Jeremy Corbyn vows to reverse ‘depressing’ decline of town centres

The Canary

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said there is “nothing more depressing” than seeing town centres decline as shoppers turn to out-of-town warehouses for online deliveries.

He wants councils to have the power to reopen abandoned shops which have been left vacant for 12 months or more and bring back into use some of the estimated 29,000 physical retail units abandoned.

Under Labour’s plan, local authorities will be able to turn vacant shops over to start-ups, co-operative businesses and community projects.

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Jeremy Corbyn
Mr Corbyn was joined by local Labour group leader Linda Thomas, right, and Bolton West candidate Julie Hilling for the visit (Peter Byrne/PA)

Mr Corbyn visited Bolton, Greater Manchester, on Saturday and dropped in to two former empty stores in the town’s Market Place Shopping Centre which are now home to a music charity and a ping pong “parlour”.

He said: “The issue across the country is a very large number of town centres have got lots of boarded-up shops, and that’s depressing. It drives people away and diminishes our sense of community in our town centres.

“We want to change that. Hence our policy proposals today are that local authorities should have the power to take over shops that have been deliberately kept empty and just used as an opportunity to make some money when the value may go up in the future, and make sure they are brought into use.

Jeremy Corbyn
Mr Corbyn tried out a guitar alongside John Newhouse of the Trust Music charity studio (Peter Byrne/PA)

“Because when we have a community around the town centre where all the shops are in use and occupied, people feel much safer and it’s also about creating that sense of community.

“There is nothing more depressing than seeing town centres declining and out-of-town warehouses doing online deliveries to people. That is not building a sense of community.

“So it does mean we have got to change the way in which we approach our communities and town centres.”

Asked how the bigger high street names can be attracted back to town centres, Mr Corbyn said: “You have to persuade them that they are going to come in, that they are going to stay there and that they are part of the community.

Jeremy Corbyn
He also tried his hand at table tennis at a former shop which is now a place where the public can try the sport (Peter Byrne/PA)

“But it’s also a question, particularly for the smaller ones, of the level of business rates they have to pay and the rent levels that are charged in shopping centres, because rent levels are very high in many shopping centres and that’s what drives people away.

“What we do have to do is have a planning regime which allows local authorities to intervene to ensure that we keep shops going and can also make sure there is a diversity of shops, because you don’t want a place that is just charity shops or just estate agents. You need that diversity to bring you in. You need to buy bread as well as clothes.”

But local growth minister Jake Berry has claimed Mr Corbyn would “wreck the economy, tax small businesses and scare off the investment needed to help our high streets, meaning more boarded-up shops and fewer jobs”.

Mr Corbyn said he was impressed by what he saw in Bolton, and added that a community project in a shopping centre is a “two-way street”.

Jeremy Corbyn
Mr Corbyn was unimpressed by his own skills, saying the match was the ‘worst ever’ exhibition match of ping pong (Peter Byrne/PA)

He said: “Yes it does provide a space for the charity to operate from, the music charity for example is doing well, but it brings more people in who are then going to other places.”

Mr Corbyn strapped on a Tokai electric guitar at the Trust Music studio, a charity where people can drop in and learn how to play a musical instrument or sing in choir.

Local charity band Rock of Ages perform weekly at Trust Music and they were happy to take a request from Mr Corbyn to play a rendition of Queen’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love.

Mr Corbyn was less in his comfort zone when playing table tennis at the ping pong parlour, an initiative by Table Tennis England where the public can hone their skills at the sport.

He told the PA news agency of his match with former Bolton West MP Julie Hilling: “I’m not a ping pong player at all. We have just produced for you the worst ever exhibition match of ping pong that ever was.”

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    1. Mr Corbyn’s suggestion offers reasonable short-term amelioration of an issue blighting town centres.

      Proposals for long term solution need counterpoise two apparently separate matters. First, out of town developments have enabled creation of large floor space retail entities able to benefit from economy of scale. In the food sector these are highly competitive among themselves and give consideration to price and quality in recognition of market segments and tastes.

      Second, high street shops and units within shopping mall developments in town centres inherently lack capacity to benefit from enlarged scale. In general, they can’t offer convenience of cheap/free car parking. Small units, other than providers of specialised goods and services, may better serve as displays of physical goods obtainable from out of town centres and the Internet.

      In both instances there lurks the question of site rental and municipal business rates. Some major out of town stores own their land and buildings. Others may have started that way but decided to release locked up capital by selling their title to land and property and paying rental to new owners. On high streets of long standing ownership of land and buildings tends to be in the hands of landlords. Many of these own huge swathes of property throughout the UK. The most enduring landlords possess prime sites in cities like London (Westminster Estates) and seaside resorts such as Llandudno in North Wales (Mostyn Estates).

      Landlords of this nature hold monopoly power within their domains. This especially egregious when the domain is a large tract of contiguous property. Rental prices landlords command impact considerably on ordinary folk buying goods and services from outlets landlords control. Perhaps there is analysis to be taken off the shelf indicating what proportion of people’s disposable income goes to support business sector rentiers?

      Going back to the time of Marx and before the sense of entitlement of landlords has been subjected to severe criticism. Small scale private landlords are much less of an issue than large operators who control rental prices in contiguous geographical areas of notable size.

      The fundamental objection to the rentier remains unchanged: money is syphoned from an economy, local and national, for provision of negligible, if any, tangible service requiring effort. This, known as ‘unearned income’, passes between generations of owners (e.g. the Westminster family) and/or wrapped within corporate entities in perpetuity without possibility of taxation upon death of identifiable single owners. Put otherwise, there is ownership of assets that need never be placed back onto an open market.

      Rentier economics goes far beyond physical property. It encompasses so-called ‘intellectual property’ too. A no doubt considerable proportion of individual and national disposable income is soaked up via the market in ‘rights’ for distribution of ‘intellectual property’ and rental (i.e. royalties) payable for up to creator’s life time plus seventy years.

      Thus, the impact of the rentier economy upon ordinary people is a matter Labour ought take forward. Many long established property rights may be considered anachronistic and worthy of deep reform.

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