The remit of the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) is huge. Ministers are responsible for housing, local economic development, planning policy, parking, local government finance, localism and community integration. Often these issues spark controversy. But all CLG ministers are in complete agreement that there is an urgent need to revitalise the Great British High Street, to bring back the bustling centres of retail and leisure which served their communities so well prior to the financial crash. We want high streets and town centres that encourage people to spend a couple of relaxing hours working their way around the shops and enjoying a coffee or a meal in a restaurant.
Following the crash came the recession and many of these outlets that made whiling away a couple of hours on the high streets such an enjoyable experience disappeared. Closures didn’t limit themselves to small independent shops or restaurants either, huge seemingly invincible chains like HMV, Woolworths and Blockbuster also vanished from many high streets. The internet has also moved spending away from bookshops, something I particularly lament.
There was, however, one specific type of retail outlet that seemed not only to survive the recession, but positively blossom throughout it. I am sure you, like me, have noticed the huge increase in betting shops on our high streets. Since 2008, the number of betting shops has surged in the UK. There has been an estimated 25% increase in numbers nationwide, with some areas more affected than others. In the London Borough of Newham, for example, there are now 82 gambling outlets – six per square mile. This has often come at the expense of independent retailers, who play central roles in communities; businesses such as local bakeries, hairdressers and newsagents. In my constituency of Bristol West new betting shops have opened on Park Street and Gloucester Road, the greatest high street in England.
I can hear some of you shifting uneasily in your seats; “It’s a free market”; “It’s only a bit of harmless fun”; “The only other option is the shops lying empty”. All these are perfectly logical arguments; it is a free market, many people only have the occasional flutter and no one wants empty shops. But these establishments aren’t showing up in leafy upper-middle class suburbia. They are flourishing in communities where large sections of the population earn below the average wage, they are dangling false hope in front of people, many of whom are desperate and pocketing the take home pay of families who can’t afford it.
During a time of economic recovery, with people’s wages still being squeezed, the Liberal Democrats believe that there should be appropriate planning regulations in place to ensure that local communities have a say over the makeup of their high streets.
Councils already have some powers to control the types of premises on high streets through ‘Article 4’ directions. These allow them to withdraw permitted development rights and refuse planning permission for specific types of premises, such as takeaways, if allowing such development would be harmful to local amenity and the local area. However, Article 4 directions are often seen by councils as difficult to apply and many fear legal challenge, for instance from large pub companies.
That is why I am so pleased that the Coalition Government is today embracing Lib Dem policy and empowering local councillors to decide whether or not to give approval to additional gambling venues in their community. At our 2013 Autumn Conference in Glasgow, Lib Dem activists approved a motion proposed by Cllr Jon Ball from Ealing, giving councils the power to limit the number of betting shops in their area.
I became the Lib Dem Minister at DCLG after the 2013 conference season and have been discussing with Coalition colleagues how to bring this policy into effect. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have supported Nick Boles and myself in finding a solution to the growth of betting shops, a subject raised with us by MPs from across the Commons.
The problem is that the planning use class A2 for Financial and Professional services is so broad that it includes everything from banks to estate agents, credit unions to betting shops. So we have decided that all other uses will be stripped out of the class, leaving behind betting shops. This means that councillors will be able to insist on a planning application to shift from another retail use.
This will put more power into the hands of local people to decide how to shape their high streets. The Coalition has an excellent record on helping the high street, not just through planning but also financial assistance and leadership right across government. I’m pleased to play my part in this sea change in policy, which will support all the great high streets in Bristol and across the country.
NOTE – the government has also acted today on the related problem of fixed odds betting terminals. The full announcement can be read herehttps://www.gov.uk/government/news/gambling-protections-and-controls-published