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7 Jan 2003 : Column 99—continued

8.7 pm

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): I will concentrate my remarks on part 4 of the Bill as I strongly support the proposal that business improvement districts be enabled. It will turn out to be an extremely positive and welcome initiative that could yield wide-ranging and lasting benefits throughout the country. My remarks have been encouraged by the views of the Bedford Town Centre Company as well as by my experience as the former town centre manager for Bedford and as a member of the all-party group on town centre management.

It is difficult to write down a formula that would produce a successful town centre—so many ingredients and variables are involved. None the less, when we enter a successful town centre, it is clear that our experience is very different from what it would be if we were in a town that was failing. I had better resist the temptation to devise a formula for success. A thriving town centre, however, is successful economically, socially and environmentally. It has achieved that state of affairs because certain functions and activities are integrated and working together rather than operating in an isolated and fragmented way. It is all too easy for isolation and fragmentation to be the order of the day in town centres.

The private sector is, by definition, individualistic. It mainly comprises individual shops, services and businesses that are in competition. It is self-evident that shops in a town centre are often in direct competition with each other. The public sector, which looks after the public realm in the town centre—street lighting, cleansing, policing and so on—is the responsibility of different agencies and departments. They can act without reference to each other, which all too often happens, even with bodies in the same local authority. If left to itself, the town centre can be characterised by a lack of co-ordination. It has increasingly been acknowledged over the past 20 years or so that deliberate action must be taken to encourage different interest groups to talk to each other, to work together and to act in partnership to achieve common goals. That is what town centre management is all about. When it works, it benefits everyone: trade, the shopper, the visitor and the public realm as a whole.

There are many successful examples of town centre management initiatives across the country. The establishment of the Association of Town Centre Management in the early or mid-1980s considerably boosted the status of town centre management. It has helped to generate debate, raise awareness, undertake research and promote good practice by being in touch with what is happening on the ground daily. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) referred to the association.

One of the consistent features of town centre management identified by the association that has been experienced by town centre managers around the country and by town centre partnerships is that

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although everyone clamours for initiatives such as Christmas lighting, Britain in bloom projects, shopping guides and competitions from which all parties gain, few are willing to pay for them. Apart from that being inherently unfair and causing ill feeling, it also suggests that it is possible to achieve even more if only all the parties were to contribute. I believe that the potential is considerable, which is where business improvement districts come in. It is inherently fair that costs are spread among those who might benefit. In addition, the necessity of working in a partnership to draw up the business plan for a local business improvement district and the need to campaign to advocate a BID to win the vote should generate even more ideas and commitment, as well as the sustained additional income that current town centre management arrangements are able to provide. That is the great benefit—the great beauty—of the idea.

In my opinion, a successful system of BIDs could represent a breakthrough in town centre management. That is also the understanding of the Bedford Town Centre Company and the perception of the Association of Town Centre Management. I echo the congratulations that my hon. Friend extended to the association on having the foresight to prepare for the enabling primary legislation by promoting pilot BIDs in different parts of the country. That is important because it will take time for a BID proposal to be properly prepared and to stand a fair chance of winning a yes vote in a local ballot of business rate payers. By encouraging the work to be undertaken now, a number of proposals and ballots could be launched next year, when we hope that the legislation will come into effect. Schemes will be ready to hit the ground running, which is welcome. The selection of pilot BIDs is a matter for the Association of Town Centre Management. I am pleased that the Bedford Town Centre Company, among others, has put in its application. It has done so with strong support from many interest groups and people within Bedford. That is the result of its enthusiasm and hard work, and I wish it well.

I wish to question one aspect of the BID proposals: the nature of the ballot of business rate payers within the defined bid area that is required before a scheme can proceed. Clause 52 requires that a simple majority of those voting must vote in favour for a BID and the levy to go ahead. That is uncontroversial; we all understand it. It goes on to say, however, that, for a scheme to proceed, the total rateable value of the properties of those voting yes must be greater than the value of those voting no. So even if a majority of small businesses voted no, a scheme could go ahead anyway because the big boys say yes—or vice versa. That would be a bizarre situation, and I do not see it creating consensus, partnership and credibility. After all, life will go on, and there will be a need to address town centre management issues after a ballot has been held.

We abolished the property qualification in the general franchise more than 120 years ago. A person's vote is not worth more because his or her property happens to be more valuable than someone else's. I think that Ministers have missed an important point.

Business improvement districts can open up effective town centre management schemes by drawing in ideas and commitment from the smallest business as well as the largest. They can all operate as equals and in

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partnership, paying a levy according to the scheme agreed locally, which may, as we see in the Bill, vary according to turnover or rateable value—something for the local partnership to determine before the ballot is held. That is very different from saying that the value of a vote in the initiating ballot should be weighted according to rateable value.

I am extremely concerned about this proposal. Why complicate matters? Having counted the votes, the returning officer of the local authority will then have to identify and add up the rateable values. There is a lot of scope for dispute, uncertainty and error, especially if the result is close. I ask Ministers to keep this simple and credible and to stick to a system that everyone respects and understands. The only system with legitimacy is the one that encourages people to vote yes or no and the majority wins.

Mr. Clifton-Brown rose—

Mr. Hall: I am about to conclude.

I do not think it wise for the Government to be prescriptive. We heard some comments about the lack of prescription in the Bill, but it is not necessary here. I urge the Government to think again and not to allow this aspect of the BID proposal to undermine an otherwise excellent initiative.

8.17 pm

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I, too, want to concentrate on business improvement districts, as the hon. Members for Bedford (Mr. Hall) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) did. However, I should like to start with some more general comments.

My background is in local government, although it is not as illustrious as those of many of today's speakers. That is no longer a matter of embarrassment in the Conservative party, as it might have been in the past. I am a great believer in the concept of localism, and it seems that localism will be achievable only with far greater financial autonomy. The Bill is deeply centralising, and in that regard I endorse the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford).

In London we have had a dire experience since the mayoral election two and a half years ago. There is a lack of financial transparency. The battle between the Mayor of London and the Treasury means that Londoners have lost out. That is evident from our public services, not least London Underground.

The Bill makes some significant claims on council tax issues. I confess that I disagree profoundly with the second home provisions in clause 75, which seemed to have almost universal support earlier. The clause displays a strong misunderstanding of the notion of the council tax, introduced in 1991, which was designed to be partly a property and partly a personal tax. That is the basis for the 50 per cent. second home discount. However, I accept that Government pressure on local authorities, particularly Conservative local authorities, has forced a number of the Tory shire counties to lobby for this change, which I suspect will be made.

In general, I support the concept of revaluation, but I disagree with the power in clause 78 to change the valuation bands, with one caveat that was referred to

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forcefully by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett). Obviously the point is unknown to me from my constituency experience in central London, but clearly, if there should be a subdivision of band A in a number of our bigger northern cities it would make sense to have one.


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