Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, visited Stevenage on Saturday (January 28) to speak to local businesses in the indoor market - and we got the chance to sit down for an exclusive interview.

The shadow chancellor said: "It's been absolutely great, I do like indoor markets so this is a perfect visit!

"We were just talking to Izabela who has had the [Leavened] bakery here for two years and she says she's doing really good business.

"One of the things she really benefits from is being a bit more insulated from some of the rises in business rates and energy costs because they're part of a market rather than having all of the costs of having your own business.

"For lots of people who are getting started in business, markets are fantastic, because it's a smaller unit and some of the challenges are shared with [Stevenage Borough] council, so lots of people here who haven't necessarily been going for that long are giving it a go.

"They may later move out and have a shopfront of their own, but also hopefully this year being the 50th anniversary of the market here in Stevenage is a chance for people to remember what an asset they've got.

"And I know that Richard [Henry, council leader] and Kevin [Bonavia, parliamentary candidate] have got plans to do more to support the market, but this year is a chance to celebrate it as well."

The Comet: Rachel Reeves in discussion with Cllr Richard Henry and Kevin Bonavia.Rachel Reeves in discussion with Cllr Richard Henry and Kevin Bonavia. (Image: Labour Party)


With the 3,000 flats being built in the town centre unaffordable for many local people, we asked how a Labour government would incentivise private developers to provide more affordable housing.

Reeves responded: "First of all, I think it's good that flats are going up in the town centre because one of the ways to revitalise town centres is by having housing - it means you've got people there to support the shops.

"You can hopefully develop a nighttime economy as well, supporting bars and restaurants, so I think that's a good idea of the local council, to have people living in the town centre.

"But there's obviously a massive issue of affordability. Owner-occupation is at its lowest level for 30 years and that's because we've not been building enough housing and house prices have gone totally out of kilter with wages.

"We need to be building houses, particularly in brownfield sites in places like Stevenage, where people want to live, that has really good commuting and really good businesses.

"We've put forward some plans to help first-time buyers, for example, to get onto the housing ladder which I know is a real concern for families, including here in Stevenage.

"But it's really good that the council here has got the ambition to get building so there are more houses available for people."

Local authority funding

We asked how a Labour government would ensure that SBC could better serve the people of Stevenage, following huge and ongoing cuts to local authority funding since 2010.

Reeves said: "It's really tough times, we've already had 12 years of cuts to local authority spending and my understanding is another £1.5 million is going from the budget in Stevenage.

"It is really frustrating, and actually, I felt a lot of the businesses here were quite understanding of the scale of the challenges but we know if the council had more resources it would be able to help people more.

"One of the things that we're excited about doing if we get into office at the next election is devolving more power and with it more responsibility and the money to do those things.

"For example, we've said that further education (FE) skills training, back-to-work support, transport and housing, a whole raft of things where I think better value for money could be delivered - and better services - if people with skin in the game have more of a say about how services are delivered and the prioritisation of services."

In FE "at the moment, all of the funding and decisions are made centrally to be delivered locally".

"Richard [Henry] is really proud of the fact that a quarter of the satellites in the sky are made in Stevenage.

"So we need more young people in Stevenage being trained up. With the aerospce businesses here, we've got really good local employers and we want to make sure that the FE college and skills training match up with what local businesses need. 

"The Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, put it really well when he said it shouldn't be this begging bowl culture of going to civil servants and politicians, who've probably never been to the places that they are judging between, rather than resourcing local authorities to make decisions in the best interests of their areas.

"Even Conservative MPs and mayors are pretty frustrated with the farce that this government's levelling-up has become.

"People are hugely ambitious and have great ideas for their areas, and if anything, it's government that's holding communities and people and places back.

"There's obviously a huge amount of ambition in Stevenage with redeveloping some of the shopping areas with flats above it, with plans for the indoor market, but at the moment it's the central government through the cuts, through the centralisation of provision, that is holding communities back."

The Comet: Rachel Reeves meets one of the stallholders at Stevenage's indoor market.Rachel Reeves meets one of the stallholders at Stevenage's indoor market. (Image: Labour Party)


Asked how a Labour government would improve the reliability and affordability of buses, Reeves said: "Our paper on devolution and the future constitution was looking at devolving some transport as well.

"In some parts of the country, whether it's Manchester or West Yorkshire, the mayors have used the powers they've got to cap bus fares. But it requires government devolving those responsibilities and powers to local communities.

"In some of the outlying villages around Stevenage there are no bus services on Sundays, none after 6pm. How can you take a job, how can you take a place at college, how can you take advantage of the culture that Stevenage has got to offer?

"That holds back the economy. I believe that you've got to have a strong economy to fund public services, but also you need strong public services for a strong economy.

"What you saw under the last Labour government was a growing economy and it meant you had the resources to invest in schools and hospitals."

The Comet: Rachel Reeves and Kevin Bonavia peruse the wares on offer at Stevenage indoor market.Rachel Reeves and Kevin Bonavia peruse the wares on offer at Stevenage indoor market. (Image: Labour Party)


Our final question was on the gambling industry, with another betting shop coming to the old town soon.

Reeves has accepted £30,000 in donations from people with very close links to the gambling industry, and said: "When the hardware shop moved out, the only business who put an offer in was a gambling business, and that says a lot about what is going on in the economy at the moment.

"With the increase in energy costs and business rates, I know it's really tough for small businesses.

"It's why we've said that we will reform the system of business rates to help smaller businesses and high street businesses because at the moment the business rate system is stacked against them, and stacked in favour of big global multinationals and out of town shopping centres and distribution centres.

"I don't believe that gambling per se is wrong or gambling shops are wrong, there's nothing wrong with doing things in moderation.

"I very much support the strong regulation of industries like gambling - but I don't think that people should be stopped from doing something that gives them pleasure, as long as it's in moderation."