Former minister says radical Government action is needed to support high street traders

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Tory MP Jake Berry said retail owners needed extra help to be able to open up from Monday when the ban on nonessential shopping imposed under the coronavirus lockdown lifts. Mr Berry suggested the big moment should be rebranded “Bounce Back Monday” to make clear city and town centres around the country can start to flourish again after nearly three months of closure. He said: “It’s a hugely important day for the high street. We’ve got a real opportunity to create certainty and longevity for retail and high street businesses with some radical Government action.”

Mr Berry, who was minister for the Northern Powerhouse and local growth until February, proposed a package of measures to help high street shops.

His four-point plan includes an extension of the business rates holiday declared by Chancellor Rishi Sunak for this year for an extra two years for all businesses with a rateable value of less than £50,000.

He wants a temporary scrapping of parking charges in town and city centres while local economies recover from the lockdown and the suspension of planning rules governing business purposes so shop owners can switch services on offer to customers.

He has also called for abolishing business rates on free-to-use cash machines.

Mr Berry said: “These measures would be a really powerful message to urge shopkeepers to get out on Bounce Back Monday to bring the people back.”

Several of the proposals were being studied in Whitehall during his spell on the Government frontbench, the MP said. But the urgent need for local economic recovery after weeks of lockdown meant the changes should be a top priority for the Treasury and other Government departments.

He added: “Now is the time to be really bold. In a world where everyone has been isolated, there is no better place to reconnect with society than down your local high street. They are the original social network.

“You don’t have to go onto Facebook to find friends, you can go to your high street.

“When we want our society to get back to a new normal, a vibrant, flourishing high street is going to be absolutely key to improving people’s mental health, breaking down social isolation through lockdown. I really would call on people to get out and support their local high street for those reasons.

“Spend local and support local businesses who have been doing things like deliveries and takeaway services to support their communities through the epidemic.”

Setting out his proposals, Mr Berry said: “The existing business rate holiday has been welcomed by businesses up and down the land in leisure, retail and other traditional high street businesses.

“We need to give longer-term security to those businesses as they come out of the Covid lockdown.

“The Government should be looking at extending that rate holiday for an additional two years with businesses with a rateable value under £50,000, which is about nine out of every 10 high street businesses.

“Giving them that certainty and long-term support will give both shoppers and the people that own and love those businesses the confidence to come and pull their shutters up on Monday.”

Mr Berry said that scrapping parking charges had helped Salisbury’s city centre recover following a local shutdown in the wake of the chemical weapon attack two years ago.

He added: “As a minister, I was involved in the recovery programme. One of the things that really gave people confidence to come back into that extraordinary city was the abolition of parking charges.

“If we’re really serious about getting people back on the high street, clearly people have some concerns about public transport, so now is the time to think about temporarily abolishing those parking charges.

“We want to give people the confidence to get in their car, get into towns and shop till they drop.”

Mr Berry argued that a temporary relaxation of the “Use Classes Order” rules governing what shops can sell could help businesses react swiftly to the drastically changed economic landscape. He added: “We will see a rapidly changing retail environment as we come out of the lockdown.

“In far too many high streets the planning system is a real clog on the ability of businesses to change rapidly.

“To match the business rate holiday, we should have rapid reform of the Use Classes Order to retail entrepreneurs to repurpose their businesses without the need for planning permission to meet the swiftly changing economy.

“Shops should be free to offer anything that is usual to high streets in the post-lockdown period without the need to get the permission of the local authority. If you’re running a bookshop but people aren’t coming in and buying books, you should be able to open a cafe in the shop.

“If you’re running a cafe and people aren’t coming in to sit down and have a coffee because of worries about social distancing, then change some of the cafe over to food retail.

“What we need is a free-market, fluid system for the post-Covid era. The Government and local authorities are not going to be light enough on their feet to react to the retail market as it bounces back.

“If we’re serious about having a healthy, vibrant high street we urgently need to give retailers this flexibility.”

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