The Government has offered a three million pound ‘bung’, spread across a number of local authorities, to promote the re-opening of boarded-up shops and to revitalise some failing High Streets. Setting aside the fact that this very thinly-spread financial largesse is far too little, far too late and that it fails to recognise the extent to which unregulated out-of-town shopping development has already killed off many High Streets it also appears to be in direct conflict with the Governments own planning policies!
Towns like Margate and Herne Bay have lost good local shops as the business has moved out to supermarkets located along the old Thanet Way and, in Thanet, to Westwood Cross. The effect of this shift in patterns, combined with Town Centre parking charges contrasted with out-of-town free parking, the lack of town-centre housing development creating local catchments areas and, of course, the disastrous effects of a recession generated by failed government policy and regulation have meant that many of the butchers, bakers and purveyors of candlesticks and ironmongery have gone to the wall.
As if that was not bad enough, however, we are now faced with Government-backed alterations to the planning rules that are going to reduce still further the powers of Thanet District Council and Canterbury City Council to control the spread of out-of-town development.
With the British Retail Consortium indicating that, nationwide, one in ten of town centre shops are now vacant and the cross-party Communities and Local Government Select Committee saying, in its recent report, that the Government’s proposed changes will result in “many more out-of-town superstores” and “unnecessary risks to town centres” it’s hard to see a future for the High Street.
At a time when we have a record number of empty shops there has to be grave concern that Gordon Brown’s plans will hit small retailers and worsen the problem of “Ghost Town Britain”. The prospect of a few quid offered to provide some murals on the window boarding is in keeping with the government’s short-term cosmetic approach to problem-solving. The result will be about as convincing as a film set – but sadly it will create far fewer jobs than even that kind of façade!
Roger Gale M.P. (September 2nd 2009)