Towns and cities across all four nations of the United Kingdom hold their own unique history and identity. Preserving the heritage of the past, whilst growing prosperity into the future, can lead to many challenges across both local and national government. Our high streets particularly have faced significant challenges with the move towards more out of town development and online shopping. Whilst we see many challenges in preserving the special character which people love, this can also present real opportunities for new exciting future industries to occupy the unique spaces vacated on our high streets,
Jack Brereton, MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, was pleased to be able to secure a Westminster Hall debate this week to outline and discuss on a cross party basis ‘High Street Heritage and Properties in Conservation Areas’. Whilst the Government carries out its ambitions to deliver on ‘Levelling Up’ of opportunities in areas like Stoke-on-Trent, Jack has raised the need to ensure appropriate support and regulations are in place to turn around declining high streets and forgotten heritage buildings.
Following the debate Jack Brereton MP commented:
“I was pleased to see the Minister taking seriously the concerns raised about the state of our high streets and particularly some of the many important heritage buildings which make up our town centres. People care about and love the unique historic character of our town centres and high streets, and they must play an essential role in providing unique spaces for new industries of the future and levelling up opportunities nationally.
“There are a number of steps I would like to see further action on to support the revival of these important buildings and support new uses for high street properties. Alongside additional funding, we also need to see better coordination of the investment already secured for towns like Longton, more enforcement against rogue absent property owners and further reform of planning rules to free up the blockers to attracting in new uses to our town centres.
During the Westminster Hall debate various MPs, including the MPs for Stoke-on-Trent North and Central, Jo Gideon and Jonathan Gullis, expressed their desire to see support for local authorities to enable high streets and Conservation Area improvements, whilst respecting local history and identity.
Jack made clear his view that their needs to be a clearer focus on improving resources and specialist heritage skills within local councils to enable more enforcement. This particularly includes more proactive use of S.215 notices and support to enable measures such as compulsory rental auctions within the Government’s Levelling Up Bill.
Speaking in the debate Jack commented about the need for more enforcement, with many authorities having done little to no enforcement during the pandemic, Jack Brereton MP said:
“This is especially the case when it comes to absentee landlords, often overseas, who are interested solely in the land value and are sometimes, I suggest, waiting for heritage buildings to get into such a poor state that they are able or required to demolish them. We’ve actually had buildings falling into the street. The latest one on Market Street in Longton could have killed someone.
“There had been multiple reports from myself and others about its perilous condition to the council but action was not taken until it was too late. The whole of the Longton Conservation Area is on the At Risk register, and rated “very poor” by Historic England.”
Jack was keen to appeal for further funding from Historic England towards Longton’s local heritage. As well as appealing to the Government for extended deadlines to complete ongoing works in the area delayed by the pandemic and ensure projects are not lost through arbitrary deadlines.
Jack also led the argument for less bureaucracy around planning change of use, making it easier to attract in new uses onto our high streets. He has proposed extending powers around E mixed commercial use category by giving local authorities the power to designate all commercial properties within town centre boundaries as class E. This would remove the hurdles often faced in attracting new uses into many of our historic town centre properties and reduce the administrative burden on councils. Class E was first introduced in 2020 but only currently applies to properties which have applied for planning permission after 1 September 2020.
Responding to the debate on the Government’s behalf, Housing & Planning Minister, Rachel Maclean said:
“It is right that I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing the debate, which has shone a light for us all on the diligent work that he does day in, day out on behalf of his constituents. It has also shown his deep knowledge of his area. As he said himself, although he was not able to rely on some established processes to contribute to the consultations he mentioned, he could draw on a lifetime’s experience of living and breathing the streets of Stoke-on-Trent South.
Like my hon. Friend, the Government want our high streets to be restored to their former glory, as the beautiful, beating hearts of our communities where people can come together to socialise, shop, work and run businesses in safe and attractive surroundings. The reality is that many of our high streets are struggling—they are blighted by boarded-up shops and antisocial behaviour—but we are determined to break the cycle of decline. We have already started to do so, working side by side with local leaders to achieve our shared goals. Transforming dying high streets back into vibrant places to live, work and socialise is central to our levelling-up agenda, and that will be the litmus test for our success.
The Office of Place was also mentioned during the debate, this is a new flagship arms length government body set to be located in Stoke-on-Trent and will lead a design revolution, ensuring beautiful new homes and places are built according to a simple design code supported by local people.
The Office for Place is expected to bring new skilled jobs into Stoke-on-Trent once fully operational. Local MPs were quick to welcome the Government announcement in July which has been seen as a further Levelling Up opportunity for the city.
Jack Brereton MP and Stoke-on-Trent MPs have vowed to continue working together and with the Government to ensure that the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent receive the funding required to both protect their heritage and improve their high streets.
The key asks outline by Jack Brereton in his speech:
• More investment in Longton’s local heritage from Historic England in particular.
• More time to get the work delayed by Covid done.
• A greater focus on enforcement – with better resources (including skills) for enforcement by local government of s.215 and the upcoming measures in the Levelling Up Bill for compulsory rental auctions, and so on.
• We need planning rules on change of use to be freed up, especially with greater powers to expand category E use in town centres.
• A good look at how the Department can keep overview of how various pots of national money can be better coordinated into overall local schemes.
• And if she could outline any further information she can give about the Office for Place, it would be appreciated. Particularly on the benefits it will bring to its proud home in Stoke-on-Trent and from there, to the rest of the country.