Housing minister Mark Prisk today unveiled support for 300 towns not selected to become Portas Pilots. Retail Week quizzes Prisk on town centres, business rates and Sunday trading hours.
What does today’s news mean for UK high streets?
The Town Team Partners are the best sign of support for our high streets where we can have strong civic and retailer leaders working together. Mary has done some excellent work with the pilot towns but it’s important it’s not just about the pilots. It’s about sharing resources and giving people practical help to get started and allows the Association of Town Centre Management to tap into ideas.
Mary Portas last month questioned your commitment to town centres and implementing her recommendations. What do you say to her comments?
We are absolutely committed to town centres and allowing high streets to compete. We are working on the report and initiatives like the impact of markets and pop-up shops and filling empty offices in town centres. Getting footfall back is crucial. My view has always been that you have to drive footfall. Mary is doing a great job and we are going to do more.
What interesting innovations have you seen from the town centres?
In Market Rasen they realised they have a real strength in their market. They [the Town Team] have looked at how they can raise its profile and what makes it different to get people involved. They are getting the next generation involved with schools involved with various elements including some of the graphics [on signage] around the market. They have really thought about what makes a market more palatable in an era with the internet, where retailers need a point of difference.
Retailers have expressed anger at last week’s news that the Government is to postpone the revaluation of business rates from 2015 to 2017. What do you say to them?
We have made improvements to the rates system including allowing local councillors to issue discounts themselves.
We wanted to give ourselves the opportunity to think about the structure of business rates and whether it is structured in the best possible way. I appreciate in some areas that perhaps 2015 would have been preferable but no one will pay more in the next two years. We are going to reflect on the issues around business rates and act accordingly.
Was relaxing Sunday trading laws during the Olympics a success?
There was some mixed data and I have not seen all the data. Some who were sympathetic to the change said it was good, some said it was less good. The Olympics was a unique occasion, a one off and there was a legitimate case to relax the rules on trading hours. There are no plans to change those rules permanently.
What is next in your strategy to revive town centres?
Today marks the next stage with the expansion of the programme to 300 Town Team Partners. Now we are looking at how we can develop things like markets. We will look at how to convert some shops back into housing. There was a real drive 15 years ago to turn some housing into shops. We recognise that there’s some good alternative around pop-up shops but now we need to look at use class because some shops will never be shops again and housing makes more sense.
Are there any plans to adopt Portas’ recommendation you originally didn’t adopt to require secretary of state sign-off on out-of-town developments?
We have got the powers already in place. We share the view that town centres should be put first. Mary has a strong viewpoint as you would expect but I think the systems in place are the right ones.
So you have a town centre first approach?
We are absolutely town centre first.