Local High Streets

Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on his excellent speech. I now know considerably more about Kingswood than I did about 45 minutes ago. He clearly has a great passion for the area he represents and has done a tremendous job. He made an interesting speech, which I hope other hon. Members will develop. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) has just left his seat. I know he did not wish to say too much about Boris Johnson, given that it is Christmas. I am not sure whether he meant that Boris Johnson was either the Messiah or a very wise man. No doubt he will have the opportunity to tell us at some later stage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made an interesting speech. He developed an issue to which I had not given much thought-dealing with long-term voids in high streets to boost the private rented sector. My experience as an inner-city MP is that nothing is more important than a vibrant and stable residential population to ensure a boost for such areas.

Many Members may wonder on what basis I am speaking. Are there any high streets in Cities of London and Westminster? There are many of the most traditional high streets, such as Cheapside, in the City of London, where one of the largest shopping developments in central London in recent years has opened. Oxford street was once Westminster’s high street, though it perhaps has more profound resonance now. Other residential shopping areas can be found in Marylebone high street and Elizabeth street. I accept that those two are in the relatively wealthy areas of Marylebone and Belgravia, but their vibrancy and success are due fundamentally to having a relatively stable, single landowner, which makes a big difference to the choice of shops available. To an extent, the Howard de Walden and the Grosvenor estates in each of those cases-the same applies to the Portman estate, which does a tremendous job around Edgware road-have realised the importance of variety in a local shopping centre. Although I do not know all the statistics, there is little doubt that there has been an element of having loss leaders, allowing particular shops to pay considerably lower rates or to get a rate rebate.

I accept that that is not necessarily a panacea that can apply throughout the country. I am lucky in that there are great pockets of wealth in my constituency. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the drab Marylebone high street that I first walked down only 25 years ago, when I worked in London between school and university, has been transformed. It has become much respected, with people coming from beyond London to shop there, even though it is less than half a mile from Oxford street. Having traditional, independent restaurants, bookstores and small specialist food stores such as bakeries and cheese shops, makes a tremendous difference.

Damian Collins: Does my hon. Friend agree that one interesting idea in the Government’s Localism Bill and White Paper on local growth is whether councils around the country might take on the role of some of the big landlord estates in London? They could try to stimulate economic growth in their areas by supporting certain types of business, which might in turn lead to other business growth.

Mr Field: I agree. That would be a useful way forward. One difficulty is often the disparate freehold ownership on a lot of high streets. I certainly do not think that there is a need for a centralised plan, but there needs to be a vision that goes beyond simply ensuring that tenants are paying rent this year and next, and the one after. There needs to be a vision for 15 or 20 years. We always need to take into account what my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury rightly said, which is that it is hard to put a finger on how high streets will look in 20 years’ time. They have certainly changed every decade since the 1940s, due to different shopping habits.

I am sorry that the two Members representing suburban London seats who were here earlier have gone. There are specific problems in suburban London, which I would not wish to put to one side. I have a great passion for London as a whole and recognise that there are certain advantages in representing a very central London seat. In Orpington, where my wife’s family came from, and in Harrow, there are some fundamental problems, partly as a result of out-of-town shopping centres. A slight irony of the recent snowfall is that many people have not been able to get out in their cars to do that sort of shop, and have therefore been forced back to see the offering in their own high street.

There are no easy solutions to all this. One possibility is to have a single landowner who can perhaps make an area special, look at flagship stores and, where possible, consider loss leaders.

I want to touch on business improvement districts. In fairness, they are greatly to the credit of the previous Labour Government, who introduced elements of the legislation, and they have been a great success. In my own constituency, the New West End Company, which operates around Regent street, Bond street and Oxford street, has been a great success. We have seen various other business improvement districts around the Paddington Basin area, and demand is increasing. However, the money that has been spent by business improvement districts tends to be focused on aesthetics and on increasing the number of policemen to ensure that shoppers feel safer and that shops are less subject to crime.

With local authorities facing difficult financial settlements not just for this year and next, but probably for the rest of this decade, I worry that this should not be seen just as a matter of substitution. I encourage town centres to consider going down the business improvement district route, although they will still see money being taken away by way of what should be the normal local authority responsibility. We need to bear that in mind, as we do supplementary business rates.

I want to mention supermarkets, which have been touched on by other hon. Members. It is easy to criticise supermarkets. I have stood up for them previously in this Chamber, and I think that they do a tremendous job in many ways. They provide phenomenal choice that was unseen a decade or two ago. None the less, I accept what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) said-I think he referred to an oligarchy of sorts being adopted, although I cannot remember how he phrased it. I also worry that the grocery ombudsman route may not be an entirely sensible way forward.

If we are to have a vibrant shopping centre, a flagship supermarket is almost always needed. Waitrose is in Marylebone high street in my constituency; we also see various Sainsbury’s and Tesco stores, particularly some of the smaller ones. However, I would like to see newsagents playing a part in the high street, for example, and I would like supermarkets to show some responsibility by, for instance, not selling newspapers. That would ensure that newsagents within 50 or 100 yards of the supermarket had a chance to thrive. If there was a long-standing fishmonger nearby, let us hope that the local Sainsbury’s or Tesco would not sell fish. In other words, we need to ensure that people do not have to do all their shopping in a particular Sainsbury’s or Tesco-an all-singing, all-dancing supermarket-at the expense of the smaller stores. That would present the supermarkets, which do a tremendous job, with an opportunity to show a certain amount of self restraint, rather than having to be bossed around by an all-powerful ombudsman. Thank you, Mr Gray, for allowing me to speak. I look forward to other contributions to the debate.