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Mr. Rendel: The hon. Gentleman may not have heard me make the point that, in practice, local authorities were very much constrained by Government regulation and by Government guidance. There was very little that local authorities could do about the huge proliferation of out-of-town shopping centres, which occurred, sometimes, much to their dismay.
Mr. Denham: I believe that local authorities retain the right to oppose developments which are damaging, and to test that within the Government system. The Hedge End development was not the only example of which the Committee was made aware where local authorities had taken decisions within their boundaries, which, as the hon. Member for Edmonton (Dr. Twinn) said, sometimes had an impact on somebody else's shopping centre.
I am not convinced that the Government's response to the Select Committee report has really taken on board the Committee's recommendations on regional guidance for shopping centres. The Government seem to have interpreted our report as simply talking about huge regional shopping centres.
My view of our discussions in Committee was that we thought that a large number of out-of-town shopping centres had implications across district and county council boundaries, and if any such projects came forward in the future, we would need clear regional planning guidance on shopping. I hope that the Minister can answer that point, as the response that we have had so far from the Government has fallen well short of the commitment that the Committee was looking for on that issue.
Out-of-town shopping developments in the Southampton area, and incremental developments along the M27, have caused damage in a number of different ways. First, trade has been diverted away from the existing shopping centres. Secondly--this is often not remarked upon--there is the sheer cost in time and resources to local authorities, which have faced constant battles to resist unwanted out-of-town shopping developments. Some of those inquiries have been lost, although Southampton was successful in defeating the Adanac park development, which was planned to have nearly 1 million sq ft of shopping area, and would have done enormous damage to the city. Such a planning inquiry consumes enormous resources, as councils must pay QCs to represent them. Many of those costs would have been unnecessary had there been stronger Government planning guidance during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Column 980The third example of the damage done by planning policies is one which, on reading the report after a few months, I do not think the Committee emphasised sufficiently. The uncertainties of town centre retailers and property owners caused by the threat of out-of- town shopping was a major effect on undermining the confidence of the companies and investors in the existing town centres. Even where a retailer or a property company was committed to remaining in a town or city centre, the fear that another out-of-town development would get approval this year or next year was a major disincentive to investment.
Looking again at the report, I wish now that we had stressed clearly that we need to produce a consistent and reliable framework for retail planning which can give investors from the private sector long-term confidence in their investment decisions. They would then know that, if they choose to invest in an existing town or city centre, they will have 10, 15 or 20 years of security, which will enable their investment to be well rewarded.
Resisting further out-of-town shopping development is only half the answer to the problem, and revitalising town and city centres is the other key point. Investment will be central to that revitalisation, the vast bulk of which will come from the private sector. I do not believe that money will materialise unless the private sector can plan with confidence.
The second element which the private sector is clearly looking for is long- term confidence in partnerships which can be established between private investors and the public sector, and particularly the local authorities. Private sector investors will need to know--not just for six months or a year--that there will be stability in planning policies, and that there is a clear vision of how each town and city will develop. They will want to know that there will be an effective and well-resourced structure for town centre management in the long term.
The private sector will also want to have confidence in the ability of the public sector to deliver the essential elements of a town or city centre revival which the private sector, retailers and property owners cannot provide. Those include improved public transport, upgraded car parking, an improved street environment and the effective co-ordination of crime prevention.
In those areas, contributions can be secured from the private sector, but it will be the responsibility of the public sector--the local council in particular--to organise and provide those elements. The private sector must know in the long term that local authorities will have the resources, which is very much a matter for the Government, and the commitment, which is very much a matter for the local authorities, to play that role effectively over a long time. It is also important that we find the means of taking the public with us as the town and city centre revivals take place. My experience in Southampton showed that it was difficult to persuade many members of the public that new investment and new retail centres in Southampton were necessary, when, in the middle of a recession, there were clearly a large number of empty shop units being unused. It was not uncommon to open a local newspaper and read a letter asking why we needed more shops, when there were empty shops already.
It is important that we find ways of explaining to the public that, if we want town and city centres to revive, we must allow them to grow and develop. With the possible
Column 981exception of the very historic town centres, they will change, as they have always changed throughout history. Each part of the process will change the shape, activity and nature of the town or city centre.
It is important to find ways of involving local residents, shoppers, potential shoppers and users of leisure and cultural activities in the planning of local town centres so that they have the confidence in the vision that the public and private sector partnership is putting forward.
A proven example of that in my constituency was the decision to work with the local institute of higher education to transform a not first-rate department store into a major educational building in the city centre for use by an institution of higher education. Because of its location, it brings together a cultural and educational quarter involving theatres, arts centres, art galleries and now a major educational building. It brings into the city centre many young people--a new group of the population that had not previously been actively involved in the life of the city centre.
Such changes will be essential in many towns and cities. It is not simply a matter of better shops and improved access to them, although that is part of the solution. Our vision for city centres must embrace the whole life of the city centre and the various reasons why people want to go there. After all, it is that type of attraction which out-of-town centres cannot provide. They may provide shops a car park next to them, but developers will not build new theatres, art galleries and educational institutions by motorways. Those city centre activities should be closely linked to the development of retailing and city and town centre development.
Having mentioned some of the pressures that Southampton has been under, may I make a few points about the future? I am fortunate in that my city is uniquely placed to resist the pressures of out-of-town development, because it has such a large development area next to the city centre. Through that, we can compete on more direct terms than many towns and cities with the attractions of out-of-town shopping.
One phase of development is already committed, providing large, open shopping areas that will sell the type of goods often only available in out -of-town venues, at an investment of some £30 million. I hope that, in the near future, there will be further announcements of significant investment in retail development in the centre of Southampton. It shows that, with some confidence on the part of local authorities and the willingness to plan clearly, it is possible to attract substantial investment back into city centres and secure their long-term future.
I hope that the Minister will say more about the need to consolidate the town centre management process. Southampton is one of many local authorities that have appointed a town centre manager, but, as yet, the system for town centre management goes nowhere near providing the sound basis for the partnership between town centre retailers, property owners and local authorities which will be necessary to make it truly effective.
As our Committee found in its inquiry, and as we find in Southampton, even on the current basis, town centre managers can achieve a great deal, but we shall need more reliable sources of funding that tie in all the retailers within a centre and avoid the problems of free riders, if the potential of town centre management is to be realised.
Column 982Although the Government said that they are looking into that question, we must push them to respond more positively. The single regeneration budget is not an adequate response to the problem, because its application is patchy. In the summer, the Committee will look again in detail at the single regeneration budget and its application to town centre revitalisation. We cannot have a lottery in which some local authorities receive money to develop their town centres while others do not, which is what the single regeneration budget implies. We need a consistent mechanism that is available to all towns and cities that need funds for town centre management. Finally, I renew the plea made by the Chairman of the Committee. A swift response from the Government on the matters which they say they are considering is absolutely essential. I return to the fundamental point: that we must have an environment that encourages confidence in the long-term future of towns and cities, and encourages investors to believe that they can afford to invest long-term, knowing that they are making a sensible decision. The new planning guidance and decisions on the funding of town centre management need to be in place at the earliest possible opportunity if that investment confidence is to be achieved in all the towns and cities that need investment.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury): The Environment Select Committee's inquiry, "Shopping Centres and their Future", generated by far the greatest interest of any inquiry in this Parliament. I pay tribute to one of its former Chairmen, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), who was instrumental in bringing us all together and whose input into the report was significant. I also pay tribute to his successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) and to the current Chairman, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), whose speech we heard this evening.
I am one of the few chartered surveyors in the House, so the inquiry had particular relevance to me. I represent an area that is 80 per cent. designated in planning terms in one way or another, so my planning problems are particularly acute, not least with the new wave of out-of-town applications which the smaller market towns are beginning to experience now that the recession is coming to an end. The inquiry was therefore of particular interest to me.
In Victorian and Edwardian times, altruistic landowners invested significant sums in our towns and cities and, together with some conscientiously minded citizens, produced what used to be called "civic pride". Towns and cities used to compete with each other as to which had the best architecture and recreational facilities and which was the tidiest. Unfortunately, the two world wars came along, and many of those magnificent towns and cities took an awful battering. The business rate was introduced after the second world war, and many of our towns and cities were caned by local authorities, who could use the business sector as an easy source of finance. It was not until this Government came along and introduced the universal business rate that we began to get some sanity back and encourage businesses to consider investing in town centres.
Column 983As many hon. Members have said, investment is the key to encouraging the vitality and viability of our town and city centres. That investment must be channelled in a way that does not benefit just the individual shop owner.
One of the key recommendations of the inquiry was to form town centre management schemes. By those schemes, all the partners can be brought together. Those include the local authority, which must play a leading role, but also the retailers, landlords, consumers, the highway authority and many others.
In order to be brought together by a town centre manager, that requires funding. Much mention has been made this evening of how a mechanism might be adopted for that. I favour the top slicing of the universal business rate to fund that mechanism, because that would be fair and would relate to the size, viability and turnover of the business in a particular town. It would also stop those who do not currently wish to take part in such schemes--so-called backsliders. I am not in favour of the scheme advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Dr. Twinn) of capital allowances, as they bring about the wrong results. People do things that they would not otherwise do, purely for tax reasons.
As a number of hon. Members have said, town centre viability and vitality can be brought about in a number of ways, not least of which is the willingness of businesses to provide service. I recently went to the United States, where I found that every shopkeeper wants to provide a service. It is no trouble for them to lift heavy goods out into somebody's car. Nothing is too much trouble. In restaurants, one is offered more water and so on before one has to ask for it. I often find that kind of service lacking in the smaller shops in our smaller towns. Sometimes when I enter a shop, I get the impression that the shopkeeper does not want me to be there; he or she does not want to serve me. We must overcome that sort of attitude. Shops which are part of large retail chains have solved that problem by running employee management schemes to train their employees to look after the customers. It is the small shops which must adopt a better attitude to customer service.
Town centre managers could improve town centres in other ways. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton said, it is largely a matter of self-help. Managers could improve the safety of shopping centres by introducing closed -circuit television. They could provide better facilities, so that disabled people can shop more easily. They could examine whether the local public transport network is near the shops and enables disabled people to reach them easily. Perhaps there is a granny tripper just inside the entrance to a shop which shoppers have to lift prams or buggies over in order to access that shop. Managers can do many simple things to make the shops in their town centres more attractive to the consumer.
Unless we seize every available opportunity to improve our town centres, people will take the easy option: they will travel by car to out-of-town shopping centres. I do not think that planning guidance note 13, which tries to restrict the number of car parking spaces artificially, is the right way of ensuring the vitality and viability of our town
Column 984centres. Easy and convenient car parking spaces should be provided near town centres, so that people will choose to shop in the town centre rather than go out of town.
It is totally wrong for central Government to give prescriptive guidance to local authorities about charging for car parking. Individual local authorities or towns should be allowed to charge nothing for car parking if they believe that that will help them to compete with out-of-town shopping centres.
I wholeheartedly welcome the Government's response to the Committee's inquiry. I hope that local authorities will look carefully at all applications for out-of-town shopping centres. There is no doubt that out- of-town shopping developments have put stress and strain on our existing city and regional town centres. I think that the sequential test that was mentioned by many hon. Members this evening is the right way to go. If there is an available site within the town centre, it should be the first priority. If no such site exists, developers could then look at edge-of- town sites. Edge-of-town sites are those to which people can easily walk from the town centre; there should be no confusion between edge-of-town and out-of-town sites. The least preferred option would be an out-of-town development which could be reached by car.
I believe that developers are beginning to target smaller market towns for significant out-of-town development applications. The local authority in Stow-on-the-Wold is considering an application for a development which will cover 10.25 acres, which is more than one quarter the size of that market town.
Stow-on-the-Wold is a beautiful town in the middle of the Cotswolds; it is a real gem. There is no question but that, if that development goes ahead, it will radically change the entire character of that town forever. I do not think that we want to denude little market towns of their traditional retailers. The butchers, the bakers and the other little shops provide excellent services in small towns. Even if they do the things I have recommended, they would be put under great pressure by a massive supermarket development. Let us have no illusions; the proposed development is an out-of-town development. The average person could not walk to the development site. Therefore, it should be considered according to out-of- town criteria.
The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who is currently not in his place, mentioned the problem of regional planning. If he looks carefully at the Government's response to the inquiry, he will see that the Government have made it clear that the existing regional planning guidance notes can deal with difficult situations. However, we must encourage local authorities to work together. I hope that they will consult with each other about large out-of-town development proposals. As one drives around the country, one often sees a controversial or bad development which is situated on the edge of a local planning authority's area.
We must also encourage the formulation of better statistics and better methodology for framing impact studies for edge-of-town and out-of-town developments. That methodology is still being developed, and even the top professionals in the field do not agree on how impact studies should be carried out.
Column 985I was dismayed when my local authority, Cotswold district council, decided to challenge a major edge-of-town development. Its case was upheld by the Planning Inspectorate, but costs were awarded against the council because its impact study was criticised. As the study had been conducted by a major firm in the City, that ruling seems a little harsh. Decisions such as that will weaken the council's resolve to challenge other unsuitable out-of-town developments--of which another three have been proposed as a result of the Inspectorate's decision.
I hope that the Minister will consider the question of awarding costs against local authorities very carefully. They are the local democratically elected bodies, and if they choose to fight particular planning applications--provided they do not have a wholly spurious case--I think that there is an argument for not readily awarding costs against them.
The Committee inquiry dealt at some length with the problem of planning gain. The fundamental principle that no development should be granted planning permission merely because of planning gain is entirely correct. The Government supported that principle in their response to our inquiry.
We must be very careful about planning gain. There is nothing wrong with it and, provided it is associated with a good development, I can see no reason why local authorities should not be entitled to ask for a reasonable level of gain in order to support the local community which will maintain that development. However, I think that we must ensure that the planning gain relates directly to the development and not to some other spurious cause that the local authority may inflict on the developer.
I urge my hon. Friend to look at section 106 agreements. A large development in my constituency is currently under appeal with the planning inspectorate. I do not intend to argue whether the decision should be in favour of or against that development for a retail park on the edge of the market town of Tewkesbury. I was keen to ensure that the local authority applied the section 106 agreement meticulously. That agreement refers to the range of merchandise which can be sold from a factory outlet.
In the past, huge supermarkets or regional shopping centres have been allowed to sell a range of goods--perhaps they are
food-related--but then the developers have applied a year or two later to open a chemist's shop or a post office. That immediately jeopardises the future of the local chemists and post offices. Supermarkets often apply at a later date to build petrol stations in their complexes. One can see that the development in Stow-on-the-Wold intends to do that. Its plans include an access road, and I bet that, in two or three years, the developers will apply to instal a petrol retail unit.
The section 106 agreements must be made to work. They must be rigorously upheld in the planning system, so that we do not get the so-called planning creep, whereby an application is made for one type of development, but gradually, over a period, it ends up as a totally different development.
I have highlighted a few points in the Select Committee report. It is an extremely important report. Every town and every city will be different, so it is impossible--as the Government made clear in their response to our inquiry--to be totally prescriptive in the planning system.
Column 986I am delighted that, at long last, the necessity to ensure the vitality and viability of our town centres has been recognised. We do not want to end up with ghost towns and cities. We want living towns, with people living above shops. We want recreational facilities, and, above all, we want people shopping and using those towns so that they are alive and dynamic, and will progress into the 21st century and expand, as they have throughout history.
Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South): This is a valuable and worthwhile report which is a credit to the Committee, its previous Chairman, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), the current Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, under whose deputy chairmanship I served on the Committee many years ago, and its current Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). I trust that the Government will take early and significant action on its recommendations.
I am bound to say, however, that I take issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish on two of his particular concerns. They are first and foremost his attack--it was no less than that--on activity shoppers, as he described them. I take issue with his denigration of activity shoppers, because I must confess to being one, as are my family. He presented the horror scenario of the nightmare family driving up the motorway to the Lake District getting some fresh air and scenery and then descending on the local high street and buying things for which they might not have much use, ultimately. Although that might be a horror for my hon. Friend, to me it is nothing short of a domestic idyll. It is an ideal way to spend a day with one's family, and I do not think it ought to be knocked. Similarly, I take issue with him on his attack on fast food joints on the high street. Many of us who, seeking refuge for ourselves from our children, succumb to their blandishments and take them into such places with a great deal of mutual benefit to all concerned. The two in Wembley high street rely on the likes of me and others precisely for their living, and the shops around them similarly benefit. Wembley high street has suffered particularly in recent years from the recession and the absence of adequate planning controls, and there are times when the presence of such fast-food places is a major magnet to the high street, so I take issue with my hon. Friend on those points.
The Committee and its report in its entirety are a valuable contribution to the debate. It is a timely contribution too, because in all too many of our constituencies we are living with the consequence of a market that has not been regulated effectively over the past 15 years. It is good to hear so many Conservative Members converted to the benefits of regulating and seeking to control and channel the dynamism of the market. I notice that a number of Conservative Members are now seeking to go back on their belated conversions; nevertheless that is how it will appear to those innocent readers of the record of this debate or any who happen to drop in on the proceedings tonight.
Time and again, Conservative Members recognise the force of the argument that market forces alone, in determining where retail parks and megastores spring up, are not an adequate way of preserving the public good.
Column 987We need to make sure that our planning regulations and directives ensure social and economic responsibility. Corporate responsibility also has a role to play.
It is important also that there have been contributions to the debate from a number of hon. Members who do not represent rural constituencies. The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) in particular, who sits on the Committee, referred to "my market towns". A number of us who represent urban constituencies feel somewhat excluded from this rather proprietorial attitude towards one's constituency and its geographical territory. I do not have any market towns in my constituency. I do, however, have a number of urban and suburban shopping arcades. Those urban and suburban arcades are equally important to those of us who have such places in our constituencies. They have been damaged of late, as have our high streets, by the profusion of superstores, megastores and retail parks.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I rise merely to invite the hon. Gentleman to any of my market towns. I care passionately for them and the hon. Gentleman is more than welcome to visit them because he will give the tourism effort an enormous boost.
Mr. Boateng: I shall take the hon. Gentleman up on that in the course of my activity shopping. The Boateng family will descend in great numbers on one of your market towns, and we look forward to you being there to greet us.
Mr. Boateng: The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury is similarly very welcome to one of my suburban arcades. We will be there to meet him, and when he visits such a suburban arcade, particularly the ones in Wembley park off Forty avenue, Preston road and East lane, he will find that there is considerable concern about the proliferation of megastores and retail parks on the North Circular road.
It is almost surreal that in successive weeks, major retail developments are opening along the North Circular road in vast numbers, no doubt at great expense to the shareholders concerned and no doubt also in the expectation of great profit, but it is difficult to see how there will be enough shoppers to fill those megastores. They are already draining from the surrounding areas of north-west London the lifeblood of the high streets, in Wembley and Harlesden in particular, and indeed, in the suburban shopping arcades that I have mentioned.
Hon. Members have drawn attention to the proliferation of charity shops. There are also boarded-up shops, and shops that are virtually derelict. The hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) spoke of the importance of the high street as an historic centre for community life, and he is right; but in many areas the post office and the gas and electricity showrooms were once part of that history, and now they have gone. Their departure from the high street--as a result of policies supported by Conservative Members--has made a major contribution to the crisis that now affects many of our high streets, and the death of some of them.
Column 988I speak with some passion about local post offices. My area is by no means unique in this respect, but the Wembley post office on the high road has been closed. It has been transferred to one of the few remaining retail outlets on the high road, and another has sprung up in one of the megastores down the road. The Government should respond to such developments, and to others with which the report deals. The single regeneration budget has been mentioned. I hope that it will be able to give much-needed assistance to the schemes and projects of local authorities that seek to revive our high streets. Such areas need a magnet for investment, and an infrastructure that is currently lacking in all too many instances.
I do not for a moment denigrate or ignore the contribution to regeneration made by city challenge in Harlesden, for example. As a public-private partnership works to build up the area, however, just down the road--off Scrubs lane--there are plans for another giant superstore to open. In the past two weeks, another superstore has opened at Brent Cross, within weeks of the opening of yet another 250 yards down the North Circular road.
We now have a mega-Safeway and a mega-Tesco, in addition to the mega- Safeways and mega-Tescos that have opened in Queensbury and further along the North Circular towards Edmonton, the mega-Tesco at Brent park and the mega-Sainsbury in Alperton. Superstore after superstore is being constructed. At some stage, a halt must be called, and we look to Government to do just that.
It is not enough to urge common sense on the Government--the kind of common sense that is contained in the report--in the expectation of possible action at some future date. We need an assurance now that action will be taken at an early stage, and we hope to receive it from the Minister.
The Chalk Hill estate in Brent provides a typical example of the time bomb contained in permissions already granted and in the pipeline. It is proposed to tear down some homes on the estate and to substitute a new megastore, in addition to those in the surrounding area that I have already mentioned. The planning game for the council is the financing of the estate's refurbishment and redevelopment. I understand the attraction of that to a council that is strapped for cash, but the result will be a further undermining of local shopping facilities. For those who live on the estate, the development will also raise the spectre of being decanted they know not where. Taking away homes to build another megastore defies common sense. I therefore urge the Minister to look into the Chalk Hill development and to do all in his power to prevent it. By doing so, he will halt the decline of the local economy in that part of Wembley Park. By calling the attention of the council to the crisis of concern among the residents and shopkeepers of the area, the Minister will at least show such people that the Government are prepared to listen. I urge him to do just that. I also urge him to deny the council the permissions that it requires to develop the Book Centre site in Wembley. Failure to do that will only assist the council in its intention to redevelop the Chalk Hill estate.
This has been an important debate; we await the Minister's reply with interest--and trust that it will be a constructive and speedy one.
Column 9899.15 pm
This is an interesting subject and report. Entitled "Shopping Centres and their Future", the report covers shopping policy, transport policy and-- most important of all--urban policy. Because it combines those three policy areas it is a highly worthwhile investigation of the responsibilities covered by the Department of the Environment. It is thus important that the Secretary of State deal with the recommendations in the report.
It is clear from the report's comments on shopping policy that shopping is not a homogeneous activity. It all depends on who is shopping, when, and what for. There is bulk food shopping, there is buying one's Sunday paper in the local shop, there is DIY shopping and there is fresh food shopping-- they are all different.
The importance that we attach to the traditional markets in our small towns and urban areas--not to mention larger centres such as Sheffield--is not to be denied. Markets sell fresh produce at reasonable prices, and they bring a certain vibrancy to the shopping experience. Recently, Chapeltown in my constituency urged the planning authority to allow the opening of a Saturday market, which is proving extremely popular.
In the other meaning of the word, the "market", however, does not necessarily offer the customer the widest possible choice. Increasingly the public are shopping in these huge out-of-town centres. In Sheffield, we know very well how fast this change is taking place. The development of the Meadowhall centre has transformed shopping habits in the area. We cannot assume that it offers more choice to the shopper. It does not. The shops there are all similar, selling similar goods. It is difficult to find specialist items in such places, or to obtain clothing in extremes of sizes. Shops often presume that one is between size 12 and 16, and if one is at either end of that scale, one has to go elsewhere for clothing. The Committee was strongly of the view that, in contrast, town and city centres offer flexibility, variety and--because they embrace cultural and leisure activities--interest.
The pressure to shift from car usage to public transport or non-car journeys will increase, driven by environmental policies, problems of air quality, congestion and the sheer unpleasantness of sitting in a car in a traffic jam on a hot sunny day. The public transport aspect of the Meadowhall development was well planned on an integrated basis, with British Rail opening a new station and the light rail Supertram being routed through Meadowhall. There is also car parking. Meadowhall may not like this, but car parks there are increasingly used for park-and-ride commuters who work in the city centre. Finally, the Government must acknowledge serious flaws in some of their urban policies. I agree with encouraging more people to live in town centres, but the Government must recognise the role of local authorities in developing the sort of partnership proposals outlined in the report. Town centre management schemes need people, resources and planners. Many planning authorities have an acute shortage of the key people who are the driving force in getting private and public sector partnership schemes up and running.
Column 990My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) rightly pointed out the problem of relying on traditional urban development schemes and the single regeneration budget. The element of competition within them is extremely damaging when a town centre already faces an out-of-town threat. If the town or city centre proposal fails, that can add to declining morale among the people involved. I will be listening carefully to what the Minister has to say about these key urban policy issues.
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): This has been a good debate--almost a love-in, with hon. Members on both sides of the House pouring praise on the Select Committee's report and expressing their good wishes strongly in favour of the town and city centre. I congratulate all the hon. Members involved in that excellent report on producing so much food for thought and debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) should be congratulated on his chairmanship of the Committee and on the way in which he introduced the debate. We heard excellent speeches from hon. Members who represent rural and urban areas.
The hon. Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) reminded us about the heritage of our towns and cities and the need to preserve the heritage of the countryside. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy), who is a member of the Co-op movement, spoke about the importance of the retail sector. I congratulate him on his work in the all-party retail group. The hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) said that people want town centres to survive and that market forces need to be channelled through the planning process. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Dr. Twinn), who is not in his place, told us about his bicycling habits. I am sure that he is not the first Member to admit to being schizophrenic. He likes town centres, but prefers to shop in out-of-town developments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) told us that his views had not changed, despite being an adviser to Friends of the Earth in previous employment. He said that the city centre needs to be supported and developed. The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton- Brown) told us about proposals to ruin his market town of Stow-on-the-Wold. We wish him success in opposing the application. I am sure that, if he has a word with his hon. Friend the Minister, the application could be called in at some future date.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), who is almost my Member of Parliament because I live in the constituency of Brent, East and sometimes have to shop in the arcades that he invited the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury to visit, took us on a tour of the north circular road and made a strong plea for homes rather than superstores.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson), who is a member of the Select Committee, reminded us of the importance of town and city centres. She spoke about developments in Sheffield and said that the only in which we would get strong city and town centres was by the Government being prepared to put in a great deal of investment to support excellent councils such as the one in Sheffield.
Column 991In the House on 26 May 1994, the Minister's predecessor, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), set out the Government's policy, which has changed rapidly over the past 15 years. It was that town centres were to be the preferred location for most of our new shopping developments. He said that previous policies had had a dramatic effect on retail policy and especially on the development of town and city centres.
Every hon. Member who regularly attends Environment Question Time, which we had earlier today, is aware of hon. Members' concern about the changing nature of Government policy and about the fact that there is no clear guidance about precisely what should happen. The Government's present policy is as clear as mud. In the context of planning issues, the Secretary of State has turned the U-turn into an art. He has pirouetted 360 deg from his initial stance that out-of-town developments were the way forward for retail planning. To echo the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Itchen, I hope that in his reply the Minister will apologise on behalf of himself and the Government for the way in which they have developed planning policy until recently.
Removing local authority power in these matters and granting a great number of applications on appeal has meant that developments have decimated our town and city centres. The Secretary of State and Ministers realised that it was time to reverse his discredited policy because that was the only way to limit the damage to that which has already occurred. The Opposition and local authority associations told the Government for some time that their policy was wrong. The Secretary of State has said that he is now committed to "using my planning powers to support local efforts to safeguard the vitality of towns and the economic viability of their retail centres in particular."
I welcome the assurances that local authorities are to be given the power to handle, without interference, applications for out-of-town developments, but good words are not enough. What the House and every hon. Member wishes to see is action by the Department of the Environment to ensure that, once passed, the guidance is carried into action.
The Independent of Monday 20 February reported that despite initiating a policy of there being no more superstore developments in out-of-town areas, the Department of the Environment plans to develop an edge-of-town superstore with parking for more than 300 cars in Cambridgeshire. It is no wonder that that has outraged not only local environmentalists but local residents. Campaigners pointed out that the move goes completely against the spirit of a new, greener Government planning policy.
Cambridge city council felt very strongly about the proposal and decided to turn down the application. The DOE's response to the superstore development was that it would provide more than 100 bicycle parking places--no doubt suitable for the hon. Member for Edmonton, when bicycling up the A10 to do his shopping.
How can we take seriously Ministers who, on the one hand, say that, through PPG 6 and PPG 13, they support town and city centres and want to curtail the development
Column 992of superstores, while on the other are prepared to allow such developments to go ahead? A commitment to revise the PPGs was first made in 1990. That was designed to ensure that the guidance that the Government provided reflected the Government's environmental agenda. In the case of PPG 6 that meant a commitment to reduce the need to go shopping by car. The objectives of PPG 6 were
"to sustain and enhance the vitality and viability of town centres which serve the whole community and which provide a focus for retail development, where proximity of competing businesses facilities competition from which the consumers can benefit."
We welcome the announcement, made in response to the Select Committee's recommendations, that the Government will review PPG 6 and will also look atPPG 13. At the moment, it is only the lawyers who seem to be making most of the money out of the lack of clarity of PPG 6. I recently had lunch with the chairman of a very big retail company-- [Hon. Members:-- "Oh."] I do not know whether I should declare that in the Register of Members' Interests. It was not a very big lunch, but the company is a very big contributor to the Conservative party. It is as fed up with the Government as are some Conservative Members because of the Government's failure to be clear about planning policy.
Mr. Vaz: I shall come in a moment to a report that I published only last year, but it is clear from all the statistics that the major growth in out-of-town shopping centres has occurred under this Government--promoted and supported by the Government until the U-turn that the Secretary of State initiated only two years ago. The Select Committee laid down two very firm criteria, which the Labour party believes are fundamental cornerstones of any policy. First, retail proposals should not be given permission for developments outside a town or city if there is a suitable site available close to the centre. Secondly, the data from retail impact studies will be required to assess any threat of harmful damage to such town and city centres that the projects may cause. I agree with the hon. Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) that the onus should be placed firmly on the developers to show that the impact of their policies will not in any way have an effect on town and city centres.
In congratulating the Select Committee on its report, I have to say that I believe that it was very important that it made so many extensive visits to so many different parts of the country. In particular, I was delighted that the Committee visited Leicestershire to study the effects of the Fosse park and Shires developments. I know that the Minister will visit Leicester shortly. I hope that he will take the opportunity of looking at the city council's excellent work in the Shires centre. It is trying to promote the viability and vitality of the city centre.
I accept that it is no use having an intellectual discussion about out-of- town developments and about the fact that we are against them unless we are prepared to initiate policies that will mean that developers will invest in city and town centres. I was attracted to some of the proposals of hon. Members, especially that of the hon. Member for Edmonton, who talked about the need for the Treasury to consider capital allowances. The local authority has a duty to work in partnership with the
Column 993private sector to ensure that all the possibilities are explored. One should consider what may be provided outside a town or city centre only when those possibilities have been exhausted. Last year, I published a report on the impact of out-of-town developments. I decided to undertake a survey to find out what was happening at local level. The results showed that 1,473 out-of-town developments were built between 1989 and 1994. On 307 occasions, the Department of the Environment overturned decisions even where local authorities felt that applications did not warrant planning permissions.
The results were taken from a total of 322 responses from district, metropolitan and county councils, which represented 73 per cent. of the councils that were sent questionnaires. The effect of Government planning guidance and Department of the Environment policy meant that a retailer's application for an out-of-town development had a 62.7 per cent. chance of being passed. The general feeling among town planners is that, although PPG 6 and PPG 13 are tighter than previous guidance, they are clearly not strong enough.
A report by Essex county council states:
"the government's test of vitality and viability of existing town centres is ill defined and the move to out of town developments . . . has inevitably reduced the choice and range of shopping in town centres".
A metropolitan district council reported:
"The town centre needs to regain its role as the focus of community activity in shopping, employment, cultural, educational, housing, leisure, and commercial terms".
The Labour party is firmly against out-of-town developments. They undermine our local businesses and the credibility of our high streets. There are too many empty shops, factories and residential developments in city areas. Labour Members and I applaud councils such as Leeds, which have adopted 24- hour cities, and firms such as Asda, which are prepared to develop the concept of 24-hour shopping in city centres. One of the great issues of our age is that the public supports the high street, but increasingly shops out of town. In preparation for this debate, I went shopping in Sainsbury's in Leicester on Sunday. I have to report that I really enjoyed the experience. I was impressed by the way in which retail developers have made shopping into a family event. My family is very young--my son is only 11 days old-- so it is not as active as the family of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South, but I too hope to visit Cirencester and Tewkesbury one day. Innovative schemes have been developed--for example, Sainsbury's new proposal, in association with Cox and Kings, a well-respected travel agency, to establish travel agencies inside its supermarkets. Those are new, consumer-friendly ideas. Consumers--the shoppers--welcome those developments. I urge the private sector and big developers to develop those excellent ideas in the town centre context. One does not have to create great monstrosities outside town centres. One can develop centres in the context of urban life.
If our aim is to regenerate our town centres through our retail planning policies, we have to support local authorities by giving them a clear vision and adequate resources which enable them to adopt a clear strategy. A transport policy involving investment in public transport can deal with the inconsistencies of deregulated buses and