The Future of the High Street

As the Minister so rightly said, our high streets are not just economic units that provide much-needed prosperity and create valuable jobs; they are at the heart of our communities. They are key to local identities and they bring people together. When our high streets and town centres are strong, our communities are stronger. When our high streets struggle, it puts additional pressures on our communities. We see this in high streets around my constituency, whether it is in Kingswinford, Brockmoor, Pensnett or Netherton, but perhaps the struggles facing our high streets and town centres can best be seen in Brierley Hill, the largest town centre in Dudley South.

When Brierley Hill high street grew and thrived either side of the second world war, the local economy was based largely around the Marsh & Baxter sausage factory in Brierley Hill and the Round Oak steelworks. As those two major employers declined through the ’70s—the steelworks was replaced by the intu Merry Hill shopping centre in the mid-1980s—instead of there being a large customer base, there was suddenly competition on the doorstep, which again provided enormous numbers of jobs but put further pressures on high streets. Since then, even Merry Hill has faced increasing competition from the move to online retail and the pressures that that has brought.

If high streets such as Brierley Hill are going to succeed, they need to be able to adapt to modern shopping trends and the realities of the economy in the 21st century, not what we might wish we could turn our local economies back to. This is where the future high streets fund is so important, and it is why I think that Brierley Hill’s bid for that fund is such a strong one. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to visit Brierley Hill with me to see why it is such a strong bid and so desperately needed.

Our high streets will need to be able to offer something that online retail cannot. That means an experience. A large part of that is hospitality, and, as the Minister knows and has heard, hospitality has faced particular problems through this pandemic. It is important that it is allowed to reopen as soon as it safely can, but short-term support is needed. In particular, as we look at Christmas, it seems ludicrous that we are sending families together, in household bubbles of three households, into the most dangerous places—private homes—instead of allowing them to mix in those three household bubbles in well regulated hospitality venues.