The Speaker of the House of Commons accepted Emma’s application for a debate with the Local Government Minister, Brandon Lewis.
Emma explained to the Minister how the economic downturn had left local people with less money to spend on the high street, and that local businesses were reporting falling customer numbers as a result.
Emma told the Minister:
“It is little wonder that when levels of poverty have soared under this Government, people have less money to spend on their local high street. It is quite simple: if people are well paid, they will spend money in their local economy and if they are not, the local economy will suffer.”
She also raised retailers’ concerns about business rates, which have gone up by £1,500 under the Coalition.
Last week Emma spoke to shoppers on King Street, as well as retailers ranging from major high street chains to local shops like Premier Furnishings. Business owners told Emma that business rates were the biggest obstacle they faced, with some saying that rates had now overtaken rent as their biggest financial burden.
Emma also called on the Minister to give local people more of a say in the future of their high streets, pointing out that Coalition planning changes had made it difficult for communities to oppose new betting shops, payday lenders and pawnbrokers from opening:
“The reason why closures in King Street stir so much passion in Shields is that the area is personally important to the people who live there—people like me who shop there every week and who have fond memories of being a child and going to the bustling and lively street, as I did with my parents and my Gran. That is not something that the Government should ignore. They could take away that sense of powerlessness that people feel now by giving them control and a sense of ownership over their area.”
But Emma also explained how South Tyneside Council’s 365 project will help bring business back to King Street by bringing more visitors to Shields and making the town centre more attractive to businesses.
You can read Emma’s speech in full by clicking here.
The Minister said that the Government had already taken action on business rates through measures announced in the Autumn Statement in December. But as Emma pointed out, these changes have had little effect on King Street and shops like Marks & Spencer, Mothercare and Thornton’s have continued to close even since the changes were announced.
The Minister also failed to address the squeeze on household incomes which is leaving people with little disposable income to spend on their high streets.
However, he did acknowledge the great potential of the Council’s redevelopment plans, saying “South Shields has an ambitious project, which I think is exciting and offers real opportunity for the future.”
Speaking after the debate, Emma said:
“I wanted to raise this issue in Parliament because I know how important it is to the people I speak to in Shields every day, and because I don’t think the Minister understands the effect his Government’s policy is having on towns like ours. He mentioned a number of Government policies and plans but businesses and shoppers tell me the problems haven’t changed – people don’t have the money to spend and businesses are hurt by high rates.
“I’m disappointed that the Minister didn’t address my point about consumer incomes – we need more action to tackle low pay and deal with the soaring cost of essentials like rent and heating, but that just isn’t happening under this Government.
“Our town has an exciting future ahead of it, but in the short term we need policies to help consumers support their local high street and keep businesses profitable. Only Labour is proposing serious solutions to the cost of living crisis, and we will cut business rates from 2015 to give our retailers a boost. These are policies which will help keep King Street at the heart of our community.”