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10 Dec 1997 : Column 984

Town Centres

1.29 pm

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): I am well aware that the future of our town centres and the impact upon them of edge-of-town supermarkets and out-of-town supermarkets have been well aired in the House in recent years. Indeed, the Business Improvement Districts Bill is being discussed in another place at the moment. Problems still exist. I shall be as brief as I can be so that the Minister has maximum time to respond.

Between 1990 and 1994, 8,000 small shops closed. Hon. Members all know how the Merry Hill shopping centre in the west midlands, now of notorious repute, has caused the death of several town centres in midlands, including that in my home area, so I know them well.

My constituency of Richmond Park has two fine shopping centres, Richmond and Kingston, and many groups of village shops and small shopping parades within it. Over the years, the two borough councils have struggled to maintain the life of their town centres. They have encouraged supermarket chains into those centres, albeit on restricted sites. By doing so, they have given shoppers the benefits of supermarket shopping.

Recently, two supermarket developments have been allowed, on appeal to the Department of the Environment, after considerable local opposition. An application for another supermarket on the famous Old Deer park in Richmond is imminent. All three are on the edge of Kingston and Richmond and will cause severe traffic congestion and have a major impact on two beautiful towns. Those towns are also threatened by the expansion of air-side and land-side shopping malls that are part of the terminal 5 development at Heathrow airport, which plans to provide huge shopping facilities for its customers. With the removal of duty free regulations next year, how long will it be before British Airways organises one-day shopping trips to Heathrow? That could affect town centres throughout the country, and not just local ones. Richmond in particular will suffer because it is a small centre where, as our motto says,

However much the Government fall back on planning guidelines--the planning policy guidance note 6 was introduced by the previous Government and was greatly welcomed--and claim that nothing has changed, discussions are taking place that will affect the future of our town centres. It is a mystery to me why that should happen, particularly in the case of the Manor road site in Richmond, which recently received planning permission on appeal. I am aware that the inspector makes that decision and not the Government, but I shall say no more than that it is a mystery to me.

Another aspect of the problem which concerns me has long-term implications because the sites being used for the supermarkets are brown-field ones--in two cases in my constituency they are the sites of old gas works. The local authority and the DOE have no power to command the total cleansing of those much polluted sites--they merely need to be decontaminated for the use to which they will be put. That is a less expensive option than that required if those sites were to be used for housing, and it is an option that British Gas welcomes. I have visited the British Gas laboratories at its invitation, but despite that and my repeated requests, it will not divulge any details

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about the two local sites in my constituency that most concern me--at King's road in Kingston and Manor road in Richmond.

That means that pollution will be locked into those sites for future generations. The local authorities will have to accept that they can never be used for any other purpose. Town centres will therefore always be under siege for new sites, and housing, for which there is such a desperate need, will never be built because the cost to the developer of proper decontamination will be prohibitive.

I shall conclude by asking a few questions. Why does not the DOE insist on the total decontamination of those sites, which would enable them to be used for housing? Why do we continue to permit out-of-town and edge-of-town supermarkets when we know how much damage they can do to our town centres? Where will the elderly, disabled people and those without cars go to do their shopping when the small retailers on whom we depend have gone? Why are the Government continuing to encourage shopping by car, which increases pollution? Why cannot the supermarkets operate smaller stores such as Spar, Mace and Europa do? I must commend Tesco because its Metro developments reveal that it is showing signs of looking for smaller sites and smaller outlets for its goods. Why can we not encourage such marketing? When will the DOE commission proper research into the impact of retail developments on town centres? In March, the then Select Committee on the Environment produced an excellent report on that subject. Why cannot the Government act upon it?

1.35 pm

The Minister for London and Construction (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) on initiating the debate. I understand why she has raised the subject, but I hope that she will equally appreciate that I cannot speak about any particular cases, such as those in her constituency, which are either sub judice or where an appeal might be lodged with the Secretary of State in the future. That is simply the product of the proper rules that guarantee that any such appeal that comes before the Secretary of State must be dealt with on a strictly impartial basis. I am, nevertheless, pleased that the hon. Lady has chosen this subject for debate because it gives me the opportunity to set out clearly the Government's policy.

The Government are committed to regenerating town centres and, unlike the previous Government who saw the writing on the wall much too late, we have always been the champion of town centres. The damage inflicted in the 1980s and early 1990s was caused by the permissive policies of the previous Government, ironically often aided by public money. The Metro centre on Tyneside, Meadowhall and Merry Hill, to which the hon. Lady referred, all received Government funds through enterprise zones, the derelict land grant, or by being in a development corporation area.

Such developments have had an inevitable impact on their surrounding areas, to which the hon. Lady has also referred, and now there are calls for public money to be spent to assist the regeneration of the areas damaged by those big developments. Obviously, that is not a logical and sensible way to proceed and it is not one that the Government will pursue.

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The permissive policies of the previous Administration helped to bring about a major shift in retailing patterns. In 1979, just 5 per cent. of retail sales turnover was generated outside existing town centres. Today, that figure is estimated at more than 25 per cent. and it is likely to exceed 30 per cent. by 2000. That is the legacy that we have inherited. The permissions currently working through the system are largely those that were granted before we came into power. Therefore, we have no control over them. It is inevitable that there will be a further increase in permissions because of those already in the pipeline.

It was not until 1993, with the issuing of a revised PPG6, that the previous Government began to move towards the current policy. The change in policy was initially played down as a change in the balance between town centre and out-of-town development, but in fact it was the beginning of a sea change.

In its 1994 report on shopping centres, the Select Committee on the Environment endorsed the policy and recommended that it be strengthened. Its recommendations were broadly accepted by the previous Government, leading to a further revision of PPG6 in June 1996. The policy was further reviewed and endorsed by the Environment Committee, which reported in March this year.

In answer to the hon. Lady's final question, I can tell her that that report was one of the first matters to receive our attention after the general election. As she knows, we responded by the end of July, making clear our support for the policy endorsed by the Select Committee and our interest in a number of its specific proposals. There is no question of the Government doing anything other than endorsing the approach already recommended by the Select Committee--an approach committed to the regeneration of town centres and in particular, as I shall explain, to the rigorous application of the sequential test in relation to planning applications for developments of out-of-town centres.

Our response in July showed that the Government are firmly committed to PPG6 and it spelt out our key objectives for town centres: first, to sustain and enhance the vitality and viability of existing city, town and district centres; secondly, to make them the focus for investment, particularly in retail, office, leisure and other appropriate developments; and thirdly, to provide easy access to a wide range of facilities and services by a choice of means of transport.

It is important to ensure that people have opportunities to reach shopping centres by good public transport, to avoid the problem of growing dependence on the car, to which the hon. Lady referred. Such investment is essential to the regeneration and enhancement of the attractiveness of our town and city centres.

That is not to say that town centres did not need to change and that some of the competition has not helped galvanise town centres to respond to the challenge. However, the challenge has been damaging. We are trying to mobilise public and private funds to combat the continuing, often slow, haemorrhaging of our town centres as the full, long-term effect of the new regional shopping centres comes through.

The full effects of those new centres have yet to be felt, as town centres within 50 miles adjust to the loss of trade and some stores close or contract. The effect of major new

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centres, such as Bluewater in south-east London, Cribbs Causeway on the edge of Bristol, Trafford Park in the Manchester conurbation and even the more recent Mortlake Road development in Kew, have yet to come through in full. Those effects are likely to be felt in the next few years.

How do we expect the policy to operate? Local authorities have a major job ahead. Many will need to review their development plans. Up to now, many plans have not set out a clear strategy for town centres that would encourage shops, offices, leisure and even housing back into existing centres. In many cases, local authorities have been essentially locked into a reactive mode--trying to defend their town centres from out-of-town shopping developments, and often having few policies for the other key uses of existing town centres.

We want local authorities to adopt a much more positive and proactive approach to planning town centres. We want them to say where development will be encouraged, and to produce a clear strategy, as well as policies for all key town centre uses. Indeed, we want them to go further. We expect them to adopt a sequential approach to identifying and assessing sites in or on the edge of town centres for their suitability for town centre developments.

Let me explain what the sequential test involves. It means, first, identifying sites within centres. If a suitable site is not identified, edge-of-centre sites should be sought. Only if that fails should local authorities consider an out-of-centre site, which is well served or could be well served by public transport.

We expect local authorities to be realistic and to discuss the suitability of such sites with the private sector. We expect them to develop planning briefs for town centre sites ahead of revising the development plan, and we also expect them to take a much more positive approach to using their compulsory purchase powers to assist with land assembly, where that seems necessary. That will require local planning authorities to take a more positive approach than many have adopted in the past.

The sequential approach also applies to the way in which developers should approach the issue. Any proposal, whether for a new development or for expansion of an existing development, for out-of-town locations will need to demonstrate that there are no suitable sites in more central locations. If there are no such sites, before out-of-centre sites are considered, there will still be a question to be answered as to whether there is a need for such a development. The Government have made it clear that that approach would apply as much to leisure, office and other town centre uses as to retail developments.

The policy must apply to all phases of the planning process: the preparation of development plans, the handling of planning applications and the determination of appeals. We expect inspectors to apply the same criteria in determining planning appeals.

Some people believe that the Secretary of State should call in all major applications and recover all planning appeals for his own determination. The Government's general approach to call-ins is not to interfere with the jurisdiction of local planning authorities, save in exceptional cases where that is necessary. The Secretary of State is therefore very selective about calling in applications for his own determination, and will generally intervene only if matters of more than local importance are involved.

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Each case must be considered on its individual merits. In recent years, the average number of appeals to the Secretary of State has been approximately 14,000 annually. I am sure that the hon. Lady will appreciate that it would be impractical for the Secretary of State to determine such a large number of cases personally.

All appeals to the Secretary of State are handled in the first instance by the Planning Inspectorate executive agency. In well over 90 per cent. of cases, the appeal is determined by the inspector on behalf of the Secretary of State. A small number of appeals each year are recovered by the Secretary of State for his own decision. The decision to recover an appeal is taken by reference to published criteria contained in the Government's response to the Select Committee on the Environment in 1986--Cmnd 43.

In the case of supermarkets and large retail developments, the criteria specify that the Secretary of State will recover development proposals involving development of more than 100,000 sq ft. Those that the hon. Lady mentioned in her constituency were smaller than that and therefore did not meet the criteria, so they were properly determined by the inspector.

In addition to getting key commercial uses back into town centres, the Government are keen to get more people living there. We hope to achieve that by encouraging the development of more housing, on its own or as part of mixed-use development. That will help to bring back diversity and life to our town centres.

People are the key ingredient to revitalising town centres. We hope that, for some people, who do not want to live in a quiet suburban area, the town centre can offer an exciting and attractive environment to live in. Young people may be attracted by proximity to entertainment facilities and transport links, and older people may be happy to live in the centre, with easy access to shops and other facilities.

Often, a town centre's location may be extremely attractive, and we must do much more to encourage the imaginative use of sites and the re-use of existing buildings to provide housing opportunities in our town centres. That would not only meet housing needs, but help to bring life back into town centres, which too often go dead at night, when the shopkeepers leave and the businesses close, and where there is often a risk, because of the absence of people keeping watch over the area.

The hon. Lady rightly raised the question of contaminated land. The issue has exercised the Government considerably. A number of sites in urban areas are severely contaminated and require remediation work before they can be used. There are obvious questions of cost involved in the remediation of such sites. It is unreasonable to make developers clear up to a standard above that required for the purposes of the site. It would inhibit development if there were an artificially high remediation standard that bore no relation to the use proposed for the site. That creates a difficulty in terms of meeting the case advanced by the hon. Lady. However, there is no reason why sites could not be cleared up further after initial remediation to allow houses to be built on them, for example.

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