Labour's Anneliese Dodds uses Dewsbury visit to warn of 'headlong rush" to turn unused shops into poor quality housing due to Conservative planning reforms
This summer could see a "headlong rush" to turn disused shops in Yorkshire's high streets into "poor quality residential development", according to Labour's Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds.
Speaking during a visit to Dewsbury where she launched Labour's independent Rebuilding Our High Streets Commission, Ms Dodds shops forced to close before and during the pandemic should be kept available for new businesses and entrepreneurs to take over.
She said that while the former mill town in West Yorkshire had "incredible potential", the local Kirklees council and others like it needed to be given more power to build economic activity.
The Labour frontbencher said current planning rules made it too easy for commercial units to be turned into "pretty poor quality housing" without "those planning hoops being jumped through that were there before".
And she said this trend could be exacerbated by new rules which came into force in March, allowing commercial premises to be converted into homes, as part of what the Government says is "a package of measures to revitalise England’s cherished high streets and town centres".
Revealing the plan, earlier this year, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said the new homes will be delivered through a simpler ‘prior approval’ process instead of a full planning application and will be subject to high standards, ensuring they provide adequate natural light and meet space standards.
But Ms Dodds said the change would lead to "more poor quality bedsits potentially in different units that should be available for the new businesses that we see all around us in places like Dewsbury".
She cited the example of Pioneer House, a former cooperative building in Dewsbury town centre which is now being used by a local college, as an example of a building where it should be easier for local councils to take control of it.
Her proposed 'empty shop orders', allowing local authorities to take over long-term empty venues in their high streets, would grant new powers similar to those already used for turning unoccupied residential properties into housing.
She told The Yorkshire Post: "Our high streets have a great future but they won't be exactly the same as they were, there's no question.
"There's going to be significant change, but there can and must be change where communities are driving that change, they're in control of it, where they actually can have a say around the change that takes place.
"So I think we'll probably see a lot more leisure for example, in town centres in the future. Now where that's agreed with the local community, you've got local councils on board, that can work really well.
"But what we can't have is this real headlong rush that we've seen in so many places that could well and is likely to intensify over the summer with the Conservatives rule changes into pretty poor quality residential development out of what's currently commercial space available for shops, restaurants, cafes and indeed leisure.
"We need to keep those spaces available for new businesses and actually for those new entrepreneurs.
"It's really interesting walking around new Dewsbury, finding out about those new businesses, with interesting heritage as well related to textiles for example, where they would have a bright future, but they need to be able to access space, so they can actually sell what they're producing or have that space as well to produce."
Retail leaders say the pandemic has exacerbated the pre-existing trends affecting the high street and made it harder for shops to compete against their online rivals. This is forcing civic and business leaders to radically re-think how high streets might look in the coming years.
The Government has introduced a number of measures to help high streets recover once lockdown restrictions are lifted which include a £56 million Welcome Back Fund to help boost the look and feel of high streets and seaside towns and the relaxation of planning rules to allow pubs and restaurants to operate as takeaways.
On her visit Ms Dodds was joined by Tracy Brabin, the Labour candidate to be West Yorkshire's first elected metro mayor, Kirklees Council leader Shabir Pandor and local Labour councillor Eric Firth, who is standing for election in May in the Dewsbury East ward.
The Shadow Chancellor was shown the Grade II listed Dewsbury Arcade in the town's Market Place, which was taken over by the Labour-led council last summer.
More than half a million pounds will be pumped into stabilisation works for the town centre shopping thoroughfare, which connects Corporation Street with Market Place.
And a community benefit company is bidding to run the Victorian shopping arcade - which is one of Dewsbury's grandest buildings - as part of a £2.3m refurbishment programme next year.
And Ms Dodds was also taken around Dewsbury's market, which was closed today but is set to be transformed "into a flexible space for both shopping and leisure" as part of the 10-year 'Dewsbury blueprint' vision for the town.
She was also shown Pioneer House, the former base of the Dewsbury Pioneers Industrial Society Ltd, which has now been taken over by Kirklees College.
Labour's independent Rebuilding Our High Streets Commission, bringing together experts from businesses in retail, leisure and hospitality, as well as representatives of the trade union and social enterprise sectors, will meet regularly over the course of the next six months to offer independent advice to the party.
The relaxation of coronavirus restrictions saw non-essential retail reopen to customers last week, while hospitality can serve punters outside.
But with Covid-19 closures leading to thousands of retail job casualties, Labour said its independent review will look at how high streets can be supported post-pandemic to continue to be places where people shop, socialise, meet, work and live.
Other candidates standing in the Dewsbury East ward are Simon Duffy (Green), Dennis Hullock (Lib Dems), Keith Mallinson (Con), Mark Thackray (Dewsbury Borough Independents – Heavy Woollen District), Dan Woodcock (Yorkshire Party).
Other candidates for West Yorkshire mayor are Matt Robinson (Conservatives), Stewart Golton (Lib Dems), Andrew Cooper (Green), Bob Buxton (Yorkshire Party), Wajid Ali (Reform UK) and Therese Hirst (English Democrats).