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Bishop's Stortford MP Mark Prisk urges Government to help town centres survive

Water Lane Restaurant, 31 Water Lane, Bishops Stortford. MP Mark Prisk, the BIDS team and local businesses at the BIDS event.. (12472102)
Water Lane Restaurant, 31 Water Lane, Bishops Stortford. MP Mark Prisk, the BIDS team and local businesses at the BIDS event.. (12472102)

Bishop's Stortford's MP Mark Prisk, a former business minister, has called on the Government to create a strategy for successful town centres at a time when many are struggling to survive.

The Conservative spoke out in the House of Commons about restrictive planning conditions and categories as Clive Betts, chairman of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee, introduced its report on the prospects for the high street in 2030.

Mr Betts, Labour MP for Sheffield South East, said: "The reduction in the number of people shopping, in some cases the empty shops and in the worst cases the decay and deterioration across villages, small towns, larger towns, cities and district centres, is almost entirely down to online shopping.

"Some 20% of sales are now done online: the highest percentage anywhere in the world. That has happened in the UK over a fairly short period – the past 10 or 15 years – and in many cases the use of shops and the reaction of councils and the Government have not kept pace with that very rapid change.

"We concluded that if high streets and centres are to survive and thrive by 2030, they must become 'activity-based community gathering places', with a reduced retail element and a wider range of uses – including green space, leisure, arts and culture, health and social care, and housing – with the community at its heart."

Mr Prisk, who was a business and enterprise minister from May 2010 to September 2012 when David Cameron was Prime Minister, told the house he was a director of Stanfords, a travel and cartography business, and, with his sister, joint owner of a small commercial high street property.

He said: "That perfect storm of rising costs and weaker demand means that we need to rethink the role and character of our town centres or high streets.

"Town centres are not dead – that is certainly the view of the Government and of our committee – but an awful lot of them are in intensive care and some may not make it. We need to free our high streets."

He said that restrictive planning, heavy taxes and an unwillingness of some retailers to rethink their business model were all factors.

"Some argue, 'We just need to tinker a little with the use classes, remove some of the sub-categories and everything will be fine'. I strongly disagree. We need to establish a single town centre use which is consumer-facing and embraces a wide range of activities.

"I recognise that there might be an argument for food preparation to be a subset, on the grounds of public health, but to my mind, the notion of that town centre use class, which would allow movement of activities, is crucial for town centres to have flexibility."

Mr Prisk called for co-operation between local authorities and property owners and urged the Government to strengthen the powers of Business Improvement Districts like that formed in Bishop's Stortford last summer.

Stortford BID chairman Karen Burton, who owns Karen's Cakes at Northgate End, said: "Mark talks about collaboration and the importance of BIDs, he understands the voice it gives businesses within that district.

"Bishop's Stortford is well placed to take on the challenges of the high streets. Ours is a town that has not allowed outside shopping centres and facilities to spring up around it.

"Its town centre is still at the heart of everything we do, be it shopping, business or leisure – it all takes place within the confines of our town centre. This puts us at an advantage because it is already a community hub and the job of the BID, in partnership with residents and the local authority, is to make sure we stay as vibrant as possible."

She agreed that the report should be taken seriously and implemented, and said the points raised by Mr Prisk and others about sustainable travel, reviewing business rates and class uses of premises should be incorporated.

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