Y Pwyllgor Cyfrifon Cyhoeddus a Gweinyddiaeth Gyhoeddus

Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee


Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Alun Davies Yn dirprwyo ar ran Mike Hedges
Substitute for Mike Hedges
Ann-Marie Harkin Archwilio Cymru
Audit Wales
Mabon ap Gwynfor
Mark Isherwood
Natasha Asghar

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Ben Cottam Federation of Small Businesses (FSB)
Federation of Small Businesses (FSB)
Matthew Mortlock Archwilio Cymru
Audit Wales
Nick Selwyn Archwilio Cymru
Audit Wales
Phil Prentice Partneriaeth Trefi’r Alban
Scotland’s Towns Partnership
Richard Roe Cyngor Trafford
Trafford Council
Tom McCarthy Consortiwm Manwerthu Cymru
Welsh Retail Consortium

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Craig Griffiths Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser
Fay Bowen Clerc
Lisa Hatcher Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Owain Davies Ail Glerc
Second Clerk

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Cyfarfu’r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:01.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 09:01. 

1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau a dirprwyon
1. Introductions, apologies and substitutions

Bore da a chroeso. Good morning and welcome to today's meeting of the Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee in the Senedd. No apologies for absence have been received—. That's not actually accurate: we have two Members who have given apologies for absence, Mike Hedges and Rhianon Passmore, and Alun Davies has joined us today as a temporary member, given their absence. Do Members have any declarations of registrable interests they wish to declare? No, thank you very much indeed.

2. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42 i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o'r cyfarfod ar gyfer eitemau 3, 6 a 7
2. Motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the meeting for items 3, 6 and 7


bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o eitemau 3, 6 a 7 yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).


that the committee resolves to exclude the public from items 3, 6 and 7 in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

I propose in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix) that the committee resolves to meet in private for items 3, 6 and 7 of today's meeting. Are all Members content? Thank you. Well, I note I believe that all Members are content. The clerk, therefore, will now change the settings from public to private, and we will then continue with the meeting.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 09:02.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 09:02.


Ailymgynullodd y pwyllgor yn gyhoeddus am 09:39.

The committee reconvened in public at 09:39.

4. Adfywio Canol Trefi: Sesiwn Bord Gron 1
4. Regenerating Town Centres: Roundtable Session 1

Bore da. Croeso. Good morning and welcome back to the Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee, meeting this morning remotely. I welcome our guests who'll be giving evidence to committee. I'd be grateful if you could state your names and roles for the record, perhaps starting with Mr Prentice.

Hello. My name's Phil Prentice, I'm the chief officer of Scotland's Towns Partnership and the national programme director for Scotland's Improvement Districts.

Good morning, everyone. My name's Richard Roe, I am the corporate director for place at Trafford Council.


Thank you very much indeed. Actually, you're not very far from where I'm sitting at the moment, ironically, albeit across that incredible border.

As you'd expect, we have a number of questions, and I would ask both Members and witnesses to be as succinct as possible so that we can cover as wide a range of issues as possible generated by this topic. I will start with the questions to the witnesses. I'll start by asking you to what extent you believe that local authorities in your own jurisdictions are able to effectively create local coalitions of change and bring together all the key players to help regenerate and improve towns. I don't know which of you would like to go first.

I'm happy to go first, Mark. I think it's a mixed picture across the country. Some local authorities are very good at this, others less so. So, there genuinely isn't consistency across the piece. But, I would say that, where we see success, it's where local government works very positively with its community and business partnerships and there's trust and an understanding of roles and remits. No one sector is going to be able to fix this problem on its own, and I think there has to be a growing recognition that we do need much more collaboration, but it is a mixed picture.

Yes. I agree with Phil. I think I would say it's a mixed picture. But, if it's going to work, if you're going to successfully regenerate town centres, then it needs the local authority to lead. We are the key player in that role, but the local authority can't do it on its own. So, you do need a coalition with business, with community, with other public sector partners. That's certainly our experience. I think the private sector wants the local authority to step into that space, they want the local authority to take the lead, they want the local authority to create the right environment for investment, and then they will follow. I think the community is the same. I think that has to be the approach. I think, as Phil said, the appetite in different local authorities may not be there.

Thank you. In the evidence we've received thus far, we've seen local authorities taking the leadership in some towns, but we've also seen town councils, for example, different tiers of local government, taking the lead in other areas, which goes back to the words you referred to in terms of working together and collaboration and partnership. To what extent, from your experience, have you seen local authorities having the right skills with their lead partners in terms of leadership, resources, buy-in and capacity to regenerate towns in the areas where you're working?

I'll go first, if you don't mind. Again, it's a similar picture. I think local authorities have suffered disproportionately in terms of development departments—economic, housing—through the period of austerity over the last 12 to 15 years. Usually, it's these functions that will have been depleted. That said, I think there's an opportunity here for a regional approach, whereby a lot of those skill sets could be shared across a number of local authorities. In Scotland, we've got a unitary system of 32. We don't have to have specialists in 32 local authorities on housing or finance or net zero; you could actually be doing that at a regional level and driving efficiency. So, we're seeing much more of that through the city and regional growth deals and the regional economic partnerships, particularly in the south of Scotland where we've got a new enterprise agency. They've taken a much more clearly defined role in leading on town-centre regeneration and working more closely with the local authority. So, they're actually bringing the capacity into local government for that period of time, and additional resources, skills and so on. At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter about structure, so long as the activity is being delivered. But we are facing difficult times around resourcing, so I think there must be more collaboration and a regional approach taken.

I think there is, undoubtedly, a capacity challenge and a financial challenge, but some of this comes down to prioritisation and the extent to which the authority puts town-centre regeneration as being a priority, and therefore puts resources behind that. I do think there's an opportunity for collaboration. Certainly, within greater Manchester, we do that across the 10 districts and with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, on the basis that that gives us collectively more scope, more buying power. I think there is also scope if you're going to do it with a public, private or community sector partnership, to bring in some of those resources from outside. It doesn't mean the authority has to do everything itself; you can tap into and bring in private sector resources to add in, and that's certainly something that we try and do and push as much as we can.


Thank you. Have you witnessed or seen any pushback from, say, senior people who don't want to share power in practice, and want to be in charge and carry on in the old way? How's that being managed to get them on board?

I think there's always some pushback. There are always little power bases. I think the starting point is to get the shared vision. So, certainly, our approach in our town centre—so, in Altrincham and now in Stretford—has been working to get a shared vision, shared ambition, and once you've got that, you've got something you can align behind and that becomes the priority. But that's the starting point.

Thank you. In terms of the planning system, again, to what extent in your experience do you believe this has been flexible enough to support businesses and partners to respond quickly to problems when they arise, and, if it hasn't, what should be done to improve this? Of course, I'm aware—as obviously, clearly you are—the planning systems in Scotland, Wales and England are not completely aligned, but nonetheless similar issues apply.

Again, I'll pitch in from Scotland. We have just published 'National Planning Framework 4', so the new national plan framework has just been approved by the Scottish Parliament. That was actually quite timely because we'd already begun to understand the ongoing trends around it, the decline in retail, and how citizen behaviour had changed, and the urgency around climate. So, a lot of the new policies point towards that. We also have a town-centre policy now called 'A New Future for Scotland's Town Centres', and things that will actually reduce our carbon footprint, that will put more energy back into our town centres, particularly by repopulating and driving residential solutions. So, the planning system, I think, that we have is fit for purpose, and certainly over the last few months, some of the early tests around out-of-town sprawl development have actually been called in by the Scottish Government, and the applications have been refused.

So, I think it's important that the Welsh Government gets its story straight, and that there is an alignment within the Welsh Government to make sure there's a consistent approach, because at the end of the day, the planning framework should really encourage the right sort of investment, and we should only be funding the right sort of investment. So, if you get your story straight to begin with, most of the jigsaw pieces will then ultimately fall into place. And all commercial investors want to see is consistency and longevity. They want to know that this is the way it's going to be long term, and the money will then follow up after that. So, I think we have actually got a pretty decent planning system. Obviously, the proof will be in the pudding and the delivery over the next few years, but at least the policy is very solid.

I think I'm probably slightly less optimistic than Phil on this. I think there are some challenges in the planning system. I think it can be slow to get policy changes made. Actually, in our full council last night, we adopted a new planning policy, the civic quarter area action plan, just outside one of our town centres, but it's taken us four years to get that adopted, to go through the system that we have to go through. And we've ended up—. We're adopting it in a very different place from when we started. So, I do think there are some challenges in getting policy and being able to move policy quickly enough to respond to a changing economic environment. 

I think permitted development rights and the conversion of office to residential gives us some challenges as well, in terms of our ability to manage how that transition from commercial to residential is led, not that we're against bringing more residential into the town centre. That's something that we want to do, but we also want to manage how it works from the commercial basis. You're always recognising in the planning system that you're potentially trying to balance out people with very different interests, and that is always one part of the challenge.

Having said that, I think that, used properly, there are some advantages and some strengths in the planning system when you look at individual applications. We have got a neighbourhood business plan in Altrincham, which was worked on and led by the local community, owned by the local community, and they're still very involved with the design panel in looking at development within Altrincham town centre. So, used properly, it can be of benefit, but there are some structural challenges, I think.


And what, in your view, needs to change to address those?

I think that some of it is a national-level policy change. The nature of planning is that it takes a long time to do. Within greater Manchester, we're working on a regional strategy now, 'Places for Everyone', across nine of the 10 districts. We've been working on that for seven years now, to get that through. That's a long time to get your baseline planning policy in place. These things are complex, they're large, they're difficult, but there's got to be a way for us to get policy decisions made slightly quicker. Because Phil's right—what the private sector and what the community wants is certainty and understanding. And actually, when you're going through the system, creating planning policy, you're putting uncertainty into the system, and always with the danger that there's a change in national policy, which actually then means that the baseline that you should be working against starts to change.

Thank you. Again, based upon your experiences, what needs to happen to get other public sector partners, for example health trusts, boards, universities, or otherwise, to work with councils to deliver regeneration in towns?

I'll pitch in. I think, in Scotland, we've taken a very different approach. We haven't looked at it solely through the prism of town centres—we've looked at it through the prism of place. And through that, we developed a place principle, which was co-signed by local government and the Scottish Government and a number of our key agencies—the likes of enterprise agencies, transport, VisitScotland and the third sector. And the rationale behind that was really that place is the responsibility of all actors, and, ultimately, all actors will have a distinct role to play in actually making the place better, making it work better for citizens, ultimately. And that does involve transportation, it involves health, it involves housing, it involves the environment. But I think that having that discussion at the place-based partnership gives us a much better opportunity to create a holistic vision, and to look at how resources are aligned in the longer term. It even considers disinvestments—an honest discussion about what has to go and what's not affordable any more. So, I think, taking a place-based approach has broadened out the discussion, and no longer is town-centre regeneration seen to be solely the remit of local authorities—it's actually seen to be everybody's responsibility. The principle was launched in 2018, so it's still taking time to embed, but most place partnerships now do involve constituent elements of local authorities—usually being the main driver—but other key community planning partners, particularly health, heritage and economy. And that approach genuinely has widened out and improved the approach to places, which, ultimately, has affected a lot of town centres positively. Because, a wee bit like Wales, Scotland is very much a nation of towns, with the exception of a couple of cities. So, it's where the bulk of our population and businesses reside, and we're need to actually grasp that nettle and just work collegiately to make it better.

I think it comes back to agreeing a vision, really, in what you're trying to achieve. Our experience in Altrincham was that we brought in other public sector partners—so, health partners, transport colleagues, education colleagues—all to sign up to a vision, to recognise, actually, what they would gain by an improved town centre, in terms of improved service delivery, but improved outcomes for residents. And through that, we aligned investment, and investment decisions were made. We had investment from the council into the public realm, we had investment from health into a new hospital, and Transport for Greater Manchester into a new transport interchange. So, we were aligning that investment, and then again, that's part of creating the environment, turning the perception of the town around, and that creates a platform from which the private sector will follow and the private sector will start to invest, because they're seeing the public sector taking the lead.


Thank you, both. What impact, again from your experience, do you believe the Welsh Government's target of 30 per cent of the Welsh workforce working at or near to home might have on towns? Is it something you've considered in your own areas? Is it something you consider to be feasible, based on any experience you have or any research that you've undertaken?

I think it's a good ambition. Undoubtedly, in the post-COVID and climate emergency landscape, the world has changed substantially, and it won't go back to pre COVID. So, basically, we are looking at how economy and education and so on is delivered in a much more sustainable way.

In Scotland, we noticed very quickly that towns were actually getting disproportionate benefit as opposed to city centres. The city centres were the ones that were most challenged, because, obviously, they weren't getting their daily commuters or the student flow or visitors. That has stabilised a little bit, but we've very much seen in Scotland the pattern of agile workforce, with large numbers of people continuing to work in a flexible way. That has been beneficial to the towns. We've seen co-working establishments open, because people don't want to spend all their time in their bedroom, so that's created an economic opportunity. But we've also seen consumption rise. So, people are going into coffee shops again on a much more regular basis.

I think the concept of encouraging people away from carbon-intense commuting is actually a positive step forward. The role of the 20-minute neighbourhood, as it's often called, is to make sure that people do have access to education, employment, leisure, green space within that 20-minute walk or cycle. And that's really where a lot of our policies are headed towards, to actually embed that long term, to return to localism, to get people to think more about sustainability and their own individual carbon footprints. That means you have a bigger population base in your town; it's not being drained out into the city every day. The cities have to come up with their own imaginative strategies, but again, mainly around repopulation of city centres et cetera. But I think it's a worthy ambition. Maybe 30 per cent is actually—. It's certainly an interesting figure to start with, because it probably is roughly about a third of the population who are currently working in that format in Scotland.

I think it's interesting that you've got that as an ambition. Certainly, our experience, similar to Phil, is that post COVID, we saw footfall return more quickly in our town centres than it did in Manchester city centre, the regional centre, and in other city centres. I think there's a consistency in the data there. I think it's the extent to which that's maintainable, but also you can translate that footfall into spend, because that's what economically you need in the town centre. And I do think it means you need to think about what the town centre offer is, because that's a different—. If you're going to look to cater to have flexible working space, joint working space, for people who are predominantly working from home but looking to get out, and somewhere more locally, that may be a very different offer to the offer that you've currently got in the town centres, so it does need some investment. Again, in Altrincham, we're currently investing in some more flexible working space, again to try and tap into that market. I think it'll be interesting to see the extent to which we maintain this level of hybrid working as we go down the line. We are still relatively soon post COVID, so over period of time we will certainly want to keep an eye on it. But there are huge carbon benefits and quality-of-life benefits by people commuting less, undoubtedly.

Thank you. What, if any, practice that you've been involved with can you share with us about what could be done or should be done with office accommodation in towns that is now surplus to requirements, including edge-of-town development that becomes vacant? In terms of Scotland, it brings to mind a visit I made several years ago with a Senedd group to Glasgow where you had followed the water-based regeneration model and started on your then-run-down water assets.

And then, what else do you think can be done to address the issue of finding property owners holding vacant premises in town centres but not engaging actively with local authorities to address the eyesores that creates? I've pushed a few together, but let's see what you can make of those. As I mentioned Glasgow, shall we start again with Mr Prentice?


In terms of office space, we've been working with a lot of commercial organisations, the banking sector, et cetera, and I think that's maybe a good indicator or barometer of what the long-term predictions are around this type of workforce. They are actively shedding a significant proportion of their current asset base in the understanding that we will live a hybrid lifestyle in the future. That horse has already bolted and a lot of the commercial guys are looking mainly at residential restructuring—so, looking at their own asset base, how much they will need or predict in terms of traditional office space, and then just shedding the remainder of the assets, again mainly for residential redevelopment.

In terms of Glasgow's water-led regeneration, yes, that whole green/blue upgrading of the Scottish canals network, district heating networks, et cetera—it's been excellent. And it continues to inspire some of even the more impoverished areas to the north of Glasgow—Possilpark et cetera—where the canal is now playing a very active role in the regeneration of some of these deprived areas. We've got community improvement districts coming off the back that as well, where a traditional businesses improvement district has been expanded out to bring in health, community groups, et cetera, and that seems to be a really good landing point for action at the hyperlocal level. Hyperlocal is important as well, because as the assets get repurposed and there are bigger populations in denser footprints, community is a massive part of that. I think people engaging in that and being up for it and understanding what's happening is critical.

In terms of edge-of-town, we've made it quite clear in our national planning framework that we do not want sprawl development. The agenda clearly moving forward is driven by net zero and the need to repurpose and retrofit and to make use of our existing urban footprints, rather than sprawling out further into the edge of town or to the green belt. As I said, the test to that has already been for the Scottish Government to call in the two recent significant edge-of-town developments and to refuse the applications. That's a real strong statement of intent: the current development system is broken and has to change. We're saying how it's going to change over the next 20 to 30 years. So, development sector, get with it and start repurposing the shopping centres that are no longer needed, start looking at the commercial space that's no longer needed for traditional office use, and start driving local solutions around that rather than sprawling out into the green belt.

So, net zero is driving a lot of things, and even taxation should be linked to carbon in the future. There are massive opportunities if we get the right leadership around this.

Thank you. And in terms of edge-of-town, what would happen not in terms of new development, but when existing development becomes vacant?

Again, it's down to what the vision for the local place is and the ambition. It could well be that it's just turned into green space or biodiversity. It could be for housing or for a different type of use. But we are trying to move away very much from uses that are pulling activity and energy out of the centre and encouraging people into car journeys. We've become a carborne economy where, if you want to go to your health centre or to your college or to your work, everybody's having to jump in a car and drive five or six miles in different directions. We have to unpick that. So, again, if the place plans are relevant and they're well thought through, there should be uses lined up for those areas that are actually more relevant to whatever world we're living in in the future.

I think my final question there was: what is the Scottish experience in terms of engaging with property owners of vacant premises in town centres who are reluctant to engage?

It's a perennial issue. The multiplicity of ownership and the complexity of ownership is often one of the biggest constraints. We've taken a wee bit of a carrot-and-stick approach in terms of punitive rates. We're also looking at improvements to compulsory purchase orders, and, again, not every local authority needing to be a specialist in CPOs, but having a sort of central resource that can be used where there's something particularly blocking progress.

So, also the compulsory sales order, that legislation is still making its way through Parliament, but that would allow communities to put down an ownership interest in a property, and it would force the sale of the property if it was doing damage to the local economy or local community. So, a combination of compulsory purchase and compulsory sales and having that detailed knowledge—. Because it's a skill set that a lot of people in local government have lost, and they've sort of shied away from, from fear of litigation et cetera, because it's complex, but, having that as an ultimate end resort, I think fixes minds, and people will leave quicker. So, punitive rates and having these legislative tools to actually get bad actors out of the town.

We've done a lot of research recently, which has highlighted that a third of Scotland's high streets are owned by offshore pension funds, who probably don't even know that they own these assets, and they're sitting on them; they're actually causing despair. Even in the main shopping centres in Glasgow, a third of those properties are owned by distant landlords who are not engaged. So, again, these tools are fairly recent, and I think the proof will be, moving forward, just how useful they prove to be, because I think local authorities and communities have suffered for too long from people who are just extracting wealth from local communities. We need to get better actors into play and take ownership of these assets to get them working for local citizens more productively. 


Thank you. And Richard Roe. And apologies for calling you Richard Rae previously. 

No problem. I think, starting from the empty office space bit, for me, I think it's important that the local authority tries to manage that as best as it can. I think that does require some master planning, otherwise you have a danger of sporadic changes of use of empty office space, particularly given the way that permitted development rights work. And there will be a quantum of office space that you want. We were talking in the earlier question around hybrid working, home working, the extent of having flexible office space in town centres, and that might help to support town-centre regeneration. So, there is a danger—. You don't want landlords leaving that space without some control, without some targets about how much commercial activity you want going in the town centre, because that footfall, that activity, is important to enliven the place during the working week, because otherwise there's a danger that they become very quiet. 

For us, in terms of empty properties, I do think this is difficult. The route that we took in Altrincham, to start off with, we set up a landlords forum, so we tried to bring in the landlords—and quite often, it's the agent rather than the landlord, but if you can get the agents involved, around the table—again, to get talking to them about our vision for the town and what we were trying to achieve. We did look at using section 215 notices. We never actually went all the way through with enforcing, but started down that route, sending the letters and the legal notices, starting to encourage people and let people know that we were serious about taking action against their empty shop units. We provided a bit of a carrot, and then we provided a stick. We set up a fund of loans—interest-free loans and grants—for new businesses taking on empty properties to try and de-risk it a little bit for them, give the new business a bit of incentive, give the landlord a bit of incentive to get somebody coming back in, and that proved very successful for us. 

And then, where necessary, we have started to take more of an interventionist role. So, we either own or co-own three different shopping centres across the borough, where we have gone in there and actively actually said, 'We need to be in here taking control so we can manage how those assets are used, manage their future development and regeneration', and, as a result of that, have seen the town-centre vacancy rate, for us, drop significantly. So, mostly, in Altrincham, where, in the early 2010s, we were at about a 30 per cent vacancy rate—the highest in the country; certainly in England—it's down to under 10 per cent now. And that was quite a significant turnaround. 


Okay. Thank you very much indeed. If I bring in Natasha Asghar to take up the questions. 

Thank you so much, Chair. Good morning, gentlemen. I'm going to be asking you a few questions about non-domestic rates, particularly relating to town-centre initiatives and taxes, going forward. You've mentioned a lot, and thanks for the information, but, obviously, in Wales, we often debate and talk about our towns and high streets, which are subject to increasing pressure. We get reports from all different organisations, and some of the issues that they talk about are empty shops, the struggle of competing with online retailers et cetera. So, I wanted to know, in your opinion, in your view, in relation to non-domestic rates, do you think that they're actually fair on businesses that operate in towns and areas around town centres, going forward? And if yes, fine, but, if not, what can be done to reform the policy as it stands? 

Personally, I think the non-domestic rating system is no longer fit for purpose. In fact, I don't believe it's been fit for purpose for a number of years. In Scotland, we carried out a fundamental review in 2017, the Barclay review, into non-domestic rates. But, if truth be told, it was a zero-sum game. So, we were bringing in £2 billion a year, and the outcome was to be that we were still to be bringing in £2 billion a year. We'd just shuffle the deck chairs slightly, and, to be honest, there wasn't really any substantial change. So, there's a growing frustration that bricks-and-mortar businesses are actually paying a disproportionate percentage in terms of taxation, and it's acting as a real drag on investment.

So, we undertook another review of our town centres and produced 'A New Future for Scotland's Town Centres' in 2021. That was signed off by the Scottish Government and COSLA, our local government body, in April 2022, and we're now working through those actions. One of those actions is to actually go back to the Barclay review and to literally engage in terms of what really does need to be done around taxation within our town centres. And it will be a deep-dive into non-domestic rates and starting to look at how we actually think more imaginatively about what should we be taxing.

Taxation is complex. It has to be simple, it has to be fair, it has to be collectable, but we're taxing the wrong thing, the easy targets, and too often businesses in town centres are just a cash cow for local government and central Government. So, I think we need to start thinking about carbon tax, we need to think about digital sales tax and we also need to deal with VAT. So, if we are going in to regenerate a town centre, there's an immediate 20 per cent disadvantage because you're dealing with an existing property, whereas a new-build house on a greenfield gets zero-rated for VAT. It's crazy. So, if we are genuinely going to try and fix the piece, we have to look at all of that in the round, and that's what we're currently doing up in Scotland just now.

We'll be happy to share any findings, and we're starting to hear noises at the UK level that the Treasury is starting to look at this much more imaginatively as well, because there is a need to get more tax in, but we need to be taxing the things that are causing harm to our economy and supporting the things that are good. So, watch this space. There's an urgency in Scotland around this just now, and the Minister is quite driven. So, I think the review will actually happen over the next 18 months or so, and we should be coming up with some solutions. 

Thank you so much, Phil. I think I speak on behalf of the committee, who I saw nodding as you were saying you'd like to share the findings with us—we'd really, really appreciate it, going forward. 

Richard, do you want to add anything to what Phil— 

Yes. I think everyone recognises that the rates system isn't working. Most businesses don't like the rates system and the fact that it's a property-based system and doesn't really connect with what the actual business does. From a local authority perspective, it's difficult, because we are tasked with—we're legally responsible for—collecting the rates but actually don't have any say in how they're set or how they're managed. So, we get all the queries but actually don't control it. We do benefit from the sharing system of rates and a share in the business rates' growth, which is beneficial to us, but again it's an indirect relationship, in many respects.

And part of the challenge from the town-centre perspective is that businesses end up getting penalised for being successful. The way in which the rateable value is assessed relating to market rents, means that, if you regenerate a town centre and you start to bring it up and develop it, that pushes up rents and you then start to push up the rates as well. So, actually, it acts as a disincentive to investment if you're not careful. And I think being able to separate that out would be beneficial. Just because you're getting footfall, you're getting a business coming in, doesn't necessarily mean that the actual profit that they're making, at the end of the day, can support both that increase in rent and the increase in rates that they're getting. And you end up regenerating up and then it starts to drop and actually it's other town centres that become more attractive, so sustaining success becomes much harder.


Thank you. What other options, based on your experience—? The Welsh Government were looking to progress—. Obviously, we all, collectively, want to see regeneration of our high streets going forward, but what could the Welsh Government consider or do going forward to incentivise—I can't even say the word, sorry, apologies for that—high-street renewal, such as specific economic zones with reduced rates, potentially?

And I'd also like to ask your opinion, because we did have a very colourful debate—it was in the last week actually—about potentially going forward with congestion charges, because, obviously, in London, it's a big thing to have a congestion charge. There is talk of it coming to Wales. And we've also spoken about potentially increasing car parking charges, which doesn't really reflect on some of the things that you've been mentioning so far as encouraging people to get into the high street, and there's the concept of park and ride. So, I'd love to know what your views and experiences on that are when you answer the question as well.

I would suggest that a lot of the well-meaning incentives that the Scottish Government came up with haven't really worked: things like business rates incentivisation zones, Fresh Start, which gives empty property—if it's been lying empty for a year, you get a year's relief whenever you put in a new business. They work on the fringes; they're very marginal. So, whatever comes, it needs to be universal across the entire country and easily understood, rather than just little piecemeal schemes here and there that don't gain traction. It's difficult. As Richard's pointed out, actually, the current rating system penalises success, so, again, I think the whole thing needs to be thought through.

One of the new areas of finance that we're looking at is to punish that car-bourne dependency. So, we're now going through exploring the potential for out-of-town car parking levies. And we're not just talking about retail parks; we're talking about office blocks that are built in the middle of nowhere. That money would be collected by local government and then used by local government to regenerate their town centres. So, all the bad behaviours of driving five or six miles out of your town to sit in a free car park, we're now looking at the potential of an out-of-town car parking levy, which then local government could reinvest in good behaviour in the town centre. But I would suggest that some form of—. Well, a fundamental review of non-domestic rates is required and, if that's done properly, the environment for trading and for operating in town centres should be simplified and possibly—well, it should be cheaper as well. 

Thanks, Phil. Richard, what's your perspective on this?

In terms of a congestion charge, from a greater Manchester perspective, we started down that road unsuccessfully. So, we had a referendum, with an overwhelming response against the congestion charge. So, that's not something that we are looking at at the moment.

Parking charges are set by each local authority. For us, we do charge for all our car parks in town centres. It's an important income generator for the authority and that is something, in the current climate, that we have to consider. There is also that we've got very good public transport links into most of our town centres and we want to encourage people to use public transport and not drive. There's also a bit of a danger, if you have free car parking, that car parking just gets taken up all day by people working in the town centre; it doesn't necessarily help people who are coming to visit and to shop there. So, our experience is that I don't think that we can really see a direct, causal relationship between footfall and activity in town centres and what we've done on car parking charges. Other people will have other views, but that's certainly, I think, our view.

On the rates bit, my view would be, if you've got the ability to do it, a fundamental review of the rating system, rather than looking at individual incentives. I think what business is looking for is some stability and some certainty and the ability to be able to business plan and plan for investment in the future, and I think that's better by having a system that's set, rather than by having short-term ad hoc investments or incentives for people to come into town centres, which don't give that longer term stability.

Thank you, Richard. One of the major issues—and I know I mentioned this earlier—or hurdles against the retailers on the high street is online. It's prevalent, it's huge, it's growing every day. And I wanted to know: do you think that online retailers should actually be required to pay a tax at a similar level to business rates? The UK Government consultation, which I'm sure you're both aware of, obviously, on introducing an online sales tax, that closed, I think it was on 20 May last year, and obviously, it's just a consultation as to whether the tax should be implemented. So, do you think this would be the best way to redress the imbalance that is currently in play at the moment?


It's certainly one way. I've been involved in a number of these reviews, and a 2 per cent digital sales tax doesn't discourage investment in technology, and the fact that citizens do tend to do a lot of their consumption this way now. But it would put a substantial amount of money back into the Treasury, which could then be reinvested for good things.

But again, I think this is going back to Richard's point about tinkering. We should be looking at how we tax behaviours that are harmful, and to me, rampant consumerism through online consumption is actually more damaging to the planet than what we're losing in heating, our transport, and so on; it's actually just rampant consumerism. People are buying small items that are imported from halfway across the world on ships, that are then transported to huge warehouses, that are then put into large boxes and then sent out to people's home address. If you follow that journey, that needs to be looked at in terms of how we level out the playing field. Again, with net zero as the key ambition on sustainability and localism, we have to stop rampant consumerism and think about how we tax that.

But a digital sales tax, I was involved with some of the earlier reviews, and I think that 2 or 3 per cent, if that was just the interim solution, it wouldn't be damaging to the online platforms and it would contribute significant resource back into the Treasury.

I'm a long way to being a tax policy expert, and I'm an officer, not a politician, so that's very much a policy decision, so I might sit on the fence on that.

I do think it's about, though, two things. One is having a fair tax system that recognises the different operating environments for different businesses. I think, from a town-centre perspective, rather than worrying or being concerned about the tax for online retailers, it's more thinking about what the role of the town centre and town-centre retailers is within an environment of online shopping and increasing online shopping, but that's about redefining the way in which the town centre works. But also, some of it where you can then start to take advantage of some of that online. So, we've seen that, for some retailers, click and collect works really well. It's not all about delivery out to the home, and that, actually, if you get that offer right, that can benefit the town centre, because you can generate footfall, people coming in for click and collect.

And the fact that people will buy some things online, and there are other things that they won't; they want to touch it, they want to feel it, they want to try it on, whatever it may be. And there's the human interaction; they want to come in and talk to people in the shops, and there's that bit about your local high street and your local shop, so you know where you're going, and they know what your coffee order is—these types of things where the person working in the shop is a neighbour of yours; that human interaction gets completely lost with online, and I think that's where the town centres have to promote that. So, the localism of it, the human interaction and contact of it is, I think, really important and we lose that a little bit. And that's why, to your previous question about hybrid working, the answer was that, actually, yes, people working from home are then actually walking into the town centre. Why are they doing that? Because they don't want to be stuck at home on their own just talking to a computer screen all day. So, I think let's focus on the positives about what town centres can do and how we can shape and create an environment for those town centres within a digital world, because that digital world is not going to change. We're not going to see—. That is the environment that we're working in.

Thank you so much. I'm going to ask you some questions now, if that's okay, on the impact of Welsh and the UK Government funding on town-centre regeneration. Over the years, obviously, in your experience, I'd really like to know, do you think the funding of town-centre regeneration, particularly in their jurisdictions as well as your own, has been streamlined and focused on the right issues, or do you think they're sort of going here, there, and everywhere?

Again, it's a sort of mixed piece, but I think it's starting to shape up much more positively. In 2009, the first minority SNP administration only got the budget through on the basis that they come up with a towns fund, so £60 million, by and large, was wasted. So, there was no future funding, and there wasn't any follow-up funding for a long, long time. I think it was 2018 before we saw the town-centre boost fund, £50 million, and most of that was distributed via the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities distribution formula, so it was a population-based distribution mechanism.

But what I would say is that, in the intervening period, people's thinking around how towns were reshaping, about what needed to be done had really improved, so there were much better solid visions and plans and partnerships in place. So, when the town-centre boost fund came in 2018, I have to say we were really heartened by some of the implementation. Then, obviously, COVID came, and we had a series of crises around the likes of Brexit, skills shortages and so on, what everybody across Europe has had to face. But we now have—and this was, again, another recommendation of 'A New Future for Scotland's Town Centres'. Local government, as the main actor in this, needs to be sustainably resourced. So, central Government have come up with a place-based investment fund, which is a multi-annual capital settlement, and it gives local authorities confidence that this money will be there every year for the next five years. So, in total, it's roughly £325 million, which, again, is allocated across the 32 authorities.

But for the first time ever, that has now given them the opportunity to think outside of the box—let's do town-centre living at scale, but keep the frontages that can enliven activity; let's buy over an interest in the shopping centre, which Richard and his guys have already done. That hasn't happened in Scotland. They're more risk averse, but having this dedicated funding stream is now, again, taking that agenda forward to a different level, and the authorities now have a bit more confidence that they have got resource to do things on a longer term basis and they can borrow and they can take bigger chances and bigger risks, and we're seeing much more of that happening.

So, I think there's a clear message that this is an important agenda. There's not a lot of resource to be had, so whatever resource you're getting, make sure that you're leveraging in as much as possible, and that's back to the place partnerships. We are dealing with housing people, health people, transportation people, and you're actually adding to the core investment that comes from Scottish Government. I think long-term sustainable funding for local government is a key ambition.


Great. Thank you so much, Phil. Richard, how about yourself?

For us, I think there are some good things that have come out of it. So, we were successful in securing £17.5 million of future high street funds for regeneration of Stretford town centre. That's been absolutely vital in terms of enabling us to deliver our plan, we got planning permission and we're now busily moving towards starting that regeneration, redevelopment and spending that money. That will be game changing for what we're doing in Stretford. There are a couple of challenges. One is that, again, it's a bidding process, so, you go through a lot of activity, a lot of effort, a lot of costing, into a bidding process, and towns are competing against other towns that are probably also equally in need of investment.

I think the second one is that some of these funds don't necessarily help with taking on risk activity. So, you're judged based on your direct commercial return, what your return on investment is going to be, where, actually, I think, in some places, what you need to do is reduce maybe the retail footprint, bring in green space and other open space, and you don't get a direct commercial return. No business is going to come in and buy a shopping centre, knock it down and replace it with a park, but, actually, in some town centres, that might be what you need to do. So, thinking about what that sustainable funding may be, how you can bring capital funding that looks at a return on investment in non-commercial ways or non-direct commercial ways, that thinks about how it fits into an overall vision for a town centre. That's certainly something that's still a bit of a challenge. For us, it's how we deliver a commercial return whilst also delivering some of the softer outputs that we want to do.

Thank you, Richard. I know that we've all heard the term, and I know it's been everywhere in the news in the past week to 10 days, but the levelling-up and shared prosperity funds—. Wales was lucky enough to secure, I think, £208 million in round 2 of the UK Government's levelling-up campaign. So, going forward, what opportunities and possible risks do you think are presented by local authorities in being able to secure UK Government funding for town-centre regeneration? And do you think that those most in need of regeneration investments are well placed, in fact, to develop investment proposals or bids to actually ensure that they get the funding that they need?

I welcome any resource coming towards this agenda, but obviously, there's a lot of political mischief with the way that the devolved Government is just being ignored. I'm not sure how that's repaired. There has been a lot of progressive work done by the Scottish Government, and there's a much broader and deeper understanding of what's needed for Scotland at the Scottish Government level. But, with the political nature of levelling-up and shared prosperity, I'm not overly comfortable with how that has been allocated and the bidding process. I would prefer that there was a block settlement that was just given to the central Government and then they could make the key decisions in discussion with local government at the Scottish level.

However, we have what we have. I think that there has been enough criticism to shine a light on the politicisation of the shared prosperity fund and levelling-up and some of the flaws, and I hope that the civil servants in the Government take that on board, because it does need to target those areas that are needing it most and where there's opportunity as well. As you've already highlighted, most of those areas won't have the capacity or people to actually pitch for this funding, so they just get further disadvantaged. That's where I think there's a missing link. If there was more dialogue, even if the funds have to still be delivered via UK Government with a Union Jack on them, fine, but there should be some form of dialogue or some checking with Scottish Government to make sure that the projects that we need funded up here are the ones that are getting funded, and that removes the political aspect to it as well. But, I welcome the investment, it's been positive so far. Scotland has got a huge amount of money through these funds for some really transformative projects, so I'm not complaining about that, but I think it could be vastly improved with just much more positive dialogue between the Scottish Government and the UK Government.


Thank you, Phil. Richard, what about you? What's your view on this?

As Phil said, any investment from Government is welcome. We were successful through the levelling-up fund announced last week for £18.2 million for Partington, a leisure-led investment, a levelling-up scheme. That's great for us, that's great for that community, but we put three bids in, so we've got two other bids that we weren't successful on, and I know that other colleagues in greater Manchester who put in really interesting bids for town-centre-led regeneration weren't successful. So, it's great for us, but having this competitive bidding process isn't great for them, because someone wins and someone loses. So, I think a different approach about how this money is shared around and doesn't necessarily pitch authorities against each other would be welcome. Again, as I said before, some of it is about how the scheme is assessed as well, the assessment criteria and what you're trying to achieve.

Thank you so much, gentlemen. Chair, that's my questioning done for the time being. Thanks, again.

Thank you very much, Natasha. Mabon ap Gwynfor, could you pick up the questions, please?

Iawn, diolch yn fawr iawn. Gaf i wirio fod yr offer cyfieithu yn gweithio? A gawn ni gadarnhad? Iawn, mae Richard yn dweud. Cadarnhad gan Phil?

Yes, thank you very much. Could I just check that the interpretation is working? Could I have some confirmation? Yes, Richard has given confirmation. What about you, Phil?

I'm thinking it's working okay, yes.

Dyna fo. Gwych, diolch yn fawr iawn. Rydych chi wedi cyffwrdd ar dipyn o'r hyn roeddwn i am ei holi, felly fe wnaf i ofyn i chi fynd yn ddyfnach ar ambell i bwynt. Rhywbeth ddaru Richard sôn ynghynt—. Mae gen i deulu yn byw yn Stretford, a dwi'n gyfarwydd ag achosion yno, a dwi'n cofio gweld y tram i mewn i Fanceinion yn cael ei ddatblygu a'r helynt o amgylch hynny, a rŵan mae nifer o bobl yn ddiolchgar. Felly, rwyf eisiau meddwl ychydig yn fwy am yr elfen honno, trafnidiaeth gyhoeddus, a fedrwch chi ymhelaethu ychydig am bwysigrwydd trafnidiaeth gyhoeddus pan mae'n dod i sicrhau hyfywedd canol trefi, os gwelwch yn dda? Hwyrach, cychwyn efo Richard, gan fy mod i wedi sôn am Stretford.

Excellent, thank you very much. You've touched on what I wanted to ask, so I'll ask you to go deeper on some points. Something that Richard mentioned earlier—. I have family living in Stretford, and I'm very familiar with cases there, and I remember seeing the tram into Manchester being developed and the process around that, and then many people being grateful for that. So, thinking more about that element of public transport, could you expand on the importance of public transport when it comes to ensuring the viability of town centres? Maybe I'll start with Richard, because I mentioned Stretford.

Okay, thank you. Good question. Should you ever be up in Stretford and you want to come and have a wonder around, then just let us know, we'd be more than happy to show you and anyone else around and show you what we're doing there. Public transport is essential, but the transport infrastructure as a whole is absolutely critical to delivering the town centre. If we are going to deliver net zero, if we are going to get cars off the road, and encourage more public active travel, then you need to invest in the public transport. But, that isn't something that you can do, I don't think, at a local authority level. It needs to be done at a macro level. So, for us that's within the combined authority. We operate with Transport for Greater Manchester. They manage the transport infrastructure across the 10 GM authorities, because you need to operate at that scale. But we can see the extent to which development, investment, regeneration is linked into the transport system. So, if you're in Stretford, you get the metro link and you can be in the centre of Manchester in 15 minutes. If you live in Urmston, which is about a mile around, circular from Stretford, which is on the train line—has a less frequent service—and you drive into Manchester, it's probably going to take you 45 minutes, because you don't have quite the same option, and we can see the way in which investment links into the public transport system. 

It's also connecting that into the bus service as well. We're going through bus reform in greater Manchester at the moment. Part of that is so we can think about a London-based ticketing system, and how you align bus with tram, also with cycling and walking, so you can think about the first and last mile, so you don't have to use your car to do that, and with some park-and-ride locations so, again, you don't have to drive into the town centre. But it's also thinking about your arrival point as well. So, it's how does your tram station look, how does it feel, how does it connect into your town centre. So, before, in Altrincham, one of the things there was to get investment into the interchange, and we've got a tri-modal interchange there now, with train, tram and bus. But it's creating the environment when you get into the town centre that this a good place to be—it feels safe, it feels light, it feels welcome, and leads you into the town centre. So, some of it is about the track and the—[Inaudible.]—but it's also about the places where you end up and those operating in the right way. 


Diolch yn fawr iawn, Richard. Phil, beth am y sefyllfa yn yr Alban? Beth ydych chi'n gweld ydy bwysigrwydd trafnidiaeth gyhoeddus, o ran hyfywedd canol trefi? 

Thank you very much, Richard. Phil, what about the position in Scotland, in terms of the importance of public transport for the viability of town centres? 

It's very similar to what Richard's outlined. We have regional transport partnerships. I think one of the key things that we're going to analyse this year is what are the commuting flows and what are the travel flows of people in the new world, with the changes to workplace patterns, et cetera? We've got a lot of disruption, as have you guys, with the industrial action across the rail network just now, so it's very difficult to piece together how people's behaviours will change, moving forward. Obviously, there's a big push by Scottish Government to get people to engage with public transport much more.

We have a reasonable public transport infrastructure in Scotland, and there have been significant improvements made, particularly to the rail network. So, one of the things that we're trialling just now, once the industrial disputes have been settled, which shouldn't be too far away—. We have got a localism currency, as Scotland loves local currency, and we're going to be working with Network Rail and Scotrail for a number of deployments: ageing demographic, commuting. The corporate sector in Glasgow in particular are quite keen to buy up some of this currency to use as incentives and rewards to get their staff back in a couple of days a week, but fundamentally we're using it as a behaviour shift mechanism to try and encourage different demographics back onto the bus and train network, and obviously in Scotland we've also got a very expansive ferry network as well. So, we'll be working closely with the bus operators, Network Rail, Scotrail and CalMac over the coming year, and one of the first things we're going to do is—. In Wales, you followed our example of Understanding Scottish Places; you've got an online platform called Understanding Welsh Places. One of the key things that we built into the model in Scotland is how people move about from town to town. So, within a region, who is leaving your town and where are they going? Who's coming into your town? Where are they coming from? What mode of transport do they use, et cetera? So, we're going to take a very evidential approach to this to make sure that future transport planning is actually relevant to how people's behaviour has shifted across society. But, by and large, when the trains are running here—. I live up in the Scottish highlands, and, I have to say I use the train on a daily basis. When the trains are busy, when they're up and running, I think there is a big appetite for people to engage with public transport. And, then, at the granular level, if the transport planning at the town level is good and trains are connected well to buses et cetera and also the active travel routes that are being developed, then I think transport has a massive role to play in town-centre regeneration, moving forward. 

Diolch yn fawr iawn i'r ddau ohonoch chi. Ar yr un trywydd, felly, mae yna ddadl wedi bod, onid oes, ymhlith rhai cynllunwyr trefi ynghylch pedestreiddio canol trefi, neu elfennau o drefi, a thynnu cerbydau allan o'r trefi? A oes gennych chi farn ar bedestreiddio, o ran twf a sicrhau, eto, hyfywedd canol trefi? A ydy o fudd, yntau a ydy o'n gwaethygu'r sefyllfa i ganol trefi? Mi wnawn ni gychwyn efo Phil yn yr achos yma, felly. 

Thank you very much to both of you. On the same track, there has been a debate, hasn't there, among some town planners about pedestrianisation of town centres, or parts of them, and removing vehicles from town centres? Do you have an opinion on pedestrianisation, in terms of growth and ensuring, again, the viability of town centres. Does it bring benefits, or does it exacerbate the situation for town centres? We'll start with Phil in this case.


I've seen a couple of pedestrianisation schemes, and, obviously, Glasgow has had a big push to create congestion zones and to make sure that active travel is prioritised. Truth be told, I have not seen any of the pedestrianisation stuff work successfully; I've actually seen some of them being implemented and then undone. I think the key learning from all of this is that we need to move to a European model, whereby all forms of transport are actually accepted within the town centre and everything moderates at about 3 to 4 mph. So, delivery vehicles can be there alongside mobility scooters or people pushing a pram, or people cycling or walking.

A lot of this infrastructure isn't physical and it isn't developed by roads engineers with a fear of litigation; it's actually just painted on. If you go to a lot of European cities, all of this just moderates between 3 and 4 mph. If that behaviour then embeds, we actually just paint infrastructure into the environment and we create a set of rules that people then comply with. But, I think, in being accessible—we've got a changing demographic, an ageing demographic, people with mobility issues and people who want to cycle more and walk more—we just need to be more imaginative and stop trying to exclude particular groups. We're moving towards electrification, so the clean air systems are going to be better anyway. Delivery vehicles very often are green fleet. So, I think it would probably be counterproductive to be putting in too much in terms of pedestrianisation and new infrastructure, when, in reality, if we actually sit and analyse what's happening and what our citizens and businesses need, a lot of this could just be done by painting infrastructure and being a wee bit more creative.

Diolch. Tybed a oes gan Richard, o Fanceinion, ryw farn neu brofiad o hyn.

Thank you. I wonder whether Richard, from Manchester, has any views or experience of this.

I think I'd agree with Phil. Naturally, you think that pedestrianisation must be a good thing in taking cars away, but I'm not sure it necessarily always works out like that; you just shift the problem somewhere else and create congestion and challenge elsewhere. I do think it's more about creating a space that encourages and enables active travel, and that, actually, you disincentivise motor vehicles from going down there just because of the way that it looks and feels. Having said that, we haven't unpedestrianised anywhere, but we haven't introduced any new pedestrian routes into our town centres over the last few years. We are in a position of stability and people know where they are. But, I don't feel an instinct that just bringing in more pedestrianisation necessarily helps. I think it's more about investment into the public realm in general and having a good public realm, and a public realm that feels safe, is safe and is welcoming should, actually, be the priority.

Diolch yn fawr iawn. Gadeirydd, dwi'n gwybod bod amser yn mynd yn ei flaen. Mae gen i fwy o gwestiynau dwi'n awyddus i'w codi, ond hwyrach nid rŵan. Ond, ar yr un pwynt ddaru Phil, dwi'n meddwl, sôn amdano fo yn gynt, y rheol 20 munud sydd yn bodoli yn yr Alban, mi fuaswn i'n licio cael ychydig yn fwy o wybodaeth am hynny; mae o ddiddordeb, a dwi'n siŵr y byddai'n cyfoethogi ein dealltwriaeth ni. Os oes gan Phil neu sefydliadau yno unrhyw bapur ymchwil y maen nhw'n medru ei gyflwyno i ni, neu bapur briffio ar hynny, mi fuaswn i'n ddiolchgar iawn, ond, hwyrach, nid rŵan. Oherwydd cyfyngder amser, nid rŵan yw'r amser i ymhelaethu gormod arno fo. Diolch.

Thank you. Chair, I know that time is running out. I have some more questions that I'm eager to raise, but maybe not now. But, on the same point that Phil mentioned earlier regarding the 20-minute rule that exists in Scotland, I would like to have some more information on that. It's of great interest to me, and I'm sure it would enrich our understanding. If Phil or any organisations there have any research that they could share with us, I'd be very grateful, but maybe not now, because of time restrictions. Maybe now is not the time to expand on that. Thank you.

I'll be happy to send you the policy and the evidence base for that, because it's now embedded in national planning framework 4. I would be happy to share that documentation with you.

Thank you very much indeed. Mabon, have you finished your questions for now?

Am y tro, diolch yn fawr iawn.

For now, yes, thank you very much.

Diolch. Alun Davies, if you could take up the questions, please.

Thank you very much. I've actually been sitting here quite enjoying the conversation. It has been really fascinating listening to the different experiences from other parts of the UK, and I'm grateful to both our witnesses for that. Do you know, I think different things that are contradictory. Where I see successful town-centre regeneration it has largely been in areas that are reasonably wealthy, quite honestly, where you’ve got the ability to deliver lifestyle businesses and where you’ve got people with sufficient disposable income to sustain a rich mixture of business or experiences or whatever in a town centre. I represent a working-class community that’s had the heart ripped out of those communities in terms of its economy, and I guess that both our witnesses represent similar sorts of areas, both around greater Manchester and also, for example, the central belt in Scotland. You’ve both had very similar economic challenges, and my interest is in what you do when you don’t have that background wealth, that disposable income in the immediate population. Because what I see is town centres—. The town I grew up in, Tredegar, was designed for a community of around 20,000 people, and designed to provide everything that community needed in terms of weekly shops, in terms of food and all the rest of it, but also clothes, white goods and all the rest of it. And now, of course, we don’t deliver any of those things in that particular community, and people do get in their cars and drive off to supermarkets or these out-of-town centres and all the rest of it, and the people who shop locally are people who don’t have a choice to go elsewhere. All the regeneration that we’ve seen passes by, quite literally, on the bypasses. So, how do you address those areas where you’ve got real, solid, fundamental economic difficulties?


I’ll try to explain. When I was in local government, I was head of economic development within an authority just beside Glasgow, and that authority contained some of Scotland’s wealthiest settlements—places like Newton Mearns, Busby, Clarkston, Giffnock—basically, some of the wealthiest postcodes in Scotland. Half a mile away, you have the post-industrial towns within the same authority of Barrhead and Neilston. So, the key thing here is—there are a couple of things—what is success and how do you determine it, because our view of success might be very different to the person over in Newton Mearns, who’s a lawyer. The guy that used to work in the mine in Barrhead might have a different outlook. So, first of all, it’s how do you measure success and what does success mean to that population.

The second thing is having political prioritisation. There was a 17-year life expectancy difference in the space of half a mile. People in Newton Mearns were living to their late 70s; the same guy in Barrhead was dying before he was 60, and that was seen to be unacceptable, and quite rightly so. So, the politicians of all colours got together and said, 'We will focus on Barrhead', which is a 20,000-population town. It’s a former mining town, and it used to build all of the toilets for the UK, Armitage Shanks, and Nestlé pet food—everything disappeared. The heart was torn out of it. So, we got political permission to start going in and developing dialogue with the population of Barrhead, and we developed a vision with the businesses, with the community, and we delivered it successfully. That was driven by 'town centre first'. So, the council located its headquarters in the town centre. That was followed by the first of the community health and care partnership investments in the town. There was a leisure centre in the heart of the town, which was expanded and made into a business centre, and a community centre as well. There was some town-centre housing developed. We looked at improving the civic realm, the green space, and so on. Everything was done.

Again, I think our message is that not all towns are broken. Some towns are very successful and there is a correlation to wealth, I do agree with you, Alun. So, the leafy suburb towns of Giffnock and Clarkston and Newton Mearns did not need substantial public intervention—they didn’t need any intervention; we just gave them business improvement districts and they got on with it. So, the focus could be long term on Barrhead. And that was not just about gentrification or making the place look better; it was about involving the community on a journey, and actually understanding some of the problems, the social problems, working with health colleagues, looking at putting in better health infrastructure and employment opportunities and skills opportunities. And if you roll forward 15 years, the life expectancy gap has narrowed to eight years, which is substantial progress. If you ask the people in the town, 'What do you think of your town?', they love it—it works for them because they designed it. Nobody outside of Barrhead would ever want to go and visit it—it's still a post-industrial town—but it's actually functioning really well. There are no retail vacancies. The retail is appropriate for the people. There are resources—the leisure and public sector offer, the green space. The town hangs together really, really well. So, to me, that's success; it is the success of a continuing journey to actually benefit citizens, to have some sort of economic relation to the town, to give people hope and ambition, and, at the end of the day, their view is that their town works well for them and they're happy with it. So, it can be done, but it needs political prioritisation. 


I'm fascinated by that, but the town itself wouldn't have the capacity—tell me if I'm wrong on this—to affect its macroeconomics. That's all going to be impacted by much wider economic issues. I'm fascinated by the stats you've just quoted in terms of life expectancy—I think that's a really good measure of wealth in lots of different ways. I'm fascinated that you could affect the future lives of people living in that town within a macroeconomic storm that we've been through in the last decade or so. 

One of the key understandings, when we started the dialogue and we started the in-depth analysis, was it was basically unemployment and poverty. It was unemployment, poverty and poor environments. So, I was working with the director of Public Health Scotland at the time, who was actually sick—as a surgeon, he was fed up treating people in their 30s and 40s, mainly young men in that area of Glasgow, who were dying far too early. A lot of it was related to the environment they came from—the fact that were a lot of anti-social activities, there were lots of bad behaviours around alcohol, drugs, anti-social behaviour et cetera. And the stress, believe it or not, that young expectant mothers were having was actually having a damaging impact on the foetus. So, people were being born with a disadvantage, actually, genetically embedded. 

So, we had to look at this very holistically, about how do we unpick two or three generations' worth of unemployment; how do we get people who have not been used to engaging in the economy back into the economy. So, there were multiple interventions around working with young girls in the secondary schools to make sure they didn't get pregnant in the first place. There was the nurture for those that did fall through the net. There were lots of employability projects, and there was a lot of regeneration. Some of the big industrial estates, like the Armitage Shanks factory, presented a massive opportunity to build resilience into the town. So, rather than having all the eggs in one basket, with one big employer who'd just upped sticks and left, we were able to go in and build about 50 different smaller types of businesses. So, we diversified the industrial base and we did target those low-skill, low-education-qualification-type activities, because the people in Barrhead at that point in time needed that. 

And then the future development—. It's easy to engage with the Glasgow economy if you're smart and you want to get into the tech sector or start designing satellites—you go to university. So, it was very much multi-agency, long-term, multifaceted, but understanding what the underlying issues were and actually building trust, which took a few years, and it took good community leadership as well to inspire people. But we have seen some of those really encouraging outcomes in terms of just giving people hope by giving them better environments, better housing, better health support; fundamentally, giving them a job. That was the key thing. 

Thank you. Richard, do you have any observations from an English perspective? 

That's a brilliant example, isn't it? I'd agree with Phil; I think it is about taking a whole-place approach, and an approach that isn't just about retail; it's thinking about the wider economic environment. You can't change the macroeconomics, but I think you can change where a town centre sits within that macroeconomic environment. It isn't all about wealth. So, for us, for Altrincham, which is a relatively affluent place—it's got some of the highest house prices in the country—that didn't stop Altrincham effectively failing as a town centre, and it required intervention to turn that around, because the residents of Altrincham weren't shopping in or using the town centre. 

Stretford is a very different place, economically far more challenging, although with plenty of employment opportunities around, but a town centre that's sitting in with a huge amount of competition, both from Altrincham, from Manchester city centre and from the Trafford Centre, which is a large out-of-town retail mall. So, that competition is there, but I think it is that you focus on the town centre. Some of it I think you have to be realistic about—what the footprint of that town centre should be, in terms of what your retail offer is, and being honest that, actually, it's probably got to be smaller than it was 20 years ago, because people's shopping patterns have changed. How do you get an offer that those people who are getting into the car and driving elsewhere—how do you get them not to drive elsewhere, but to come in to the town? How do you change that offer? Some of that is about the broader environment. And then it is the skills—hugely important to think about the skills, very early, from an education bit, and starting to create an environment for businesses to start to come and invest and start creating more employment. It's not easy, it's really challenging, but I think if you're setting out, to be clear on what the town centre is—what's the service, what's its customer base, what are you trying to meet in that town centre—then I think that gives you a start. You can't just lift and shift from what's been successful elsewhere and just replicate it in that town centre—it's got to be built on its locality, it's got to be built on what you're doing, what the needs of that community are.


I could continue this conversation for the rest of the day, but time is pressing. So, I'm grateful to you both for those. One of the things I'd like to be able to explore—and perhaps we could do this by correspondence—is we had a conversation, where Mark was asking questions at the beginning, where we touched on the Welsh Government's 30 per cent target for working at home. Now, that might work in a city like Cardiff, for example, but it's wholly irrelevant to my constituency in Blaenau Gwent, where you've got a very significant working-class population who tend to work—. The biggest sector is manufacturing, retail and some public services, which can't be delivered from home. And I'm interested, then, in how both of you, in your different ways, are addressing the social and economic change that we know is taking place. Because one of the changes that I am seeing is people moving to different places who can work from home, who do have the ability to work from home, and I think that's changing the nature of some of our communities, whilst the actual population, if you like, who've lived there traditionally are perhaps unable to make those same changes. And I think that there is a real economic and social change taking place there, and it might be interesting to pursue that, but I recognise that we don't have time to do that this morning. But I'd be grateful if either witness have any observations that they could communicate to us on that.

I'm more than happy to pick a separate conversation up at some point, Alun, if that would be helpful, on this or on any other subject. I do think you're right; I think we are in danger of creating a different economic divide, between those who are doing what would historically have been called white-collar jobs—office-based jobs, where you have got the ability and the flexibility to work from home—and those people who are working, whether that's in manufacturing, or people who are working doing civil engineering work, or whatever it may be, who don't have that opportunity to work at home, and what that divide means, and what that means from a flexibility basis. For us, we have Trafford Park in Trafford, which is, I think, still Europe's biggest industrial park—over 10,000 jobs there, very heavily manufacturing based. So, that is predominantly people who are coming in and having to work in their place of work. And that's something that we're working with those businesses on, around what that means for them, what does it mean for delivering net zero, because they're big energy users as well, and how does it work for them in terms of their changing environment, when they've got some people coming in and some of their office-based staff working from home. I think, at the moment, I'd say that we're observing rather than having any solutions on that, but it's certainly something that is on our radar, that we're thinking about.

Just very briefly, Alun—I'm conscious of time—I live in a very rural part of Scotland. I'm up in the western highlands, and the situation has changed unrecognisably in the last two years. Housing stock would have lain empty for long periods of time before people could shift it. Now there is not a single house available, because a lot of white-collar people have moved into the area. By and large, they behave well and they integrate with the community and they then use a lot of local builders, supply chains and spend their money in the local economy, but there's a growing resentment about the pressure now that's been put on health services, on education, and the fact that housing has disappeared. There are no options for local housing. So, there has to be—. We don't have any detailed evidence on this just now, but I am engaged with the local authority in this area. Affordable housing and social care staff and hospitality staff are all now really, really big challenges, and they need to be addressed, otherwise the dynamic has shifted completely. It's a very interesting piece, but, like Richard, we do not have a strong evidence base, just anecdote and what we're actually viewing at the minute. But I think, over the next 18 months, two years, we should see some firm evidence being produced.


Thank you. Have you concluded, Alun? Thank you very much. Well, I'll close. I'm conscious we are 10 minutes or more over time. Just to ask: do you have any final points that we haven't addressed that you'd like to make, any particular advice you suggest we might give to Welsh Government about more it could be doing in this area? And finally, in the context of Alun's question about the impact on areas of higher deprivation, what, if any, role asset-based community or strength-based developments can and should play in engaging with all communities? I don't know who wants to start.

Shall I go? I'll go first. From my perspective, I think it's great that there is a focus on town centres. I think town centres are absolutely the heartbeat of local communities, local places and of local economies. I really feel they feed through into people's perception of place and their perception of well-being, and we've really seen that quite strongly, how passionate people are about their town centres. So, I think the fact that there is a focus on it, I think, as a starting point is brilliant. I do think it's important, in that, that you're building on and recognising the strengths of each town centre and you think of each town centre individually. Because there's always a bit of a danger, if you're looking at this at a national level, that you have a town-centre strategy, and are trying to look at town centres as a whole, not recognising that they are each very different, and the interventions and what you do has to be based on the place. Having said that, I do think there's an opportunity for the Welsh Government to think about how the town centres fit into your economic environment and your economic plans, and I think that's where they basically can really help shape the economy.

And finally, thank you for giving us the opportunity, and, if you are ever in Trafford, or want to come and visit and wander around Stretford or Altrincham or Sale or Urmston, we'd be more than happy to host and show you around and talk you through what we've done.

Yes, I agree. Places are all about people. It's basically where our DNA, our culture, our heritage lies. It's what identifies us, so there's an emotional thing here, rather than just bricks and mortar. I'll be happy to pull together some of the key learnings that have come from Scotland, in particular around the 20-minute neighbourhood, our 'A New Future for Scotland's Town Centres', basically, just to give you some ideas in terms of the direction that we're headed. And there's no point reinventing the wheel; the issues are very similar and we should be working more collaboratively together. So, there is a role, there's a strong role, for the Welsh Government here to support the change that is coming to our town centres, but, if we work together, it can be positive change. And at the end of the day, Wales has got a strong, proud heritage and culture, and that's what we want to retain for the people who are in those Welsh towns.

Well, thank you very much indeed, both, and for staying a quarter of an hour late beyond our combined schedules. So, I'll just conclude by advising both the witnesses that a transcript of today's meeting will be published in draft form and sent to you, so that you can check it for accuracy before the final version is published. And I'll just finish by again thanking both of you, Phil Prentice, Richard Roe, for your time with us today and for your contribution to our inquiry. Diolch yn fawr.

Okay. We'll now take a short break to prepare for our second round-table session before restarting the meeting in public. So, perhaps if we could reconvene in approximately five minutes. Thank you very much indeed.


Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 11:05 ac 11:12.

The meeting adjourned between 11:05 and 11:12.

5. Adfywio Canol Trefi: Sesiwn Bord Gron 2
5. Regenerating Town Centres: Roundtable Session 2

Croeso. Welcome back to the Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee. I welcome our new witnesses and I'd be grateful if each of them could state their names and roles for the record, starting with Chris Jones.

Good morning. Bore da. I'm Chris Jones. I'm a place practitioner and town planner, and I've got a practice here in Abergavenny. I've got 30 years in the public and private sector, and I've worked from Holyhead in the north all the way down to Chepstow in the south. So, that's me.

Diolch, Chair. Bore da, bawb.

Thank you, Chair. Good morning, everyone.

I'm Ben Cottam. I'm head of Wales at the Federation of Small Businesses.

Thank you very much indeed. Well, as I'm sure you are expecting, we have a number of questions for you, and I therefore ask both Members and witnesses to be as succinct as possible so that we can cover as wide a range of issues as we can, given the number raised by this topic. I'll start with the first question. So, in your experience, to what extent are local authorities able to effectively create local coalitions of change, bringing together all key players to help regenerate and improve towns? When I use the words 'key players', I include, if possible, residents as well as organisations across the sectors. But, I don't know who wishes to go first. Perhaps Mr Jones.

I think, Chair, that, actually, the key issue is about capacity within local authorities, certainly, and where place and town sits in terms of that portfolio. That certainly needs to be addressed in terms of structure, but also in terms of where—. Certainly, town-centre regeneration and place-based activity doesn't purely sit in planning, for example, as it's in broader regeneration, but also housing, health and education in that broader policy base. So, I think there's something there for me about where it sits. 

And then, for me, it's about—. There are various models, as we know, in Wales. We have business improvement districts in Wales, but not in all towns; we have tried BIDs in the larger conurbations, but as we know, in some towns, BIDs aren't relevant or meaningful, in a way. So, we need to look at other models, certainly, around how we work with town communities, with businesses and other partners. I think we also need to start looking at the role of town and community councils a bit more, as well. Town and community councils—certainly, in 'Planning Policy Wales', there's a role there around place plans, as you're probably aware, and what their role is in terms of being that co-deliverer in terms of their skills capacity, et cetera.

So, in a broad sense, it's about where are we now that our lens has changed in the last few years from COVID and coming out of COVID. And so, we need to look at, certainly, Chair, much more of a broader depth of people, but to better resource it, not just for the short-to-medium term, but these things are about longer term impact and about them being sustainable, as well. So, yes, those would be my main points. I could pass you on to Ben—do you want to, Ben?


Thanks very much, Chair. Yes, I'd agree with everything Chris said there. I think, from our experience, those coalitions, those partnerships are patchy. Chris mentioned BIDs, they're variably successful around Wales. They aren't appropriate to all communities, but there are some successful BIDs that engage your business community and other partners particularly well and create a really good platform on which to identify strengths in communities on which to build. But, as I mentioned, that's not a model that suits all.

We probably don't have the appropriate partnerships for the task, largely because we've seen an acceleration over the past 10 to 15 years of some of the challenges that are facing particularly town centres. And that's been further exasperated by COVID, and now, some of the problems in the economy. And I might mention later some of the pressures facing my members, particularly in retail and hospitality, caused by the energy crisis. So, we probably need to reframe those coalitions. I would absolutely agree that this is not just about businesses engaging with local government, this is about businesses engaging with other community partners. I think where we see success, it is down to that shared identification of strengths and mission, and that's not something that's shared just between local government and business.

One final point on this, though, is we know that there has been a real stress on the functions that create that go-between between local government and business, such as economic development functions, for instance. There's been a massive hollowing away of that expertise, caused by austerity and other pressures, and I think that that has meant that the interface between local government and businesses, in some areas, has been eroded slightly. So, I think we need to look at rebuilding that. Clearly, with some of the activity in the landscape and some of the funding that's been made available, there is an opportunity. But I wouldn't want to be here in 10 years' time saying that it is as patchy as it is now.

Thank you. What, in your views, do local authorities and their key partners need to do to acquire, if they haven't already got them, the right skills, leadership, resources, buy-in and capacity to regenerate the towns in their areas?

I think, for us, I mentioned the economic development functions. It's about having expertise at a local level that recognises the business environment, and recognises the make-up of the enterprises and other organisations in that area, and also the outreach, dare I say, almost like the business relationship management function that allows for that interface. One of the challenges for local government particularly and businesses is that businesses often see local government as the regulator, obviously the enforcer and the collector of business. They're not necessarily always seen as a local partner for growth. That's not withstanding some really good practice in some areas of Wales where local government works very, very closely with businesses on the identification of priorities and building strengths.

But, ultimately, the first hurdle, as is the case, actually, for Welsh and UK Governments, is how you help understand that relationship between business and Government, which is about shared purpose and is about economic development. I think one of the other areas is planning expertise. We hear quite frequently from our members about the pressure on the reduced number of planning experts within local government and the speed of decision making. So, building capacity in those areas that engage organisations such as businesses and make decisions that affect them and affect their growth; I think that's where capacity is needed.


Okay, thank you. And, Chris Jones, do you have any thoughts on this?

Yes, I think there's something around that perception of regeneration, and it can be certainly a sector that is about creativity and innovation, and about animation. There are some skills there that I think, at times, are seen as very technical, but, actually, there's something about change and about change management, I think. So, I think there's something there about marketing jobs and careers, and from talking to, certainly, a number of local authorities in Wales, they're having a real problem with recruiting people into the sector. So, I think, there's something there, definitely, about that marketing angle. 

And, then, again, my point there about place being this horizontal thing; at times, it's seen as very vertical in local authorities and it needs to have that breadth, through looking at corporate planning and looking at how things are actually organised around people. When we all go to towns, we see towns, whether it be about health and housing, or transport and greenery and all sorts of things—it's much more about that broader, holistic, place-based approach. There is something there, probably, about, dare I say, budgets and revenue and how people align things as well in terms of their key priorities. But, I think, it's probably more about the organisational shape of local authorities, I think, as Ben said, and about how they reach out and what is that conduit to their key partners out there.

But, for me, as somebody who's done 32 years in this sector, and as a town planner, it's about just trying to sell this job, sell this career as something that is really quite—as something where you can actually make a difference. I can make a difference. What I do daily is about making a difference and actually making things happen. [Inaudible.] Thank you. 

We lost a bit of sound at the end there, but, Ben, do you have any comments? I think you've already replied. 

Sorry. I'll move on. What about the planning system? Is it flexible enough? What needs to change?

Shall I start on that one, Ben?

Yes, if you go first. 

'Planning Policy Wales' actually has that 'town centre first' policy, doesn't it? It's all about trying to look at what we can do in town centres. I think our lens has changed slightly, coming out of COVID, and during COVID, about how town centres actually relate to their people, to their neighbourhoods. So, whilst I think we should be looking at town centres to be vibrant and diverse, and them being places that have that experience, I think, for me, it's also looking at how you look outwards to your neighbourhoods and to your local residents.

The work done by—[Inaudible.]—last summer, I think Dr Karel Williams—is that right—was looking at the role of automation, and about cars, and about people having choice. And, I think, for me, it's about connectivity as well. So, whilst policies should be about town centres, I think they should also be about connectivity, about active travel, about supply chains, about digital, so we have a whole-place approach. 

I'd also say, whilst, probably pre COVID, there was a presumption about us being in favour of what we call A1 retail, I think, now, it's probably more about looking at diversity, looking at use classes, being a bit more agile, and trying to find a local solution around that. And, it's fair to say that the work that came out of the Wales audit office was around health, and about well-being, about arts and culture and about that wider mosaic of place. So, for me, I think it's not having a one-size-fits-all approach as well. Every town in Wales, every place in the UK is different, isn't it? It's about that differentiation. So, for me, finally on that point, it's about, yes, town centres, definitely; we need to be agile, we need to think differently. We need to think about things that could happen in the short-to-medium term, but also, then, that long-term role and function about where they're going, but also, about that whole-place approach as well.


Just on that last point, I think we'd absolutely agree that it's about a whole-place approach. Whereas, obviously, all of the focus—and the focus of this—is on town centres, a lot of the focus of what people are aware of is the decline of high streets, some of the pressures and stresses that high streets find themselves under. It's very deliberate that the work that we've done has been a vision for Welsh towns, or the future of Welsh towns. We see them, particularly regional towns, as important unitive economic development, important units of growing community and economy. I wouldn't want to lose the correlation and importance of those businesses that are located on the high street, or those organisations of any type that are located on a high street, and those that are more peripheral to a town. We know that 40 per cent of the Welsh population live in towns of under 20,000, so these towns, the regional towns particularly, are more fundamental to the Welsh economy than many other areas of the UK.

Where we look at the use of planning and the application of a 'town centre first' policy, it has to have that in mind. What we need is, I guess, strength and depth of function of the types of businesses that we seek to grow and develop within towns. And it's important that, alongside that, we consider the strength and resilience of things like local supply chains, for instance. And that has, obviously, a net-zero benefit. So, I think it's welcome that the 'town centre first' priority is there in planning policy. I think it's early days yet to see how effectively that has panned out and the way in which that interfaces now with some of the funds that are coming on stream through things like the levelling-up fund, and the extent, therefore, we see, as you mentioned earlier, changed coalitions to deliver that vision. So, it's in the relatively early stages; it's very good that it's there. 

If I'm honest, I'm not quite sure how much our members—members like mine—should understand planning priorities, but I'm not quite sure how well understood that is out in the business community and that the opportunity of that is understood. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the frustrations with policy are quite tactical and they are down to the ease of understanding, the speed of decision making, and the capacity within local government, which is under pressure from big projects that are there within the city and growth deal, for instance. So, there is an opportunity yet for policy to be turned towards how we develop, particularly towns. 

Thank you. We've received evidence about the integrated service delivery hub in Carmarthen, working with the health board and university, but what do you believe needs to happen to get other public sector partners to work with local authorities to deliver regeneration in town centres? Shall I start with Chris Jones?

Ultimately, it would start with your public services boards, wouldn't it, in terms of where partners meet at a headline level. I think it's from that that you get your multi-agency approach. There needs to be that conversation about local circumstances. There are some things in towns—. I'm here in Monmouthshire today; there are five key settlements. It's where those hubs would actually naturally occur, isn't it, whether or not you have them in one town and then they are there as a broader rural offer. 

I think it's just down to the conversation, isn't it? It's down to the conversation amongst partners about trust, about relationships, about trying to find local solutions, understanding their customer base and understanding where they should be on the high street—should they be on the high street, should they be edge of centre, how do they look to their customer base and residents. But, yes, there are various examples, whether it be the model up in Wrexham, as we know, with Tŷ Pawb. That has been the model there that has been around enterprise, arts and culture, and also the knowledge sector. So, there are various models. This comes down to culture at times. It depends on us having the confidence so that people can come together and knock down those barriers. We're a small country; we should be agile enough to do that. That's all I can say. It's hard to answer the question in terms of knowing each territory and each place. I think it's just down to that spirit and culture and also working together on that.


Thank you. In fact, I have my next engagement in Tŷ Pawb tomorrow morning, so, it is getting good use. Ben.

I think we were really interested to see that development and the use of that space. I think that is definitely part of the conversation about solutions, particularly for vacant space and how we get better engagement of citizens with a town-centre environment. I guess the other part of that, from our perspective, is how then you help the existing businesses within that environment realise the opportunity of citizens being in their town-centre environment—that footfall. So, that development needs to be part of that narrative: helping businesses understand either that change of use or the development of those public services within that town-centre environment, which might not have been there—that businesses are able to benefit from that as well. I think for so long in Wales, and around the rest of the UK, we had an identikit solution for our high streets, which was about attracting anchor organisations, like Debenhams, for instance, and we carbon copied that across Wales. And of course, now we're seeing some of the vulnerabilities of that. But I'm all for the innovative solutions that help create a multi-use town centre.

I think within that wider conversation—. We've been very cautious in conversations with the Welsh Government. It's about saying that certainly retail faces a pressure and has faced an increasing pressure through the COVID pandemic, but we don't want—. Where we consider the development of our town centres, we need to promote, reinforce and strengthen retail as a core offering within that environment. In the work that we did, overwhelmingly, when you talk to people, their ambition for their town is the development of independent small retail and hospitality offerings. We need to understand the way in which people want to and seek to use town-centre environments. So, whereas change in use and bringing public services into the town-centre setting is really important, I wouldn't want that to crowd out the opportunities to shore up and develop retail, nor would I want the message to businesses and retail to say, 'We're just accepting further decline', because we must not accept further decline, because those businesses in those settings are bringing in wealth, they are bringing in jobs. So, it is about a blend.

Thank you. I'm sure you're both aware that the Welsh Government has set a target for 30 per cent of the Welsh workforce to work at or near home. What impact do you feel this might have on towns, not just collectively, but also differentially, given the different natures of different towns? What do you believe should be done with office accommodation in towns that is surplus to requirements? And how should edge-of-town developments be addressed when they become vacant? Ben, you look like you're raring to go.

Yes, I was trying to find the unmute button. I think we're not yet in that final state as to where this will fall. We've seen, increasingly, businesses looking to engage in remote working. I still feel that we are not quite at what we used to call—I was always uncomfortable with the terminology—the 'new normal'. I don't feel we're quite there yet. I don't think businesses and organisations are in that settled state.

Remote or home working is really valuable. It's not appropriate for all businesses. I think that my note of caution is that we are communicating with multiple different entities and multiple individuals, for all of whom, this might not be appropriate. But what we have seen, anecdotally at least—and at the moment I'd be slightly cautious because we've not undertaken a qualitative, quantitative analysis; it's really just been the anecdotal conversations with our members—is they have seen a benefit in some of the regional towns of that additional footfall of people working remotely or working at home. And actually, I think there is some semblance of those that are in that setting taking time out to go and use a local coffee shop or a local service. I think the jury's out as to whether that's there in scale, but I think it's a positive opportunity. But I do still feel that we are in that process of change; we're not at that final point.

Ultimately, businesses will make the decisions that are right for them, and certainly, the Welsh Government has target for the public sector workforce in its own ambitions, and creating the business hubs that allow for that remote working for freelancers and employees. But ultimately, we have to make sure that that sort of setting is appropriate for each business. I think there are some positive signs, but at the moment the jury's out as to whether we're in the final state yet.


Just to add to what Ben said there, and going back to your point about towns being hubs, looking at that multi-agency approach, so long as towns are fit for purpose and you have an infrastructure where people can sort of dip into the high street now and again and have a team meeting—. I'm looking at companies whose policy now is people have to be in the office three days a week, so there's still that need in some places around team cohesion and team working, and that sort of team spirit.

I think as Ben said, it's about having the right sort of digital connectivity and infrastructure in towns so that people have the confidence that, yes, they can work from their kitchen table or from their bedroom, wherever it is, but at the same time, they just want to be able to have that choice. Towns need to be ready for that as well. If towns aren't ready in terms of employees and that—. Certainly, food and drink suppliers et cetera need to get that marketplace as well. Some did out of COVID. I think some are still gearing to that, others may be turning off. But I think as Ben said, we're in that transition period where things are settling down, settling back in perhaps.

So, yes, I think it's giving people the choice, but it's also making sure that towns are also fit for purpose in terms of that role and function.

Thank you very much indeed. My final question before I move on to colleagues: what else do you believe can be done to address the issue of property owners who have vacant premises in town centres, but are not good at engaging with local authorities to address eyesores or simply underutilised premises?

There are ways naturally—and Welsh Government have looked at this—in terms of enforcement and tackling absentee landlords and vacant properties. There are ways of doing that. I think there's a need at times to do that audit, in order to understand who in that town are the actual landlords, to actually understand the barriers as well. Some of those barriers may be about planning, for example; I don't know. Some of it could be about the environment, the frontages and the public realm. I think we need to understand how these buildings can be unlocked in a certain way. And you may come on to it later on in terms of rates—there are some fiscal barriers there as well about property, with some landlords being sat on a certain property, waiting for better times, perhaps, whatever it is.

I think it's a mixture; there are some sticks and there are some carrots with this. There are some sticks that you can use. Ultimately, I think it's on-the-ground local authorities starting to understand who are the landlords, are they local, are they regional, are they based a significant distance away, what are their ambitions, what are they about, and also getting them to understand where do you want this town to be, about what is the narrative, what is the vision. There's a bit of selling something there, if you know what I mean—getting them to understand their role in starting to realise what that town could become, and not stifling ambition. So, it's a number of things there.


If I could, Chair, that idea of auditing is really important, understanding who you need to talk to and the sort of audience, and, alongside that, the sorts of pressures that might be felt by the tenants, for instance, as to whether they are in a position of strength to change that property, for instance, improve that property. I think that's really important. It has to go alongside a narrative of what councils and public authorities are seeking to do, though, as part of improving that. I think it is—. I'm not saying at all it'll happen in every instance, but if people understand the shared intention of improving the property stock within an environment and it's part of a wider story about regenerating a town, and therefore will bring economic benefit, particularly where those properties are either owned or occupied by small businesses, I think that's really beneficial.

So, it tracks back to that point about the communities of change, having that shared narrative of what you're seeking to do. I'm well aware of how complex it is to track down the different structures of ownership of these kinds of properties, but that has to be a priority in communities, because you have to start at that point. Obviously, we all know from anecdotal conversations—. Everyone's got a view on eyesores within their towns. So, it's something that most impinges on the public understanding and ambition for their own communities—probably the first thing they say before they start talking about the types of shops that are out there—so, I think that audit and that understanding are really important.

Okay, thank you. Natasha Asghar, could you take up the questions, please?

Thank you, Chair. Good morning, gentlemen. I'd like to focus a little bit more on non-domestic rates, if that's okay, in relation to town-centre initiatives and taxes, going forward. As we all know, Welsh town centres and high streets are subject to increasing pressures. Ben, I think I received a survey from your company, or the FSB, specifically in relation to the struggles that people were enduring, specifically online shopping, empty shops, business rates, all of these things. I just wanted to know, from both of your perspectives, are non-domestic rates fair, particularly, going forward, on businesses who operate in towns in our areas? And how do you think, if there is any way, that they should be reformed, going forward? A sub-question as well, because I know we are short on time, so I'm just trying to be a bit conscientious for my colleagues, who I'm sure, want to ask other things: how do you feel, if there is a need for reform, non-domestic rates should be revised in order to help new business start-ups as well? Ben, if you want to go first, you're more than welcome to.

Yes. I'm sure you, as elected Members, know from your own conversations that nothing agitates, probably, small businesses more than business rates. No, it's not a fair system, it is a far from perfect system that is, and I think your previous contributors outlined this, probably outdated. We recognise one of the challenges—. It is a predictable system, it is an easy-to-collect tax, but what it does is taxes you before you've made a £1 of profit, and it falls unequally, as we've seen, between large and small businesses in a town-centre environment, so that creates resentment.

Another thing that we hear quite prominently is about a real understanding of what the return is. I spoke to one business some time ago, who said, 'Look, it's not so much that I have to pay more business rates; it's that I have to pay more business rates and yet the town looks like this, and yet it's not a nice environment in which to shop. So, I don't see the return for that.' So, again, that's part of that narrative, improved narrative.

But I think we would like to see a smarter use. There needs to be a widespread overhaul of the system more broadly for more complex reasons probably than, I guess, the town-centre environment. But I think, particularly for regenerating town-centre environments, looking at discounted rates or rate holidays for new businesses to incentivise new starts—not just retail starts, to be honest, any new business start on the high street—because a bricks-and-mortar operation is an inherent risk, and, particularly in a fragile economic environment, that risk is disproportionate to the reward for small businesses.

Another thing that goes alongside this is businesses understanding—. We need to collect data better within town-centre environments. So, businesses understand that, if they do commit to a bricks-and-mortar site, and they are going to be liable for that rate in some cases, that there is going to be the market there to make that worth while. So, I think there is an opportunity to use that. I think the Foundational Economy Research unit's proposals on per-hour charges for parking spaces for out-of-town developments—I think that's certainly worth exploring, because that creates an imbalance. Parking is a perennial challenge in a town-centre environment, and yet it's quite galling for smaller businesses when that free parking is available on the periphery and it's of no significant cost to a large store. So, I think it's worth looking at that and looking at how we use that fund to create a better balance.

But I think, clearly, this is not—. And I think your previous contributors outlined that we are having very, very similar conversations wherever we are across the UK. One of the challenges of substantive reform of the business rates regime nation by nation is that a massive change in Wales, one way or another, creates an imbalance for cross-border businesses. There is a tension there. But neither is that an excuse simply to do nothing, because we know that business rates will be the top concern when we talk to town-centre businesses. As I say, as elected representatives, I've no doubt that you hear these concerns as well. So, clearly, in the absence of dramatic change and an entirely new stream of taxation, it is about how we use that smartly to prefer town-centre development and to incentivise new business starts and the continuation of retail within the town-centre environment.


Thank you so much, Ben. Chris, do you have anything to add? How would you like to answer that question that I asked?

I think there's that issue that it goes into a black hole, the money, if you know what I mean, and that redirection—how does that come back in terms of that wider town-centre economy, how is it recirculated. Because it's not. And as Ben said, there's that cost upfront and there are other costs. Also, I'm working in a number of towns and a number of people are actually putting in appeals et cetera, and there's the actual speed of things being assessed. Where we are, people are clinging on month by month currently, and the appeals process is taking a lot longer. So, we need to be far more responsive. There needs to be a sense of speed and urgency. As Ben said, it needs to be really proportionate. It needs to be proportionate to each town and place and circumstance.

Finally, for me, there's that business journey, from the person who has got a dream, an idea, to set up a business. That whole business journey, from a microenterprise, and then starting to grow—. It needs to be scalable; it needs to respond to that business growth. Currently, you've got it as something where quite a large quantum comes to you at the start. The early days of business are quite high risk and people are still finding their way, they're navigating through things. So, for me, it's about scalability, about local circumstances, that redirection, and then more about systems being far more responsive as well.

I appreciate both your answers. Speaking about raising the incentive for people getting involved and getting more business and trade on our high streets, the UK Government is following a policy of low-tax investment zones—I'm sure you're both aware of them—where individuals and businesses are subject to tax incentives and regulatory easing. The Welsh Government here is slightly sceptical about the use of this in Wales. Would such an approach benefit, in your opinion, town centres and high streets all across Wales?

I've got to say, at the moment, we're not quite clear what the solid proposals for investment zones are. We're quite interested to have that conversation and quite interested to see where that mechanism could be used to regenerate towns and high streets. I guess, though, that the scale of the challenge—that intervention has to match the scale of the challenge to make sure that what we're not doing is having an unequal investment intervention by region. I think, where we look at these economic vehicles, these funding vehicles, we would like to see them more focused in on town-centre regeneration. So, things like city and growth deals, we get that, we get the intention of city and growth deals, and particularly large-scale investment in infrastructure or projects, but those aren't really suitable vehicles for identifying some of the challenges that regional towns face and the sorts of things that—. Many of my members in regional towns feel very, very far from the conversations that are going on around city and growth deals. So, I guess, whether it is an investment zone conversation or whether it is something that Welsh Government, in its own economic development capacity, would seek to do, then we would welcome any conversation that focuses in on town-centre environments.

Just to go back just quickly, because I didn't mention it, but it's probably worth mentioning, on business rates, I think the fact that—. It's welcome that we have a 75 per cent business rates holiday for retail, but the fact that, through the last few years, we've had to intervene—or Welsh Government's had do intervene—and administer various reliefs and holidays for business rates does indicate that, when you have a fragile economy, that, as a cost, is disproportionate and really provides a problem for businesses. So, these reliefs, generally, are sticking plasters, albeit welcome sticking plasters, to what is a much, much bigger problem. So, there is an incentive in the long term to review the business rates system. Sorry, to go off topic, but I just thought it was worth mentioning that in the current context.


Really appreciate it. Thank you, Ben. Chris, do you have anything to add, or what would you like to say in relation to this? 

I'm not that well versed on it in terms of the actual topic. The main thing for me would be that we need to watch that we don't look for fragmentation, and if it is about tax around certain sectors—. I don't know the actual terms of it, but, for me, there needs to be a whole-town approach. We need to watch that we're not looking at certain relief for certain sectors, where it's going to be—. We need to look at the aggregated approach to it, and at least with rates currently, where we're not relieving it, there's a certain approach to it, there's a standardised approach to it. But, being honest with you, I'm not that well versed in it, so couldn't really comment. 

That's absolutely fine, Chris. Not a problem. I'll ask you a sub-question, if that's okay. What would be the ideal scenario for you in relation to business rates? We've mentioned reform, that change is needed. What would be a great way of implementing a system that would be fair for everybody, and, equally, everyone would benefit from it as well? 

Good question. Yes. Ultimately, it's down to understanding about local circumstances, in terms of the scale of towns, the activity levels in those towns. It's quite a complex way, isn't it, but it's understanding those dynamics of towns and then the value around that town, isn't it? You can't have a one-size-fits-all approach to it. That will need resourcing. For me, there are a number of variables that will start to really dictate the overall performance of your town and then the value in that stock, and that is linked to size, footfall, population, and also land values as well. Land values in Wales are very different, say, to the south-east of England, for example. So, it's not a level playing field at times. So, I think there's a need to look at data and at how that data gives you that mosaic of a place, in terms of how you value it. 

Okay. Thank you so much, Chris. A final question from myself, because I know my other colleagues want to have an opportunity to ask you questions as well in their specific areas of interest. I just want to know, in relation to online retailers—. They're a big—. I get everyone's moving in the direction of online. I understand that they can be a little bit of a difficult hurdle for many online—high street retailers, I apologise—to overcome at times. So, should online retailers be required to pay tax, potentially at similar levels to business rates, just to ensure that there is a level playing field for all retail sectors going forward? Ben, I'll let you go first. 

Yes, if I can. FSB, as a UK organisation, responded to the UK Government's consultation on the online sales tax, and I think the proposal that was there we were a little concerned about, largely because what we want to see is a taxation system that isn't particularly complex. So, effectively, you're adding another tax, rather than—. It has to be seen as in the context of substantive reform of other taxes. I think, though, it was a system that either saw you as an online business or saw you as a bricks-and-mortar business, and, actually, for even many of my members, they are operating both functions, and increasingly people are, whether it be a portal for click and collect, a portal for takeaways, or having an entirely separate online retail function—they are hybrid businesses. So, for whatever the solution—and we haven't yet got to the point of what is a solution for ensuring a fair system of taxation that takes into account the increasing challenge of, particularly, some of the big online retailers—we want to see a system that is proportional and fair towards small businesses. Because neither do we want to squeeze out the ambitions of aspiring small online businesses.

So, look, I can't, at this moment, bring you an appraisal as to what the answer is there. It is something that we're looking at as an organisation across the four devolved nations and across the four jurisdictions, because we want to look at it alongside business rates, but I think we had some concerns about what was being suggested by UK Government. We'll see. Obviously, that wasn't taken up. We'll see where that conversation goes next, but I think there is an inevitability of having to re-address that question of how you create a fairer balance between the different types of, particularly, retail activity, and the way in which they're taxed. 


Yes, just to concur that I know lots of independent businesses that actually are surviving via the online market. Whilst they have a shop window and people crossing their threshold, beyond 5 o'clock at night, they are taking their sales through that. So, I think Ben is right—there's got to be a balanced approach that is a—[Inaudible.]—approach, perhaps, to look at, in terms of their business model, are they actually solely dependent on online and that is their vehicle, or are people, 50:50 or 40:60 in terms of—[Inaudible.]—or retail, or is it via digital? 

It also goes back, for me, to how we project businesses around towns, their marketing and their campaigns, and that's that narrative, and you've got that brand as well. So, I think we need to tread carefully there—that we're not stifling growth there, local growth, because what's come out of COVID has been about that real sense of importance about local business and enterprise. And the bigger guns, shall we say, they have the extra reserves, they have the restock capacity, they have the cushion—do you know what I mean—to still get through stuff. So, yes. 

Excellent. Thank you so, so much, gentlemen. Chair, my questioning is over. 

Thank you very much indeed. Actually, I've also listed charity shops, which introduced online selling during lockdown and have continued to do so in the current environment. Mabon ap Gwynfor, can I invite you to take up the questions, please?

Diolch yn fawr iawn. Gaf i jest wirio bod yr offer cyfieithu yn gweithio? Ydy—pawb yn hapus efo hynny. Gaf i gychwyn—a maddeuwch i fi fy naïfrwydd ac anwybodaeth, hwyrach, i gychwyn—ond, yn sydyn iawn, rydyn ni wedi cyffwrdd ar drethi busnes, business rates, ac ar rhent. Rŵan, dwi'n derbyn, ac rydyn ni wedi clywed ambell i berson sôn mai'r pryder mwyaf sydd gan fusnesau bach ar y stryd fawr ydy business rates, ond wrth gwrs mae business rates yn mynd nôl i mewn i'r isadeiledd, ac yn cael eu gwario ar bethau gwahanol, ond pethau sydd yn cefnogi'r busnes—trwsio'r ffyrdd, ac yn y blaen, sicrhau bod yr isadeiledd hanfodol yno er mwyn i'r busnes barhau, tra bod rhent yn llawer iawn uwch na business rates, ac mae rhent, yn amlach na pheidio, yn mynd allan o'r gymuned, a dydy o ddim yn dod nôl i'w fuddsoddi yn y gymuned. Felly, fedrwch chi esbonio i fi pam fod yna gwynion a phryderon am business rates ond dydyn ni ddim yn clywed yr un lefel o gwynion am lefelau rhent ar y busnesau hynny? Gallai Ben gychwyn.

Thank you very much. Could I just check that the interpretation is working? Yes, everyone is content with that. Could I start—and please forgive me my naivety as I start—but very quickly, we've touched upon business rates and rent. Now, I do accept, and we've heard some people say that the biggest concern among small businesses is about business rates, but business rates do go into infrastructure, and they are spent on different things that do support businesses—repairing roads and so forth, and ensuring that the essential infrastructure is there for businesses to continue, while rent is much higher than business rates, and, more often than not, it goes out of the community and it doesn't come back to be invested in the community. So, could you explain to me why there are complaints about business rates but we don't hear the same level of complaints about rent levels for those businesses? Ben can start.

Diolch, Mabon. Yes, I think we do hear it. It's probably not as pervasive in the public narrative; it's not as common across Wales in terms of the conversations that we have. I think you make a good point, though, that there isn't that complaint about the fact that they're paying high rents anyway, and obviously, that is a very significant business cost to them. I can't account for why, in the wider narrative, that isn't part of the pushback. I think the previous—. One thing does affect another, and your previous contributor has quite rightly said that there is a danger that the more successful an area becomes, the more successful a high street becomes, the higher the rent goes up, the higher, therefore, the rateable value and therefore business rates levy goes up. Ultimately, it's a disaggregated conversation, though, isn't it? You've got multiple landlords, so the ire is aimed at individuals rather than structures of government, so that might well be the reason. But I think it's a fair point, but it's not something—. Whereas, in our day-to-day conversations, we do get members complaining to us about the level of rent they're paying and the fact that that, again, is disproportionate, quite often, to their turnover.

Our ability as an organisation, I guess, to impact that in a private rental marketplace is more limited than it would be in bringing an aggregated conversation to decision makers within local government. So, I guess that doesn't particularly answer your question, but I think that's probably the best analysis I can give in this instance.


Yes, just to add to Ben's points there, Mabon, that it's a commercial thing, isn't it? It's often a private conversation between a landlord and lessee, in a way. But I know that here in Monmouthshire, rents change across the towns. You've got similar-sized towns here and you've got some landlords charging far more expensive rates than elsewhere, yet, you haven't got the footfall in those towns, so at times it can—. Some of it is not fair. So, yes, I do agree with you and I do agree with Ben. There's often that divorce where things are seen in the realm of government, if you know what I mean, and then those things that are often of a private treaty or a private license. Often, people just take it on the chin, you know what I mean, that it's something that they have to—. If they want to rent somewhere, that is the norm in business; that is something that is a given. But, it is linked back to rateable value and it's linked back to the performance of the town and, as Ben said, once a town starts to grow and prosper, suddenly that’s when you start to get that change in the rental regime as well.

Diolch yn fawr iawn. Mae hwnna’n help mawr. Os caf fi fynd i bwynt cwbl wahanol, rŵan. O ran rôl awdurdod lleol, mae e’n gyfyngedig beth mae awdurdod lleol yn medru ei wneud, ond, wrth gwrs, ar hyn o bryd, rydym ni'n gweld argymhellion i gael mwy o weithio partneriaethol, awdurdodau lleol yn dod ynghyd, ac rydym ni’n gweld argymhellion ar gyfer pethau fel corporate joint committees a gweithio ar draws ffiniau. Felly, ydych chi’n meddwl bod cymryd agwedd fel yna, o weithio ar draws ffiniau, gweithio partneriaethol rhwng awdurdodau lleol a sefydliadau, yn mynd i fod o fudd i ddatblygu canol trefi?

Thank you very much. That's a great help. If I could go on now to a different point. In terms of the role of a local authority, it is restricted in terms of what a local authority can do, but at present, we're seeing recommendations to have more partnership working, local authorities coming together, and we're seeing recommendations for things such as corporate joint committees and working across areas. So, do you think that that approach, working across boundaries and partnership working between local authorities and other organisations, is going to be of benefit in terms of the development of town centres?

If I could. Yes, I think it's very early days, obviously, in terms of the corporate joint committees. We're really interested to see how they begin to work together. I think the notion of regional working and partnership working is really welcome, and I think it does create economies of scale and economies of expertise and economies of resource that may well benefit. I mean, it's entirely—. You know, 22 local authorities, with all the towns in their jurisdictions, are going to really find it difficult to start to chip away at some of these challenges, but I think those collaborations at a regional level are really quite helpful. They also, for organisations such as ourselves and individuals, they provide a one-to-many point of communication in terms of understanding, 'Well, if we were to develop regional town centres across north Wales, for instance, what is the vision for that, what would be the benefit of that, how would we make sure that we—a horrible phrase—sweat the asset of that development, for instance, to make sure that it is not just retail but different types of businesses?' So, it does provide for that macro conversation about how we develop these.

I guess the challenge is more about the pump priming of the conversations at local level. What we can't have is just a duplicate of what we've had in the past, which is an identikit solution as to how we develop town centres. We need to activate local communities, and I dare say, look, there is a challenge to my members to come to the table on this in their communities, where I talk about the need to identify what town centres are about, what the strengths of town centres are about. It is not for us just to sit there and expect local government to knock on the door. We all have to come to the table in doing that. Maybe those corporate joint committees and the functions that flow from them allow that conversation to happen more easily, but we can't neglect the need to have those localised conversations, because, ultimately, the solutions will be developed, the solutions will be delivered locally; they might be identified and actioned by corporate joint committees. 

I guess the other point that I'd like to make is that we've yet to see how the corporate joint committees, as a structure, interface with things like the levelling-up and shared prosperity funds. It is a fiendishly complex architecture of government, which is impacting on some of these conversations about community regeneration and the regeneration of town centres—really difficult for my members individually to navigate, really difficult for me, as someone who represents them, to navigate. And, I think, we have seen, whereas some of the interventions that have been announced through the levelling-up and shared prosperity funds are welcome, I'm not yet sure as to how that all fuses together to a shared identification of how we address this problem of regenerating town centres. 

So, I think part of that is that it's early days and it's not yet bedded in, but, I think, the corporate joint committees do provide an opportunity to pool resource and expertise in local authorities that are particularly tested. 


Just to add to what Ben said there, it's got that spatial, strength, capacity, overview. [Inaudible.]—back up to north Wales in terms of Bangor, Llandudno and across the north Wales coast, it's to understand that co-relationship that is about transport connectivity, and also skills and training and learning and education—there are those bigger instruments there that can start to look into towns. But I do agree there that it shouldn't be top-down; we need to find a middle ground there where we've got that locale, we've got that sense of place and people and community, and they also need to find their own local solutions. 

And, yes, there's also value for money about procurement and supply chains. There are things there where you could be smarter in terms of actually spending money, perhaps, as well. Ultimately, yes, I'd be looking at the shared prosperity fund and there are also community renewal funds that have been coming out in the last six months to a year, and they're about, aren't they, just trying to empower local communities, local places, and to create that differential at times, although one can argue that there's also knowledge transfer. There could be one town that's found something—I know, up in Anglesey, there's Menter Môn—they're doing some really innovative stuff there, aren't they, and that could also be transferred elsewhere. Again, we're a small country, we should be doing more. Best practice often doesn't travel that far. We should be looking at that. So, I think there are spatial benefits, and about working together, certainly across areas, but also about us still respecting that local solution. 

Diolch. Os caf i, Gadeirydd, ofyn un cwestiwn olaf, a dwi'n meddwl bod Chris wedi gwneud pwynt pwysig yma o ran dysgu rhannu arfer da; dwi ddim yn meddwl bod hwnna'n cael ei wneud ddigon, felly, hwyrach, bod hwnna'n rhywbeth y medrwn ni edrych arno yn yr ymgynghoriad yma. Ond, un pwynt olaf gennyf i, felly. Yn meddwl am weithio'n rhanbarthol ac yn drawsffiniol, felly, un elfen o hwnna ydy trafnidiaeth, trafnidiaeth gyhoeddus yn benodol. Fedrwch chi, os gwelwch yn dda, sôn ychydig am pa mor bwysig rydych chi'n meddwl ydy isadeiledd, ac yn benodol o fewn hwnna, trafnidiaeth gyhoeddus, er mwyn sicrhau hyfywedd canol trefi yng Nghymru? Chris. 

Thank you very much. Chair, if I could ask one final question, and I think Chris has made a very important point there in terms of sharing best practice; I don't think that's done enough, so maybe that's something we could look at in this inquiry. But, one final point from me. Thinking about working regionally and cross-boundary, one element of that is transport, public transport specifically. Could you talk a little about how important you think infrastructure, and within that, specifically public transport, is in terms of securing the viability of town centres in Wales? Chris.

Is that me? I'll start. Well, it's important, isn't it? It's about mobility; it's about social inclusion; it's about people who sometimes—. There are some people who are hard to reach, if you know what I mean, some people are on lower incomes, but still need to access services in towns. And, actually, there's the balance, and there's that transition about how we're dealing with climate change as well, so public transport has a role to play in that. 

Public transport, as well, isn't just about the daytime, but it's also about the evening time economy. And, for me, the biggest problem with towns in Wales is that the last bus home is at 6 o'clock, and there are things in a town that come alive in terms of arts and culture and cinema and theatre, people going to a night class, education. There are loads of things there about public transport in terms of time of day and frequency and quality, and that integration between bus and rail. Actually, those towns that sit on the border of Wales, as well, there are issues there, aren't there, about cross-border as well?

So, for me, it's about the role of public transport and it being seen as something of the right quality and also integration with active travel. So, walking and cycling, and that it's seen as something that is well joined-up. And in parts of Wales, we know, where you have got large, urban conurbations, it's probably far more equipped, if you know what I mean. It's probably still falling short at times, but I'm sure you know that, in parts of rural Wales, we've got bigger issues there, haven't we, about the level of service, about subsidies, et cetera, and about the cost of actually running public transport. So, yes, I think it's vitally important.

And another point is that innovation in public transport can also help with supply chains as well. There are ways of dealing with this sort of 'up at the last mile', shall we call it? And there are examples elsewhere in the UK, and certainly on the continent, about how you can use public transport for smaller freight and smaller parcels, and just being a bit smarter there, as well. And it's probably going back to the old, what was it—the old post bus? I forget now. You know, when the postman would go around and actually deliver the stuff, but also, they did other things as well: pharmacy, prescriptions and everything else. So, I think we've got to think a bit more horizontally about stuff—that it shouldn't just be about how we use public transport purely for passengers at times. We need to think a bit more—[Inaudible.]


Yes, I think, for us, public transport is obviously a very expensive part of the solution to scale up to the level that is required, but is absolutely an essential part of the solution. We find, when we talk to businesses, though, that the distance between the goal of ensuring that public transport is a part of this town-centre conversation now and then, is really, really quite significant. And I think there is a transition to be made.

We know that when we talk to businesses and when we talk to customers, things like affordable and available parking are still a really fundamental part of the conversation and still particularly in rural areas. And for some time to come, businesses will rely on private vehicles, whether they're increasingly decarbonised or less-carbon-intensive vehicles, but nevertheless, they are private vehicles. We can't ignore that, in the short term, until and unless we get that critical capacity of public transport infrastructure, particularly into some of our regional and rural areas, then some of these sums just don't add up. And we know that businesses will look at public transport and the availability of public transport. Chris quite rightly says that some of these pinch-points come with the availability, affordability and capacity of transport for the night-time economy, for instance.

So, those are real conundrums that are real and present, and until we get to that point, there is going to be a reliance on the private vehicle. So, I think it is a phasing down of one mode, and a phasing up—if I can use an analogy of the mixing desk—but it cannot be a cutting off, because that is just not realistic for so many communities in Wales that are a long way from having affordable, reliable public transport that has the capacity to meet the various needs of communities and businesses. But it is absolutely a central part of this conversation about how we develop our town centres and in what way.

[Inaudible.]—commission has published a progress report this morning, which you may want to have a look at if you haven't already seen it. And I note that Wrexham's so far unsuccessful levelling-up bids had city centre regeneration at the core there. But can you wait a few minutes? We're about to reach the official end of our scheduled time, but Alun Davies has some questions, if you could hang on for those. So, over to you Alun.


Thank you very much. I've enjoyed the conversation, but I felt a bit of an observer, a spectator, if you don't mind me saying so, because a lot of the conversations you've been having seem to be around the sorts of—you've both used the term 'regional towns', well, I don't represent any of those. It seems to me that what you're both telling me is that I need to spend more time driving down to Abergavenny and less time worrying about what's going on in Tredegar or Ebbw Vale. And I'm just wondering about the towns in which most people live in Wales, actually, and in which all the people I represent live, which are those smaller, what we call 'post-industrial' communities, which have really suffered the brunt of the last few years, and I'm not convinced that I've heard much this morning that offers much hope for those places. I'm just wondering if you can let me go to my lunch feeling a little more optimistic.

I don't know if I can offer optimism, other than a genuine sense that it's not intended. When we talk about regional towns, I think we, as FSB, have focused on some of those conversations as a reaction to what is an increasing conversation about urbanisation, agglomeration, saying that economic development in Wales has to be the full palette, I guess. I think you're absolutely right; there are towns that are not of the size to even talk about the capacity and redevelopment we're talking about here, but what we do need to see in those towns is nevertheless the sort of local activation of partners, including businesses, and then to be able to identify what is appropriate to them, because, again, we're talking about regional towns, and one is not the same as another; no town is the same as another. Obviously, we know that when we talk about parochialism, it's inherently seen as a negative thing, whereas actually, quite often, what is there is an intense pride in a community and some of that is shared, but never captured. So, I think there are conversations that need to happen at a fairly molecular level to help people capture the value of towns and decide for themselves what the intervention is. It may well be that in some high streets, for instance, we're not going to bring retail back to sufficient strength so that it props up a local economy, so the provision of localised services—again, to use that fader analogy—will be greater in those areas. But it's not for me or FSB or any organisation or entity to dictate what that is. I think that has to be a localised identification. Once you've got that, the public sector is the enabler of that.

You're right to challenge, to be honest, Alun. I think there is a danger as to how do we get more granular conversations, how do we make this relevant, in a way that communities don't feel that we are maybe, without intention, dismissing them. I think this was part of the challenge of the lack of narrative in public funds—particularly EU funds in the past—where we use these funds, and this needs to be the lesson of the new rounds of funding, that we need that narrative, we need that ownership, and we need people to feel that they are part of the game and part of identifying the priorities that are right for them. So, it isn't an omission that is intentional on my part or on FSB's part, and we're absolutely cognisant of that, but we do find it quite challenging, particularly in smaller towns, to activate those communities, because it needs capacity to be able to do that. So, funding structures need to build in that capacity to create engagement.

[Inaudible.]—beginning of a conversation rather than the end of one, but time is against us, so that's fine. Thank you.

So, just to add to Ben's points, really. As someone whose bloodline is from Beaufort in Ebbw Vale, by the way, so I'm not—[Inaudible.]—Abergavenny, I'm sort over the hill, you know, over Blackrock. I think the key things for me are just to understand—. I've worked in Treharris and Trelewis in the Merthyr valley and, as Ben said, it's about having the corner shop, having the club, having the doctor's surgery, and understanding what's that mix of things that happen in that place.

Merthyr, as we know, Merthyr's been trying to look at its future role and function around arts and culture, and Redhouse Cymru; it's now looking at skiing, activity tourism, so it's all about that hierarchy of place, isn't it? And the Valleys have that rich industrial heritage, which is a real sort of key foundation to where it's come from, and there are things happening in there that are fairly limited. The points raised through the Chair about multi-agency working, around health, education, et cetera, and colleges. So, things are happening.

I think you're right there, Alun, that we need to ensure that we understand about the people, the community and the needs as well, because they are different, aren't they? They are different in terms of where they are and how we can actually help to unlock ambition as well, which is around enterprise, entrepreneurship. There are people there that—. We know there are some great companies in the Valleys that have some great stories as well. Treorchy, as well—I was just mentioning Treorchy in passing—in terms of the Great British High Street award and all that. There are things that are happening. I think it was a comment raised by Mabon about best practice, about the need to ensure that there are things happening in Wales, whether it be at a smaller town level, to large provincial, to market, to Valleys towns, that we all need to learn from. So, I think that's what I would say to you. Thank you.


Sorry. Alun, have you concluded your questions? Thank you very much indeed. I'll finish simply by asking both witnesses if you have anything you wish to add that we haven't already covered, and specifically what more you believe the Welsh Government should be doing and how quickly to address the steady decline of towns and the pandemic's impact on them.

If I could, Chair, certainly the pandemic's had a really fundamental impact on our towns. It would be remiss of me not to mention the fact that my members in town-centre environments and across Wales, but particularly in areas like retail and hospitality, are facing a pretty existential crisis again. Welsh Government will need to look again at its resource to support those businesses in the coming months. The withdrawal of the energy business relief scheme will hit, disproportionately, businesses like retail and tourism, and, therefore, will have an impact on our town-centre environments.

So, in the short term, we are going to have to look for, at UK and Welsh Government level, things that can help shore those businesses up, because I think it's an obvious point, and an obvious point that I would make, that those businesses have to be there to recover these environments to do all those things that we've been talking about in this session. So, we will have to look to Welsh Government to see what else it can do in the short term to make sure that, towards the end of 2023, those businesses are in good shape to regrow.

I think to me, Chair, it's about outcomes. Where do you want to be? Where are you going? What's your reach? We've used words like 'narrative', about identity, about towns, about how we can support them. Ben's talked about the funding for business support, et cetera, and helping them. To me, this is about the broader funding landscape.

We have the Transforming Towns programme. I think we need to look at the need around the programme, at the scale of it, at distribution. To me, though, it's not just about the hardware, the bricks and mortar, it's also about revenue, as well. I think we need to start looking at—. What we've talked about a lot today is about how do we get towns organised, how do we get partners around the table, how do we get people pointing in the same direction. How do we sell a town? How do we talk about that town's message?

So, I think there needs to be certainly some redress around funding, and not just capital, but also about revenue, and then understanding about those metrics around success. They are forever changing; towns are always changing. Once you've got to the end of one cycle, you're always looking at the next one. So, I think, for me, it's about looking at long-term sustainable outcomes for towns, so where they need to be. Thank you.

That's very helpful. Thank you very much indeed. That brings us to the end of our questions. A transcript of today's meeting will be published in draft form and sent to you for you to check for accuracy before being published in final format. So, that just leaves me to thank you both very much for attending today, for answering our questions and sharing your experience and thoughts. I hope the rest of your day goes well.


Thanks very much to you all. Thank you for the opportunity.

Thank you. Have a good day.

Right, Members. We'll now go back into private session, as agreed earlier, for the remainder of today's meeting.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 12:25.

The public part of the meeting ended at 12:25.