Al Fresco Dining, Revived High Streets and an Empowered Mayor: How the Government's Levelling Up Bill will affect Manchester

The government unveiled the long-awaited bill on 'levelling up' at last week's Queen Speech...

By Ben Brown | Last updated 24 May 2022

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Rather archaic and certainly something that shouldn’t be happening in the 21st Century, it was the Queen’s Speech last week, a time when our Head of State (Lizzie 2.0) sets out the programme of legislation that the government intends to pursue in the forthcoming parliamentary session.

Regardless of the fact that the Queen didn’t even attend, leaving the duties to little Charlie (3.0) instead, the event hit the news waves as it offered the general public the first real insight into the government’s famed (and delayed) ‘Levelling Up’ plans – the key pledge that won them the General Election in 2019.

The document itself – the Levelling up and Regeneration Bill – is a whopping 338 pages long, split into 22 distinct parts with names like ‘Infrastructure Levy’, ‘Development Corporations’ and ‘Compulsory Purchase’.

It’s obviously intended to be overly complicated and all a bit vague, but I’ve had a read of it and here’s how it’s going to affect us all here in Manchester…

Al Fresco Dining

One of the most popular bits of legislation in the bill comes in the form of the ripping up of the ‘red tape’ governing pavement and outdoor dining in the UK.

Due to COVID, and the rather strange restrictions that were getting flung about during the pandemic, temporary powers and licences were given to the local government – with the city’s many independents taking full advantage.

Many of the traditional rules were scrapped to allow pubs and restaurants to serve guests outside, helping to counteract lost floor space brought about by social distancing rules – and the British public bloody loved it.

However, as we reported last week, since these restrictions have been scaled back due to ‘COVID not really being a thing anymore’ some of the city’s businesses have faced difficulty in renewing or extending their pavement licences.

Well, it seems that the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill looks set to reduce all of this red tape permanently – meaning you should expect to see more outdoor terraces, beer gardens and alfresco dining in the city very soon.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said: “Making pavement licences permanent is a really positive move. These outdoor spaces benefit town and city centres, enabling them to enjoy the sort of outdoor experiences available elsewhere, and helping local economies recover faster.”

Revived High Streets

The bill also looks to combat the decline in town centres, something which we’ve seen here up North for decades, and which has been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.

To do this the Bill gives councils and residents the powers to force landlords to let out empty commercial units, therefore revitalising areas.

Currently, shops can stand empty for years, a blight on the high street and wasting opportunities for jobs and enterprise. This new legislation will enable local leaders to force landlords to rent out commercial properties, thus offering more opportunities for independent business leaders and transforming boarded up and derelict buildings.

Quite how this will all work though is still up in the air. Compulsory Purchase Orders have existed for a while now and these new ‘Compulsory Rental Auctions‘ will definitely give the region’s high streets a well-needed jolt into action.

Since COVID, many people have simply moved their retail habits online, and the UK’s high streets have seen a huge downward shift, not helped by high rental and business rate costs.

Will we see more independents moving into our ailing high streets? Yes, it’s likely – however – costs and rates must be low in order to allow this to happen, otherwise, as I feel that this decision overlooks the real reason why most high street plots are empty. They’re just too expensive and not competitive enough, especially when faced with Amazon, who don’t really pay any tax here in the UK either.

There’s also a big difference between being forced to rent out a property and actually doing it – where landlords could just offer extortionate rates (well, more than they do already) therefore pricing most people out.

An Empowered Mayor

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill also gives local leaders greater power over regeneration and housing in their areas, giving more UK regions the opportunity to create local mayors with increased devolved powers.

Following in the footsteps of the London and Greater Manchester mayors, this will give greater flexibility to local authorities to direct spending where it is most needed, “depending on local circumstances” and aim to reduce the North/South divide.

It aims to represent a clear shift of power (and perhaps responsibility) from Westminster to local areas and people – reflecting a “firm belief that by far the best-placed people to level up communities are the people who live there.”

The bill gives local authorities the power to devolve local transport – as seen with Andy Burnham’s recent crusade to introduce a London-style transport system to Greater Manchester, plus regeneration and housing too.

So, existing mayors will have more power and greater autonomy – away from Westminster and the ability to re-focus key issues, such as regeneration and housing, to local people.

The Bill itself has faced almost equal levels of backlash and applaud, with people noting that there’s plenty in there for people to get upset about. There’s TONNES in there that’ll affect an awful lot of our daily lives, most of which I can’t really cover here.

It all raises many, many questions, most of which can’t really be answered until a couple of years’ time…

Will high business rates keep people away from renting these vacant high street spots?

Does the bill respond to actual local issues, instead of perceived problems gleamed from within Westminster?

and, is it all enough to actually ‘level up’ as much as they promised in 2019?