The Conservative mayor of the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, has recently pledged to introduce free parking in town centres. The logic of his argument is that free parking would encourage more people to travel there, helping revive struggling high streets.
As well-meaning as Houchen may be, his policy is misguided. What’s more, it’s evidence of a sloppy and unimaginative way of thinking so common among politicians.
First of all, it’s unclear how free parking would solve anything. Although parking might play some role in deciding where to shop, it probably isn’t the biggest concern that consumers have. They’re far more likely to do their shopping at a supermarket or online where they pay less than they would on the high street and where they have greater choice. As sad as this might be for those working on high streets, it’s simply a sign of changing times.
Although it’s certainly true that high streets are struggling, it would be far better for Houchen to focus on business rates, which often prove crippling for small firms. Encouragingly, the government has recognised this, but unfortunately its proposed solution is likely to be ineffective.
It has promised to cut business rates for certain businesses, but this won’t be a sustainable fix. This is because any cut to business rates will eventually lead to higher rents in the short to medium term, keeping the burden on businesses. If politicians are serious about helping high streets, they should simply abolish business rates and replace them with a land value tax.
Cars also cause problems in and of themselves around town centres. Though essential for many people, they lead to accidents and cause pollution and congestion.
So rather than encouraging people to travel into town and city centres by cars, we should be aiming for a future where cars are completely absent from those areas. This requires us to radically rethink the way we’ve done things until now and find new ways to usher in prosperity in the future.
Making it easier to live on the high street and in surrounding areas would be a start. As has been well documented, there is a housing crisis in this country with far too many people priced out of the market. The reason for this is that supply has failed to keep up with demand. Liberalising the planning system so that more homes can be built will help solve many different problems in one.
Such a move would allow towns to provide homes for people working in nearby cities. This would boost productivity for cities and towns, bring economic growth to the regions and, where there were once pound shops and the like, former high streets will have homes, bars, pubs, restaurants, and other such nice things.
People’s identities are often tied to where they live. As such, it is important that the character of the area is maintained. Historic buildings and landmarks should remain. However, the focus should not be on preserving high streets in their present form, nor should it be to encourage start-ups to base themselves in our towns. Rather, the priority should be ensuring that towns are places where people can live and easily travel to their jobs in start-ups and more established firms in cities such as Leeds, Manchester, Cambridge, Bristol, Newcastle, Glasgow, and so on.
Of course, this can’t happen overnight, but the potential benefits of doing so are huge. It will, however, require a renewed focus on improving public transport, which is often unacceptably poor, especially in northern towns. For example, in my home town of Huddersfield, getting a train to Leeds or Manchester over the Christmas break proved a nightmare, with practically every service either delayed or cancelled. What’s more, you often have a long wait just to get on an overcrowded and expensive bus when travelling within Huddersfield itself.
The government needs to prioritise improving public transport both within towns and between towns and cities. Westminster often overlooks buses because they’re not a sexy or headline-grabbing policy area, but they matter to people in towns all around the country and it is essential that they become a priority.
Rail networks also need heavy investment, but the headline project of HS2 will, if it goes ahead, simply rip off the taxpayer while not delivering any meaningful gains to the north of England. Instead of focusing on token measures, the government should focus on connecting northern towns and cities with each other, not just with London.
When it comes to renewing the areas that feel forgotten, rather than attempting to preserve the current model and prop up struggling high streets with empty slogans and leftist solutions, the government needs to be much more radical. By liberalising planning and improving transport infrastructure, towns can have a very bright future indeed.