|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 964are going up. That means that small businesses in our area and those in other areas are being hit both ways-- revalued downwards by the bank and upwards for UBR purposes.
I do not wish to take up any more time. These are important issues. Britain's towns and cities have undergone a fundamental qualitative change, and in many cases it has not been a change for the better. We have to make our towns and cities places where people will again want to shop, live, eat and breathe. We have to stop the relentless destructive assault on the countryside and on our rural heritage. We have to create a climate in which, once again, town and country co-exist in harmony and with a clear mutual interest.
I know that we all recognise the problem--no one, perhaps, more clearly than my hon. Friend the Minister and our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I hope that the Select Committee's report will mark the beginning of a new effort to deal with the problem. We cannot ignore it, because if we do we will condemn the richest part of our national heritage--the countryside--to gradual desolation and create a wasteland in our towns and cities.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is determined that that will not happen and that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is determined to move forward with new initiatives to ensure that our towns and cities are vital, vibrant and vigorous and places that we will be able to leave as our inheritance to our grandchildren. 7.30 pm
Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen): I welcome this debate, as I did the investigation into and report of the Environment Select Committee on shopping centres and their future. The retail sector is one of the largest employers in the United Kingdom with 2.2 million full and part-time employees. The industry is both flexible and innovative and has shown itself able to compete with the best in the world.
However, recession and the continuing stagnation of consumer demand casts a shadow over recent performance. The whole debate on the future of town centres has been occasioned by the widely held view that the balance between the high street and out-of-town developments has tilted far too far in favour of the latter. I should like to be able to say that the debate and the Select Committee report are timely, but I fear that that may not be the case, because in at least one essential aspect we have all quite literally missed the boat. A recent study has tentatively shown that 12 million sq ft of planning permission has already been granted for out-of- town developments, which I am told is enough for more than 400 new superstores. I say that tentatively because no accurate statistics are collected nationally on planning permissions or other essential research and information in the retail industry--a subject to which I shall return later.
I am a keen supporter of the concept of a plan-led system, as that is undoubtedly the best way to ensure certainty for the retail industry, local authorities and local communities. To achieve that, the planning system needs to operate efficiently and effectively, which means that
Column 965the planning guidance offered by the Government must, in the words of the Select Committee report, be "clear and consistent". The Secretary of State has put his name to and, indeed, possibly staked his reputation on the new approach outlined in the revised PPG 6 and PPG 13, which seeks to sustain and enhance the vitality and viability of town centres. However, he and Conservative Members must recognise that the Government cannot easily escape the consequences of their approach to retail developments, which they pursued with relish during the 1980s when superstore openings increased, in a headlong rush, from 212 to 580--an increase of three per month during that period, most of them in out-of-town locations.
If the Minister is looking for some confirmation that there is widespread cynicism about the planning system and the changes that he has introduced, he need look no further than a poll conducted by "Property Week" and Gallup in June 1994 of a sample of
investors-developers, which showed that 45 per cent. of those surveyed believed that the changes would have no effect on their investment in out- of-town developments. In fact, 31 per cent. believed that PPG 6 and PPG 13 would result in them stepping up their out-of-town investment. Only 13 per cent. said that they would invest less in out-of-town developments. It appears that the
investment-development community is yet to be convinced that the Government really have had a change of heart.
I have a particular interest in shopping centres, which I should declare at this point. As well as being a member of the all-party retail group, I am sponsored as a Member of Parliament by the Co-operative movement. My official title in the House is a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament. However, I must make the point that I receive no personal remuneration for that.
The Co-operative movement is still one of Britain's largest retailers, with a turnover of £7.3 billion. It employs 74,000 staff and has membership in excess of 8 million. There are very few things that the movement does not sell through its 92 superstores and 4,500 shopping outlets. However, the movement consists of more than 50 independent retailing organisations with a tremendous diversity both in size and shopping profile. That varies from region to region and, in the case of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, from country to country. It varies from large national societies with turnovers measured in billions of pounds to small localised co- operatives with just a few village stores.
As one would expect, the response of societies depends, as with other retailers, on their individual circumstances. Therefore, it is not possible --or, in some ways, desirable--to attempt to reconcile them, and that I have not tried to do. In fact, the views that I express today are my own, but they also reflect my long involvement with the retail Co-operative movement and with the all-party retail group. I believe that in the retail world in general, but in the co-operative societies in particular, what I have to say will be of some interest.
If we are to overcome the problems highlighted in the Select Committee report and in much of the public debate on the issue, we have to overcome, in the words of the Confederation of British Industry planning task force report of 1992,
"the absence of a national consensus between central and local government, business and the public about the key priorities for shaping the nation for the 21st century."
Column 966The report concluded that,
"in the absence of a national lead, many significant planning applications are in danger of leading to local debates which should be encompassed by explicit national policy."
Before turning to the Select Committee report and the Department's response, I wish briefly to comment on the clear inconsistencies that continue to exist between the various policy guidance papers and ministerial statements, some of which have been highlighted in the report. I predict that the Minister will reject a charge of inconsistency. However, if he will not accept the concerns expressed in the Select Committee report, I refer him to the repeated correspondence and comment in both the trade and quality press pointing out those inconsistencies--not in an attempt to belittle the changes that have been introduced over the past two years, but to urge the Minister to address the genuine concern in the industry for a clarification of the issues.
To be fair, some of those concerns have been addressed, at least in part, by the Government. I refer to the decisions to refuse planning permission for a shopping centre at Duxford and to stop the edge-of-town supermarket at Ludlow. Many would say, "So far, so good." My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) referred to Dumplington near Greater Manchester. No sooner did the Government refuse the applications at Duxford and Ludlow than they referred the application for planning permission at Dumplington to the House of Lords, with their support. It is a quite controversial legal case, concerning the balance between town centre and out-of-town development, and it should be a test case for the Government's new policy.
The Government have also ignored the widespread opposition in the north- west to that development. It includes almost all of the local planning authorities in the area. We can imagine, therefore, the mixture of shock and incredulity when people read in the Government's response to the Select Committee report the statement that following research carried out under the Merry Hill impact study, the Government could see little case for further new regional shopping development. Many folk would have said, "Like Dumplington." With confusion like that at the highest level, is it any wonder that planning authorities find it difficult, if not impossible, to tell rhetoric from reality?
There will be dismay at the Government's response to the Select Committee's request for clear and consistent planning guidance. Clarification in the guidance that superstores are best located in or on the edge of town centres, and a clear statement that the Department supports the sequential test--that planning permission outside the town centre will not be given if a suitable site within or close by is available--must be the minimum requirements if the Government's stated intentions are to be taken at face value. I believe in towns centres, both as retailing areas and as a focus, as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish mentioned, for communities and community activities. I am not overstating the case in saying that it is generally agreed that the most practical response to promoting town centres--making them safe, cleaner, more attractive and more relevant to local people's needs--is to develop town centre management. Surely it is common ground to suggest that that must be based on partnership between all the relevant parties to ensure that it is effective.
Column 967Great strides have already been made. Only a few years ago, there was only one full-time town centre manager; now there are more than 80. Major constraint exists on that development because of finance. The Government response does not get to grips with the issue. Dumping the problem on hard-pressed local authorities, especially in the context of a series of restrictive, Government-imposed revenue support grant settlements, will not lead to a solution. Many local authorities are too small to be able to respond effectively to the demands of their town centres. Retailers naturally feel aggrieved that they are having to fork out in the form of the uniform business rate to local communities without any return in terms of dealing with their problems. That causes complaint.
The Government should not only co-ordinate the development of town centre managements or, as suggested in the report, town centre authorities, but should take the lead in providing the finance that will allow them to respond to the needs of local communities. That will not only enhance their shopping facilities, but put the heart back into town centres.
I mentioned earlier the lack of adequate research on planning and retail development. The report has made a number of welcome suggestions. Again, the Government have not gone far enough in recognising the urgent need for credible information; otherwise, how can local plans be developed or decisions on major retail development determined with any certainty? This and any future Government have a duty to collect and make available accurate information.
Effective decision-making must be clear, consistent and, most important, above reproach. It must based on relevant and up-to-date information. Only Government can provide that. The planning system will achieve the objectives set by Government and local planning authorities only if both have available data that are collected, analysed and freely available, so that public can be confident of the decisions taken on their behalf.
I turn now to the recommendations and planning obligations, the consequences of which are usually summed up in the term "planning gain". The Select Committee describes current guidance as "muddled". Recent court decisions have added considerable confusion to that muddle. To the layman, or at least to this layman, the courts appear to contradict themselves over the issue of whether a planning gain is a material consideration when determining a planning application. The latest of those cases awaits a decision in the other place. I accept that the Department must await their Lordships' deliberations, but it must come as a surprise, not to say a disappointment, that they have agreed only to consider further the recommendation to issue new guidance on planning obligations.
That response is breathtaking in its failure to recognise the concerns being expressed by all parties in all regions. There are many examples of that in Plymouth and Leicester, where planning gains have been mentioned, and where confusion and uncertainty exists about local authorities' response to them. I hope that the Government will strengthen considerably their endorsement of the
Column 968principle that unacceptable development should never be permitted, and that planning gain should not be allowed to render it acceptable.
Finally, I have an admission. I recognise, as, I think, most fair-minded people do, that--as in so many other areas of planning--finding the proper balance between shopping centres and out-of-town developments is a difficult and thankless task. Retailing is a dynamic industry and must remain flexible and innovative if it is to be as successful in the future as it has been in the past. However, we must recognise that what is best for the individual as a consumer is sometimes not seen by that individual to be in his or her best interests as a local resident.
Government policies must reflect consumer needs, but I hope that no one will support the free-for-all that has taken place in the United States of America, to the detriment of everyone. The Government must take a longer- term view and seek to balance the needs of the retail industry with the demand to create vital and viable town centres. Clarity and consistency in the planning regime, while not a sufficient condition, will assist in ensuring that the proper balance is maintained and, at the same time, will deliver real choice to the individual, both as consumer and as defender of his or her community. That responsibility is incumbent on Government.
Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove): People who believe that the only interest in politics is confrontation will be a little bored by this evening's debate, as it is clear that there is substantial agreement across the Chamber about the report and its recommendations. I welcome the Government's acceptance of much of what has been said. Of course, there will be some arguments around the periphery. I would not want to disappoint hon. Members who enjoy confrontation, but the substance is agreed.
In the spirit of that agreement, I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), in congratulating the work of the two previous Chairmen of the Select Committee, to whom we owe a great deal. It is interesting that, in his ministerial duties, one of them has managed to avoid having to respond to the debate, but they both contributed substantially to the Committee's work and, in particular, to this report.
I must ask myself why we all want to support town centres. What is it about them that is attractive to us and that leads us to rush to their defence in the face of clearly changing patterns, change that is continuing? It is a little like the people who drive on motorways and complain about the cars in front of them that are causing obstructions and emitting fumes. "How disgraceful," they say. "These people should be taken off the motorways so that we can make our journey more speedily." Almost the same pattern of thought applies to shopping. People wish to preserve town centres and they want their facilities to be available, but they are often reluctant to spend their money there. They potter off to the nearest out-of-town centre rather than to their local shop.
We want town centre shopping to be preserved and sustained because the town centre is the historic core of the community. People relate to it; they have a sense of belonging. For people in villages, towns and cities, the town centre represents an element of continuity, which
Column 969people want to preserve. All of us need to belong somewhere. When we have a focal point in our town centres, that belonging is personified. The sense of community among all of us, and the need to avoid rootlessness and the lack of responsibility that follows from that, are perhaps the most important factors.
I am not, of course, suggesting that the preservation of town centres is of the essence in fighting crime or in maintaining a proper and reasonable way of life in this country--I should not wish to exaggerate the point. But it is necessarily a part of community life, of belonging and of the feeling of responsibility and of sharing that goes with those factors.
There are other reasons why we should want to preserve town centres. The existence of local shops means that people do not have to travel, which reduces their mileage. We need to preserve town centres for those who do not have ready access to vehicles. We need town centres to provide variety and choice. Too often, as we go from one supermarket to another or from one warehouse to another, we see the same products presented in the same way. If retailing in this country is to rejuvenate and renew itself, remain attractive and offer new opportunities, there must be variety and choice, which town centres in particular can provide.
Above all, we need to ensure that town centres stay alive and do not fall into decay and become simply another example of inner-city failure and economic problems. We need to prevent buildings from falling into disuse and to avoid the disrepair that goes with it. Many of us perhaps approach the planning system with some trepidation because we like market forces to prevail and want the spirit of market forces to allow people to choose where to shop and how to operate. However, I believe that the whole concept of the planning system is that market forces are channelled and shaped according to other criteria. Unless we dispense altogether with the paraphernalia of planning procedures, we need to ensure that planning is directed in what we consider to be the best interests of the country as a whole.
I start from the premise that planning must be directed towards the rejuvenation of inner-city areas, but what are the great advantages of out- of-town shopping centres, which encourage people to go there rather than elsewhere? Out-of-town shopping is clearly convenient, being under one roof or a series of connected roofs. Access is by car, making the removal of heavy purchases easy. There is security, tidiness and cleanliness. In addition, people can expect a certain quality of goods and service. Out-of- town shopping centres are cost-effective and provide a leisure activity. People find it fun to shop--my wife tells me that regularly, but I have yet to understand the "fun" involved.
Having considered the advantages of out-of-town shopping centres, we must consider how town centres can compete. Hon. Members have referred to car parking policies. There is a need to ensure that car parking spaces are available and at a price that encourages people to use them. Unlike the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, I do not accept that we should impose on local authorities a duty to provide free car parking. That must be a local decision made by local government taking into account local considerations, not least its own financial position. However, we should wherever possible ensure that parking is cheap in order to encourage the short-term use of car parking.
Column 970There is a need to readdress the issues dealt with in PPG 13 relating to the differentiation between the commuter and the customer. Commuter parking should be treated differently from customer parking and encouragement given for the latter. We must ensure that local authority car parking provision is of a high standard. In other words, it must be not only cheap and convenient but secure, clean and tidy.
The Automobile Association recently produced some information relating to why people choose not to use multi-storey car parks. Over 35 per cent. of those asked said that they did not wish to use them because they did not feel safe doing so. Just under 10 per cent. found them too dark or creepy, whatever that means. I suspect that those feelings relate to security, cleanliness and tidiness. If town centres are to compete, it is essential that they provide the right sort of car parking. Traffic management schemes are necessary to avoid congestion, and convenient car parking is of the essence. We have to examine ways in which controls should be imposed on out -of-town centres. We shall not change the habit whereby most people do their weekly food shopping at a supermarket or similar establishment. People's shopping aspirations and requirements in that respect will not lead them back into the town centre in large numbers, but we need to examine what town centres are best at providing. They can offer convenience shopping and quality goods such as clothes and accessories, in which they can compete better than out-of-town centres.
We need to look critically at the number of building societies, banks, estate agents and--I must declare an interest--solicitors' offices that sap the retail core of the town centre and reduce the number of people passing the shop door, which goes to the heart of an individual outlet's economy. We need to limit the activity of factory outlets and introduce coherent retail policies as part of the regional planning guidance through to the local planning system. There needs to be an overall view of the impact that out-of-town shopping, or even major edge-of-town shopping, may have on trading patterns in an individual structure plan area, not a local plan area but a regional and sometimes even an inter-regional area, because the largest centres have a widely felt impact.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Where has the hon. Gentleman been recently? It is the Government who have been destroying the concept of regional planning or the planning of town centres. Out-of-town shopping has grown at the expense of towns such as Huddersfield, where the only diversity is offered by the different charity shops, not even by solicitors' offices or shops offering the interesting goods that he described. The Government have consistently sought to destroy our town centres.
Mr. Thomason: What has happened to town centres is that local authorities have granted planning consents for out-of-town and edge-of-town shopping. There has been no rejuvenation of town centres. Such rejuvenation is not only a component of the operation of central Government but, to a much greater extent, a matter for local government and individual shopkeepers, landowners and others. I shall deal more fully with that issue in a moment.
We need to examine the production of impact studies on an agreed basis. We must ensure that planning appeals can be fought with an understanding of exactly what an
Column 971impact study is, what the criteria for it may be and how we assess regional shopping patterns that might develop as a result of the granting of a planning application.
Design needs to be improved. I do not think that the Government should draw up criteria for design--that must be for individual developers and their architects--but there is a need for better design that is seen to be friendly. Architectural expression is moving in that direction. The quality of building today is far better than it was 30 or 40 years ago--one has only to look at the Department of the Environment's office to realise that- -but there is still more to be done. We need to make town centre developments friendly.
I did not agree with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish when he referred to local authorities assembling quantities of land and being seen as the landowners, if that is what he meant. There is, however, a role for local authorities to be the leaders in partnerships with the private sector that assemble land and create development opportunities in town centres for retail use. I entirely agree with those who have argued that town centres require co-ordinated management; I return to the point that I made a moment ago. Not only is town centre management, to which hon. Members have rightly referred, required. A proper partnership must be created between local authorities and shopkeepers, the lessees, and the landowners, the lessors.
If landowners simply seek to extract the highest possible rents from their premises, they will in the end sap vitality from the trading units. It is necessary to encourage landowners to look at the longer term, to the advantages of a buoyant shopping centre with longer-term rent growth and improvement in the value of their investments. They must consider it in a holistic sense, rather than on the basis of individual units, as has been done in the past. There is no encouragement for a landowner to look long term if the shop owners next door are pursuing a short-term policy. We must bring everybody together--the diverse landowners as well as the diverse lessees, the local authorities, the chambers of commerce and all other interested bodies--to seek to create a unified approach to the sustenance of the town centre.
In bringing more people into town centres, we need to allow shopkeepers to provide a better price structure because of the greater throughput of goods. The introduction of security cameras in the high streets is an important development. It has certainly been extremely important in my area of Bromsgrove. Above all, the shop owners, the lessees, must ensure that they provide a good service. It is quite useless us talking about the way in which we want to see town centres develop if the shopkeepers themselves do not work to produce a friendly service for their customers, quality goods and the right approach to retailing.
Street cleaning must be examined carefully because dirty streets put people off. It may be appropriate to encourage public transport in certain places and to appoint a town centre manager to co-ordinate the shopping centre as a whole. The Select Committee felt that progress could be made in all those areas.
There is clear evidence that people want town centres to survive and that market forces can, through the planning system, be channelled to meet the challenge of decaying centres. We must avoid urban decay by ensuring that our
Column 972town centres fight back. We have the opportunity to achieve that. If we leave it much longer, that chance will have been lost for all time.
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I shall begin by referring to the shop mobility scheme, which was mentioned earlier, and give the House the very good news that, while just one district council in Berkshire is at present run by the Liberal Democrats with an overall majority, that same council, Newbury district council, has introduced a shop mobility scheme. I welcome the support for shop mobility schemes expressed by Conservative Members.
I also welcome the Government's change in attitude to megastores, which have sprung up so often outside our town centres. As other hon. Members have said, that change of attitude has come somewhat too late. There is no doubt that most people believe that the existing number of megastores, except in one or two rare instances, is sufficient to meet the demand from the public and that those still in the pipeline are excessive and well beyond the public's needs. For far too long, the Government have been siding with the major shopping centre developers in moving retailing into the green-field sites out of our town centres. In reply to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason), that move cannot be blamed on the local authorities, which have been hampered by the Government's planning guidance and the Government's bias towards out-of-town centres, which was prevalent before the past few weeks and months.
Three areas of our national life have suffered as a result of the growth of out-of-town shopping centres. First, the town centres and especially the small retailers in them have suffered a loss of business as a result of the vast increase in the number of megastores. Secondly, those who do not have their own cars have suffered, especially the poorest members of our community--the elderly and often the unemployed. Such people have in some cases been deprived of adequate shopping facilities. What is more, because they are on the whole the poorest members of the community, they are most in need of the cheapest prices in the very shops to which they are unable to travel--the megastores in the old green-field sites. Thirdly, the environment and the general quality of life have suffered. Two aspects of the environment have been hit particularly hard. The role of town centres as hubs of social life has been diminished, creating many problems as a result of an increase in the crime rate. There are now greater opportunities for crime in our town centres as they become deserted in the evening and fewer people are there during the day to watch out for what is going on. Our intensified car culture, supported by the Thatcher era, has meant much more air pollution, not least due to the use of cars for getting to out-of-town centres. Shopping out of town has increased congestion and traffic pollution, at great cost to the environment.
The shift in policy announced in the Government's response to the report of the Environment Select Committee is generally encouraging. I appreciate in particular the Secretary of State's contribution in helping
Column 973to bring about that change of heart. I must make, however, one or two qualifications while welcoming the change in the Government's latest position.
I am concerned that the Government are not going far enough with their changes to PPG 6, as other hon. Members have said. Indeed, there is considerable cross-party agreement on what continues to be wrong with the Government's policies. The onus has been placed on local authorities to prove that an out-of-town centre would be damaging and that the retail facilities can be offered in the town. I believe that the onus should be on the developers to prove that there is a real need for an out-of-town shopping centre, not only that such a shopping centre cannot be provided in the town. The Government have softened their line on that matter, but concerns remain that the burden of proof has not been and must be properly shifted on to the developers.
I also question the basic assumption that, just because a large new shopping centre may be profitable, it is automatically desirable simply because the large chain stores and developers wish to see it go ahead. The smaller retailers hold a very important place in this nation of shopkeepers and they, too, deserve fair consideration. I stress once again the importance that the Government should be placing on the flats-over-shops scheme. I was promoting that scheme before the Government took it up, which I welcomed. I am only sorry that it did not prove as successful as it might have been had the Government been prepared to provide greater grants to enable the scheme to work properly.
Town centres need local residents as well as shoppers if they are to be centres of vitality and viability, as the Government have suggested. Transforming offices over shops into flats has several advantages. There would be added security in town centres as people return to live there and walk around the streets in the evening after the shoppers have gone home. It would also be advantageous to the town centre retail trade, because customers would be close at hand, and therefore more likely to want to shop in town centre shops. There is an advantage in that the need for transport is reduced. That is of particular interest to people who do not have their own transport. Town centres are often the best places to live for the elderly or for those who, for one reason or another, cannot afford or do not wish to have their own transport.
Finally, and just as important, those areas produce a ready supply of cheap rented accommodation. We are all aware of the importance of that. A more vigorous promotion of the flats-over-shops scheme would benefit town centre retail businesses and it would make a great contribution to the homelessness problem. In essence, it would improve the overall quality of life in our town centres.
Car parking is also an important part of the problem. We must improve the quality of car parking and not just the quantity of spaces available in our town centres. Simply building more car parks will not solve the problem. I am sure that we are all aware of how reluctant people are to use multi- storey car parks rather than road-level car parks. By the very nature of things, it is very often impossible in our town centres to provide more road-level car parking. Because of pedestrianisation schemes, which may be of great benefit to retailers, road-level car parking has often been reduced.
Column 974Where multi-storey car parks are the only option, they must be properly lit. They must be covered by closed circuit television. We may even need security guards to remove not just crime, but the fear of crime. That is the only way to encourage the proper use of multi-storey car parks.
We must also encourage the use of car parking spaces at ground level in our town centres for short-term shopping visits rather than for commuter use whereby commuters park their cars at 8.30 am, leave them in one space throughout the day, and then take them out as the shops close.
The Government have an opportunity to consider schemes to encourage businesses to, in turn, encourage their employees to consider car sharing, to make more use of cycles or public transport and to make use of park-and- ride schemes wherever they are available. Such schemes would free up spaces that are currently being used by commuters, to allow them to be used by shoppers for short-term parking.
The Liberal Democrats welcome the Government's change of heart. We are only sorry that it is so guarded and has come so late. 8.12 pm
Dr. Ian Twinn (Edmonton): I am grateful to the Environment Select Committee and to the Government for the opportunity to discuss out-of-town and inner-city-centre shopping. By its very nature, that is a subject on which we all consider ourselves to be experts because we all shop--
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford) indicated dissent .
Dr. Twinn: Obviously, my hon. Friend the Minister tries to avoid doing the shopping as much as possible. However, as a result of the Jopling reforms, Back Benchers find themselves with slightly more time and our wives have probably exploited the situation, so we are perhaps experiencing more shopping than used to be the case. The subject is not so easy as some of our constituents may believe. Whenever a new superstore is proposed, my postbag is full of letters saying that the proposal is ridiculous and that we have far too many such stores. The letters ask why on earth we need another superstore in the area. I am often asked why people cannot be content to use the existing shops in Enfield town or Edmonton Green in my constituency, but the truth is that they abandon such places: people who have cars--two thirds of households now have cars--drive out and park in the flat car parks beside the big superstores because those places are very convenient.
I suspect that much of the unease about the subject arises not from the fact that the new retail parks are being developed, but because people feel slightly guilty about the decline of the existing town centres which, as hon. Members have rightly said, people feel great affection for and affinity with and in which they enjoy shopping. There is also considerable concern about the loss of green-field sites. As an outer London suburban Member, I am aware of the great concern if there is a threat to the green- field sites surrounding London. However, I am also greatly concerned when we lose brown-field sites in my constituency where once manufacturing thrived and where
Column 975it would thrive again, if large supermarkets were not built on those sites, because the area now has assisted area status once again and those areas would be attracting inward development.
There is a great problem. As I am a planner, the House will not be surprised if I support the concept that there should be planning of retail provision. However, if there is to be planning, people must make up their minds about what is required. That involves councillors and my former colleagues, planning officers. Some of my former students must make up their minds about exactly what they want for their areas.
From my observations of planning over the years, I believe that councils have been rather loth to make up their minds categorically about what they want for their areas. There are several problem areas. Local authorities have had mixed feelings, because they did not want to lose retailers from their local authority areas. If a large retailer threatens to go somewhere else, the temptation is to agree to a planning permission within a local authority area although, at heart, some of those councillors and planning officers would rather the retailer stayed in the centre. Although that is not actually a form of blackmail, it is a difficult decision for local authorities to make. It does not matter which party is in control of the authority; the decision is very difficult. I sympathise with the councillors, but that position has led to the confusion that surrounds the subject.
There has been a great feeling among councillors and planning officers that even if they were to have a firm policy--a straight no to out-of-town shopping--the planning appeals system would deliver a firm yes as soon as the appeal went through. That has not always been put to the test because the fear of that happening has meant that authorities have agreed to something with which they perhaps would rather not have agreed. I welcome the Government's shift in emphasis to return more power to local councillors so that they can make up their own minds about exactly what they want in respect of retailing in their areas.
The biggest problem in terms of planning for retailing has been the lack of long-term strategic planning, although not in a regional context. Although the regional problem is important, the structure plan, development plan and local plan system is fairly cumbersome and it takes a considerable time. In that regard, we may be talking about development plans which were developed eight, nine or even 10 years ago and in respect of which decisions are now being made. As we are now to have unitary authorities, those authorities may be too small physically to have responsibility to decide where out-of- town shopping should be located because out of town may be beyond a unitary authority's boundaries. We may need a regional system to provide a proper strategic approach to planning. That problem is easily overcome with good will. The real problem is that councillors have not taken a long-term strategic view about what they want for retailing in their areas. Norwich, a Labour-controlled authority, has been cited as a good example. In the post-war years, it has stood out like a beacon as a town with a fairly clear view of what it wants. It has not made many mistakes, and in planning circles Norwich is lauded as a fine example of what can be achieved.
Column 976However, Norwich is a stand-alone city in a rural area. That makes it a little easier to plan than a London borough which is cheek by jowl with another London borough or perhaps cheek by jowl with another county as my constituency is with regard to Essex and Middlesex. Those historical rivalries continue even when it comes to planning. One cannot look over the border very clearly.
Some of the problems with the decline of city centres have to do with the failure of local authorities to decide what should happen in their areas. It is an unpopular subject today, but part of the problem is that road plans were not implemented. As a result, towns were not attractive locations for retailing or as places for people to drive into to do the shopping. The stark fact facing all of us, all local authorities and all retailers, is that people choose to do their major bulk shopping by car.
I remember the days, under a Labour Government, when I was a town planning lecturer. I had a mortgage, and when my car broke down I had to decide whether to pay the mortgage or to repair my car. Of course, I kept the house, which was a reasonable decision. I used to cycle to work and to Sainsburys. I probably broke the highway code on many occasions by balancing four carrier bags on my handlebars coming back--I was pushing the bicycle, of course. These days, with two children and a lot more packaging, I am not sure that we could get our carload of shopping on to two, three, or even four bicycles. Nor do I particularly want to do so in a busy life.
Like my constituents, I am schizophrenic when it comes to shopping. I like the town centre, but when it comes to going to Tesco, Sainsbury's, Safeway or Waitrose, I choose to go to a convenient location with free parking in good, well-lit car parks, hand my card over, take all my shopping back in boxes and bags to the car and drive away again. If I went to Enfield town, I would have to queue for a parking place. If I went to Edmonton Green, I would not have to queue, but I would have to pay. The car parks are a long way from the shops and involve the use of lifts--when they are working--and possibly even the deposit of a coin to take my trolley away. There is a mental barrier to all of those.
Local councils have to think more clearly about what they want for their towns. That may well mean making some politically incorrect decisions, which might include better roads and free parking schemes. We cannot avoid public demand in deciding any of that and it is no good any of us feeling that we can fool the market, which is the demand for the kind of shopping that people want. I do not think that councillors, Members of Parliament or planning officers are the best judges of what is demanded.
We should be concentrating on finding ways to boost existing centres. It is not for us to rule out the possibility of out-of-town or out-of-city sites, but we need to make existing centres more competitive because, although one third of households do not have cars, in constituencies such as mine the figure would be much higher as there are many elderly people and, I regret to say, quite a number of unemployed even after the remarkable improvement in the unemployment figures announced today. Those people need shops close by.
I want Edmonton Green to thrive and I want new shops to come into my area, but I also want choice. For me, one of the great advantages of town-centre sites over the retail parks is the variety of shops. It is convenient to go to a single-store site, or to one of the multiple parks, where all the chain stores and shoe shops are lined up together, but
Column 977it has a limited appeal. I like to go to a city centre, where there is a variety of different types of shop. With different rents in different streets, we can have shops which would find it impossible to compete in the new out-of-town centres.
There is something very lively and--for someone who believes in the market system--vibrant in a town centre where a variety of different landlords are prepared to accept different rents and lease conditions, which means a greater range of shops. Some of the failures of existing town centres are caused when ownership is concentrated in too few hands. Edmonton Green is a classic example. It is wholly owned and run by the council, and is good proof that local authorities are not good organisations to run commercial centres. I have a strong affinity with wanting town centres to survive, but local authorities have a responsibility when it comes to car parking. As hon. Members have pointed out, parking is one of the key factors affecting our perception of where to shop. City and town centres have to compete, and for my money that means that parking must be free. If local authorities expect to get income from car parks, they are fooling themselves, and so are the retailers. They must get together and sort out the problem.
At the same time, car parks must be well lit and secure. As joint chairman of the all-party lighting group, hon. Members will hardly be surprised to hear that I am delighted that there is all-party support for better lighting. Our very strong group in the House will be writing to every Member who has spoken out today in favour of better lighting, inviting them to join our group.
In the end, it is not down to local authorities, but to retailers to sort themselves out. They have to help themselves. They can get involved with car parking and can talk to local authorities to ensure that it is easily accessible, free and of a much higher standard than hitherto. They can get together to appoint town centre managers--a development that I welcome. The Select Committee on the Environment highlighted how experienced and useful managers can be, especially if they come from the retail sector rather than from local authorities. They bring acute commercial awareness to running town centres, are trusted by shopkeepers and shop owners and are able to work together with the local authority. I would certainly support that. Shopkeepers and owners can also help to invest in refurbishment and not merely in their own buildings. That is terribly important, as no one will want to go shopping in a run-down centre or one where shops have lost their enthusiasm to trade, the window displays are not changed properly, they are not well lit and shop assistants are unfriendly. To a major retailer, all those factors are very important and a basic part of any retailer's training.
Shopkeepers and owners can also get together with the local authority and help to refurbish streets in town centres. They can invest some of their own money. Many local authorities are already approaching retailers to do just that. Retailers rightly say, "But we already pay rates." The trouble is that the rates no longer go to the local authority. Whereas before there was a contract between the local authority and the retailer and some pressure could be brought to bear on the authority, the uniform business rate means that that has gone. That was one of the big disadvantages that Conservative Members clearly recognised when it was introduced. I understand that
Column 978retailers may be loth to invest their own money, but if they are genuinely committed to remaining in town centres they must consider contributing to refurbishment.
The Government must consider ways to encourage retailers to do that. This point is more for the Treasury than for Environment Ministers. Capital allowances could form a useful way of encouraging retailers to invest, not in their premises, but in the streets outside. Some items of spending already attract a capital allowance of a third over eight years, but that is not a lot when one is looking at the bottom line every year.
For example, street lighting attracts a capital allowance, as does street furniture, signs, bus shelters, traffic lights--and even parking meters, although the Treasury could knock those off the list and gain great popular applause. Widening pavements, putting in pedestrian crossings and taxi ranks, and investing in car parks do not attract capital allowances, even under the present arrangement of one third over eight years. The Treasury and the Government could well afford to look again at how capital allowances work, as a positive way of encouraging partnership in our town centres. If support for the capital allowance system is all that comes out of the Select Committee report, it will be a great step forward. I will stop at this point to allow other hon. Members to contribute, but I must repeat how important this subject is and how important it is for us not to jump on to the bandwagon of being anti-car. Although the public write to tell us that there should not be any out-of-town centres, the very next moment they get in their cars and go and do their shopping there.
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen): My first involvement in the issue of out-of-town shopping was in 1976, when I was the transport campaigner for Friends of the Earth, and I appeared as a witness at a public inquiry in Nottingham. It is quite striking that the arguments which I put on behalf of Friends of the Earth at that inquiry were, in essence, the same as the arguments expressed in the report of the Select Committee, and those arguments have been accepted in much of the Government's response. It is an encouraging and enjoyable experience to move from the fringe of political argument to the centre ground, and it is even more encouraging to have done so without having to change one's views in the process.
There has been a transformation of attitude about the issue, and about the underlying transport and environmental questions which it has raised. I welcome the profound change of heart which seems to have taken place within the Government during the past year to 18 months. The Government are in what might be described as the denial stage of bereavement, as they lay their previous and much-loved policies to rest. To hear the speeches of Conservative Members, it would seem that the planning decisions and disasters of the past 15 years had nothing to do with the policy of the Government, or with the people who have held ministerial rank during that period. I do not want to destroy the cosy consensus which existed in the Committee and has coloured much of the debate, but it would be appropriate if the Government were at some point to say sorry for the damage their
Column 979policies did during the 1980s and the early 1990s to so many town and city centres. That damage was done by what was in essence unplanned development.
It was not, by the way, just the Government who participated in what happened. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) outline the Liberal Democrats' position on the issue. Those of us in the Southampton area might have less reason to complain about ou-of-town shopping if the Liberal Democrats had not approved the Hedge End shopping centre in the mid-1980s when they controlled Eastleigh council. They then spent the next ten years campaigning against it, and saying how bad out-of- town shopping was for the existing town centres. Some consistency in planning policies is necessary.