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One hon. Member--I apologise for not recalling who it was--said that we use the telephone for only a few minutes each day. Americans use the telephone for about five times as long, so they are much more likely to want to use any information system which requires a connection. For example, personal computers in America are much more likely to be connected to the cable network by a modem than computers in this country.

A staggering number of personal computers and a large number of CD-ROMs were purchased in this country last Christmas. That is a very good sign. It is excellent news that more British households are accessing the new multimedia discipline of CD-ROMs, but that has nothing to do with the information super-highway. Multimedia becomes a part of the information super-highway when it is connected to the network and--to give a simple illustration--when a CD-ROM can be updated with statistics from a databank via the telephone line. We are likely to move in that direction more slowly than the Americans, but I would argue that we shall move more rapidly than other countries in the European Union.

The information networks--to use a broader definition--require a series of different stages of technology that will be adapted to meet the likely needs of consumers, such as business men and institutions, but which will be capable of being upgraded as demand changes. That is a very important point that did not quite come out of the otherwise excellent speech of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central.

It is not a criticism to say that twisted pair is connecting into households, because, with new technology and the increasing roll-out of integrated services data network lines, an enormous amount of information can be sent to any house through more traditional methods. It is certainly true that BT has very little optical fibre close to the household. BT's networks are fibre-reach, but at a certain point in any locality they switch to more traditional systems. Therefore, one cannot criticise the cable companies for following a similar pattern of operation.

The point is: can the networks be upgraded when demand requires it? The Cable Communications Association and BT have satisfied me that that is precisely what can and will happen. For example, BT has made it quite clear that any business with more than five telephone lines can be transferred to optical fibre. That is excellent news. One of the difficulties that I see as a Minister sponsoring the information society question is that we must encourage individuals to know what to ask for from the networks. What applications will people have for the networks? How will families adapt from their present low level of interactivity--using the television remote control--to using a similar mechanism in order to access home shopping, home banking, long-distance learning and the wonderful array of technological projects which we know exist already? They do not have to be invented; they are there now. One can see them at Martlesham or at the BBC.

The hon Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) rightly paid tribute to the interactive experiments that are going on in Cambridge. They are equally as impressive as the experiments that BT is running in the Ipswich-Colchester area. I do not think that it serves anyone's interest to say that one is good and one is bad.

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Both experiments are interesting and they will lead to a growth in knowledge of not only what is technically possible, but what individuals are likely to demand.

Mr. McWilliam: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Taylor: I will give way so long as the hon. Gentleman understands that I am under great time pressure.

Mr. McWilliam: The Minister is in grave danger of misleading the House unintentionally because he does not seem to understand the restrictions on compression technology, which enable certain signals to be sent down twisted pair copper, and the lack of that restriction on fibre technology.

Mr. Taylor: I understand some of the technological

issues--remarkable as that may seem for a Minister. However, I do not think that we should blind the House with science at the moment. We all want to move ultimately to a fully switched asynchronous transfer mode system; but that is not the point that I am making. We should not denigrate the current system in this country, because it has enormous applications of which we are still not taking full advantage.

Videotron in south London provides interactivity services. It is interesting that, when interactivity is offered to Videotron's customers, the penetration rate grows and the churn rate reduces--to use terms with which the industry is familiar. In other words, Videotron loses fewer customers who subscribed to its services initially.

We already have a very high-grade network. We have more leased lines of more than 2 MB in this country than any other country in Europe. Because of the competition which has flowed from the policies of liberalisation, our telecommunications costs could be cheaper than those of many other countries. Cheaper costs, combined with massively increased computer power, will form the backbone of the super-highways, which one can then try to use for varying levels of application.

Britain is making considerable advances in this area. Our policy of liberalisation has been successful, which is precisely why the European Union is now following that policy. We have already agreed to the liberalisation of alternative structures which are otherwise known as cable. That is why Commissioner Van Miert is becoming extremely agitated that companies are not opening up to the competition that already exists in Britain.

One of the complications for the recommendations of the Select Committee report is that Commissioner Van Miert is making it clear that within the European Union alternative infrastructures such as the cable industry will not be allowed to fall into the hands of the existing dominant telephone companies, which is precisely why he intervened recently in Germany.

The policy in Britain has not only brought considerable investment--as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) has said, the cable industry alone has produced £10 million of investment in Britain--but has enabled many parts of the country to access alternative infrastructures which are messy to install.

I agree with the point about BS5750. It was an extremely constructive comment that I shall take up with the Cable Communications Association, although since

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kicking it in the autumn, it has considerably improved its standards and has taken on tree experts to ensure that cable companies do not alienate the very communities which they are hoping subsequently to serve.

Mr. Caborn: May I apologise for my colleagues on the Select Committee, as many of them are in Brussels this evening and therefore cannot be here? One thing may be extremely helpful. The Minister may well agree with it but have some difficulty in responding to the question. Does he consider it right to have an end date for the exclusions of public telecommunications operators of 2001 and 2002? That would be quite an advance for the industry--not just for BT and Mercury, but also for the supplier industries.

Mr. Taylor: I have no wish as Minister to cause unnecessary damage to BT or the other public telecommunications operators caught by the restriction. We must be quite clear that the only restriction on BT is the ability it has to pass simultaneous entertainment programmes down its existing infrastructure. It is now allowed to supply all the interactive services it wishes, and it is allowed to supply entertainment and interactive services to business and industries. The review dates set were 1998 and 2001 for conveyance and provision. In my view, as I said in evidence to the Select Committee, the precondition for the review is competition. At the moment, the elements of competition are well under way. Those elements were seen and commented on by the Director General of Oftel in his consultative document in December, and I would be quite surprised if reviews did not take place on the dates mentioned. Although there will, of course, be a Conservative Government, it is unlikely that I will be the Minister at the time; nevertheless, that is my impression, and I am repeating what I said in evidence to the Select Committee. The important point is for us to examine how we can make best use of the varying stages of infrastructure in the United Kingdom. We have heard many interesting comments from hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) mentioned several important issues--in particular, rural areas. I am supremely concerned about rural areas. Clearly, it will not be commercially obvious that every isolated cottage will get the full optical fibre broadband technology, but, as I have already stated, some 92 per cent. of the British population are effectively connected to the telephone network. That is why I have continued with the arrangements in the Command Paper to say that BT should consider itself open to bid on its existing infrastructures for the new local delivery licences that we have announced. That will enable it to reach outlying places.

Secondly, I have had extensive talks with BSkyB. Although one cannot be interactive with BSkyB because satellite receivers do not work in the reverse direction, BSkyB linked to a telephone line can provide what is pretty close to interactivity, as the smart card can then pick up the requested programme, whether it be educational or video on demand.

Thirdly, I am looking closely at releasing more radio spectrum, which is not easy. The point made earlier about radio spectrum is that it is complicated. The area that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) mentioned is not all MOD; some of it is already in use. I

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understand the technical problems and I shall not bore the House with them. I am also looking at above 10 GH. There is considerable interest in both those areas and, as they say, watch this space. The difficulty is not just the MOD. We will get more efficient use of radio spectrum when we move to digital television. The problem with analogue broadcasts is that they need to be kick started at each transmitter, which obscure a great deal of radio spectrum in and around the particular transmitter area. I am considering various possibilities, and I am keen to make progress as fast as possible. Speeches this evening have shown a great deal of interest. I was impressed by the knowledge of the hon. Member for Blaydon about everything technical, but not about the Bangemann report or the G7 conclusions. I do not want to get into a tangle with the hon. Gentleman, but if he takes the time to read the Green Papers that the Commission has produced, he will find that they follow closely the direction that we have taken in Britain, largely because we had a massive input on the whole process. Therefore the European Union is moving in our direction.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) made some interesting comments. I agree with her about the BBC, but I do not have time to get into that. I am

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also worried about encryption. The opportunities for open democracy are intriguing, but I will have to urge hon. Members to call for another debate if they wish me to raise that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) made some interesting points about convergence of technology and raising the profile of communications. I shall willingly do that soon. The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) was worried about interconnection, which, commercially, is in everybody's interests and is happening. Some interesting points were made about monitoring of the Internet, and I am happy to answer them in writing because I am concerned about them too and I think it is important that we examine video on demand, which concerns the ITC.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) is hard at work in his constituency on the Internet and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) has considerable experience in the subject. He was right to say that British capital is now coming in--

It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the debate was concluded, pursuant to the resolution (6 March).

Question deferred, pursuant to paragraph (3) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of Estimates).

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Class VIII, Vote 7

Retail Planning Policy

[Relevant documents: The Fourth Report from the Environment Committee of Session 1993-94, on Shopping Centres and their Future (House of Commons Paper No. 359); the Government's Response to the Fourth Report from the Environment Committee: Shopping Centres and their Future (Cm 2767); and the Department of the Environment Annual Report 1995; The Government's Expenditure Plans 1995-96 to 1997-98 (Cm 2807).]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That a further supplementary sum not exceeding £1,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray the charges that will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1995 for expenditure by the Department of the Environment and its agencies on administration, including research, royal commissioners, committees, etc., and by the Planning Inspectorate Executive Agency on appeals, and by the Building Research Establishment Executive Agency on buildings research and surveys.-- [Sir Paul Beresford.]

6.47 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I welcome the opportunity under the supplementary estimates to introduce to the House the report of the Select Committee on shopping centres and their future. I begin by paying tribute to the former Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), who chaired all the sessions in which we took evidence and started to prepare the Chairman's report, which was finished by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr.Field). I certainly pay tribute to the work they both put in, as did the other members of the Committee, in producing what I believe was a useful report.

I would also like to pay tribute to the Clerks to the Committee, to the Committee's research staff and to our advisers, Ross Davies and Rory Joyce, all of whom helped to make the inquiry interesting. I believe that we all learned a great deal about it.

I had a view about shopping before I started the inquiry. I felt that it was all pretty boring, and something I was quite keen to avoid. Once we get into these inquiries, we suddenly discover a whole series of jargon, but there is also much interesting information. I certainly learned a lot.

I discovered the meaning of so-called comparison shopping, activity shopping and factory outlets, which are quite different from the ones I was used to the north of England, where the factory had a shop at the back of the works. It was originally a device to stop pilfering, by means of which the people who worked at the factory were able to buy goods on the cheap, in order to encourage them not to take them for free. Eventually, the factory shops spread, and people in the neighbourhood used them. I gather that factory outlets now constitute an industry.

Probably the most important political message that I gained from the inquiry related to the turn of the political tide. In the 1980s, there was a strong belief--epitomised, perhaps, by Nicholas Ridley's time at the Department of the Environment--that we could leave everything to the market, while minimising planning. Since then, we have realised that we made many mistakes during that period,

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and that better planning is needed. As the Committee began to recognise, planning is all about what people want; but a sub-theme must be what is good for people. We perceived that we must be careful in identifying what people wanted from the shopping of the future. The Committee's task was made particularly difficult by the fact that people have an ambiguous view of shopping. They want to preserve town centres, for which they feel considerable affection, but they want shopping to be as convenient as possible. The difficulty lies in marrying the two requirements--preserving town centres, while making them convenient.

I am pleased not only with the report, but with the Government's response. I welcome their agreement with the thrust of the report, but I want to know how quickly they will implement their response to it. I agree with the Government that planning policy guidance note 6 needs revision, and I gather--if I understood correctly what was said during Question Time this afternoon--that the Government will try to complete that revision by the summer; I was not entirely certain whether they intended to complete the revision by the summer, or complete the consultation by that time.

Let me emphasise to the Government that the delay between their announcement that they want to revise the planning guidance and the actual revision of that guidance makes life very difficult for planning inspectors involved in inquiries, and those who present evidence at such inquiries. Should they present the evidence using the old guidance? Should they use the Minister's utterances, our report or the Minister's response to it? The process will be much tidier if the Government put the new planning guidance in place as soon as possible.

The Government did not accept the existence of problems relating to PPG 13 and transport issues, although they conceded that the guidance had been misinterpreted. They now say that they want to give further guidance. I welcome that, but again I urge the Minister to act quickly. It is particularly important to make car-parking requirements clear to planners.

Most out-of-town shopping areas have free car parking, while most in the town centres charge. That is ridiculous. Not every member of the Select Committee agreed with me, but I am very concerned about the charges levied by many local authorities. It is easy to raise such charges, because Governments make it virtually impossible for local authorities to raise money in other ways.

Stockport pushed up car-parking charges, introducing "park and display"; five years ago, I hardly noticed the handing of tickets from one car to another, but that practice now seems to be on the increase, which suggests that consumers think the system unfair. Let me tell local authorities that are rightly trying to defend their town centres that, if they allow parking charges to rise too much, they will undermine the feature that they seek to defend--although I do not blame them, because they cannot raise money in any other way. Information is another issue that the Government should consider. Everyone goes to planning inquiries armed with all the "impact studies"--studies of what will happen if a new shop is built in a certain area. What seems to be lacking is the follow-up study two or three years after the completion of developments, to prove the correctness or otherwise of all the predictions.

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Another problem is the fact that much of the available information about shopping is commercially confidential. It is easy enough for stores such as Marks and Spencer to ask the computer where their customers come from in order to assess the impact, but they are reluctant to pass on such information. The Government should find ways of providing more information about people's actual shopping habits, rather than mere predictions.

The Committee received strong evidence that good town centre management is essential to combating the decline of the town centre, as opposed to out-of -town developments. The question is, who pays? Opposition Members certainly would like local authorities to be able to set the business rate again, enabling the business community to contribute directly to those authorities.

The Committee could not agree on an appropriate mechanism, but was united on the need for arrangements to deal with town centre management. It was clear that those who were prepared to pay a voluntary levy resented the freeloaders. Although I would not say that the Committee was able to offer the Government a clear recommendation, it highlighted the problem.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton): The hon. Gentleman has made some interesting points about car-parking charges. As my local authority, Taunton Deane, has learnt from experience, pedestrianisation schemes may drive people away from the centre of town. I was also interested in his point about business rates and freeloaders. I hope that those in charge of the planning system will note the increasing number of charity shops, which do not pay rates, occupying vacant premises: that has led to much bitterness among shops that are trying to trade commercially.

Mr. Bennett: I shall deal shortly with the question of not just charity shops, but empty shops.

Many authorities have shown great enthusiasm for closed-circuit television surveillance, which plays an important role in making people feel safe in town centres. The desire to preserve historic centres sometimes makes parking difficult, but it is important to make people feel safe. One factor that encourages people to go to out-of-town centres is the feeling of safety that results from parking facilities that are, on the whole, obvious.

My only reservation is that, if CCTV is to be used, there will be implications for civil liberties. I therefore strongly urge the Government to come up with a code of practice. It should ensure that people know which areas are covered by the cameras and that the cameras are monitored, preferably by the police. If they monitor the cameras, the system can be effective--but that means that the cameras must be subject to regular supervision.

The temptation is just to put in the cameras, but without regular monitoring to show people that they are effective, they will become discredited, and a great deal of money will have been spent for nothing.

As part of town centre management, it is important that people try to reduce the number of empty shops. I am not sure whether I disapprove of charity shops, because it is far better that shops should be occupied--by charities, if necessary--than that they should be left empty. A row of empty shops gives a town centre a depressing feeling.

One of the problems facing business people with empty shops is that they are often reluctant to accept that they are never going to be filled, and that some alternative use

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should be found for them. In Greater Manchester, there are one or two chains of betting companies that own betting shops that have closed down. As long as they are closed, no one has to admit that they are a failure: they can remain on the books with a certain value. But if people attempt to convert them to houses, or for other uses, almost certainly someone will have to write them off as a loss. It is therefore important to encourage people who have no realistic prospect of bringing their shops back into shopping use to look for alternative uses for them.

I welcome the fact that the Government have been encouraging the idea of bringing back accommodation above shops; but there is a strong argument, for some town centres, in favour of bringing the whole shop back into residential use instead of leaving it empty for a long time to create a depressing feeling in the area.

Local authorities should not just defend shopping in town centres, but should do what they can to ensure that there are as many shoppers close to the centres as possible. It is not just a question of discouraging out of town shopping areas; it is also important to discourage out of town offices. The more we can ensure that people work and enjoy their leisure in town centres, the more they will be present there to use the shops. Much of Stockport's strength as a shopping area depends on the number of people working in the offices in the town centre who can do their shopping locally at lunch time. Another point that was put to the Committee very strongly, in the context of reinforcing town centres, concerned putting land back together. It was pointed out to us that local authorities suffer from certain restrictions on their capital acquisitions and on their ways of handling capital projects. That in turn makes it difficult for them to put packets of land back together.

Many local authorities did this in the 1960s, although they did not always produce particularly imaginative schemes for putting packets of land back together. We need more imaginative schemes for this practice, so as to defend our town centres. Local authorities need the powers to do it. There is a striking contrast between the ease with which one can put a development on a big piece of land away from the town centre and the difficulty of bringing land back to the town centre.

My next point concerns the number of planning permissions in the pipeline. Representing as I do a Greater Manchester seat, I am worried about the proposals for Dumplington, from the point of view of Tameside and Stockport. I understand that the issue has now gone to the High Court, which has discussed it, and a decision is awaited in two months' time. I do not expect the Minister to be able to say much about it because it is sub judice, but this development would cause major problems for shopping centres throughout the Greater Manchester area.

All over the country, large numbers of planning permissions granted under the old rules have never come to fruition--the projects have never been built. If the Government are serious about defending our town centres and regenerating them, they must in some way attempt to time-limit planning permissions and ensure that they do not spark off a large number of other applications.

The Government must look favourably on some of the older systems of trading. One of the strengths of the town centres of Greater Manchester has been the old markets. Ashton, in Tameside, has one of the best markets in the

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north of England. It is important that local councils learn to cherish such markets. I am a little worried about Denton market, which is only barely surviving. I hope that local and central Government will do what they can to nurture the marketplace. Market traders provide small but important items to consumers--items considered too insignificant to be sold in out of town shopping areas.

I have a plea to make about Stockport. I greatly regret the fact that the 1960s-built shopping precinct has not had glass put over it. I am disappointed that the centre developers have not felt able to go that far.

I come next to a pet hate of mine: activity shopping. At the risk of boring members of the Committee, I should point out that many of my acquaintances in Manchester often tell me that they are going up to the lake district for a day out. They proceed to drive up the motorway, thereby increasing the congestion, to places such as Ambleside or Keswick. There they take five or 10 minutes in the fresh air by the lakeside. Then they go around the shops and end up buying an item of walking equipment--which they do not really use. They then have a pleasant lunch and drive back to Manchester.

I can understand that that is a nice thing to do, but it is environmentally destructive. It has meant that all the walking and climbing shops have disappeared from the centre of Manchester; meanwhile, the motorways are clogged with traffic. That is environmentally unattractive. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may not agree, but they ought to think about these issues--

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury): Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that people in Manchester be issued with passports so that they cannot get out?

Mr. Bennett: I am certainly not suggesting that. I do suggest that people think carefully about the environmental implications of what they are doing. I feel somewhat cynical when I see such people carrying stickers in the backs of their cars claiming that they want to protect the environment.

The same applies to trips to garden centres. I do not blame people for wanting to visit them, but when they go out to buy a compost kit, as people increasingly do from our urban centres, they create far more environmental damage in the course of their journeys than the environmental good achieved with the kit.

People need to ask themselves questions about shopping. I well understand that people in the lake district and in other environmentally sensitive areas have to earn a living, so it is attractive to them to build up their trade--but I insist that we need to think about the whole subject again.

Another of my pet hates is the McDonald's drive-in fast food outlet in Stockport, which causes major traffic congestion. I can of course see the attractions for youngsters of going to McDonald's when they have been out shopping, but it is certainly not environmentally attractive to lure people to such establishments in town centres simply so that they can drive through and take away food. I hope that I have been able to show that ours was an interesting inquiry, which produced a useful report. We are pleased that the Government have taken so many of

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our recommendations to heart. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us how soon he intends to get the new planning guidance in place, and to what extent the Government will encourage more closed circuit television surveillance of town centres, which will make people feel safer.

If the public want to preserve and protect town centres, as I believe they do, they must nurture them by patronising town centre shops.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives): I heartily endorse most of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Does he agree that the Government have an important role in nurturing town centres, particularly in undertaking a much-needed review of the valuation system? I would like a tilting in favour of small town centre shops and a bigger burden on large supermarkets. Rates are a considerable burden on small shops having low turnovers by comparison with supermarkets having huge turnovers, to which the rating system does not matter too much.

Mr. Bennett: That should be taken into account.

I conclude by leaving in the minds of hon. Members my strong view that, if people want to protect their town centres, they must use them.

7.10 pm

Mr. Harold Elletson (Blackpool, North): I congratulate the Government on arranging this debate on the Select Committee's report, and the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) on his contribution. Debates in response to Select Committee reports are good for the House and for the Committee system. I hope that there will be opportunities for debating other reports, particularly that on the environmental impact of leisure activities, which has generated much public concern. I may add that the Select Committee was served by two Chairmen and it would be remiss not to pay tribute to their roles in producing the report.

I thank the Government for their response to the report, which was unusually positive and generous, but perhaps the Government have not gone far enough in respect of one or two recommendations, where further clarification is needed.

The report tapped a rich vein in the extent of public concern about retail planning. It is a question not just of pressures on the countryside, because that is everywhere to be seen and is something of which the public have been aware since the Acts of Enclosure. Pressure has continued, and has become more relentless and overwhelming in the past 15 or 20 years.

It is a question also of the damage done by the change to a car-driven society and a growing car culture. It is a question of the wider environmental impact of energy consumption and pollution and of new patterns of movement. It is above all--as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish suggested--a question of the impact of retail planning policies on town centres and of the quality of life in towns and cities. As I and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) represent entirely urban constituencies, that aspect is of considerable concern to our constituents.

There is a widespread perception in this country and abroad that many British towns and cities are dirty, dark, inaccessible, unfriendly, unsafe, often extremely ugly and, by and large, to be avoided by all sensible, right-thinking

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people. It is small wonder that many leading retailers have chosen to avoid them. More than a quarter of the nation's shopping space is out of town, and its proportion of sales has risen 200 per cent. since 1982. Out-of-town superstores account for one in three retail sales. Those phenomenal statistics suggest the scale of the problem confronting the Government.

That change has occurred because the planning system has allowed and encouraged it, and because of widespread ignorance of and apathy to the environmental consequences. Such a change has not occurred everywhere, as members of the Committee found on their visits. In some places, local authorities pursued sensible policies and strategies over a number of years. Most of my colleagues on the Committee would particularly commend Norwich. Even though it has a Labour-controlled council, it has implemented a coherent strategic plan over time, to ensure that Norwich--one of our historic cities--is preserved and that there is harmony between it and the surrounding countryside. Norwich has got right many of the important considerations to which the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish referred, such as parking.

Members of the Committee also visited Fribourg. It was virtually flattened in the second world war, yet it has been transformed into one of the most attractive and pleasant cities in Germany. Again, the authorities got the balance right between the city and the surrounding countryside. Fribourg is a thoroughly pleasant place in which to live, work, eat and shop. We learned a great deal from it. I am delighted that the Government have fully taken up many of the Committee's key recommendations, including that planning guidance should be reviewed to introduce a presumption in favour of town centres, and that there should be a clear sequential test for new retail developments. The developer should be required to show that no suitable site is available in a town centre or on the edge of the town. Only then would an out-of-town centre be considered. The Government should go slightly further. It is not enough to accept the presumption in favour of town centres and the sequential test. The Government must make clear how they intend to review PPG 6, and to make a statement introducing the presumption in favour of town centres and the sequential test, which could be used by planning authorities in response to planning applications.

The Government should perhaps consider withdrawing the guidance in paragraph 37 of PPG 6, that planning authorities should not refuse permission for developments on the ground of the effect on a town centre, unless there is clear evidence to suggest that the result would undermine the centre's viability and vitality, which otherwise would continue to serve the community well. We should state quite clearly that the onus of proof should be on the out-of-town developer. I hope that, as a start, the Minister will give a clear assurance about that in his reply.

I agree with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish that we must be much clearer on the dichotomy between PPG 6 and PPG 13, especially on the issue of parking. I hope that the Minister will address that as well.

The fundamental concern for my constituents was addressed by the Committee and was the substance of the remarks by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish: the issue of town centre management, the importance of which we cannot underestimate because it can make a great difference to the quality of people's lives. The Government should get firmly behind town management

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schemes and use the report and their response as starting blocks to move in that direction. As I have said, these schemes are making a great difference to people's lives.

As I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South will agree, the private sector is responding. I am convinced from my own experience that it will continue to respond if it is given a little extra help by the public sector, the Government and local authorities. Our experience in Blackpool, which has appointed an excellent town centre manager, Mr. Nigel Hanson, is that the private sector is waiting to respond but needs a little bit of extra Government help.

Perhaps during the party conference the Minister and the Secretary of State will look at the work that Nigel Hanson is doing and will seriously consider the beneficial impact that a closed-circuit television system could have on the quality of life and people's feeling of security in Blackpool. I hope that the Minister will add his support to the campaign by me and my hon. Friends to ensure that Blackpool gets a closed-circuit television system as soon as possible as part of the closed-circuit television competition, which I hope the Government will be able to extend.

I endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) about charity shops, which are a terrible problem in my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South. They are a direct result of bad planning and the reluctance of the local authority to become involved in dealing with the matter.

Mr. David Nicholson: I should like to set the record straight. I am not against charity shops, which, of course, are better than empty shops, but they cause resentment among commercial shopkeepers who have to pay rates. Perhaps I could draw my hon. Friend into examining the whole issue of business rates valuation. If a shop has not been able to force down its rent during the recession, as far as I can see it will not benefit from the rates revaluation. Some of us, certainly those of us with constituencies in the south-west and the south, are hearing from constituents who face substantial rate hoists despite five or six years of recession. That applies especially to town centre shops.

Mr. Elletson: I entirely endorse my hon. Friend's point, which was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris). We in Blackpool face a similar problem over rate valuations, and I hope that the Minister will take seriously the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives about the need to look again at the rating valuation system, particularly for small businesses in town centres.

Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley): The number of charity shops is becoming excessive. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) spoke about turning shops into houses and said that in the past local authorities have tried to put such schemes together. With all his influence, would my hon. Friend consider pressing the Minister on this gathering together of empty shops and their conversion to houses? That is done with older shop premises. Such conversions could have a theme, and should be properly constructed. Local authorities could provide pump priming to the private sector, which could take over

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the shops and turn them into reasonable accommodation. By their very nature, because they have people in them, such buildings could revitalise town centres.

Mr. Elletson: My hon. Friend asks me to use my influence with the Minister, but I am sure that my influence is nowhere near as considerable as his. No doubt the Minister has heard my hon. Friend and will take note.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish did not mention an area of great concern to the 6 million disabled people in the country and the 40,000 on the Fylde coast--the issue of access for disabled people in town centres and especially shop mobility schemes. I hope that the Minister will take a serious look at that and examine ways in which assistance could be given to local authorities and the private sector to extend shop mobility schemes. That would make a great difference to the quality of people's lives.

Will the Minister look carefully at a planning application which is coming his way from a German group, LIDL Developments, which wants to build a large superstore on the outskirts of my constituency in Anchorsholme? Such a development would be highly damaging. If the application comes his way, I hope that he will ensure that it is treated with the care and consideration it deserves, and is then rejected.

As the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish said, the key issue in town centre management is funding--so who pays? We may say that town centre management is making a real difference and that we need to extend it, but ultimately we return to the question of who pays. I was delighted to see that in their response to the Select Committee report the Government are considering ways to fund an extension to the town centre management scheme.

First, I hope that the Government will look at the question of properly funding the Association of Town Centre Management. Secondly, I hope that they will look imaginatively at ways of levering in private sector finance, perhaps through the single regeneration budget. I trust that they will also look at tax relief for private sector investors for approved projects in town centres.

Thirdly, and perhaps more controversially for some of my hon. Friends, I hope that the Government will take seriously what the Committee said about the uniform business rate. I do not ask that they return it entirely to local authorities, but I hope that they will consider some of the recommendations by the Association of Town Centre Management about a limited and exclusive return for specifically town centre-related projects. That would be an important way to address the issue and would perhaps give local authorities the ability to be realistic about town centre management programmes.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the big problems with the uniform business rate, which I know affects his part of Blackpool as it does mine, is that banks say to small businesses, "We are revaluing your business downwards," thereby making it even more difficult for such businesses to get credit? However, the commercial valuations of the district valuer for the uniform business rate are now determined by out-of-town shopping centres and uniform business rates

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