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More needs to be done to regenerate Wales’ town centres, Senedd hears

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MORE must be done to regenerate Wales’ town centres due to the impact of the pandemic, out-of-town developments and changing shopping habits, the Senedd heard.

Mark Isherwood led a debate in the Senedd on a public accounts committee report following an inquiry on town centre regeneration in Wales.

The committee chair said much good work is being done to improve town centres but the pace of regeneration must be accelerated.

Mr Isherwood warned Wales’ high streets have been changed immeasurably by the pandemic and the increased prevalence of online shopping.

The Tory raised concerns about poor transport links and a lack of car parking affecting footfall as he stressed the importance of developing an integrated, affordable system.

Calling for a simple approach to taxation, Mr Isherwood, who represents North Wales, argued the current business rates system disincentivises investment in towns.

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He recommended a more interventionist, pragmatic approach to planning – favouring town centres over out-of-town developments – with a focus on repurposing empty properties.

Mike Hedges, a member of the committee, which visited Morriston, Mold, Carmarthen and Wrexham as part of its inquiry, said the days of retail-dominated town centres have ended.

The Labour backbencher, who represents Swansea East, told the chamber: “I recently made a list of retailers that have closed in the last 20 years.

“It was both long and depressing, and if I read out only the big ones I would run out of time.” 

Mr Hedges warned shops in town centres are dependent on a rapidly ageing group as he raised concerns about the closure of banks and the growth of digital payments.

Urging people to “use them or lose them”, he said: “Card processing fees are typically 1.5-3.5%, but they can be as high as 6% per sale item.

“What we could do to help out is to use cash when making a purchase from a small local retailer – it will help them and it will cost you the same.”

Natasha Asghar, a Conservative member of the committee, said the Welsh Government has 13 separate funding streams for town centres.

Calling for consolidation and less bureaucracy, the South Wales East MS said the auditor general identified management of the funding as “problematic”.

She told the chamber: “Making this funding easier to access would ultimately encourage more organisations to apply for funding, making town centre regeneration more accessible.”

Luke Fletcher, a Plaid Cymru MS who represents South Wales West, suggested empty office space could be used to address an acute shortage of one- and two-bedroom flats.

He said: “By bringing people into the town centre to live, you’re creating that in-built footfall, aren’t you, because those people are going to want services.

“They’re going to want to go for a coffee, they’re going to want to go for food, they’re going to want to go for a pint. So, you’re creating that in-built footfall.”

Replying to the debate on March 13 on behalf of the Welsh Government, Julie James warned that town centres face unprecedented challenges.

Wales’ climate change minister said: “The impact of out-of-town developments, changing retail habits and the Covid pandemic have all had consequences for our high streets.

“There are too many empty shops, too few homes and too little green space.”

Ms James told MSs the Welsh Government, which accepted the committee’s eight recommendations, has strengthened planning policies to put town centres first.

She said: “We want to see town centres considered first for the location of significant new commercial, retail, education, health, leisure and public service facilities.

“This diverse range of services will, indeed, drive footfall into our town centres.”

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