YORKSHIRE’S high streets and town centres are fading away with shop closures reaching alarming levels leaving thousands in the region without jobs.
Dewsbury has already lost its Marks & Spencer, Hull is set to lose House of Fraser and Doncaster its New Look store.
Even pubs, banks and post offices that have been the stalwart of our town centres and high streets for years have disappeared, leaving these centres of community life, symbols of local pride, prosperity and cohesion at risk of extinction.
This has not happened by accident. Whilst there is some truth in the argument that out-of-town shopping complexes have enticed shoppers away from the high street and that online shopping has dramatically altered consumer behaviour, the root causes of our high streets woes run much deeper.
For example, rents for commercial properties on the high street are on the rise, the business rates system is complex and unfair, transport links and parking facilities are compromised, and household income remains stagnant after eight years of forced austerity.
Indeed real wages are not expected to return to pre-crash levels until at least 2025 meaning that the disposable income that kept our high streets afloat is no longer there.
Add to this a poorly resourced industrial strategy, chronic regional underinvestment and dramatic cuts to local authority budgets right across Yorkshire, and you have a recipe for disaster.
There must be a holistic approach to our high streets and a radical agenda outlined to ensure that our retailers and communities receive the support they deserve.
Labour has set up a cross-department working group to develop the long-term strategic support our high streets require such as examining the tax disparity between online and high street retailers or the planning and regenerative powers of local authorities.
However, there are measures that can be taken immediately which is why Labour recently launched a five-point emergency plan to save our high streets from a slow death.
Firstly, we will ban ATM charges and stop bank branch and Post Office closures because we recognise the importance of ensuring that every community has universal access to financial and postal infrastructure and services.
ATM charges are not just annoying, they can hinder people’s ability to spend on our high streets, particularly hitting smaller independent shops which may not be able to afford the infrastructure to process card payments.
Secondly, we will establish a register of landlords of empty shops in each local authority as it is often difficult to identify the owners of boarded-up shops on our high streets. By establishing a register of the landlords of empty shops, we will increase the transparency of who owns our high streets and will make it easier for potential tenants and councils to encourage occupancy.
This is important for Yorkshire. In 2017 alone, there was a 13 per cent increase in the number of shops closing across Yorkshire, with the highest numbers in Sheffield, Hull, Barnsley, Doncaster, Huddersfield and Rotherham.
The number of store closures in the region exceeded the number of new store openings and four per cent of shops have been vacant for over three years.
Thirdly, Labour will reform the outdated business rates system which has failed to keep up with the changing face of retail.
Ultimately we will radically reform the business rates system, setting up a consultation with business and industry to examine radical alternatives, but in the interim we will introduce annual business rates revaluations to end sharp increases that many businesses find unmanageable as well as amending the appeals process and exempting new forms of plant and machinery.
Fourthly, we will introduce free public wifi in every town centre. This will make sure that shoppers on our high streets can stay connected whatever they are doing and will encourage people to spend more time on our high streets, bringing our town centres into the 21st century.
Finally, we will improve local bus services and provide free bus travel for under-25s. Better public transport and free travel for our young people will help revitalise the high streets by allowing shoppers to travel at minimal expense.
High streets and town centres are at the heart of our local and regional economies – creating jobs, nurturing small businesses and injecting billions of pounds into our economy.
It is becoming increasingly clear that there is no Government plan for one of Britain’s biggest industrial sectors. It’s time they moved aside and let a Labour Government provide high streets with the support they need.
Tomorrow: David Behrens on what local councils can do to help shops – and shoppers.
Rebecca Long Bailey is a Labour MP and the Shadow Business Secretary.