Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Nicholls: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Vaz: No; the hon. Gentleman has had his chance.

The hon. Member for Stone assured his Front-Bench colleagues that they were on-message. I wish that he could have seen the face of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon when he said that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford was right to re-emphasise NATO's role.

In a careful and thoughtful speech, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Sir D. Madel) spoke of the importance of the northern dimension. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary asked me to represent the Government at the northern dimension conference. It is absolutely right that we should engage with Russia on these issues, and the Russian Foreign Minister was present. We were forthright in criticising the Russians over Chechnya--my right hon. Friend wrote a letter to that effect--but it was also right to be at the conference and to continue the dialogue that had started via the Finns. We will put a great deal of time and effort into ensuring that the northern dimension is a success.

The right hon. Member for Caernarfon said that he felt that Wales was being left out. I assure him that there is no reason to worry. I agree that it is very important to ensure that Wales and Scotland get a fair share of European money. That is why the Government fought

1 Dec 1999 : Column 404

hard and successfully to obtain the best ever structural funds deal in Agenda 2000 negotiations in March, including objective 1 status. For the first time ever, west Wales and the valleys will get funding.

What can I say about the hon. Member for Teignbridge? He demonstrated humility. He quoted from letters going back to 1960. Goodness knows what the cupboards in his bedroom must look like. I assure him that his worst fantasies will never be realised. He, too, wanted to renegotiate the treaties--and he believes that our partners would accept that. No, they would not.

Mr. Nicholls: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Vaz: No; I have dealt with the hon. Gentleman's point. There is no need for him to jump up again.

The hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) tried to put France against Britain on the common foreign and defence policy. France and Britain are on the same side and, properly, leading on the issue. That is why, at the end of the Anglo-French summit last Thursday there was enormous support for the views that we had propounded.

The hon. Members for Stratford-on-Avon andfor Tunbridge Wells talked about the Government's roadshow. The roadshow has demonstrated to me that the British people want to engage in a serious debate about Europe and have overwhelmingly supported our decision to go out and talk to them about it. Since 1 May 1997, we have fully engaged in Europe. We fight hard for the national interest and to ensure that we do the best for the people of this country and of Europe.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.



1 Dec 1999 : Column 403

1 Dec 1999 : Column 405

Planning Laws

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. McNulty.]

10 pm

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight two specific issues raised by the intention of the McDonald's chain of restaurants to open a takeaway restaurant on the site of a former public house in the west Harrow part of my constituency. The first issue is the use of the A3 classification in planning law, and the second the way in which social audits and social reporting could stimulate responsible companies to achieve effective dialogue with local communities about the siting of their business premises over and above what is currently required by planning law.

One week from today, McDonald's is expected to open a takeaway restaurant on the site of the former Hungry Horse public house at the junction of Shaftesbury avenue, Shaftesbury circle and Porlock avenue in my constituency, right next door to the excellent Whitmore high school. McDonald's has made it clear in local newspapers that it sees the restaurant attracting customers from beyond its immediate locality--according to its spokeswoman, it will be

Many local residents are, not surprisingly, worried that what is now a quiet and pleasant area will have to suffer extra traffic, extra disruption, increasing levels of pollution, new levels of noise and additional litter. They ask why no one has consulted them about whether a restaurant should be there at all.

McDonald's has had to submit a planning application to the local authority for--crucially--only the external works to the restaurant, which would create a drive-through facility beside the sit-down restaurant. The use of sites as restaurants and public houses is covered by the same site designation in planning law--class A3, as laid down in the Town and County Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987. In essence, because McDonald's has chosen a site with an existing A3 designation for its restaurant, there is nothing the local community, or the council on its behalf, can do to require the same level of full and detailed scrutiny of the plans as would be required if the site were designated differently.

A site that had little impact on the next-door school when it was a quiet public house, in a pleasant residential area--albeit with a small shopping parade, but no industry or major shopping centre close by--is soon to see a brash new owner with inevitably more intensive usage and the resulting greater impact on the community. Because no distinction is made in planning law between restaurants and public houses, the local planning authority--Harrow council--much to the frustration of local councillors and planning officials, cannot properly explore the change of use.

Many of my constituents who live in the immediate area around the site have formed the Shaftesbury campaign against McDonald's--SCAM--to highlight the difficulties posed by the development. SCAM has worked closely and very effectively with local people and councillors, and has completed research into similar developments elsewhere. In addition, Councillors

1 Dec 1999 : Column 406

Huw Davies, Norman Stillerman and Navin Shah, who is the chairman of Harrow council's development and planning committee, have all highlighted their concerns about the current wide range of the A3 designation.

My constituents have a number of concerns about locating such a large fast food takeaway restaurant in a residential area. The restaurant will inevitably have to attract a large volume of traffic to the site to be viable. There are already considerable traffic and parking problems in the area caused by the narrow roads and the fact that the majority of houses were built without garages. Approaching the site by car usually requires careful weaving in and out of parked cars. Inevitably, the concern is that the restaurant will result in busier roads, more congestion and increased danger to pedestrians, to cyclists and, especially, to the children who attend Whitmore high school next door. Because Whitmore is the borough's designated school for children with physical disabilities, there has been and remains heightened concern about the additional traffic flows that a restaurant will provoke to and from the site during the school day.

The site is serviced by bus routes, but the location of the restaurant is unlikely to help both Government and local council ambitions to reduce demand for car travel. Indeed, the additional traffic the restaurant will generate could potentially wipe out the benefits of the substantial investment that has been made to provide priority to 140 bus journeys along local routes.

It is also worrying that the proposed vehicle exit from the site, rejected by the planning committee, is next to a bus stop. That could make exit from the site by car dangerous for drivers, pedestrians and bus users. It is an issue of particular concern to the school.

Shaftesbury circle is already a busy roundabout with congestion problems in the rush hour. A quiet public house added little to the difficulties, but there is no doubt that a busy takeaway restaurant could cause further significant problems.

There is no doubt also that the amenity of my constituents in the area close to the site could suffer. They are worried about additional litter being generated, and about the extra nuisance from noise and light at night, as the site would clearly attract people away from nearby town-centre areas to this quiet residential district.

I am also especially worried that because of the wide range of the class A3 designation, the local planning authority has been unable to consider the impact of a restaurant on the amenity of the site's most immediate neighbour, Whitmore high school. Whitmore is recognised by Ofsted as a school of very high standards, with 95 per cent. of last year's GCSE students gaining eight GCSEs or more. More than 54 per cent. gained grades between A* and C, and the most successful 45 students gained 424 GCSEs between them.

No doubt placing a takeaway restaurant so close to a large school population is a powerfully attractive proposition to the owners of the restaurant chain, as the school could provide a very lucrative market. However, the restaurant could be the source of some disruption to the life of the school. The boundary of the site is extremely close to the location of key classrooms used for teaching music and drama, so the potential for lessons to be disrupted by noise is clearly a concern.

In addition, the restaurant's close proximity to the school will undoubtedly inhibit the current smooth arrangements for checking the dispersal of students at the

1 Dec 1999 : Column 407

end of the day. Unless McDonald's can provide suitable assurances that the children will not be served at all during the school day, the restaurant will provide further potential distractions to the school population.

The opportunity to consider all these issues, and therefore the appropriateness of the Shaftesbury circle location for a takeaway restaurant, was denied because the site already had a class A3 designation. However, if the site had been designated differently, and if the full and proper level of scrutiny of this particular application had taken place, that would not necessarily have prevented problems in the future.

At the moment, when planning permission is being granted for a change of use to A3 designation, it is not even possible to impose conditions that mean that the site could be used only for a public house or a restaurant. Indeed, attempts to do so by planning authorities have been overturned on appeal, with costs awarded against the authorities.

I recognise that it is right that development must, on occasion, be facilitated. However, my constituents have been extremely concerned at the restriction placed on their local council's ability to consider this development and therefore to examine its impact on them, simply because no change in site designation is involved. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of previous representations on this issue--from my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), from the London planning advisory committee, the Local Government Association and from Harrow council, as well as other concerned local authorities. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Minister to give further thought to whether the current A3 classification is not drawn too wide.

Many of my constituents sense that McDonald's was well aware of the way in which planning laws would operate on this site. They ask why McDonald's chose not to consult them until after the planning application had been submitted. Local people--a key stakeholder group that is affected by McDonald's selection of this site for the restaurant--feel that they have been presented with a fait accompli and that they must expect to have to accept the inevitable. Where their views have been formally expressed, they are being ignored by the company, which is now hoping that a planning inspector will find in its favour over the drive-through element of the plans.

It is difficult not to have some sympathy with the view put to me by one constituent that the attitude and behaviour of McDonald's have amounted to little shortof premeditated corporate arrogance. Certainly, the behaviour of McDonald's has not appeared to be that of a socially responsible business, nor that of a business keen to build relationships with local people.

Increasingly, the wider business world recognises that questionable social, environmental and ethical behaviour affects the bottom line and that ignoring the needs of stakeholders such as local people can bring with it damaging disruptive publicity. Companies as diverse as Shell, Monsanto and Nike have suffered poorer corporate performance because of high-profile negative publicity generated as they ignored important social dimensions to their business activity.

It is a truism that we live in the knowledge economy. Information flows are considerably greater than ever before and, increasingly, the reputation of a company

1 Dec 1999 : Column 408

affects its financial performance. Information about social and environmental liabilities is increasingly sought by investors keen to minimise their risks. There is growing recognition that competitive advantage derives in part from a business's relationship with its stakeholders, including the communities in which it seeks to operate. Social auditing and reporting, like the parallel environmental reporting that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has rightly sought to promote, provide a framework for producing information beyond merely the financial headlines that is of value to shareholders and stakeholders alike.

The big accounting firms are developing new wings of their businesses to support companies through social audits. Organisations such as the excellent New Economics Foundation and the Institute of Social and Ethical Accountability increasingly advise companies and provide auditing services that mirror the international work of, for example, the global reporting initiative. Initiatives such as the voluntary SA8000 scheme launched by the Council on Economic Priorities are already being used by Toys 'R' Us and several other European retailers. The AA1000 standard launched in Copenhagen on 15 November is being used by the Co-operative bank to audit its award-winning social report. Such initiatives are heightening awareness of the potential of social reporting.

According to Forum for the Future, around 30 big companies, including 20 of the FTSE top 100, are involved in substantive social reporting. The Body Shop's social report included sections covering social, environmental and animal-testing performance and has been widely praised as a model. Shell International's social report won praise from some as

with many of the company's critics acknowledging that a significant step forward had been taken.

The Co-operative bank's partnership report was a key part of its business strategy, combining a financial report with an account of the bank's impacts on its key partners: its shareholders, customers, staff, suppliers, local communities and so on. That has undoubtedly been a factor in its profits tripling since 1994.

Other recent social reports have featured levels of employee satisfaction, information on health and safety records, levels of compensation that had to be paid out and the degree to which child labour was used. In the context of this debate, such reports can involve the degree of community involvement in selecting where to site parts of the business.

Social auditing and reporting is a young process, albeit one with growing heavyweight business support. The Government need to give the process a friendly steer to encourage business to consider more carefully its impact on all stakeholders, including local communities. Government must monitor the standards and processes being used by social auditors to ensure that, over time, they are credible and rigorous.

I hope that the Government will take the opportunity provided by the company law review to engage in a dialogue with business organisations about how to encourage greater transparency and reporting of companies' relationships with all their stakeholders.

BT produced its first social report this summer. Independently verified, it would not have been 100 per cent. comfortable reading for shareholders. However,

1 Dec 1999 : Column 409

BT received a broadly favourable verdict, albeit with suggested improvements, from the verifiers. BT chairman Iain Vallance said:

    "There are those that believe that a concern with essential values or indeed the community at large is incompatible with the business aim of creating shareholder value and that managers should focus on making profits and steer clear of difficult compromises and trade-offs involved in trying to balance the interests of various constituencies. This is a misplaced belief."

McDonald's will open its restaurant in west Harrow a week from today. The lack of consultation by the company, or through the planning system, has caused real frustration among my constituents. I hope that, to protect other communities from being similarly affected, my hon. Friend the Minister will now consider amending the A3 classification used under planning law and examine the opportunities to encourage effective social audit and reporting.

Next Section

IndexHome Page