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Q&A with Marcus Jones, high streets minister

Marcus Jones, high streets minister, talks to Drapers about parking, business rates and his priorities since taking over the role in May.

Q. Would you agree that paid parking is hampering business on the high street, particularly independent retailers?

Access to the high street and breaking down the barriers that prevent retailers coming onto the high street and into town centres is extremely important and the last thing we want is for parking fines or excessive charges to push up the cost of living and undermine the high street.

Q. What are you doing to combat the issue?

Recently we’ve introduced a number of measures so now there’s a 10-minute grace period when people are parked in local authority car parks, that’s to give shoppers more of a chance to make sure they don’t fall foul of over-zealous parking enforcement. We’ve also made it very clear to local councils that they shouldn’t be using car parking revenues as a cash cow; they should be looking at it in the context of providing a service to facilitate people coming into town centres. They shouldn’t be looking to raise more money from that revenue than it costs to provide that service.

Q. This is a local authority issue – what can central government do?

In areas where the local councils are looking at this situation carefully and acknowledging the structural change that’s happening on the high street with the competition from online retailing and from out of town stores, they are looking at car parking in a more innovative way. Where they are doing the right thing, they are providing parking that is cheaper or free of charge and we’re seeing positive results. Northumberland springs to mind. I wouldn’t condone the incident in Cardigan, Wales last week [where vandals broke all the parking meters] but it showed there has been quite an uplift in trade.

We require councils to report the revenue they generate, also we’ve made it easier for people in local areas – both individuals and businesses – to request a review of local parking provision and the charges and fines levied. It’s important that people have the tools locally to inform their local council of what they think needs to be done to improve the high street. Before the Deregulation Bill in March this year there wasn’t that provision. Or the 10 minute grace period. We’ve also restricted the use of CCTV parking enforcement, which worried some people to the extent that they stopped going onto the high street.

Local people can see what exactly local councils are raising in revenue from car parking and what exactly they’re spending that on and what additional money, if any, is going back to the council. I think that’s powerful, local traders can put pressure on their local councils if they think the fees being charged and fines levied are not proportionate to their local town centre.

Q. So there is no chance the government will legislate on parking at a national level?

We think it’s for local areas to determine the levels of things such as car parking charges. We’ve got to be mindful that in areas where they are supporting motorists to come into the town centre they’re having a far better time of it – and that’s the message I want to get out there.

Q. Is there a limit or threshold to how much councils can generate from parking?

There isn’t a threshold but I think it’s making sure that whatever the charges are and revenue raised is, you make sure it’s proportionate. The government has set out clearly to councils that they should be doing all they can to make sure it’s not just for generating cash.

Car parking is a situation I’m monitoring and keeping a very close eye on. We’re doing a number of other things to support high streets, including small business rate relief together with measures such as business rate discounts where shops and cafes have been empty for some time. The Great British High Street awards try to encourage local areas to take civic pride and show that to the nation.

Q. What are the next steps for the business rates review?

The business rates review is ongoing and I would expect the outcome will be next year. There won’t be an update before then.

Q. What have been your priorities since you took over as high streets minister?

I’m constantly speaking to small businesses and people who run small shops are a very important part of that – they bring diversity to the high street and that’s important because it has to have a unique selling point. I think looking at the structural change that doesn’t seem to be going away and I’m considering that very carefully. I’m speaking to a number of people across the industry to look at what more may be be done in terms of supporting high streets to innovate going forward. Where they are innovating, they seem to be doing far better.

It’s very difficult to stop those changes because that’s the way the market works, but where local areas are diversifying their high streets, recognising the change and doing something about that, they are having success and seeing things improve. I want to help other areas understand that change and support them to adapt.

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