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On Friday (24 Jan) I visited Margate as part of my Planning brief to meet local traders and customers, along with local councillors, in order to discuss the importance of supporting local high streets and regenerating town centres. I have been working with local councils, businesses, organisations and communities to better understand the problems being faced by local communities like Margate and the issues that matter to them.  Image

As part of the visit, I was shown round Margate’s seafront, old town and the Dreamland site with Council Leader Clive Hart and Labour’s prospective Parliamentary candidate for South Thanet Will Scobie. My visit also included a discussion with the Margate Town Team and local council on re-invigorating Margate High Street for the benefit of local people and visitors alike.

It was great to see the regeneration work that has taken place in the town in the last decade and to look at how other towns throughout the country can learn from Margate’s successes. I was really encouraged by the forward thinking of the local council and Town Team and their exciting future plans to further improve the town.

Both the importance of improving the town centre for the local community as well as the key role regeneration plays in attracting tourism and visitors to the town cannot be emphasised enough. This is why Labour has set up a High Streets Advisory Group, which I am proud to be part of, to look specifically at issues affecting local high streets and town centres such as Margate, including business rates and empty shops.

A number of things struck me while visiting Margate that I will feed into our next High Streets Advisory Group meeting.

Firstly, it is important to understand how long the process of regeneration takes. There is a definite need to develop a more long term, strategic approach to High Street regeneration. It is vital to bear in mind that it isn’t just individual buildings and new developments that we need to get right- we need to plan for the whole street and wider neighbourhood.

Crucially, if the ideas of the community are on board then I think we are much more likely to get consent for the developments, which has been missing from a lot of the discussions. The role of local authorities in all of this needs further consideration.

Secondly, lots of issues were raised about the level of business rates especially in areas like Margate that need to regenerate after years of struggle and now have an acute need to support and grow local independent shops. Several innovative solutions, including pop up markets and shop-shares, have helped new and smaller local businesses in Margate and we can learn from this, but more support is needed.

Thirdly, there is clearly a problem of absent or uncooperative landlords and councils and local authorities need more powers to deal with empty and rundown buildings. This would empower communities to shape their own local high streets and town centres.

Fourthly, planning delays were identified as a major issue by many of the local people I spoke to during my visit.

I really enjoyed my visit to Margate and I want to thank all those who helped make it so interesting and those who contributed to the discussions, particularly local council leader Clive Hart and PPC Will Scobie.

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On Monday (20th Jan) I took the opportunity to speak in an important and very well-attended debate on pay day loan companies in the House of Commons. Many of those who spoke agreed that there is an urgent need to improve the regulation of this industry. I spoke about the devastating impact pay day loans can have on the lives of many people in my constituency, and particularly those who are vulnerable and already struggling with their finances.

My full speech on pay day loan companies is at the end of this post and the full Commons debate can be read here:

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm140120/debtext/140120-0003.htm#14012038000272

Also on Monday (20th Jan), I joined my colleagues in the Shadow Communities and Local Government team on the frontbench and questioned Nick Boles, the Planning Minister on why the Government is taking away powers from local councils and communities and making it harder for local people to shape their high streets.

Localism was a key Conservative pledge during the 2010 election, but the NPPF and the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, along with reams of secondary legislation and vicious local authority cuts, have completely torn apart the Government’s promise to instil localism in the planning system and it appears that this is only likely to get worse in the coming months.

 

My speech on pay day loan sharks:

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) and the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee for their excellent report on payday lending and for doing so much to raise the profile of the issue, including by stimulating debate. There is a strong degree of cross-party consensus on what needs to be done. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for doing so much to bring the problems of payday loans to our attention.

Most MPs will know from their constituency casework, and from the growing number of payday loan companies on our high streets, that payday loans are becoming more of a problem for our constituents. I hope to be able to run through my four main concerns, the first of which is the exorbitant interest rates charged by those companies, which should not be tolerated in our society. Pay-back rates of 5,800% are not unheard of, and APRs of 2,600% are not at all unusual. That creates huge problems for people paying back the loans. Despite this, more and more people have to turn to payday loan companies just to make ends meet. That indicates that there is a huge cost of living problem in our society, and that many jobs simply do not pay people enough money to live on.

In 2010, just 1% of people getting advice from citizens advice bureaux had debt from at least one payday loan. That rose to 4% in 2012 and 10% this year. Evidence from Citizens Advice also reveals irresponsible lending, and says that it is intrinsic to the industry. New 12-month figures from the national charity’s payday loan tracker reveal that 61% of loans still come without proper checks to assess whether borrowers can afford to repay. It also found not only that three out of four borrowers found it difficult to repay their loan, but that in 84% of cases lenders were breaking their promises to freeze interest and charges for those who were struggling.

National Debtline says that calls for help with payday loan issues soared from 776 in 2008 to more than 20,000 in 2012. A ComRes survey found that 98% of MPs and 93% of the public believe there is a problem with payday lending, and that 66% of MPs and 65% of the public support a cap on the total cost of credit. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Government were forced to take action earlier this year, but I am not sure that requiring the FCA regulator to clamp down on excessive interest rates is really good enough, especially when it will be some months before any such scheme can be implemented. Labour put forward an amendment to the Financial Services Bill, which would have given the new FCA clear powers to tackle the overall cost and duration of high-cost loans, especially where it could demonstrate consumer detriment. It is a real pity that the Government did not accept the amendment.

My second concern is the methods used to trap people in cycles of debt. I have a constituent who, when desperate and applying for a loan, was told that she had to give her mobile phone number. Thereafter, she was sent texts that offered her more loans and offered to give her more money to pay outstanding loans. She was contacted at the end of the month, when she was particularly short of money, and urged to take out more loans.

When she came to my surgery she was literally at her wits’ end and did not know what to do. That case is not unique and we really should not continue to allow companies to behave in this way. If this sort of bullying was taking place anywhere else, it would be tackled. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West mentioned how advertising is increasingly being targeted at children. Again, that is a disgrace and something that should be brought to an end immediately. Research shows that of those sampled who had taken out a payday loan, 60% regret the decision and 48% believe that their loan has made their financial situation worse. Only a tiny number think it has had a positive impact on their finances.

My third concern relates to the proliferation of these companies on our high streets. Action the Government have taken to deregulate use classes and permitted development rights means that it is much easier for payday loan companies to set up on our high streets without having to gain planning permission. This is a step in completely the wrong direction. We are urging the Government to take action on this immediately by returning powers to local councils and local communities, so that they are able to reduce the numbers of payday loan companies on their high streets. We know, from a number of different surveys undertaken with communities, that local people want those powers and they want their councils to be able to reduce the number of payday loan companies in their area.

My fourth point concerns the way in which payday loan companies target disadvantaged areas and prey on poor people. Research recently carried out by Professor Sarah Banks at Durham university described payday loan companies as preying on the poor. She said that many people have multiple loans with payday and doorstep lenders at annual interest rates of up to 4,000% even though their incomes are very small, and that the companies did not even look at the other debts people had or whether they could afford to repay them. They lent to people, even though some of them had only very small amount savings or no savings at all. She gave lots of examples of the unscrupulous way in which loans were being targeted, particularly at those with very low incomes.

As several hon. Members have said, we need to find ways out of this situation, and one of them is to support and promote credit unions better. I am pleased that our new Bishop of Durham has signed up to the Durham County credit union. It is important we see this as a way of fighting poverty, particularly in areas like the north-east that still have very high rates of unemployment and where people are losing lots of money through welfare reforms and increasingly being driven to loan sharks just to make ends meet. We must ensure that people see credit unions as a viable way forward and give them the support they need to join them.

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On Wednesday (8th January), I spoke in two debates in Parliament, both on important planning issues. In the House of Commons Chamber, I spoke about the importance of giving local communities the tools to shape their local areas.

Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) can be found in Casinos and Bookmakers. A number of different games to be played on them but they are most commonly associated with Virtual Roulette. The current maximum stake on B2 machines is £100 (In multiples of £10), meaning that £100 can be bet every 20 seconds.

Many local communities and local authorities have raised concerns that betting shops are clustering in areas with high levels of deprivation.

To deal with these issues, local authorities should be empowered to take action in response to local concerns about betting shops and FOBTs. In addition, action should be taken to minimise potential harm from FOBTs, strong consumer protection measures should be in place and data collection should be standardised to inform future decision making.

Our policy announcements are designed to deal with these issues and empower local authorities to respond to local concerns about the spread of betting shops and FOBTs.

My full speech on fixed odds betting terminals is at the end of this post and the full debate can be read here:

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm140108/debtext/140108-0004.htm#14010855003100

Earlier in the day I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate and once again raised my concerns about the Government’s planning policies. These concerns were echoed by Members from all sides of the House who spoke strongly and powerfully on behalf of their communities.

During the debate I called upon the Planning Minister, Nick Boles MP, to explain why the Government has gone back on their promise to instil localism in the planning system.

A future Labour Government would ensure that local people and councils have greater powers in shaping their high streets. Our approach is a strongly localist one, and we want to work with local communities to deliver growth and development.

My full Westminster Hall speech can be found here:

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm140108/halltext/140108h0001.htm#14010838000093

 

Roberta’s full speech on fixed odds betting terminals:

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): We have had an extremely lively debate this afternoon on an issue that many Members across the Chamber clearly feel strongly about. Unfortunately, what we heard from the Minister was breathtaking complacency and the usual “blame Labour” mantra, but it will not wash. It is this Government who are failing to take action on the issue and who have facilitated a proliferation of FOBTs and betting shops on our high streets. Despite the Minister’s speech, a number of Government Members seemed to agree with us that additional powers should be given to local government. It will be interesting to see whether they rediscover their commitment to localism and vote with us in the Lobby.

A number of Members have made excellent speeches this afternoon. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) spoke of the inadequacy of local government powers to control betting shops, and pointed out that action under those powers can be overturned on appeal. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), who has done a great deal of work on this topic, helpfully drew attention to the inadequacy of the Government’s research strategy. My hon. Friends the Members for Preston (Mark Hendrick), for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), for North West Durham (Pat Glass), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) and for York Central (Hugh Bayley) noted the prevalence of gambling outlets in low-income areas, the problems of debt that that causes, and the negative impact of too many betting shops on the high street. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham also noted the rise in criminality that is associated with betting shops in some areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) injected a much-needed degree of sense into the debate by returning us to the central issue of localism. My hon. Friends the Members for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe) and for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke of the importance of getting regulation right, not least because of the large number of people who work in the industry.

Neither I nor my colleagues object to a betting shop or two on the high street, and I appreciate that the industry has a code to encourage responsible gambling, but, as a number of Members have said, that does not go far enough. It is vital for the Government to take action to recognise the wishes and needs of local communities. As many of my hon. Friends have pointed out, there are more than 33,000 FOBTs making £1.5 billion each year for the big bookmakers—that constitutes about half their annual profits—and traditional bookies throughout the country are being turned into mini-casinos where people can gamble up to £300 a minute. Liverpool alone contains 559 terminals, which took £607 million last year. Newham in east London contains 87 betting shops with 348 terminals, and figures released recently by the Greater London Authority showed a 13% increase in the number of betting shops in London’s town centres between January 2010 and December 2012. We have heard how some players have become addicted to FOBTs, and how the machines, and the proliferation of betting shops that promote them, are causing debt and misery, as well as acting as a magnet for crime and antisocial behaviour.

We always made clear that FOBTs were on probation, and it was said during the Second Reading of the Gambling Act 2005 that we would keep them under review. In 2009, when we were in government, we said that would conduct a review because we were concerned about these machines. The current Government, however, have decided to do nothing: five years on, there has been no review. Government Members claim that local authorities have the powers that they need to regulate betting shops, but we have heard time and again from councillors of all parties that that is simply not the case. The next Labour Government will change planning and licensing laws to give councils the right to control the number of betting shops in their areas. If betting shops are not a problem, as the industry is keen to emphasise, they have nothing to fear from such a change.

There is considerable cross-party agreement on this issue. As the Leader of the Opposition pointed out during Prime Minister’s Question Time today, the Mayor of London and the Conservative head of the Local Government Association have said that local authorities do not have the power to limit the number of FOBTs. Indeed, the Prime Minister acknowledged during Question Time that there was a problem in the gaming and betting industry, and stated that we need to “sort it out.” If he recognises the problem, why is he not supporting our motion this evening?

As for the Liberal Democrats, during their annual conference in September they agreed to a motion that would give councils the power to limit the number of betting shops in their area, agreeing specifically to put betting shops in a new separate use class, although they had previously voted against such a motion in the House of Commons. That, of course, is typical Liberal Democrat behaviour. The wording of their motion was very similar to the wording of our motion today. I urge Government Members to recognise that, and to support our motion in order to implement their own policy commitments.

The country is experiencing a cost of living crisis. The average person has become £1,600 worse off since the current Government came to power. People are facing extreme difficulties in affording child care, rail fares and heating their homes. While the Members on the Government Benches are handing tax cuts out to millionaires, millions of people are struggling, and it is at a time such as this that the most vulnerable in our society need protecting. That is exactly what my colleagues and I are proposing in this motion. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) highlighted when he launched Labour’s policy last month, in the poorest areas these betting shops are spreading like an epidemic along high streets with the pawn shops and payday lenders that are becoming symbols of Britain’s cost of living crisis. Our local high streets must meet the needs of local communities, not simply the wishes of betting companies and other similar groups.

We know that the most urgent case needs to be made for changing again the system of use class orders. Use classes play a central role in the planning system by defining the potential uses of buildings. They not only protect certain uses, but also streamline the system by allowing for some changes without the need to apply for planning permission. However, over the course of last year the Government have decided to do away with the protections offered by the use class system and in doing so have stripped communities of a say in the shape of their high streets. In May 2013 the Government introduced changes to use class orders to allow retail use to change to financial institutions without planning permission for a period of two years, allowing the possibility of more betting shops on our high streets and they also now have the audacity to say they may make this change permanent. We are arguing that the Government should do what they say they want to do and give powers to local communities to have a say over what is happening in their high streets, so that if a problem is identified with an over-proliferation of gambling and betting shops local communities are able to pull the plug on these gaming machines, which are unwanted in many of our areas.

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