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Labour is launching a campaign to save Britain’s high streets, calling for urgent action to help retailers, protect jobs and give people a real say over their local high street.

According to the Local Data Company, 14.6% of retail premises in the UK are now vacant, indicating that approximately 50,000 high street units are empty, with vacancy rates rising. The Javelin Group has predicted that if current trends continue, a quarter of all non-food retail outlets in the UK could be vacant by 2020. This also follows a recent spate of household-name high street retailers going under or having to close premises.

Thousands of jobs on the high street are at risk. The British Retail Consortium’s Retail Employment monitor in April 2011 found that 29% of retailers planned to decrease staffing levels, up from 8% in April 2010.

Consumer spending remains sluggish as household incomes are squeezed and the government’s VAT hike hits consumers. Nationwide Building Society’s Consumer Confidence Index, released this week, fell by six points in June, returning to a similar level to January.

The government’s VAT hike is hitting the High Street – last year, the British Retail Consortium predicted that the increase would cost 163,000 jobs over four years and reduce consumer spending by £3.6 billion over the same period.

Additionally, many small businesses are struggling to access the finance they need, with lending to businesses contracting in the three months to May 2011 and the cost of borrowing increasing according to the Bank of England this week.

Labour has unveiled a four-point plan to save Britain’s high streets:

  • Enact a temporary cut in VAT from 20% to 17.5%, giving struggling retailers a boost and putting £450 back into each family’s pocket.
  • Introduce a retail diversity planning clause, putting communities in charge of the future of their local high streets. Local people and local retailers would have a say on any retail plans for their area, giving them the power to put the heart back into the high street.
  • Create a ‘competition test’ in the planning system, leading to greater choice and lower prices for shoppers. The test would ensure a level playing field between small and large shops.
  • Repeat Labour’s empty shops initiative, enabling councils to pursue innovative uses for empty shops and reinvigorate high-streets, such as using vacant units for cultural, community or learning services, rather than leaving them empty

 

Jack Dromey MP, Labour's Shadow Local Government Minister, said:

“We need to put the heart back into Britain’s high streets. Labour wants to give communities a real say over the future of their high street and the power to make the changes they want.

“One of the things I hear from my constituents is how the character of the local high street has changed. The high street is not what it once was, they say. And I know many other MPs hear the same – we want to put that right.

“Healthy and diverse high streets are the heart of local communities. The Tories have opposed Labour’s plan to give local people a real say over the future of their high street. The Tory-led Government should change course – they need to support growth and jobs by backing Labour’s four point action plan to revive the high street.”

Chuka Umunna MP, Labour's Shadow Small Business and Enterprise Minister, said:

“The Tory-led Government is bystanding while businesses suffer and our high streets stagnate. Consumer confidence has been badly hit by the government’s VAT hike and the squeeze on family incomes. It is no surprise that retail sales have remained sluggish.

“We are looking to businesses to provide the growth and jobs we need to power the recovery. The government has failed to get banks lending to businesses, and has hit retailers with this year’s hike in VAT. The recent wave of high street business failures should send a signal to ministers on the real pressures which firms are under.

“A temporary cut in VAT would help consumers and businesses now and would help us get the deficit down.”

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