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Welsh High Streets

December 7, 2011 4:44 PM
By Peter Black
Originally published by Peter Black and South Wales West Liberal Democrats

Peter Black: I thank everyone who has taken part in this debate. It is important, in the last debate before Christmas, that we have a chance to talk about retail, which is crucial to the Welsh economy and to the many local economies around Wales that depend on the level of footfall that they are able to generate in town centres and in other shopping centres.

6.00 p.m.

Since I became involved in politics back in 1984, a huge amount has changed in terms of the shopping experience. Mike Hedges has already referred to Swansea enterprise zone and the development of out-of-town shopping centres, which has diverted a lot of trade away from traditional town and city centres. I do not want to make this all about Swansea-I do not intend to do that-but Swansea is a very good example of how out-of-town shopping centres have impacted on the city centre. The Morfa development, which paid for the Liberty Stadium, and the Fforestfach development have taken huge amounts of footfall from the city centre. Just for the record, Mike, you were in charge when those two shopping centres were built. Further to that is the growth of internet shopping. That continues to take business away from superstores, as well as small and independent traders. It is the independent traders able to embrace the internet experience as well as the traditional shopping experience that continue to thrive.

Everyone has to adapt to survive, or they will die. That is a challenge for town and city centre management, as well as how to find ways to stimulate the retail experience on which our towns, cities and villages depend so much. Mike, in his speech, referred to effective UK policies. He tries to have both the cake and the bun, but this is not all about UK policies. It is clearly the case that the recession is having a huge impact on shops and retail, but to say that the current recession is down to the current UK Government is an oversimplification. International and historic recessionary pressures are working their way through, all of which are having an impact on shops and their capacity to survive in terms of their turnover and profit.

Having talked to shop owners in Swansea and elsewhere, some of them are paying their bills with their personal credit cards in the hope that that will see them through to a time when things will pick up. It is ironic that the busiest shopping day so far of the Christmas period was 30 November, when a huge number of public sector workers took the opportunity to go into town to do their Christmas shopping. Long may they continue to go out shopping, but maybe they should do so at times when they are not meant to be working.

Jocelyn Davies: An awful lot of people were in Cardiff, but please do not downgrade the action that people took with a cheap and below-the-belt comment.

Peter Black: I had no intention of downgrading the action. I am grateful for the fact that, whereas Cardiff was gridlocked-as a result of closing the tunnels-Swansea city centre was thriving that day with lots of shoppers; it was beneficial to everyone.

Mike made a number of points about Swansea to which I will respond. The Minister referred to the business improvement district in Swansea, as did Julie James; that is a very good example of how you can work with local businesses to invest in a city or town centre and deliver improvements to the shopping experience to draw people in. That was set up in 2006 in Swansea under the Liberal-Democrat-led administration. I take on board the praise as a result of that. Mike referred to car parking charges in Morriston, which was a valid point. The car parking charges proposed for Morriston, Gorseinon and other parts of Swansea would have had an impact on the shopping centre and it is to the credit of the council that it listened to feedback and decided not to proceed with that- [Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. There is far too much hubbub. Please listen to the final, wind-up speech.

Peter Black: One reason why the car parking charges were proposed-this affects other town centres as well-was that a lot of the car parking spaces in the town were being taken up by long-stay parkers. People coming in to shop could not find places to park their cars. The turnover of parking spaces must be considered.

Mike referred to a whole range of issues around Swansea. The changes to Swansea city centre were put in to encourage bus travel, which he supports. The blueprint was introduced by the previous Labour administration and funded by a Labour Government in the Assembly. Therefore, I again very much welcome those changes, because they have made a big impact on Swansea.

Alun Ffred alleged that we had turned our backs on business rate reforms and the opportunity to give small businesses a boost through a business rate relief scheme. He was obviously not listening yesterday when the Minister for Finance announced that the current business rate scheme, which was to go on until September 2012, is being extended to April 2013. Therefore, there is an extension of the business rate scheme, which reflects what is happening in Westminster, where the UK Government has extended its scheme. I take on board what Plaid is saying about business rates, but you also have to take note of the fact that, when Ieuan Wyn Jones was the Deputy First Minister, he told the Chamber, with regard to business rates, that

'we are not persuaded currently that it is the best use of the limited resources that we have'.

This late conversion-

Ieuan Wyn Jones rose-

Peter Black: I have only a minute left, Ieuan. [ASSEMBLY MEMBERS: 'Oh.'] Let me finish this sentence, assuming that David is feeling lenient. This late conversion to business rate changes is obviously welcome, but it does not reflect what he did when he was in Government.

Ieuan Wyn Jones: The scheme that you are talking about was introduced by the One Wales Government. It is just an extension of that scheme. However, we are now in the middle of an economic crisis. Circumstances have changed since May last year. That is why we believe that an enhanced business rate scheme is now required.

Peter Black: We are in the middle of an economic crisis, but we were in the middle of an economic crisis this time last year too. I have to point out that the business rate scheme that we have is what we can afford to do. You have not come up with ideas on where you would find the money to pay for the scheme that you want to put forward. It is all very well having fantasy policies, Ieuan, but you have to come up with how you would pay for them. What we have here is what is affordable and deliverable.

I will wind up, Deputy Presiding Officer, by referring to the amendments. In amendment 1, the Government's approach- [Interruption.] I am waiting for some silence.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order.

Peter Black: We are not prepared to support the Government's amendment 1, because we believe that we need to look at retail as part of the review of business rates. We are happy to support the Conservatives' amendment 2, because we believe that a retail strategy is necessary, but we need to make it clear that this strategy must have separate actions for large-scale retail in cities and for protecting high streets. The two are quite different, and different Government actions are needed to ensure prosperity. We also need to make the point that a strategy is only useful if it is followed by action. Therefore, we support that, but actions must follow from it.