LIKE schools, Parliament has this week been in recess for an Easter break. I took this opportunity to spend some time in Durham’s city centre – something I love to do but which, over recent months, a combination of lockdown restrictions and a busy Parliamentary schedule has made difficult.

As I walked from my office through Durham’s winding streets, the huge number of empty shopfronts presented starkly the economic costs of Covid. Each empty unit is a reminder of the great upheaval that our high streets has gone through.

It is true that Covid has only exacerbated trends that were long gathering momentum. Over the past 10 years, 7,000 shops have closed across the UK. Durham is blessed to have a number of excellent enterprising independent stores which make the city unique. But the closure of former high street giants like BHS and Topshop in Durham have shown that bricks and mortar stores were already struggling to compete with online rivals.

With the pandemic shifting even more spending online, retail areas such as Silver Street increasingly resemble a ghost town.

We cannot ignore the decline of our city centre. Our high street should be a place of civic pride, where people from across our community come together to socialise, to eat, to work, to live, as well as to shop. Our city centre must evolve. Space once dedicated solely to large shops may need to be converted for a variety of other uses. But the question that this presents is who should shape this change?

The Government believes that the antidote to reverse the fortunes of the high street is to simply relax planning laws. While this may suit hawkish developers on the prowl to turn city centre space

into low quality flats or student accommodation, I fear that this would freeze out the voices of local residents, leaving councils, and the communities they represent, powerless to object to proposals which would erase Durham’s unique character. Nor would this provide the amenities which residents want.

Freed from planning constraints, it would leave Durham’s city centre at the mercy of the highest bidder.

That is why I believe the voices of local communities must be central to the evolution of our high street.

Constituents regularly write to me to express not just their disappointment at the current state of the city centre, but to express their bemusement that the county council does not act to improve it.

The frustrating reality is that empty shops are very rarely owned by the local council, and at present they lack the powers to make the changes residents want to see.

That is why I strongly welcomed Labour’s proposals announced recently by the Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds, which would grant local councils the power to repurpose high street units that had

been empty for 12 months. Councils could then ensure that rather than being neglected and sold off for student accommodation, high streets can emerge from the pandemic as bustling hubs that reflect the wants and needs of the local community.

I believe people in Durham want to see local people having the powers to make meaningful change in their area. Labour would give communities the power and voice to re-shape the high street, while the Conservatives seem content to sell it off to the highest bidder.

  • Mary Kelly Foy is the Labour MP for the City of Durham