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Liberal Democrats demand action to boost Folkestone town centre

April 2, 2019 10:47 AM
Originally published by Folkestone and Hythe Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats have set out a comprehensive plan ahead of the local elections to support struggling high streets across England, including for Folkestone town centre.

Chani Sanger outside To Let Shop in Guildhall Street

Folkestone campaigner Chani Sanger outside empty shops in Guildhall Street, Folkestone

Tim Prater, Liberal Democrat campaigner for Folkestone and Hythe described the plans as "exactly the sort of policy we need to boost local investment and ensure businesses in Folkestone thrive."

The proposals, agreed by Liberal Democrats at their Spring Conference in York, set out plans that would:

  • Boost support for local entrepreneurs, including subsidised work space and business support for start-ups.
  • Reform planning law, enabling councils to ensure that commercial space is used flexibly and efficiently.
  • Introduce publicly-accessible local asset registers, enabling local entrepreneurs to identify promising business opportunities
  • Use local insights to improve customers' experiences, including by providing free public Wi-Fi.
  • Create a new industry-led body to help retailers adapt to the digital economy.

The Liberal Democrats are also campaigning to replace the broken business rates system with a tax on land values, cutting taxes for businesses by 17% in Folkestone and Hythe.

Liberal Democrat Local Government Spokesperson Tim Farron said:

"With shops closing and too many people losing their jobs, there can be no doubt that our high streets are in crisis. The absolute mess the Tories have made of Brexit bears some of the blame, but the roots of this crisis run far deeper.

"From the rise of online retail to the burden of business rates and local planning failures, people are crying out for solutions. It doesn't need to be this way. People deserve better and Liberal Democrats demand better."

Liberal Democrat campaigner Tim Prater said:

"It is the responsibility of the current Conservative Government to ensure that our businesses are able to thrive, but Ministers in Whitehall are not doing anywhere near enough.

"That is why Liberal Democrats are campaigning to create the environment needed for local businesses to grow and create jobs in Folkestone and Hythe. Our message is clear; every Liberal Democrat elected in May is another voice championing our town centres."

The Liberal Democrat report - Taxing Land, Not Investment - set out the party's plans for business rates. Key recommendations from the report include:

  • Business rates should be abolished and replaced by a Commercial Landowner Levy based on the value of commercial land only
  • The levy should be paid by owners rather than tenants
  • Commercial land should be taxed regardless of whether the buildings above it are occupied; the tax should also apply to unused and derelict commercial land

The Liberal Democrat motion - Town Centres Fit for the Future - passed at the party's Spring Conference is below.

Conference notes with concern that:

I. Britain's high streets and town centres are struggling due to:

  1. A weak economy caused by a crisis in productivity.
  2. Continued Brexit uncertainty.
  3. The burden of business rates.
  4. The rise of online shopping.
  5. Increased staff and pension costs.
  6. Issues particular to an area, such as out-of-town shopping, parking problems, or planning failures.

II. Around 3,200 stores have closed since the beginning of 2014, and footfall in every month of 2018 was lower than it was 12 months before, putting thousands of jobs at risk.

III. Prominent high-street and out-of-town retailers including Toys R Us and Maplin have fallen into administration, while other flagship retailers including Marks & Spencer and Debenhams have announced plans to close stores.

IV. Conference further notes the continued trend of loss of pubs, particularly community pubs, due to closure for redevelopment and conversion to managed chain bars or franchises.

Conference believes that:

  1. Liberal Democrats should champion business innovation and the benefits to consumers that online retail has brought.
  2. Town centres are the heart of our local communities and should not be abandoned purely to market forces.
  3. Local and national governments have a vital role to ensure that town centres continue to thrive.

Conference calls on local authorities and city regions to:

  1. Ensure that there is a long-term plan for the future of their town centres, developed in consultation with businesses, civil society and residents; town centres should have a well-defined brand, supported by local investment, aesthetic regeneration and reform of the planning system so local authorities have the tools they need to ensure their town centres thrive.
  2. Make it as easy as possible for entrepreneurs to set up on the high street, by offering low-cost incubation space and business support for start-ups; temporary pop-up units should be available for start-ups to trial new products and services without being tied to long rents.
  3. Maintain an up-to-date register of assets so that councils and businesses know who owns what property in town centres, building on existing good practice such as the One Public Estate programme - this will help councils formulate better plans for redeveloping town centres, and help businesses use local building stock more efficiently.
  4. Use local insights to improve customers' experiences of visiting town centres, including by (for example) providing free public Wi-Fi, and ensuring that public spaces are well-lit.

Conference calls on the Government to empower local decision-makers to improve their town centres by:

1. Reforming commercial planning law as a matter of priority, enabling councils to ensure that commercial space is used flexibly and efficiently, including:

  1. Making it easier for councils to change permitted use where deemed appropriate, including through a fast-track procedure to permit a temporary change of use when a space is left empty while retaining existing protection for community assets and pubs in the planning system.
  2. Ensuring that commercial property cannot be converted to residential property without planning consent.
  3. Creating new planning classes for multiple use, so that services can be combined where they would not be viable on a standalone basis.
  4. Introducing new planning use classes for town centres giving councils the power to discourage "clustering" of certain businesses types.

2. Sharing helpful examples of existing good practice between town centres, signposting local councils towards funding and advice, benchmarking performance, and providing common standards for data collection.

3. Encouraging businesses to create an industry-led body to help brick-and-mortar retailers adapt to the changing economy - this body should support shops to improve their online offer, help them expand the use of technology on their premises, and encourage them to attract shoppers through offering experiences such as in-store advice, demonstrations, competitions, events and courses.

4. Financing this transformation of town centres by expanding the "Future High Streets Fund" announced in the 2018 Budget, which was only allocated enough money to support 27 areas over five years, far below what is actually needed.

5. Require, as part of the review of the Pubs Code, the extension of the definition of unfair business practice to include a pub company issuing a Section 25 notice principally to change operating model to end a tenancy.

Conference also reaffirms its call on the Government to replace business rates with a Commercial Landowner Levy, removing the disincentive to invest in a business's buildings, plant and machinery, rebalancing the economy and cutting the average business rates bill in over 90% of local authorities.