Sarah Olney – 2021 Speech on the Towns Fund

The speech made by Sarah Olney, the Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park, in the House of Commons on 4 February 2021.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me an opportunity to speak in this debate. It has been fantastic to hear the stories of how the towns fund has helped individual town centres, and I am pleased for those communities that have seen a boost from the fund. Members will know that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a member, have expressed doubts about the transparency of the decision making relating to the fund’s distribution. I do not want to reiterate these concerns, as they have been expanded on by various Members in this debate, but I note that the approach of selecting certain town centres for funding while excluding others is bound to lead to inequalities. Town centres that could have benefited from funding will miss out. The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) made an excellent point about London suburbs, and obviously I, too represent one. There are lots of opportunities in London’s suburbs for levelling up, not least now that we are seeing less commuting, and lots of town centres will be looking for funds to revive, to help those who are working from home more often.

In the interim, our town centres have had to weather the unprecedented economic blow of the pandemic lockdown and a further decimation of the retail industry. Once the restrictions are lifted, there will be an urgent need to make a substantial economic offer to town centre businesses, not just to help revive them, but to provide jobs, and to deliver local goods and services, and, most importantly, public spaces, where local people can come together and meet each other. It is those informal meetings that we are all missing out on during lockdown. All our town centres will need assistance to bounce back from this crisis, so I call on the Government to take measures that will support all our communities, and abandon this winners and losers approach that we have seen with the allocation of funds from this towns fund.

The need to review our approach to business rates has been aired many times in this Chamber, and I hope we will hear more on it in due course, in order to level the playing field between physical and digital businesses. Similarly, I would like to see a change in the way in which commercial leases are granted and an abolition of upward-only rent reviews. I have heard that ask from many, many businesses in the past year. We should also reform local authority funding to give all councils more money to spend on investing in their own town centres. There are great opportunities for our retail and hospitality sectors, and our cultural organisations, once the lockdown restrictions are lifted, and they will bring new employment to every part of the UK. I urge the Government to put the investment necessary into those sectors to help them all recover from the current downturn.