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Mrs. Browning: I have not made public anything that I have raised with the Parliamentary Commissioner. My understanding is that anything that one raises with her is confidential until she has examined it and made her views public.
In my view, more attention needs to be given to behaviour. Declaration and registration of interests are only one aspect of that. Indeed, an MP's interests are irrelevant unless they influence or appear to influence behaviour. We need to revisit the code of behaviour and explore whether that should be fleshed out to give greater guidance to individual MPs. We also need to ensure that ethical behaviour is part of our culture.
The final aspect of institutional failure relates to our role in raising matters of public concern and in scrutinising the Executive. I welcome the changes that are proposed by the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office and the Leader of the House. I know that the Modernisation Committee will return to Select Committees in the new year. The Joint Committee on Human Rights played a valuable role, especially in relation to the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill.
On scrutiny, the Parliamentary Secretary and the Leader of the House have proposed that all Bills be published and scrutinised in draft form. I support that. However, at some stage, we will have to tackle the Standing Committee system. The Committees may enable outside interests to canvass arguments, but they do not provide adequate scrutiny.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): I want to raise the important matter of the future of Droitwich Spa, one of the two major towns in my constituency. That town could have a happy Christmas and a prosperous 2002 if a number of things were to happen. They are at various stages of developmentsome worrying, some encouraging.
We need to ensure that the two historic canals that run through the town are reopened and that the town centre is revitalised in the light of the major town centre development by Waitrose. We also need to ensure the refurbishment of the historic lido and the reaffirmation of the town's brine heritage, through district council actions and, in particular, the English Heritage ancient monument status for Droitwich Spa, which is being discussed. Other matters are also relevant to the town centre, but those four impinge on national policy making.
Droitwich Spa has a proud heritage of salt production, dating back to Roman times. In the 19th century, it saw a massive expansion, with new hotels, a railway station and, of course, the famous brine spa baths themselves. Sadly, in more recent times, the town has drifted and the centre is looking especially fragile. I have worked with one of the leading councillors in the area, Councillor Pam Davey, to bring the traders together, with some success, but more needs to be done if the town is to re-establish its vibrancy, as I believe it can.
There has been a steady gain in population as a result of planning policies. Droitwich Spa has taken people from Birmingham and elsewhere in the west midlands, but sadly many of them are commuting to jobs elsewhere. A vision is needed to revitalise the town. That vision is on offer from Wychavon district council and the town council, and it has generated a possible £20 million of investment. That investment is at risk, however, if we do not get the support of Government agenciesespecially some of those that report to the Department for Culture, Media and Sportof the local community and of the private sector. My worry is that some local pressure groups are working with commercial vested interests to undermine local democracy in Droitwich Spa and the interests of the wider community.
Let me deal with the issues briefly and one by one. The reopening of the canals is the good news part of the story. I declare an unremunerated interest as vice-president of the Droitwich Spa canals trust. The local partners are working well together to achieve that important ambition. The project is identified by the Waterways Trust as one of the most viable canal reopenings in the country. The Droitwich Spa canals trust, British Waterways and the local authorities are working together effectively with other local partners.
There are encouraging signs. The heritage lottery fund and Advantage West Midlands may play their part in bringing about the necessary funding to secure the reopening of the canals. That will bring great benefits, not just to Droitwich Spa but to Worcestershire as a whole and, I believe, to Worcester city. I make one new year prediction: in 2002, we will see agreement on exactly how those canals should be reopened.
There are, however, contentious matters that affect the town, in particular the Waitrose town centre development. That does not sound like something to raise in the House of Commons, but I believe that it should be. The district council retail study by Chase and Partners identified the
The decision by the planning committee is due early in the new year. However, special interest groups in the town, apparently encouraged by Tesco, are mounting a vociferous and often unpleasant campaign against the proposal. The most dramatic step was to conduct a parish poll this August; that was forced on the town council, even though the planning matter was outside its competence. The poll proposed a specific site for a superstore in Kidderminster road in which Tesco has a commercial interest, having a charge on the land which is actually in administration.
That interest went undeclared in the parish poll. The people of Droitwich Spa were misled; they thought that they were participating in a poll on the merits of an issue, but in fact they were participating in a poll to further the commercial interests of a specific supermarket chain. Interests should be declared in parish polls, just as we in the House of Commons have to declare our interests in the Register of Members' Interests, which was published yesterday. The parish poll cost £4,685.25, which might not sound very much in the great scheme of things, but it is a lot of money to a town council like that of Droitwich Spa. It achieved a wonderful turnout of 11 per cent.
An expensive poll attracting an 11 per cent. turnout was pursued simply to further the commercial interests of one supermarket chain. No wonder that the leader of the district council wrote to Tesco suggesting that it write a cheque for the sum in question; he is right to do so. The poll raises three important policy concerns which, I know, are shared by Members for other constituencies. The Local Government Act 1972 needs to be amended, first, to require a declaration of interests in parish polls and, secondly, to increase the threshold of voters to trigger a poll; in Droitwich Spa just 10 voters are needed to trigger a poll of 23,000 electors which, clearly, is much too low. There is talk of another poll and another poll beyond that, which could bankrupt the town council. Thirdly, there is a need to limit questions to matters within the competence of the parish or town council administering the poll.
Tesco is getting over-mighty and is conspiring by accident or design to undermine democratically elected town and district councillors; it is going too far. Another site at Baxendale chemical works is available: it would be a good idea to develop that for retail use, possibly food retail use. Tesco should look at thatfor all that I know, it may benot at the Kidderminster road site, which is earmarked for housing, through a proper, democratic process and the local plan.
I shall be brief on the question of the lido. A huge public subsidy is needed to maintain a 1930s building which reflects the brine heritage of Droitwich Spa. Again, a group of protesters, for understandable emotional reasons, opposes the involvement of the private sector in a massive redevelopment of the facility which will bring a genuine tourism advantage to the whole town. The protesters' latest technique is to require spot-listing of the lido. That is a device to frustrate the development and may well scare off private sector investors. I plead with
Finallythis is what prompted me to speak in our debateI turn to English Heritage's suggestion that the town centre should be listed as an ancient monument in its entirety, branded by English Heritage as "Droitwich Salt". That came as a bit of surprise to many of us, who did not know that it was making such a proposal. Apparently, it has been talking about it for some years; some people knew that, some did not. It could be a good idea as it might put Droitwich Spa back on the map, but English Heritage is not pursuing it as pragmatically as I would have hoped. It proposes to define the town centre with a bizarre line which seems to lack any historical or archaeological credibility and could threaten the Waitrose development, to which I have already referred.
I understand that English Heritage met the district council yesterday; there were constructive and encouraging signs that it engaged in a proper dialogue with the council. However, I plead with English Heritage and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to whom this matter will come in due course, to be very flexible indeed. There are huge gains for Droitwich Spa if the listing is tackled sympathetically, but huge damage could be done to the town's viability if inflexibility is practised instead. Heritage must be a living matter, a notion that I believe the chairman of English Heritage fully endorses. I hope that that will be reflected in any recommendation from English Heritage in due course.
The four issues that I have raised are part of a complex matrix of issues that could revitalise Droitwich Spa. They could transform the town and put it back on the map. If we lose too many of those opportunities, the decline of the town is inevitable. The protesters should quietly withdraw their objections in the interests of the wider community; local government should stick to its guns and pursue its vision; and the Government and their agencies should support that visionthey have it in their power to do so.