/regeneration/portaspilotsprospectus/ .
The Government intends to respond formally to the Portas Review in the Spring.
Grant Shapps MP