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Speaking up for Bristol’s High Streets in Parliament

January 18, 2012

Parliament yesterday spent over 6 hours debating the future of our high streets and town centres.  The debate came on the back of the Portas Review of the High Street, commissioned by the PM and DPM.  Mary Portas made 28 recommendations, most of which I endorse.

Bristol’s retail scene has been a hot topic for all of the period that I’ve been involved in the city’s public life.  As the councillor for Cabot ward (all of the city centre) from 1993 to 1999 I was involved in decisions about the future of Broadmead and also smaller shopping districts like Park Row and Christmas Steps.  There were also the problems in Whiteladies Rd and Cotham Hill where too many bars and cafes were being opened.  Now as the MP for the much larger area of Bristol West I probably have the largest number of shops of any constituency MP in the south of England.

The debate was fascinating, with contributions from over 5o MPs.  There was huge interest among Lib Dem and Conservative MPs but the Labour benches were empty for most of the debate.  Draw your own conclusions!

I’ve pasted below the Hansard record of my speech.  Bear in mind that this is a 5 minute speech on a strict time limit – the Commons Chamber even has a countdown clock so MPs don’t over-run!  I took one intervention from Kingswood MP Chris Skidmore.  I gave some thoughts on reform of local government planning and finance and specifically mentioned two contentious local issues – Tesco on Cheltenham Rd and the three Costa coffee shops.

You may also be interested in two previous blogs on the High Street:

9.14 pm

Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): The whole debate so far has reminded me of when I was waiting to make my maiden speech, listening to potted descriptions of every town and city in the country, learning a lot about geography as well as politics. I shall now do roughly the same thing, talking from a city perspective about my Bristol West constituency, which covers the whole city centre and the shopping centres of Broadmead and Cabot Circus in the regional capital of the south-west of England. The constituency is also a patchwork of distinct neighbourhood shopping centres and high streets, bookended by Clifton village and Stapleton road, with the unique areas of Park street, Whiteladies road and Gloucester road running through the middle. Gloucester road may not be the oldest high street in England but it is certainly the longest. It has been argued in many media outlets that it is the greatest high street in England, with 2 miles of independent shops.

In the 1990s, as you will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, as a fellow Bristol Member, our city centre faced great challenges from out of town, but it has fought back. Bristol city council worked in partnership with the private sector and we have a new shopping centre, but more important, thousands of people now live in the heart of the city of Bristol. I do not think it has been mentioned in the debate that we need more residents in town and city centres. I certainly endorse the recommendations in the Portas report for town centre teams and for a presumption in favour of town and city centres in the planning regime.

High streets, whether in cities or towns, certainly face multiple challenges; indeed, as has been said, they are at crisis point. Rationing of parking spaces has been referred to. Control of crime is another issue, as is the switch to online retailing. Every time I make my traditional Christmas visit to the Montpelier Royal Mail sorting centre, I am struck by the sheer number of Amazon parcels of the books and DVDs my constituents are buying.

The other major threat to all our high streets and locally owned businesses comes from the large national chains and multiples. Supermarkets have been mentioned many times during the debate so I shall not say too much more about them, but I am probably the only Member in the Chamber who has experienced a riot in his constituency caused by the opening of a branch of Tesco. It took place over the Easter and royal wedding bank holidays in April last year. I certainly do not condone the antics of those constituents, but I very much share their frustration. Large businesses do not

17 Jan 2012 : Column 712

work with the grain of local opinion. It was not that people did not want a Tesco; they just did not want another Tesco in an area where the brand was already at saturation point.

There are also national chains of bars, restaurants and cafes. They use their lawyers and large planning departments to circumvent local authority planning decisions. In my constituency, we have an example involving Costa Coffee—a brand owned by Whitbread, the brewers—which has opened three outlets in Bristol; in Gloucester road in my constituency, in Clifton Down and in Westbury village in the neighbouring constituency of Bristol North West. The company has flouted the decisions of Bristol city council; Costa’s managing director wrote to me to say that Costa was “re-energising and revitalising” high streets and

“regularly complements independent retailers…to offer a wider range of choice.”

That sort of banality infuriates local residents when they think they cannot work with the system to get what they want. We certainly need to reform the planning system to combat uniformity and promote diversity.

Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): As a fellow Bristol MP, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman and I hope we might work together to share our experiences of local high streets. Kingswood high street is a valuable part of my constituency. Does he agree that if a planning application for a major store is rejected, there should be a breathing space and the large store should not be allowed to re-enter the system straight away?

Stephen Williams: Yes. I thank the hon. Gentleman—an MP for Greater Bristol—for that intervention.

The other flaw in the planning system is that when permission is refused by a committee of local councillors, the applicant goes ahead and opens the business because they know that an appeal will take a long time. That is a loophole that Costa has certainly exploited and it needs to be blocked. We need to reform the planning process, but we must also reform local government finance.

The use classes have been mentioned many times. Surely, it is common sense that the A1 retail use class cannot apply equally to Tesco, Sainsbury’s and all the other retail multiples and to Mrs Smith’s corner shop; none the less, that is how our planning system works.

What we need is to let go so that we have more localism, so that local councils, whether Bristol or South Gloucestershire, are sufficiently granular at the local level to micro-manage what they want in their high streets. If they do not want any more supermarkets or chains, they should be able to say so emphatically, and there should be no ambiguity in the classes of use to allow the large companies to drive a coach and horses through local opinion and local democratic decision making. Local communities could then promote the shops that they want, and democratically elected councillors could block the sharp practices of the large multiples.

Finally, finance has been mentioned a couple of times. The uniform business rate needs to be reformed so that local councils can offer waivers to businesses that they wish to attract to an area. Gloucester road has shops with most uses, but it does not have a book shop, so perhaps a rate incentive would attract a book retailer to the area. Business improvement districts have made a

17 Jan 2012 : Column 713

huge improvement to Bristol city centre, but I would argue that any shopping centre would benefit from a BID in which landlords are incentivised to take part as well. That is a key recommendation of the Portas report, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and which I have thoroughly enjoyed endorsing in this debate.

34 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2012 5:30 pm

    I too have read the report Stephen and admire your backing of the ‘high-street’. However, even in Mountain Ash where we both grew up, the council is systematically destroying it. The car parking charges introduced approx. three years ago have shown to be a major factor. Hiding behind the guise that they had spent a lot of money improving the infrastructure, someone had to pay for it…

    I personally, whilst continuing my studies, used the large car park opposite the station. Luckily for me, I had a house swap and now live five minutes walk away but unfortunately cannot go out alone due to severe disabilities.

    Even my own cousin, who owns/runs one of the most successful hairdressers and beauty therapy salons in the area has been affected by the 60 pence an hour parking charge, even though these services sometimes overrun and thereby risk a customer getting a disproportunite fine.

    When I was studying in Cardiff the car park in Mountain Ash opposite the station would have cost me £10 per day + train fare… I can no longer drive due to a series of horrific health issues which started in January 2010, caused, predominantly by sepsis/blood poisoning/meningitis and hypothermia, resulting in severe mobility problems, a number of cardiac arrests, major organ failure, coma for five weeks, pneumonia, hypoxia, brain, nerve, tissue damage and many other things.

    Surely the whole point of providing suitable infrastructure is to attract new and maintain loyal customers thus bringing prosperity, new businesses and investment.

  2. January 18, 2012 5:39 pm

    yes the Valleys towns that we both know so well have really had a torrid time in the last 20 years. I’m not so familiar with Mountain Ash these days but Pontypridd appears to be doing OK and I read the other week about some plans for Aberdare.

    • January 18, 2012 6:00 pm

      Aberdare has had a lot of regeneration and is thriving compared to Pontypridd. The main reason for Pontypridd’s downturn is that when the main precinct was demolished (which housed my all time favourite cafe) the council conveniently ran out of money…

      Merthyr is doing well simply because it is lucky enough to be a ‘heads of the valleys’ town with good infrastructure, public transport and has the extremely convenient Cyfarthfa retail park which includes a very good mix of shopping, entertainment and restaurants, all with free carparking. Merthyr town centre has always been well looked after by it’s council and still enjoys a thriving heart of community.

      Perhaps Cynon Valley should be afforded the same treatment and I shall be writing to the Rt. Hon. Ann Clwyd MP.

      Abercynon needs regeneration urgently as well…

  3. Chris Bury permalink
    January 19, 2012 1:18 pm

    I wish I was there in the House to applaud you.

    If you please, i like to point out that, the lack of Post Offices and Banks has a very delibitating effect on the nearby shops. A taxi driver from Knowle West pointed out thus, “They closed the banks first, then the post offce. We used to go to the bank or the post office, get cash and spend it in the nearby shops. Now we go to the supermarket use the cash machine there and spend it in the supermarket.” I think small is better.

    I had an email conversation with my councillar Jon. But he emphatically told me we cannot have either a Bank or a Post Office in the above shopping area..I like to know what your more educated feeling is about this?

    • January 19, 2012 1:34 pm

      Chris – I see no reason why a POst Office counter could not operate in Knowle West. The important thing about access to cash is that it should be free to obtain your own money!

      I agree with you that the withdrawal of post offices from some high streets has been a problem, something I campaigned about a lot from about 2000 to 2007 when Labour closed loads of them in Bristol. The current govt has halted the closure programme.

      • Chris Bury permalink
        January 20, 2012 1:35 pm

        I do understand your frustration. I knew that the closure of Po’s was halted. i am sorry i did not explain fully about my frustration. I live in Badminton Road St Agnes, on the border of St pauls. I cannot walk more than 200 yards at a time without stopping. There are no Po or a Bank in the shopping parade in St pauls. There was a PO and a Bank there before. Everytime I need cash I have to take lift off a mate or get a taxi. I think there are quite a few people living around me who go through the same problem. As I explained above I did email talk to Jon the councillar. What I cannot understand is, why can’t the Gov open new PO and get Loyds (our ank…ha ha) to open a branch in St Pauls.

  4. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    January 19, 2012 4:37 pm

    As a Lib/Dem, what do you think of a situation where a supermarket has a planning application rejected, appeals, the cllrs. who voted against refuse to take part in the second application, citing intimidation, and are replaced by others who then pass the application? Would you think that standard practice?

    • January 21, 2012 12:00 am

      football grounds and supermarkets generate enough passion on their own but a situation where they are linked guarantees that councillors will be unpopular…

  5. January 21, 2012 8:00 am

    Good that parliament is at last taking an interest in the greedy methods of the multinationals. You’re not quite on the mark with the tesco riots-there has definitely been an anti tesco element to the campaigns.
    The High st destroying biggest hypermarket in the south west at Ashton Gate doesn’t get a mention by you in your speech. Your lib-dem council is responsible for this, time to admonish them or just wring your hands and blame the system?

  6. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    January 21, 2012 6:40 pm

    I don’t think it’s about being unpopular. I’v come to accept you must take the decision whether it goes in your favour or not. Thats democracy. But when cllrs. refuse to take part, citing intimidation, and at short notice, surely for the benefit of both sides, there should have been an inquiry into what this intimidation was. It says nothing for Sainsbury, that they were happy to win in such a way.

  7. January 22, 2012 8:31 am

    Ok have to give credit for the speech in the house flagging up the excellent Gloucester Rd high st that must be given some protection against the multinationals. Can understand why you aren’t getting drawn into any debate involving football grounds.
    It is a bit odd though that focus from you and the media is on the underhand methods of the costa chain with their tiny coffee shops, when the bigger picture is the100,000 sq ft hypermarkets on the two Bristol football grounds about to be built next door to the vulnerable high st’s of north and south bristol.

    • January 22, 2012 10:40 am

      Costa was not my main focus, though their antics are certainly a problem. I called for reforms to planning and local govt finance (both of which are being planned by the Coalition Govt) so that high streets could be developed by local councils with a diverse range of shops.

      As to the big supermarket plans – the one in Bristol South will replace an existing large Sainsbury’s, as I understand it. In the north, The Memorial Ground situation is a shame. While there were local concerns about parking on match days (which I have voiced as the MP for the area) I do think the loss of weekly sport (thousands of fans using pubs, cafes and shops) and the arrival of a supermarket will have a double blow on businesses at the top end of Gloucester Road. And if Gloucestershire Cricket Club have to move away after the bizarre decision of the planning cttee to refuse their redevelopment plans, then there’s another big site that would be ripe for big retail and flats.

      Huge numbers of football, rugby and cricket fans were able to arrive at the Memorial Ground and County Ground on foot or by the frequent buses along Gloucester Road and Filton Avenue. In future most fans will probably drive so the loss of these facilities to outside the city is an environmental problem as well.

  8. January 23, 2012 10:50 am

    You’re spot on with the sports stadia close to the centres being important for traders.
    The new Sainsburys at Ashton Gate will be double the size of the old one up the road and have the opposite effect of the stadium in drawing money out of the local economy. North St and East St here in the South are similar to the Gloucester Rd in many ways so the memorial stadium ‘foodstore’ confronts local traders with the same issues.
    There needs to be redress in the balance of planning, with local planning and laws protecting the traditional shopping streets from being wiped out by the walmarts.
    Hope you stick at it as the Portas report is a good start. And get some of those lazy labour MPs on board.

  9. Chris Bury permalink
    January 23, 2012 1:13 pm

    I am sorry to interrupt this quite important conversation. I and a few of my friends do like to know about your line of thought about the Iran situation. Please do start another blog piece about this, as it is getting very close to another war. US presidential elections are not that far innit.

    • January 24, 2012 1:01 pm

      I am emphatically opposed to any UK involvement in any war/attack on Iran.

      • Chris Bury permalink
        January 24, 2012 2:52 pm

        Thank you for your honest opinion and I agree whole heartedly. But did the House give permission to Mr W Hague, the little Hitler, to go and say yes to the Oil Sanctions on Iran. I thought we British will abstain from that vote. I cannot remember any debate about the subject in the House.

  10. John S permalink
    February 5, 2012 12:07 am

    Stephen, Why are you so intent on decimating the country’s local corner shops with your tobacco display ban legislation? Your friends in ASH claimed that the smoking ban would have no impact on pubs yet thousands have closed since. Have you had their “evidence” independently assessed (i.e. by a genuine economist) or are you completely under their control?

  11. February 5, 2012 12:55 pm

    The display ban is meant to keep these products out of the sight of children and the proposed standardisation of packaging has the same intent. Small shops will not be affected until next year, while large supermarkets have to comply from April 2012.

    Cigarette sales are in long term decline. Besides, the margin to a shopkeeper is quite small (about 23p I believe) per pack. There are larger margins on other products, none of which are likely to kill people.

    The smoking ban is not the main reason for the closure of pubs. Indeed many of the pubs on the Gloucester Rd where I live in Bristol have been redecorated, have better food menus and are thriving.

  12. John S permalink
    February 5, 2012 2:11 pm

    Of course, like all prohibitionists, you are in complete denial of the “forbidden fruit effect”. Where is the PROOF, or even INDEPENDENT evidence, that the “out of sight, out of mind” whim of your friends in ASH will have the desired effect or, indeed, would not be counter-productive? Whatever happened to “evidence-based, policy making”?

    Why are the Association of Convenience Stores and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents so deeply concerned about the effect the ban will have on their members’ livelihoods? Are you again going to trot out the same pathetic argument that the tobacco industry is funding them to oppose the ban?

    What are the main reasons for pub closures? Was it the overnight “culture change” that occurred on 30th June, 2007? Was that the very same day that supermarkets drastically reduced the price at which they sold alcohol? Did the pubs’ customers foresee the coming recession eighteen months in advance (or even more in Scotland and Ireland)?

    P.S. Surely the far greater threat to “the children” is the open display of obesity-causing sweets, savoury snacks and fizzy drinks in their “glitzy” packaging, designed to lure “the children” into eating themselves into an early grave? Hasn’t obesity outbid smoking in the “causes of premature death” auction? Have the independent Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) entered their bid of 200,000 yet?

  13. M Williams permalink
    February 17, 2012 5:00 pm

    Entering this debate a bit late.

    As a retailer at the top end of the Gloucester Road I am intersested in the response and thoughts of the local Councillors, MP’s and community to the Memorial Ground planning proposal.

    It was not long ago that Sainsburys had another planing application in to build a much smaller store here at the back of Merton Rd; this caused outrage and a well organised local response from the Bogofs ( and ultimately rejection on the grounds that another supermarket was not wanted or needed, it would damage the Gloucester Rds businesses and the loss of the light industrial units the supermarket would replace were too valuable to give up.

    I cannot see that this latest proposal is any different; all the same arguments apply apart from the current use, yet it seems everyone is sitting on their hands over this one. There has been very little response or debate about it.

    Will you find the time to come and talk to us about the proposal?

    • February 17, 2012 6:20 pm

      I would be pleased to meet a group of Glos Rd retailers to discuss this and other issues. The planning application itself is of course a matter for Bristol City Council, not Parliament. The Memorial Ground is just inside Bishopston council ward and my Bristol West constituency. But it’s at an intersection with two other council wards (Horfield and Lockleaze) and their councillors will also be taking a view.

      Personally, I think it is a shame that Rovers and Bristol Rugby are leaving the area. The trade of thousands of fans will be lost to Gloucester Rd.

  14. February 21, 2012 1:04 am

    Stephen: the “Costa” which opened on Whiteladies Road has, directly opposite, a “Starbucks” and TWO “Gusto’s”
    FOUR coffee shops within a 50 metre radius??
    How can the illegal “Costa” possibly claim to be improving choice in the area?

    • May 29, 2012 12:47 am

      Have you actually lokoed at Bristol Council’s planning regulations ? They are so general and open to interpretation that their planning officers have carte blanche to do pretty much whatever they want. I sympathise with individuals or organisations who rebel against their inconsistent and unpredictable decision making. The regulations need to changed such that an individual making a planning application is reasonably likely to predict the outcome.

  15. Craig Chorley permalink
    February 22, 2012 8:34 pm

    Thank you Stephen for speaking up for us on this, and thank you for this report and your letters that have shown that your constituents voices are being put forward in parliament.
    I was walking home down Gloucester Road after the stores had closed yesterday and noticed activity in the (relatively new) independent fishmongers, The Fish Shop. There was class on of around eight all learning how to prepare and fillet a whole fish. It was such a great thing to see people gaining this basic knowledge of raw ingredients and skills that we have lost in modern Britain, which is the main reason people nowadays avoid buying things such as whole fresh fish. It is actually quite embarrassing our general lack of knowledge and interest in fresh fish compared to most European countries, and the lack of fresh fish we have available on our high streets when you consider we in the UK are surrounded by water! This sight really summed up the value of such independent shops to the community and the diversity of our high streets. I really feel The Fish Shop should be commended for this, and similar classes encouraged to be hosted by the independent butchers also. I would love to get a chance to understand more about both fresh fish and meat, it would really help me to understand what to ask for and how to handle and prepare it, where I now mostly just stick to supermarket packaged versions.

    • February 22, 2012 10:29 pm

      what a fantastic comment! I’m visiting the Bristol Fruit Market later this week to learn more about the supply chain in the city.

  16. Mrs Danuta Kellett and family permalink
    February 22, 2012 10:04 pm

    Dear Mr Williams, my grandparents who were converts to the protestant faith in Poland had a house by a part of land that was taken as a development for recreation and a football stadium. They had to give it up as it was necessary to development to pull the houses down. As far as I know, they might not have been compensated for it as they should have been. I think that it is important for the people that might live close to the development in Ashton Gate that they will be well compensated.

  17. February 25, 2012 6:50 pm

    I’m pleased to hear that there is some action being taken, even if it is just talking at this stage, against the flouting of the planning regulations regarding coffee bars. As a former coffee bar owner I had to apply for permission with all the costs and uncertainty that that involves as well as being restricted in my choice of location (knowing that permission would be unlikely to be granted). There has been an explosion in the number of food and drink outlets in our city and in many places I personally consider they are an asset. But what ever rules we have should be applied equally and chains should not be allowed to flout the laws and compete unfairly with smaller businesses for premises and location just because they can afford to be brazen. Having followed the proper proceedures I watched as many new places opened in my area providing competition which should not have been permitted. It’s time the council used it’s powers.

    • February 26, 2012 10:33 pm

      The city council is taking planning enforcement action over the outlets at Whiteladies Rd and Westbury. The Gloucester Rd one was refused planning permission and is under appeal by the franchise holder.

  18. evo61 permalink
    February 28, 2012 4:24 pm

    I applaud your speech – please keep the pressure up. I’m also glad to read the other comments here – lots of good points made. Basically, the current situation makes life much easier for big businesses (and their franchisees) relative to small businesses – in the interests of a fairer, happier and more productive society, it should be the other way around. And those in power (and I’m talking money rather than politics, although the two are closely connected) aren’t going to change that without a (very unfair) fight because it’s amassing huge amounts of money that matters to them, not the community they make it in.

  19. February 29, 2012 12:26 am

    Further to my comments on the ILLEGAL “Costa” coffee shop on Whiteladies road, Clifton Down: their arrogantly ignoring planning laws is now shown to be glaringly obvious as a very astute move now that the “Whiteladies Road” improvements outside the shop has produced a dramatic increase in the area of pavement adjacent, which the shop will obviously fill with tables, chairs and “A”boards in a nice sunny spot!

    So, they bought a News-agent’s shop and without waiting for planning permission for change-of-use or any other planning requirements converted it into a coffee shop in direct competition with THREE other coffee shops just across the road! Now they will simply apply for retrospective planning permission and a toothless Planning Department will meekly grant it OR Bristol local taxpayers will have to foot the bill to fight the inevitable Appeal.
    Why is Bristol Planning so weak and ineffective?

  20. david willingham permalink
    July 21, 2012 1:21 pm

    In a decision of significance for all planning practitioners, the Supreme Court in Tesco Stores v Dundee City Council [2012] UKSC 13 rejected Tesco’s challenge and determined that the interpretation of planning policy is a matter of law and not to be left to the discretion of local planning authorities.


  1. Bristol West MP Steven Williams speaks up for local high streets | Bristol Independents Day
  2. No Tesco in Stokes Croft fundraising party – Chance to win a Banksy! | Real Food Lover
  3. Stephen Williams MP | The Indie Shopper

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