The important point to remember is that a review has been carried out by Sir John Blelloch and, as part of the defence costs study, we asked him to bring forward certain of his recommendations. It would have been wrong to exclude such an important part of the support of our defence activities at this time. The remit was to see whether the MOD police functions could be carried out more cost effectively. The proposals that have emerged are still under detailed consideration and hon. Members will understand that I cannot discuss them today or even comment on speculation about them. As we have made clear on many occasions, we
Column 457expect to reach final conclusions on "Front Line First" as a whole in July and we shall make an announcement then on its broad outcome. I have also stressed that Sir John has much more work to carry out before we come to conclusions.
The hon. Member for Newbury has taken the opportunity presented by the debate to express his views on the possibility of creating military home service engagements under which personnel would act as guards. I can, indeed, confirm that this idea was among those that had emerged from the work on the MDP, but I stress that it was only one of a number of ideas. That concept and its implications are to be subjected to much more work. We need to look at such ideas carefully to see whether they provide a more cost-effective solution, but still deliver the service we require. I am grateful for the view that the hon. Member expressed, in rather disparaging terms, about the prospect for a military home service engagement. I do not believe that his views will be generally held. Certainly, his condemnation of the concept will not prevent us from considering it carefully. However, we will take into account the views he expressed today. As I have stresed on two or three occasions, there is much more work to be done.
I also stress that the defence costs study has nothing to do with some sort of job creation schemes for redundant service men, as the hon. Member for Newbury implied, and certainly has nothing to do with an attempt to cut corners with essential security to cut costs. Our aim is simple and, I should have thought, uncontentious : to explore whether our security requirements should continue to be met, but at a lower overall cost, so that resources are not diverted unnecessarily from the front line.
I recognise, of course, that the current period of uncertainty is inevitably worrying for MOD policemen and their families, as it is for many other groups of service men and civilians in the Ministry. I hope that these turbulent times will lead to greater stability in due course.
No one underestimates the dedication and professionalism of the members of the force. I understand that concern, but, as I said, I am afraid that they are not alone. I ask all who find themselves in this position to be patient for a little while longer until we have drawn together the threads of all the studies. We will then lose no time in telling them the results and giving them an opportunity to express their views during the normal consultation period which will follow. As I have already said, Sir John Blelloch and his excellent team are continuing their work according to their original terms of reference which, among other things, embrace MDP terms and conditions of service. Their full report will not be available within the Department for a month or so and it would, therefore, be wrong to speculate on what it might conclude.
Mr. Rendel : Does the Minister agree that the present MOD police are highly trained to do precisely the security job that is so necessary in our defence establishments ? Does he agree that any replacement by less well- trained people would inevitably lead to a reduction in security ?
Column 458responsibility of Government to look at the way in which we carry out our activities, even those that we carry out efficiently and effectively, to see whether they could be done better. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that. Perhaps the absence of responsibility for so long has caused him to express those emotions.
I have said that the full report will not be available within the Department for a month or so. It would, therefore, be wrong to speculate on what it might conclude. All that I ask is that we wait until the work is complete and has been considered within the Department so that we can address the substantive issues that emerge, rather than relying on rumour and speculation or, even worse perhaps, on political fears manipulated for particular party political preferences.
Hon. Members will be aware that I announced to the House on 19 October 1993 that the MDP had been identified as a suitable candidate for agency status. As part of the usual progress towards agency status, we have considered with central Departments the alternative options for the MDP. Those options were abolition, privatisation or contractorisation and, for various reasons, we have dismissed all of them. Although we are awaiting the outcome of the studies to which I referred earlier before proceeding any further, the main features of the agency would be as follows : first, the chief executive would be the chief constable ; secondly, the owner, representing the Secretary of State, would be the second Permanent Under- Secretary at the Ministry of Defence ; thirdly, the police committee, the statutory body providing advice to the Secretary of State, would continue ; fourthly, a separate committee would be set up, acting as the "owners" board ; and, fifthly, as in most defence agencies, the Secretary of State would remain accountable to Parliament for the MDP, but Members would be encouraged to deal directly with the chief constable, if they wished to raise questions.
Faced with the current situation that major studies affecting the future role and the size of the MDP are still continuing, the time is not right to launch the MDP as an agency. Depending on the results of Sir John Blelloch's review and the defence costs study, we hope to launch the MDP as an agency in April 1995. Therefore, it is certainly the case that, at this stage, I can put on record my Department's appreciation for the essential and reassuring work carried out by the MDP.
Before concluding, I shall mention a couple of points made by the hon. Member for Newbury. First, he mentioned the MDP personnel and their families living in houses in the areas of Burghfield and Aldermaston. His plea for the purchase of houses comes rich from a member of the party that has always resisted the right to buy. However, I am not aware of any case where people are not being allowed to purchase their houses. There are council houses. I do not believe that there are married quarters, but even if there are, we have paralleled the right to buy. I am not aware of any personnel who are being discriminated against in the hon. Gentleman's area, but, of course, I will look into the point that he raised.
In the middle of his speech, the hon. Gentleman could not resist a nasty little political dig at the defence costs study programme. Let us get it absolutely clear that the defence costs study programme preserves our fighting capability by reducing needless costs in support areas and, if we can find more money than we need in achieving our target, we will try to enhance our front-line forces. It was only last year that the hon. Gentleman's party, at the
Column 459Liberal Democrats conference, voted to reduce the defence budget by 50 per cent., not only in support of the armed forces, but across the board, because it panders to its unilateral disarmament, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, pacifist wing. Of course, the Liberal Democrats were rumbled and the Government managed to exploit the fact that they were going to cut the whole of the defence budget by 50 per cent. by the year 2000.
The hon. Gentleman's leader said at the time that they had announced the reduction of 50 per cent. because it was post cold war, the Berlin wall had come down and that it was a safer world. He announced that at exactly the same time as Saddam Hussein was invading Kuwait. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman may remember that we exploited that proposed 50 per cent. cut in the armed forces so much that the hon. Gentleman's leader did one of his classic U- turns. Of course, the party was rumbled.
What do we have this year from the Liberal Democratic party ? We are now told by the party leader that, of course, we are in an uncertain world and we cannot cut our armed forces. That is exactly what the Government have stated and what my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has emphasised. In the "Front Line First" programme, we are preserving our front-line fighting capability because it is a most uncertain world. What the hon. Gentleman's party has come up with for the European elections is a wonderful European idea--a European army. The party leader has suggested it because he claims that we all want to work towards the integration of Europe and that a European army should mean that each nation in the European Union should specialise in one particular, separate military skill. Therefore, a European army could be deployed as a seamless robe. Then somebody said to the hon. Gentleman's leader that there is such a thing as national sovereignty. The leader said, "Oh, yes", of course there was national sovereignty and, therefore, each nation will have a veto on the deployment of its part of European army.
Let us say that the Germans were specialising in armour. They could decide not to deploy their armour if the European army needed to deploy troops to a particular incident. If we specialised in amphibious capability, we would have the sovereign right to say that the European army may deploy, but not with our amphibious capability. In other words, the Liberal Democratic party is trying to have it both ways and has it in none. It would create a capability gap that would threaten all of us in Europe. It is typical double speak and double dutch. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman, in criticising us for trying to discover needless expense in the support side, is laying himself completely open to attacks on his party's defence policy. Indeed, I would not have referred to his party's defence policy had he not tried to make political capital today.
Mr. Rendel : Will the Minister confirm that it has been my party's policy for a long time to cut the unnecessary extent of our nuclear forces after the cold war, as opposed to the policy of his party, which is concerned with cutting our immediate service personnel--the front-line troops in the area ?
Mr. Hanley : The hon. Gentleman talks about our nuclear capability. That reminds me that, when the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) stood on a CND platform, espousing the abolition of our independent nuclear deterrent, he was supported by a very left-wing party. Now it seems that that Liberal Democratic policy has disappeared. Again, that is perhaps because the party realises how ridiculous its stance is and how irresponsible it is when talking of the defence of the western world.
I do not need to discuss with the hon. Gentleman the fact that his party believes that we should cut out long-term security by preserving short-term jobs. May I stress to the hon. Gentleman, because, clearly, he has not heard what I have said, that we are not cutting front-line capability. Indeed, it was only in November that we added 3,000 more to the planned strength of our Army's manpower. We do not intend to cut a single front- line fighting capability unit, be it in the Army, the Navy or the Air Force. The defence costs study is looking at support and therefore to re- directing money, which is needlessly being spent, towards our front-line capability. How different that is from the policy of the hon. Gentleman and his party.
It is quite wrong to portray the work that Sir John has carried out on behalf of the defence costs study as a short-term, cost-cutting exercise. It is anything but that. It is looking at the Ministry of Defence police and at the way in which we guard our nation's security. I believe that that is a responsible task. We should not preserve everything that happens to exist in the United Kingdom merely because the hon. Gentleman can see political advantage in the status quo. Change--even change for the better-- is difficult, but the Liberal Democratic party would never have change because it wants to preserve the status quo for its political advantage.
I conclude by putting on record my Department's appreciation of the essential and reassuring work carried out by the MDP. It is a role which will continue to be necessary in the future. I have every intention of ensuring that it continues to be carried out in the most effective way possible. I pay tribute to those in the MDP and ask them to trust what we are doing, which is a fully comprehensive review of the status of the Ministry of Defence police. The comments of the hon. Member for Newbury and the fears that he has spread should be seen for what they are--nothing more than cheap political advantage.
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher) : I am grateful for the opportunity of this Adjournment debate. I am particularly pleased that the Minister who will reply knows the delights and the character of my constituency, having visited it on several occasions. I know that he will appreciate the concern that I and my constituents feel about the problem of planning and superstores.
The importance of the constituency of Esher is that, although it is adjacent to London, it comprises a series of communities. Those communities are important to the people who live in them, and have identifiable characters. The community spirit in the constituency of Esher means that many people are involved in voluntary work and many people help each other. That gives a character of life across that community.
Many social groups, leisure facilities, artistic and cultural activities are conducted by amateurs in the villages and communities that comprise the constituency. That is extremely important. Underlying that, in each of the communities, is access to local shops, which provide lifeblood to the people who live in them.
Two particular problems have emerged following applications from superstores to build on the edge of communities within my constituency, at Thames Ditton and Long Ditton. I know that the Minister is familiar with the problem. I appreciate that, given that we are waiting for the inspectors' reports, I am unlikely now to receive a clear and encouraging response as to the outcome. Nevertheless, this is a timely opportunity for me to raise in the House the fears that have been expressed locally.
More than 3,500 letters have been sent to me, and they have been sent on to the Minister. I know that many others locally feel strongly about the matter but have not written. There is no doubt that it is an issue of considerable local importance, and one about which people are rightly agitated.
The importance of the issue to the communities and village shops within them is displayed by what one constituent helpfully summarised for me about Thames Ditton--one of the two communities under threat. Shops in Thames Ditton include a butcher, a baker, a stationer, a children's clothes shop, a greengrocer, a provisions merchant, a video shop, a needlework shop, a wine merchant, a florist, a dress shop, a hairdresser, a newsagent, a travel agent, antique shops, a betting shop and a gift shop. Sadly, one or two premises are empty. I hope that, as the economy continues to recover, they will be filled. However, it is unlikely that those empty shops will be filled or that the existing shops that I have listed will remain open if superstores are built on the edge of the community. Such superstores will suck life out of that community, and will certainly damage the local shops.
I shall give the House some of the background to the applications. Sainsbury has applied to build a 76,000 sq ft superstore at Long Ditton, with 651 parking spaces. That is a variation on an earlier scheme, which proposed slightly more parking spaces. It was found that there were problems with certain listed grade 2 provisions on the main buildings of the waterworks and some of the surrounding railings.
The Department of the Environment declined to hold a joint inquiry on that application and the application from Tesco to build at nearby Thames Ditton. The two schemes
Column 462are roughly a mile apart. Tesco applied to build a 62,000 sq ft superstore plus 550 parking spaces. So the net effect on two adjoining communities would be an additional potential for 76,000 sq ft plus 62,000 sq ft of shopping, and 651 plus 550 extra parking spaces. Clearly, neither the stores nor the parking spaces were designed to meet the needs of those two relatively small local communities. The appeals have been made and public inquiries held separately, and we are now awaiting the inspectors' reports. Of particular concern to us locally was the statement by Tesco and Sainsbury that they would both build superstores if they were permitted. It is not merely a question of one giving way to the other, depending on the success of the appeals : the probability is that, if the planning guidance were not clear and the inspector approved both, both superstores would go ahead.
I contend that, in the long term, both superstores would not be viable. In those circumstances, one might close, which would not be a disaster for Sainsbury or Tesco, bearing in mind their national coverage, but the disaster would already have occurred for the local community, which would find it difficult to recover from the intrusion on its style and way of life.
One problem is that, when superstores calculate the potential retail market, they often do so on the basis of the nearest significant town centre rather than on local amenities, particularly village shops. That means that the damage to village shops from superstores is often underestimated when planning permission is requested. It was explained by one Long Ditton shopkeeper in the Sainsbury inquiry that only a modest diversion of trade from a corner shop can mean the difference between survival and closure. The local borough council of Elmbridge--I have the honour to represent part of the borough of Elmbridge--objected to both applications on the grounds of trade diversion from existing centres and local shops, loss of housing land, which is particular to the Sainsbury development, adverse environmental impact, particularly evening and weekend traffic, and the impact, in the case of Sainsbury, on listed buildings.
Additionally, in relation to the Tesco scheme, there was concern about the effect on a conservation area. The objections in relation to the Sainsbury appeal in Long Ditton were joined by objections from Kingston borough council, which is the adjoining borough council within Greater London. I wish to place on record the valuable help that my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey) has given me in objecting to the planning applications.
There are some interesting background facts that I shall quickly explain to show that the local communities' need for the stores is simply not proven.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene in his debate. I wish to assure him that the phenomenon that he has described in his constituency is more widespread than he might imagine. I have precisely the same problem in my constituency in the town of Tewkesbury, where an application has been made for a large retail warehouse that will bring in 1.5 million visitors from as far afield as Bristol and Birmingham.
There is considerable fear that the development will have an adverse impact not only on Tewkesbury and
Column 463surrounding village shops, but other towns in the district. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has called in the application and the inspector will hear it in August.
My hon. Friend may also be aware that the Select Committee on the Environment is currently conducting an inquiry into the impact on town centres of out-of-town shopping centres. He may also know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has issued two new planning guidance notes--the first, PPG6, under which the inspector will be specifically required to take into account the impact on town centres, and the other, PPG13, under which car emissions must be taken into account. Those will be relevant factors when the inspector makes his decision on the schemes in my hon. Friend's constituency.
Mr. Taylor : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. His evidence shows that it is not merely my problem but one that is widespread. Before I conclude, I shall urge the Minister to deal with those planning guidance notes, so that we can have further clarity.
In my constituency, the important fact is the existence, not far away, of five main town centres : Cobham, Esher, Molesey, Walton on Thames and Weybridge, which contain approximately 400,000 sq ft of retail sales floor space. Access to shops is available, especially in Walton, where nearly half of the floor space is located. The borough of Elmbridge also has a number of smaller centres, including Claygate, Hersham, Hinchley Wood, Oxshott and Thames Ditton, which meet the everyday requirements of local residents.
Within easy reach of the borough are several major regional centres-- Kingston upon Thames, at approximately three miles, Guildford, at approximately 13, Epsom at about five, and Staines and Woking, which are both about seven miles away. Those towns have specialist shops and very large stores. In addition, there is a superstore on the A3 near Cobham and a new superstore centre--Marks and Spencer and Tesco--at the old Brooklands racing circuit, which is in easy driving distance.
Those facts are very important. I cannot understand why it is regarded as reasonable to plonk potentially enormous shopping centres in Thames Ditton and Long Ditton, when anyone who wishes to go shopping by car has easy access to other centres of that sort. Elmbridge borough council's plans are very clear in that respect, and I endorse them. The council has attempted to set out clearly in its local plan its ambitions for local shopping and I find those reasonable. The plans would certainly preclude the creation of two new shopping areas in Thames Ditton and Long Ditton.
I shall list the aims. They are to reinforce the multi-purpose role of the borough's main centres ; to maintain the balance in the shopping hierarchy in the borough and resist the development of major out-of-town shopping centres ; to maintain and enhance the quality of existing shopping facilities and improve the physical quality and environment in town centres ; to maintain convenient access to and within town centres and ensure adequate provision of parking facilities ; to encourage the retention of local shops ; and to protect the green belt and other environmentally sensitive areas from shopping developments.
Those aims reflect my constituents' interests, and are
Column 464the policies that we want to be pursued. The planning applications intrude on the wishes of the local community, which is why they are resented.
In the House a week or two ago, I referred to Tesco and Sainsbury as "villains". That raised an eyebrow or two, and I am glad. Sometimes it is better to attract attention by using an emotive word than by quiet argument. I do not retract that word. In the context of what they are attempting to do, against the wishes of the local community, they are villains, in the old-fashioned sense of the word.
Also, despite what was said to the planning appeal and the public inquiry, they are not totally clear what these plans would do to their other stores in the area. There is a Tesco store in Molesey. What would be the intentions about the future of that store, which happily serves local residents because it is in the main shopping area, if another store is built in Thames Ditton ? That is another aspect that causes me concern as a constituency Member.
Although the resident population in Elmbridge may not grow significantly in the next 10 years, there will be extra consumer expenditure. I hope that it will enable smaller shops to come back where there are now empty premises in our towns and villages. If the superstores go ahead, it will stop this benefit to the local community.
So many reasons have been put forward by my constituents in all the letters I have received that I have not time to talk about them in complete detail ; nevertheless, the issues I have raised so far demonstrate just why there is such intense opposition.
One point I shall add is that it is not widely realised that, under the deregulation proposals now issued by the Government, there is the prospect of unfettered opening of stores for 24 hours a day, six days a week. In those circumstances, although Tesco and Sainsbury have said that they have no current intention of doing so, the damage to local communities could be even greater than is currently realised. I am not against superstores ; I am aware that the patterns of life and shopping have changed. I am concerned about whether the Government will clarify exactly where superstores are welcome to be built. They should be only in town centres, not in out-of-town or edge-of-community developments, because in both those cases they will suck the life out of that community.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton- Brown) referred to policy planning guidance note 6, which I have read with great interest. It raises some important points for the Government to clarify. Paragraph 33 states :
"when drafting plan policies or considering planning applications for developments outside town centres, local planning authorities should take account of the possible impact (including the cumulative impact with other recent or proposed retail developments) on the vitality and viability of any nearby town centre as a whole, as well as of other factors such as the possible impact on the rural community (including the role of village shops)".
Hear, hear : we endorse that. If that was that, there would be no doubt in my mind that the solution was in hand and the planning appeals would be thrown out.
However, later in the same guidance note, there is a slightly more favourable mention of "edge-of-centre sites". I would ask the Minister to clarify what is meant by edge-of-centre sites. PPG6 refers to the fact that they should be accessible by foot from the existing shops. In neither case that we are discussing would I consider that to
Column 465be the case. It is more likely that people will go to either of the two superstores we are talking about by car and leave by car, not using the other shops in those communities.
There is considerable concern about what the planning guidance currently is. If my hon. Friend the Minister wants the reference, it is in paragraph 35 :
"the best solution will be the edge-of-centre foodstore that provides parking facilities".
In these circumstances, "edge-of-centre" is not a valid description ; they are sufficiently far away to mean that the local shopping centres will be denuded of casual custom generated by superstores within proper town centres.
I referred obliquely to traffic pollution. I note that PPG 6 talks about the unacceptable increase in carbon dioxide and other polluting emissions. I am concerned about that. There is no doubt that the planned superstores will suck in traffic from elsewhere. They are not serving the local community ; they will encourage people to come into the area. The movement of traffic will not be in the interests of people living in Thames Ditton and Long Ditton.
I am very concerned that the excellent statements by the Secretary of State, which appear to resist out-of-town superstores and certainly reaffirm the importance of protecting the green belt, could be assumed by inspectors to give a green light to developments which are not out of town on open fields, but on the edge of
communities--almost in the heart of those communities, but sufficiently detached to damage them. That is not acceptable. We, as Members of Parliament, do not have authority over, and cannot control, the planning process. We allow local authorities to make decisions in accordance with local plans. There is a system of appeal which does not come to the House for decision ; the appeal goes to the Secretary of State. A Back Bencher can raise the issue on behalf of his constituents and hope that his complaints are listened to.
A week or two ago, our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment launched a campaign called the urban quality initiative. Today, I am talking about a suburban quality initiative to try to protect those places outside urban areas, where village and community spirit is high and where the unwelcome intrusion of such a massive area of shopping space could do untold damage to the fabric of local society. I rely upon my hon. Friend the Minister to support me in my campaign.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : I readily commend my hon. Friend the Member for Esher(Mr. Taylor) on the very clear way that he has put forward the concerns of his constituents. As he and my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) have made clear, our new policy on town centres and retail developments was set out in policy planning guidance note 6 last July. It has received considerable publicity and, generally, a wide welcome. Interestingly, this is the first time that it has been debated in the House, so I welcome the opportunity to comment on what we are seeking to achieve.
My hon. Friend has made clear his specific concerns about two particular applications. He will appreciate that I am unable to comment on those cases while they are still in progress, since that could be seen to prejudice the Secretary of State's quasi-judicial role. However, it was
Column 466implicit in what my hon. Friend said that the two applications were turned down by the local planning authority, doubtless for the reasons he gave. The applicants then appealed to the Secretary of State against those decisions, as they are entitled to do in law. An inspector was appointed, and an inquiry held.
Usually--in the vast majority of cases--the inspector, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, determines an appeal. However, because of the importance that we attach to these cases, the Secretary of State has recovered the appeals for his own decision. We have now received the inspector's report on the Tesco appeal, and await the report on the Sainsbury appeal. I anticipate that the decisions on both appeals will be taken at the same time. As I have said, I cannot comment on the merits of the cases, as that would almost certainly be held to have prejudiced the Secretary of State's quasi-judicial role.
What I shall certainly do is to explain, first, our policy on superstores, as set out in recent planning guidance ; secondly, our latest advice for helping town centres remain vital and viable and meet the challenges of competition ; and thirdly, the implications of our latest policy guidance on transport as set out in PPG13, to which my hon. Friend referred. It may also be helpful if I refer to our criteria for call-in.
Our planning guidance PPG6 provides a clear statement of the objectives of Government policy, which are :
"to sustain and enhance the vitality and viability of town centres which serve the whole community and which provide a focus for retail development, where proximity of competing businesses facilitates competition from which consumers can benefit".
My hon. Friend gave a clear description of an existing town centre where a number of businesses and shops exist, which, in a sense, compete with each other.
The statement of objectives continues :
"to ensure the availability of a wide range of shopping opportunities to which people have easy access (from the largest superstore to the smallest village shop), and the maintenance of an efficient and innovative retail sector."
The policy emphasises our commitment to competition, access and choice in retailing, which will benefit all consumers.
Town centres have grown over the centuries as places where people come together to buy and sell, usually close to where people live or where major routes converge. Historically, markets and other activities developed alongside each other, taking advantage of the congregation of people and the opportunities for attracting visitors. The marketplace and retail functions have therefore been at the heart of the evolution of today's towns and cities, which provide a range of services and functions for those who live or work either there or in the surrounding areas.
I see the town centre as the preferred location for much of this new shopping development, especially food shopping. We want to encourage financial investment in our town centres--not just for shopping, but for a wide range of activities and services including offices, entertainment, hotels, restaurants, cafes, museums and housing. All those will introduce diversity and variety, which add to the vitality and viability of our town centres.
Above all, as our planning guidance makes clear, the town centre is and should remain the anchor of our retailing system. That is especially true of small towns--the kind mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher.
For that reason--our desire to maintain the vitality and viability of existing town centres--we need to take a more
Column 467cautious approach to out-of-town shopping, to look more closely at the impact of out-of-town developments, and to consider the implications of their location for accessibility and overall travel patterns. We want shops to be accessible, as far as possible, to everyone, not just to those with cars.
My hon. Friend rightly expressed concern about village shops. Our planning guidance states :
"Village shops play a vital role in rural areas and the loss of the traditional village shop can have a particularly severe impact on the community it serves."
Other planning guidance advises local planning authorities on the need to maintain a healthy rural economy.
One of our main concerns is that out-of-town shopping may have an adverse impact on the vitality and viability of existing town centres. It may not only divert trade and activity from the town centre, but affect the private investment that our towns will need to ensure their continuing vitality and viability.
It would be unwise to allow further developments that seriously damage town centres, and then simply have to spend public money on trying to remedy the situation. If retail developments are located in town centres, they will contribute to the economic strength of those centres rather than undermining it. We have made it clear that we want to sustain our town centres, and that developments that would undermine the vitality and viability of town centres should be refused.
Assessing the likely impact of a development is primarily a matter for local planning authorities, but we have provided clear planning guidance. Only a couple of weeks ago, we published a report entitled "Vital and Viable Town Centres : Meeting the Challenge". It provides local authorities with an action list for their town centres, promoting strategies for town- centre management and suggesting the type of measure most likely to ensure that their centres remain successful.
Column 468It is not the function of the planning system to frustrate competition. We are seeking to encourage investment in town centres--to persuade retailers to compete in the same market place, rather than locating all over the place. We want competition from which everyone can benefit.
If suitable town centres cannot be found--in a number of instances, it may not be possible to find a suitable site in a town centre--edge-of-centre sites will be the best location for food supermarkets. That will allow those who arrive by car to walk into the centre to conduct other business in town : one trip will serve several purposes. Such stores will also be more accessible to those without cars, who can walk to the store while visiting the town centre. By "edge-of-town", we do not mean "out-of-town", but, as I have said, on occasion it will be impossible to find a suitable site. We want wherever possible a choice of means of transport, with access for everyone. In the case of out-of-town development, more than 90 per cent. of customers arrive by car. We want retailers to choose locations that serve not only those who arrive by car but those who travel by bus, walk or ride a bicycle. Users should have a real choice. If we believe that planning guidance is not being complied with, we shall have no hesitation in calling in decisions for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to determine. He did that in the Tewkesbury case to which my hon. Friend referred.
Our concern is for the future of our town centres--particularly those that would be adversely affected by out-of-town superstores. Town centres need reinforcing, not undermining. Our planning guidance and policy does just that. We want to reinforce the vitality and viability of existing town centres, and in that I am sure that we will have wide public support and the support of my hon. Friend's constituents.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : The Opsahl report on Northern Ireland, published in June 1993, was based on the views of many ordinary citizens of Northern Ireland rather than on those of politicians. The range of views expressed to the commission was as wide as those of politicians and perhaps more complicated because they reflected many different nuances and attitudes, as might be expected when speaking to the general public.
A charitable body established with the backing of charitable trusts and foundations, Initiative 92's Citizens Inquiry, obtained 3,000 responses in the form of 545 written and taped submissions. Many of them were examined in meetings and by seven experts from both parts of Ireland, from Britain and from the United States of America under the chairmanship of the leading Norwegian human rights lawyer, Professor Torkel Opsahl. Unfortunately, he died shortly after the report's publication, but I was fortunate enough to meet him for its launch in Britain at a meeting that I hosted in the House on 10 June 1993.
The report initially received a great deal of attention in the island of Ireland. It was fully discussed in the Irish Parliament and was outlined and discussed at a meeting in Cork of the British-Irish parliamentary body, which took the report seriously enough to propose that it would be taken into consideration by future committees concerned with education, social provision, pensions and other matters, and that attempts should be made to adopt its proposals. It was hastily rejected, however, by Northern Ireland politicians, partly because it suggested that a number of them should attend political educational institutions and downgraded them by giving priority to the views of ordinary citizens.
The Opsahl report was also discussed by the European Parliament, but little attention has been paid to it in Britain. In the other place, a debate was initiated on 3 March 1994 by Lord Holme of Cheltenham, but the only references to it in this House were in a speech made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 22 October 1993, when he devoted three minutes to the report, and in my three early-day motions, in written questions, in a supplementary question and in an oral question, and on other occasions when I have made passing reference to the report. The House has not given the report the consideration that is due to it. We can belatedly make amends for that today.
The report has not been superseded by dramatic events in Northern Ireland in the past year, such as the revelation of the Hume-Adams talks and the publication of the joint declaration, which is of tremendous importance but which differs from the nature of the report. The joint declaration seeks relatively speedy means of reaching peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland on key areas such as terrorism and constitutional solutions. The Opsahl report is broader and in some ways more plodding, although it may be more practical and selective of the issues that it examines. It deals with economic, social, religious, cultural, and education issues, which are given as much weight as the political, constitutional, terrorism and security concerns. The House normally deals with those concerns, but it gives too little attention to the economic and social agenda.