Jack Brereton (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered town centre heritage action zones.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am grateful to have secured this debate. I called it primarily because of the welcome decision by Historic England to create a Stoke-on-Trent ceramic heritage action zone.
The HAZ will focus on the historic centre of Longton, a market town in my constituency, the conservation area of which is currently described as “very bad” but “improving” on the heritage at risk register. The area retains much of its ceramics industrial heritage, and my constituency has the largest number of surviving bottle kilns. It is not alone on that list: Trentham mausoleum in the west of my constituency is on it, too. However, we are confident that Trentham mausoleum, the only grade I listed building in the city of Stoke-on-Trent, will soon be leaving the heritage at risk register following significant refurbishment works and the securing of its future through community arts use. However, it is not certain that Longton town centre will be leaving the heritage at risk register any time soon. As such, Longton will be the focus of my speech, but many of the issues it faces will be relevant to other town centres up and down the country that have, or aspire to have, heritage action zones.
Stoke-on-Trent is made up of six historic market towns, each with their own centre. I shall return to the implications of that in my list of asks to the Minister. Longton has a strong industrial past and we want to have a strong industrial future, too. Thankfully, after decades of decline, Longton is currently enjoying a manufacturing renaissance, including in the ceramics industry. That has seen parts of the Aynsley factory—the Sutherland works—brought back into use recently. There are many such great buildings from the Victorian years of our greatest success that need to be brought back into use, to deliver success in the future. At the same time, it is only through success that those buildings will have a sustainable future, so they need to be brought into sustainable use to encourage businesses and footfall into our town centres.
Sadly, in places where post-war regeneration has happened, historic buildings have too often been pulled down and replaced by things that can only be described as crude. Historical features have been blighted by out-of-place modern features, which are not in keeping with the historic architecture. I understand why planning permission was granted; there is often a feeling that a site with any economic activity is better than a site with none. However, the cumulative effect of out-of-place developments since the second world war is a town centre that has come to close to losing its sense of place altogether. That is why what is left of the historic town of Longton town centre is a conservation area, and why I am determined that the five-year HAZ will succeed in delivering a much longer-term legacy.
From the front door of my constituency office, I can tell I am in Longton. It has the characteristic view of high Victorian architecture, rich in ornamental features and details—some Italianate, some partly gothic—and lots of traditional red brick and tiles, as is common in the Potteries, with window placements of carved stone. It is a mix that says: Longton, the Potteries and Stoke-on-Trent. However, the view from the back door of my office is of a carpark and a modern retail shed, which could be pretty much anywhere in Europe. It is not distinctive—same new, same new.
If we are going to attract more visitors, more shoppers and more businesses, we need to do better at presenting our uniqueness, which can only come from those integral historical features. Our local tourism appeal will never come from looking like everywhere else in the world; it must be in looking like Longton and the Potteries—the home of bottle ovens and pottery works. That is one of the key paradoxes of globalisation: when people can go anywhere in the world, their preference is to see places that are like nowhere else on earth. Celebrating, preserving and enhancing our local distinctiveness is fundamental to our sense of place, sense of destination and sense of identity. It is fundamental to the sense of local pride that we have something special to offer the world.
With suitable heritage interventions, Longton has the potential to be a thriving commercial centre for the south of Stoke-on-Trent. There are 224 outlets within the town centre and a total of 65,000 square feet of floor space, about one fifth of which is, unfortunately, vacant. That is substantially higher than the regional average of 12.1%. The residential population within a 2.5 km radius of Longton is more than 80,000, but very few people live in the centre itself. One of the key objectives of the HAZ, therefore, is to focus on housing within the key urban conservation area, restoring heritage buildings creatively for residential use in the high street and getting more people living in our town centres above shops once again. Often, this means reinstating shopfronts that are more in keeping with the local architectural style and restoring access to flats above shops that have long since fallen out of use.
As in many town centres, the lack of occupation has been one of the key inhibitors to maintaining heritage buildings. Thankfully, urban living is back in vogue, particularly in quirky buildings, but modern expectations for communications, plumbing, insulation and so on will need to be met. The private rental sector outside the HAZ area is already relatively strong, with many renters paying monthly rent of twice what a mortgage repayment on the same property would cost. However, much of that is old terraced housing, and there is a singular lack of private rented apartments. There is a market yet to be made.
It often proves exceptionally difficult to get property owners to convert properties in town centres to residential use. Where there is a market for residential conversions, the up-front cost of converting much of the stock available can prove, in a low-value market, to be considerably more than the post-conversion values. There has been an unwillingness in the private sector to take the necessary risks where the market is untested and lower value, and therefore market-making measures are needed to de-risk development and incentivise conversions. That has been provided in part by the housing infrastructure fund, but further investment in road and rail links to potential housing sites would always be welcome. I was especially pleased to see the Government announce the future high streets fund as part of the recent Budget. That could provide critical support in helping to address the viability gap in converting historic town centre properties into alternative uses.
It was also fantastic to have my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), the Minister with responsibility for high streets, visit my constituency recently, to see for himself and speak to local retailers about the challenges faced in our town centres. The HAZ can play its part by getting the town joined up in the ambition to move forward. However, alongside it we need incentives to address market challenges and viability constraints, and I hope the future high streets fund can provide those. A clear plan of action to increase residency, new businesses and footfall in our town centres can stimulate and leverage the increased private investment that our property market needs.
Improvements are also needed to the local public realm, Longton’s public transport network and the sense of liveability and visitability that a prospering urban centre needs to improve. It is not just about regenerating the high street in Longton; two town squares—Times Square and Union Square—do not function as visitable destinations at the moment and need improving. Dominating Times Square is the imposing Longton town hall building, which dates back to 1863. It is great to see Stoke-on-Trent City Council investing £1.9 million in plans to bring the historic Longton town hall building back into use. The building was saved by the local community from demolition in 1985 and is now, thankfully, grade II* listed. This important building will now provide a hub for the south of the city, to enable people more easily to access services in one place. There will also be investment in the fantastic adjacent Victorian market and improvement to facilities, including new public toilets.
Re-establishing the civic nature of our town squares could also establish a welcoming heritage route for visitors through the town to Gladstone Pottery Museum. Sightlines could also be opened up to the heritage landmarks of St James the Less church and the Sutherland Institute, which houses Longton library. It would, of course, mean having to improve the local traffic, with better public transport, and I hope that the existence of the HAZ will focus minds on that.
That is particularly pertinent now that we have secured funding for Stoke-on-Trent through the transforming cities fund, as outlined in the Red Book, and I thank the Government for their work on that. Getting the right balance of vehicles and pedestrians will be necessary to make the HAZ a success. I hope that the transforming cities fund will help better to join up our public transport links, and especially to improve bus links, which are severely lacking. There is plenty of capacity for numerous cultural and leisure uses, including niche retail, dining, start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises—private sector investment that can be leveraged if we get the basics of attractive buildings and the public realm right.
I note that in Historic England’s excellent publication, “Heritage and the Economy 2018”, evaluation evidence from the Derby partnership scheme in conservation areas revealed that footfall grew between 12% and 15% in the partnership scheme area while it fell by 26% across the country. I understand that Derby’s partnership scheme involved grants for the sympathetic renovation of historic shop fronts using local tradespeople over an eight-year period. That is the kind of success that Longton traders—key partners in the HAZ—are keen to replicate.
Longton is on the same train line as Derby, and it can easily compete with that city if it draws the right lessons about best practice. We also need to establish better rail services for Longton. That was the focus of my last Westminster Hall debate a few weeks ago, which my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) also contributed to. I am glad that the Department for Transport has taken that message seriously and recognised the huge economic potential for growth in local rail connectivity.
That matters because Stoke-on-Trent is on the up, and we want to keep it that way. It is a city enjoying a modern industrial revolution in its traditional and new industries. It is one of the fastest-growing and best places to start a new business in the UK. Some of our key ceramics manufacturers have grown by more than 50% in the last few years. Heritage buildings in my constituency are once again full, with pottery manufacturing just one of the productive activities taking place there.
We are much more than ceramics, however; we have learned that we have to be. The economy in Stoke-on-Trent is more diverse than ever. Manufacturing is booming in the city and there have been significant advances in hi-tech, digital and research. There is an increasing vibrancy in the wider area, with two growing universities, Keele and Staffordshire, one of which is based right outside Stoke-on-Trent station.
The HAZ has to provide invaluable opportunities for academic research, such as the 3D scanning that has been undertaken of bottle ovens. That fascinating process has underlined the fact that no two bottle ovens are the same. They are all listed, of course, but only as “bottle oven”, because not enough detail has ever been known about them. Most are grade II listed, and at Gladstone Pottery Museum they are grade II* listed. The HAZ has an important role to play in filling the gaps in our city’s collective knowledge about those important historical features.
The city’s living industrial heritage is catalysed by a burgeoning tourist industry, which also has massive potential for growth in Stoke-on-Trent. According to VisitEngland, and backed by Historic England, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery is the sixth most-visited free attraction in the west midlands in 2016. Visitor numbers increased by more than 25% from 2016 to 2017, to 176,000. The attraction of Stoke-on-Trent to tourists is clearly strengthening and I want to ensure that the south of the city—Longton, Fenton, Meir and Trentham—shares in that success.
As Historic England rightly stressed to local partners, the fundamental purpose of the HAZ is to increase the number of people who come to visit Longton and see and enjoy the heritage that is preserved there by the work of the HAZ. It is important to note that the HAZ is in addition to existing plans for heritage-led regeneration. As the authentic capital of world ceramics, Stoke-on-Trent has much to offer in destination-based tourism and experience-based tourism—for example, there are opportunities to have a go at throwing a pot in the actual potteries.
I look forward to VisitBritain running campaigns to bring international visitors to our area. Many already visit the award-winning World of Wedgwood in my constituency. The percentage of overseas visitors that it attracts is more in line with a London attraction than other sites in the midlands. Bringing those visitors into Longton, with its authentic Potteries skyline, would be great for local traders, who are only too keen to welcome more visitors to the town.
Tourism is not just about overseas visitors. We can do much to support VisitEngland to boost domestic tourism to Longton as the home of the Gladstone Pottery Museum and the largest collection of remaining bottle ovens in the Potteries, as I have said. My first ask to the Minister is this. What communication channels are there between Historic England, VisitEngland and VisitBritain to ensure that the heritage action zones in the regions will be promoted by professional tourism marketers based in London?
Historic England has rightly made it clear that the purpose of Longton’s town centre HAZ is to increase visitor numbers. Will VisitEngland and VisitBritain be primed to help with that? The benefits of UK tourism are overwhelmingly enjoyed by London. I do not begrudge our capital city its success, but I hope that we can have help where it is due to grow our tourism on the back of it.
Sadly, Longton has lost a lot of its bed space. Some hotels were pulled down altogether to make way for retail units that are now empty; others have been converted into office space. Much hotel accommodation was originally provided with travelling merchants in mind, as in most places across the country, and in our case it was linked to the ceramics trade. Staffordshire as a whole has one of the lowest levels of hotel beds per head of population, despite the increasing demand, which means that, amazingly, some hotels now charge London prices.
We are starting to see growth in that market. There are new and expanding hotels in Stoke-on-Trent, such as a Hilton under construction in the city centre as well as the expansion of Premier Inn and a Best Western in Meir Park. I hope that the HAZ will make Longton a more attractive destination for growing business-related markets. We certainly need to stimulate investment from accommodation providers for tourism and business travel.
Down the road in Leek, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), a great example of a heritage building, the Victorian Talbot hotel, is being saved and revived by Premier Inn to suit contemporary demands and expectations for modern hotel accommodation. That demonstrates the potential to convert historic properties to new uses.
If Premier Inn, Travelodge—or Wetherspoon, for that matter—or any of the other modern hospitality companies that sustainably save and revive historical buildings would like a tour around Longton and my constituency, I would be only too delighted to provide them with one. When such properties are empty and up for sale, it is right to be proactive in encouraging potential new owners who might find that the vision of the HAZ conveniently aligns to their existing business model.
I note that tourism is the latest industry to explore a sector deal and that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is keen to secure such a deal. Indeed, the Department stipulates that it must focus on accessible destinations with good accommodation, which is precisely what Longton can be if all the work is joined up properly. If we were to achieve a sector deal for ceramics that involved the proposed new international research centre for ceramics, we would need increased availability of accommodation for business travellers.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for meeting me last week to discuss that aspect of the ceramics sector deal and the bid to Arts Council England for investment from the cultural development fund to dramatically improve creative facilities at Staffordshire University. I am glad that he is keen to visit my constituency to see how the various projects supported by his Department can link with the council and local enterprise partnership frameworks to maximise efficiency and impact.
That is a reminder that the HAZ does not exist in a vacuum. It complements other projects and developments in the city, and it needs to knit in with other Government initiatives and the work of national public bodies. For example, the HAZ in Longton could be complemented by attractive partnership work with Network Rail. That is my second ask: can the Minister bring any pressure to bear in cross-governmental tourism forums for Network Rail and train operators to be plugged into the HAZ project?
The iconic girder rail bridge in Longton is a local landmark, and it is as much a part of the sense of place and destination as the impressive town hall and Victorian market opposite. The potential for increased rail and passenger numbers is significant. The railway arches could also house commercial enterprises—as, indeed, they did previously.
Rail needs to play a much bigger role in the future success of our city to get people from place to place locally and to make it more accessible for visitors and tourists, so any support that the Minister can offer for Stoke-on-Trent’s bid for Access for All funding for Longton station and to improve local rail services would be welcome. The platforms at Longton station can only be reached using stairs, which makes access to the HAZ by alternative means of transport especially difficult for people who are less mobile or who have a disability. More generally, improved rail services would significantly encourage more tourists to visit the area, and especially to visit Gladstone Pottery Museum.
As a further ask, can the Minister comment on any possible links between the HAZ projects for preserving heritage buildings and Sir Roger Scruton’s commission on beauty? The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government announced last month that the first aim of the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission is
“To promote better design and style of homes, villages, towns and high streets, to reflect what communities want, building on the knowledge and tradition of what they know works for their area.”
There seems to be an obvious crossover with what we are trying to achieve in Longton. We want to ensure that the buildings of the past, which make up the character of our area, have a future, and that modern design is respectful and complementary, adding to the urban fabric of our communities.
Business improvement districts may also have a role to play in ensuring that there is investment in making our town centres more welcoming environments. A BID is currently being developed for the city centre. If it is successful, I hope that it will be followed in other town centres across Stoke-on-Trent.
As I have mentioned, there is real potential for the future high streets fund to address the gap in viability of converting some of our historic buildings for future use. I also ask the Minister what opportunities he sees for town centre HAZ schemes to benefit from the future high streets fund announced by the Chancellor in his latest Budget. Where there are issues of viability, it is important that sufficient capital is available to help to incentivise and match fund private investment.
I will also touch on the support that the Heritage Lottery Fund can give through its townscape heritage grants. In 2016, we submitted a bid to HLF for funding and the west midlands HLF committee identified the Longton town centre townscape heritage programme as a high priority. Unfortunately, however, it was rejected at the second round by the HLF townscape heritage decision panel. My understanding is that it was rejected because such funding is allocated on a geographic basis. Since nearby towns had received funding previously, we missed out, no matter how good our bid was.
That cannot be the only justification for the refusal of a high-priority bid. That refusal has meant that the restoration of a number of prominent historic properties within the conservation zone has not been able to go ahead. I ask the Minister to consider closely the criteria for the future awarding of HLF grants, to ensure that Longton and the other towns that make up the Potteries do not miss out on the funding that is needed to restore important historic buildings and bring them back into use. We have a significant number of heritage buildings that are at risk and in a poor state of repair. They need support if they are to have a meaningful future.
In conclusion, the town centre HAZ is a great opportunity to put Longton firmly on the tourist map. Local partners are working with Historic England to agree a plan, managed and chaired by a board, to kick-start the process of bringing historic buildings back into use. I cannot stress enough the importance of that work in a town such as Longton, which is turning a corner and keen to share its successes as a city that is on the up.
We can save the heritage buildings that make people want to visit us by restoring them for alternative commercial and residential use. That would increase footfall, bringing people back into our town centres, benefiting local retailers and providing jobs. A town centre HAZ gives property owners a welcome forum to ask for advice from the local council and Historic England. It can also inspire new entrants to the local property market, who can secure the future of our heritage buildings with sustainable commercial uses. It is essential that we incentivise property owners to convert properties for new uses, ensuring that the important historic fabric of our town centres has a long-lasting future.