This afternoon, I spoke in support of high streets and village shops in the debate on the future of retail strategy proposed by Liz Twist MP. Various measures have been enacted to support small retailers against the steady onslaught of internet shopping, but I believe more needs to be done and I asked the Minister what more her department intended to do. She agreed that the sector is facing significant pressures” but that it also “has a long history of responding successfully to change, of turning challenges into opportunities and of turning pressure into innovation.” Ms Tolhurst went on to reference the £1.6 billion action plan for high streets which, it has been confirmed, will benefit towns in Scotland in addition to the Scottish Government's recent announcement of £50 million for high streets.
Bill Grant (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for securing this very important debate.
Any retail strategy for the future must focus on re-energising our town centres. I accept that the retail footprint will inevitably reduce with changing shopping trends and a changing retail landscape, but the challenge is to manage that change. Empty premises sadly prevail in towns throughout the UK. Online competition—in 2018, almost a fifth of all retail sales were online—crushing business rates and taxes, traffic management systems and parking charges, or a combination of the above, have influenced or played a part in the decline of high street retail.
Many accept, as I do, that there is a place for online shopping, and that is evidenced by the steady increase in internet transactions year on year. Online shopping can assist those with disabilities or who are housebound; others may simply be seeking to exercise their freedom of choice. In the not-too-distant future, our communities might be buzzing not with retail activity, but with drone deliveries of internet shopping. However, online shopping must co-exist with high street retail, and not be a replacement for it. The demise of high street shops could lead to further isolation for the elderly, not all of whom—I might include myself in this—are internet-comfortable when it comes to financial transactions, although I suspect going forward the situation will resolve itself.
On a positive note, eateries in Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock are a great success. It is an element of retail that is really successful. In our area and many areas throughout the UK, that sector uses locally produced goods. It is interesting to note that the towns and villages where shops appear to thrive are those where a variety of small, quality, niche retail businesses are intertwined, as has been mentioned, with the residences and professional offices that are integral to the retail provision, and where traffic management systems are minimal and parking charges are zero or at least reasonable. Sometimes there might be a smaller version of one of the larger well-known food retailers, acting as an anchor store and preventing the drift of custom. However, as residents and as a society, we need to stop and ask ourselves whether we could support high street retail, because we the citizens have a part to play.
Shopping should and can be a pleasurable and social experience; as my wife will remind me, we need a bit of retail therapy from time to time. That applies equally to those providing the service and those receiving it.
I agree on the point about quality. There should be a race to the top. Sometimes quality costs, so quality might mean better pay. Paddy Lillis, the general secretary of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, is my constituent; I recently had a conversation with him, and there is a campaign to raise the living wage to £10 an hour. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that?
As someone whose mother worked in the pit canteen and made beds at Butlin’s on a Saturday, I fully agree that those who provide such services deserve better pay. We need to recognise those in hospitality and eateries, and the value of those who prepare and serve the food. As a nation, for decades and generations we have undervalued those people, so I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the price has to be passed on to the consumer.
Employees—dare I say the next line? The hon. Gentleman must have been looking over my shoulder—should receive fair pay for work undertaken, and should have security of tenure in their job. Customers should feel involved in the purchase, and should engage with the sales assistant. It should not be a beat-the-clock exercise, in which people have to hurry to return to their vehicle before they receive a fine for overstaying their welcome. Nor should there be an additional cost burden on retailers if their staff wish to park in the vicinity of their place of work; in certain cities, retailers are being asked for £500 or thereabouts per annum per member of staff who wishes to do that.
Recently it has been announced that in Glasgow city centre, parking restrictions and charges will now apply on the Sabbath—on Sundays. Business representatives have already taken to the media to express their concern that the move will lead to shoppers deserting the city centre on a Sunday in favour of large out-of-town shopping centres, which, as we are all aware, generally have free parking. As a business person once said, “When you can’t change the direction of the wind, adjust your sail”. We should manage the change. We need to encourage a steady footfall for the future, and stop what appears to be a stampeding exodus of high street shoppers to out-of-town retail centres or online facilities. In Scotland, that may mean the Scottish Government and councils working together, and reconsidering their planning and roads legislation, and policies that affect town centres.
Certainly, in my constituency the main towns are, for want of a better word, hurting. They have not hurt as much in their whole existence, and in many cases they have lost their dignity, which they richly deserve to have returned to them. However, the centre of Cumnock is an exception, as a small town that has recently been sympathetically revitalised by the introduction of a small new-build retail facility that blends into the streetscape. The principal occupier, a prominent food retailer, appears to complement the existing, varied retailers—so well done to East Ayrshire Council. Local chambers of commerce and industry, such as the Ayrshire chamber of commerce, are to be commended for their encouragement of local enterprise and excellence.
Inevitably some businesses in the UK will, regrettably, fail, for one or more of the reasons I have indicated. The Government need to consider taking appropriate measures to ensure that the auditing of retail businesses is robust; that any asset stripping, particularly by big businesses, will be better regulated in the future, for the protection of employees and shareholders; and that a review—and, if it is deemed appropriate, reform—is carried out with respect to company voluntary arrangements. There is also a need to look at business rates and taxes.
Our future is created by what we do while we are living for today, so I hope that as a result of the contributions to the debate, the Minister will be encouraged to reflect on the Government’s planning for tomorrow. We need more practical measures like the future high streets fund, which was introduced in the 2018 Budget. It is an excellent boost to high streets, despite the failures mentioned earlier. Hopefully those who reapply will be successful next time. I ask the Minister to bring forward further measures to secure our local retail trade and help to re-energise high streets throughout the UK, while remembering that high streets are no longer a cash cow to be financially milked by an outdated business rating system that needs grassroots reform.