As High Streets Minister, I’ve been immensely heartened by the way businesses have responded since the lockdown began.
The technological innovations many businesses have already introduced and the creative ways of trading I’ve seen, such as contactless collection or taking orders by instant messaging, demonstrate that many businesses are ready for the challenges ahead that this return to trading is bringing.
Their dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit will be needed more than ever as we move into the next phase of recovery.
The Government has worked with businesses and retailers to see them through this challenging time, with a comprehensive package of support to help them deal with the economic impact of the pandemic.
Across Yorkshire and the Humber, we’ve delivered a £1.3bn package for local authorities to deliver grants of up to £25,000 to over 95,000 small and medium-sized businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors, as well as business rates relief for the 2020/21 tax year. This comes on top of the support we’ve offered to businesses through our world-leading job retention scheme, the deferral of VAT payments for firms and the measures we’ve taken to safeguard the UK high street against aggressive debt recovery actions during the pandemic.
Now shops have been taking steps to ensure their staff and customers are kept safe – from limiting the number of customers within a shop at one time and helping customers to stay two metres apart wherever possible, to frequently cleaning stock and surfaces and storing returned items before putting them back on the shop floor.
And as our high streets start to reopen, I want to reassure you that our support will continue.
We’ve opened a new £50m fund to support our high streets to reopen safely. The Re-opening High Streets Safely Fund will give money directly to councils so they can make the changes needed to safely reopen their high streets, town centres and busy public spaces like beachfronts and promenades.
From Leeds City Council introducing volunteer ambassadors to welcome people back to the high street and support social distancing, to the Shambles Market in York bringing in a one-way system and changing the layout of their stalls, councils and businesses in Yorkshire are already doing brilliant work to make their high streets safe again.
And our new funding will ensure councils in Yorkshire receive £4.9m to support this work and bring new safety measures like signs, street markings and temporary barriers to help people to socially distance and ensure they can visit their local high street safely. I know that this can’t come soon enough.
Eighteen towns across Yorkshire are developing proposals for Towns Deals worth up to £25m for each town, and 13 places from this region are shortlisted in round one of the Future High Streets Fund.
This week we published new guidance for the Towns Fund. This will now enable communities, businesses and local leaders in those towns across Yorkshire to work together and draw up ambitious plans to transform their town’s economic growth prospects with a focus on improved transport, broadband connectivity, skills and culture.
But we know it will take more than just funding for our high streets to recover.
Last week I was delighted to announce that Mark Robinson, one of the co-founders of regional shopping centre firm Ellandi, has been appointed to head up the High Streets Task Force.
I know that Mark and the whole of the Task Force will act as a strong voice for businesses in Yorkshire, ensuring they get the support, training and resources they need as they reopen safely.
Supporting our high streets to thrive has always been central to the mission of this Government to level up the regions, and this is more true than ever as we start to come out of lockdown.
Yorkshire is home to many traditional town centres and I know for many years The Yorkshire Post has backed local shops and campaigned for our local streets.
And today I echo the same message – we must all do what we can to support our high street and make sure they continue to thrive.
It’s going to be a while before things will feel completely normal. But, as we look ahead, I know that our town centres and high streets, the bedrock of our communities, will be at the heart of our national recovery.
It’s time to deliver on the Prime Minister’s bold agenda for levelling up the whole country and accelerate change in our high streets and town centres for the better.
Simon Clarke is the High Streets Minister and Tory MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland.
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