MPs call for long-term planning overhaul to support high streets post-Covid

The Government should immediately conduct a full “lessons learned” review on the impact on high streets of central and local government handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, says the cross-party Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (LUHC) Committee in a report published today.

The “Supporting our high streets after covid-19” report examines the support from Government and local authorities during the pandemic. The report looks at the range of financial help and non-fiscal support such as changes to pavement licenses, and the impact on the high street of public health measures such as Test and Trace, social distancing, and guidance on face-coverings.

The report also looks ahead to the future and how to build back better high streets, reflecting on the continuing rise of online retail and the increase in hybrid working. The report highlights the need for local planners to consider a mix of uses and experiences for high streets and town centres that best meet the needs of the local area.

The Committee supports the principle of an online sales tax and welcomes that revenue from an online sales tax would be used to reduce business rates for retailers. The report calls on the Government to consider a series of factors in its online sales tax consultation, including the impact on local authority income, and stresses the importance of ensuring an online sales tax does not penalise retailers with an online and bricks-and-mortar presence.

The report expresses concern that the competitive bidding process for many of the Government’s town regeneration funding schemes may fail to direct funding to the places that most need it. It also criticises a lack of transparency and evaluation associated with these schemes, in particular warning that by not sharing which local authorities’ bids were rejected, the Government hampers scrutiny of whether these funds achieve their intended objectives.

The committee criticises the Government’s current approach to funding saying it is “too complex, short-term, and fragmented” and calls on the Government to combine fewer grants of larger sums of money with a sustainable long-term funding settlement for local government and greater devolution of funding and powers.

It also urges the Government to seriously consider not making the UK Shared Prosperity Fund a competitive fund.

The Committee’s report emphasises the need for high streets to be well-planned in the round and with plans updated regularly to keep pace with changing trends, stating that “a plan that is more than five years old will do little to support a high street for the future”. The Government should publish annually a list of which areas have strategies for their high streets and town centres and when they were last updated.

While the report welcomes aspects of the Government’s reforms to business rates, it expresses concern that they do not amount to long-term or fundamental reforms. The Committee recommends the Government set out its plan for when the 50% discount for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses comes to an end after a year, such as a permanent reduction in the multiplier. The plan needs to be for long-term reform of business rates that reduces the need for a complicated system of reliefs, and does not reduce income for local authorities.

A series of recommendations are also made in relation to planning, changes to permitted development rights, commercial rents during the pandemic, and to increasing use of public transport and active travel.