High streets minister Brandon Lewis has called for local authorities to think more commercially and invest in their town centres.
Lewis told Retail Week that not enough local authorities are using new powers handed to them by government to offer discretionary business rates discounts and cheaper parking services.
He said: “Local authorities haven’t really grasped yet just how much of an impact they can have on [the high street].”
Just 18 out of 326 local authorities have opted to use the discretionary business rates discount scheme introduced in the Localism Bill.
Lewis added: “I think some of the reticence [to use the new powers] is that some councils might not realise whether they can do this or they might not be thinking commercially enough.
“They can look at doing a very specific deal to give businesses a chance to incubate and grow. They should see it not as a [business rates] discount but an investment in those businesses and therefore an investment in the town.”
He said he would encourage local authorities to dip into their reserves, which councils have increased to a record £19bn this year, adding more than £2.5bn in the last year alone.
But he added that it was down to local authorities to boost high streets.
“There’s a very fine line for us in government between the view that we in the centre should dictate to say ‘this is what you must do’ and the other argument that we should educate and put the information out there and spread best practice,” Lewis said. “We have to trust people locally and councillors in particular,” he added.
Lewis took up the high streets agenda last month after housing minister Mark Prisk was sacked amid a government reshuffle.
Lewis said that since taking on the role he has had regular telephone conversations and meetings with retail expert Mary Portas, as well as frequent meetings with the Future High Streets Forum of which he is co-chair.
Lewis said he plans to widen its reach to include more members from the hospitality, services and leisure sectors, who are seen as key to the revival of the high streets alongside a retail offer.
Currently, the forum is working on collating information on business rates, communicating best practice and the future of the high street more generally. The result of the work is set to be presented in its next meeting in January.
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