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26 Mar 2008 : Column 119WH—continued

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife tries to say that the Government do not give commitments to multilateral nuclear disarmament. All politicians have crafted words around the issue and in a minute I will attempt to expose the hon. Gentleman’s words. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), speaking for the Conservatives, said that Britain should maintain its nuclear weapons until and unless every other country gets rid of theirs. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, said that he would spell out the Liberal Democrat position: they want to negotiate the weapons away over time. Is there any difference between what has been said by the spokesmen for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats? There is no difference in
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substance, only in word-smithing and emphasis. There is an attempt to blind with words, but what on earth is the difference between saying that we will try to negotiate nuclear weapons away over time, and saying that we will maintain them as long as other countries have theirs?

Willie Rennie rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: I will give way to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife so that he can explain that point.

Willie Rennie: As the Minister knows, this debate is about political priorities, and how much time, effort and political capital are put into certain issues. The Government and the Conservatives briefly mention disarmament, but their priority is to defend the nuclear weapons system and the need for it. I wish that they would spend a bit more time talking about disarmament and putting it at the top of their priorities and efforts, so that we could have a nuclear-free world rather than just talk about it.

Mr. Ainsworth: My emphasis is different from that of the hon. Member for New Forest, East when defending our position against that of other countries, but surely there is logic in looking at the world as it actually exists, not as we would want it to be, in considering the effects of any decision that we take. If that is not sensible, I do not know what is.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) asked, “If there is a deterrent value to nuclear weapons, why not Iran?” I can only say that we must look and think seriously about the possible effect of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Would it make the world or the middle east safer places? Would it discourage proliferation? What would be the response of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other countries in the middle east? There would be massive destabilisation.

What has been the reaction to the UK’s significant reduction in our holding of nuclear weapons since the Labour Government came to power? Very little, because nobody has really felt threatened by our nuclear weapons. Yes, for good reasons, we have managed to encourage other people to look at their own responsibilities and we have managed to reduce our nuclear weapon capability to one system and to reduce hugely the size and power of the deterrent to the absolute minimum possible, but we have done so without having a huge effect elsewhere or a response from other nations, because other nations do not feel that we threaten them. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently made a speech in Geneva about some of the practicalities of making multilateral nuclear disarmament a reality. It is all right talking about it in some grand way, but developing systems and methods of verification in which all countries, irrespective of their capability, can have confidence is extremely important if we are to enable the reality of multilateral nuclear disarmament at any future point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North asked why we cannot get AWE people working on those aspects of the nuclear debate. They absolutely do—they are already there. The work that is being done in Blacknest, along with what was proposed by the Secretary of State and the work that we are doing with Norway, which is a non-nuclear power, to try to develop methods of verification
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that will enable confidence in genuine multilateral disarmament are real contributions to taking the debate forward.

Jeremy Corbyn: What is the Minister’s reaction to the problem that in the non-proliferation system that he says the Government support three nuclear weapon states—Israel, India and Pakistan—are not signatories to the non-proliferation treaty? Is it the Government’s position to encourage all three to join the non-proliferation system? Also, does he think that the increase in nuclear warheads in Israel is a destabilising factor in the whole middle east region?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend has probably spent more time on the matter than I have, but my understanding is that Israel does not acknowledge that it has nuclear weapons. Of course I will encourage all states to join the international system to try to develop confidence and capability in a framework in which we can tackle nuclear proliferation and, I hope, move towards a situation where we could, at some point, achieve a nuclear-free world, but that is an optimistic look at the future.

Meanwhile, as we said clearly in the discussion on the White Paper last year, we must be aware of the defence needs of the UK in an uncertain world. It takes time to develop nuclear weapon capabilities and delivery platforms such as submarines, yet if we look back 10, 15 or 20 years, we can see that there were completely and utterly unpredictable developments. We only have to look backwards to see that we cannot look forward. The climate is very uncertain, and the future is not clear. Unless we wish to deprive a future generation of the ability to protect itself with a nuclear deterrent, we have to take decisions well in advance. That is why I thought at the time that the Liberal Democrat motion to replace the submarines, but not yet, was so disingenuous.

Willie Rennie: Does the Minister accept that his own documentation on the issue clearly states that the main gate for the construction of nuclear submarines is between 2012 and 2014?

Mr. Ainsworth: We go through a process with all defence procurement, and main gate is part of it. An awful lot of work needs to be done before main gate, and I hope the hon. Gentleman does not think that work ought to go ahead without parliamentary approval.
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To suggest that we do not need to approve decisions until we come to main-gate decisions is not tenable.

Dr. Julian Lewis: The Liberal Democrat argument is appallingly disingenuous. Apart from anything else, the submarines have to be designed, and it was spelled out absolutely clearly why a process of 17 years from beginning to end was necessary. The only point the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife could make that could possibly stand up would be, “Okay, Parliament will have a debate and vote to design the things, but then it has to have another debate and vote to decide whether to start building them”—in other words, the main gate that he keeps wittering on about.

Mr. Ainsworth: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North raised a point that I need to respond to—he would want me to put this on the record. The UK produced a new design of nuclear weapon to coincide with the introduction into service of the Trident system. The warhead was designed and manufactured in the UK by AWE, although it was decided on cost-effectiveness grounds to procure certain non-nuclear warhead components from the United States. The design is likely to last into the 2020s, although we do not yet have sufficient information to judge precisely how long it can be retained in service.

No decisions have yet been taken on whether, or how, we will need to refurbish or replace the warhead. Such decisions are likely to be necessary during the next Parliament. To inform them, we will undertake a detailed review of the optimum life of the existing warhead stockpile and analyse the range of replacement options that might be available.

The spending on AWE—I shall try to reassure my hon. Friend about this, if nothing else—does not pre-empt such decisions. They are yet to be taken, and will be taken in the manner that I have just explained. I thought that he would want me at least to put that on the record.

To sum up, I am pleased to have been able to respond to the debate on this important issue. We are focused on maintaining the right balance between a commitment to strive towards a world free of nuclear weapons, and the need to protect our citizens in an unsafe and uncertain world. Within that context, AWE has served our nation and our allies well, and I am sure that the skill and dedication of its work force, suppliers and partners will continue to serve us in the future.

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High Street Shops (Planning)

4 pm

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. I am grateful for the chance to raise the issue of high street shops in my constituency.

Battersea has a long high street, only the first part of which is called Battersea High street, which ends in a market. The second part is called Falcon road, and the third is the main shopping street in Clapham Junction, which is probably the biggest shopping centre in south-west London. I am concerned only with the last half mile of the high street, which is known as Northcote road, a popular, traditional high street with a market and a lot of small independently owned traditional food shops, including bakers, butchers, fishmongers, a cheese shop, an Italian deli and patisseries, as well as a lot of wine bars, restaurants and coffee shops. It also has a bookshop, a music shop, a toy shop, a kitchen shop and even a honey shop. Nowadays, there are a lot of expensive clothes shops, including children’s clothes shops, as might be expected in an area that has been known for the past 15 years, at least, as “Nappy Valley”. As long as people have the money to shop there, I do not think that I am exaggerating when I say that it is one of the nicest shopping streets in London.

There is a problem, because the national chains want to move in and cash in on the street’s popularity. Landlords are responding by raising rents, with the result that they are threatening the very food shops that make the street popular in the first place—in other words, they are in danger of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. We have already lost some popular food shops, after their leases came to an end or the rents were doubled and, in some cases, trebled, and those that remain are feeling the squeeze. They either have to pass on the cost of their higher rents to customers, if they can, or move; those are the only options.

The street has already lost a post office because of the high rents. The last postmaster retired in 2006 and although the Post Office advertised the vacancy several times, it could not find an applicant who could afford to take on the franchise. That post office has now been written off as part of the current consultation.

Over the 18 months to two years since the campaign started, we are seeing ever more upmarket clothes shops, which may be fun for some people to shop in but are in danger of squeezing out the food shops that give the street its character. That is not at all what people want. The Northcote road action group was set up in 2006, and 250 people, both shopkeepers and residents—more residents, of course, than shopkeepers—attended its inaugural meeting. Some 7,000 people signed a petition presented to the council by Prunella Scales, a local resident.

Wandsworth council has called in a consultant to report on what it can do through existing planning powers. It already has a strict planning regime on the street. The first 50 shops or so are in a protected secondary frontage and the council can refuse non-retail use, if the proportion of retail falls below 60 per cent. The next 50 shops have slightly less protection. Then there is a middle section of the street. The far end of the street is classed as an important local parade. So the
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council uses the current planning powers to try to support the character of the street.

The planning system allows the council to prioritise retail over wine bars and estate agents, at least in most of the street, and if it is possible to do that more effectively by re-zoning the street or changing the zoning, we should do so. There may be some leeway for giving greater protection to retail shops by extending the protected secondary frontage further down the street, but planning law will never allow the council to favour independent shops over chain stores or small shops over bigger shops.

I am more concerned about what cannot be done through existing powers. We would need a change in planning laws or regulations, because the council and local councils are pursuing everything that can be done through existing powers. It is my job to pursue those things that cannot be done. I hope that the Minister will apply his mind to what changes can be made in the law to give councils the powers that they need to protect food shops in popular shopping streets.

The problem is by no means unique to Northcote road. Other streets, such as Portobello road and Marylebone High street, face similar problems. There may be many more, for all I know, in other parts of London or in other cities, but these are the only streets that I know about which are victims of their own success. The popularity of such a street becomes a problem, because it brings in so many national chains or other shops that squeeze out the shops that were there originally.

Marylebone High street has found a solution to this problem; it has retained that old villagey high street character, with its own butchers, bakers, chemist and all the shops that people would expect to find in a traditional high street, despite being close to Oxford street. Some of those shops might be quite expensive, but at least when people walk down Marylebone high street they feel that they are in a traditional high street with a good range of food shops. What is unique about Marylebone High street is that all the shops are owned by one man—Lord Howard de Walden—who knows that it is not only in the residents’ interest, but in his interest as the landlord to keep a butchers and a bakers in the high street, so that people can continue to do all their shopping in the same street. That solution is not available in Northcote road, where no landlord owns more than a dozen shops and most are individually owned, so no one person has an interest in keeping a good mix of shops in the high street. Left to their individual devices, all the landlords naturally rent their shops to the highest bidder, without any consideration of how that affects the balance of shops in the street.

Portobello road is, of course, famous and draws people from all over London and probably from outside. Kensington and Chelsea borough council set up an inquiry involving people such as Terence Conran to see what can be done to protect its character. It came up with 54 recommendations, which were mainly things for the council to do or for shopkeepers to do themselves, but about a dozen were recommendations for Government action, and some of those are worthy of the Minister’s consideration.

The first thing is to protect small food shops by putting them in a special planning category. One could then stop chains from buying up shop fronts and creating big shops by requiring planning permission to knock
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two shops into one. That would require a definition of a small shop to be in place—the inquiry group suggested 80 sq m—and any plan to increase a shop’s size above that limit would require planning permission. One could also prioritise food shops over coffee shops and internet cafes, which has been a particular problem in some high streets, as they take over sites from food shops.

Behind such measures, councils need to be enabled to make diversity of shops one of the reasons why they can turn down a planning application. Otherwise, they will be powerless to do anything other than stand by and watch as a much-loved high street turns into a row of wine bars, with all the problems that creates for the neighbours, or into a row of expensive fashion boutiques, which, although they are not objectionable in themselves, are not helpful because people cannot eat clothes.

If there is nothing but boutiques or rows of estate agents—as in Lavender Hill—it is no longer a high street. That is what has started to happen on Northcote road. As much as I would like the council to use its existing powers to the utmost—there are still ways in which it can do more—it does not have the power to stop those trends, once they take hold.

I shall mention a couple of suggestions that have been made. Wandsworth council is keen for more powers for retail conservation areas, which could be used more effectively to protect existing high streets. A number of organisations have suggested expanding the small business rate rebate scheme, which would favour smaller shops, regardless of their ownership. That would help to correct the balance, which can get out of kilter when large chains try to move in. I have nothing against large chains, and I appreciate that in planning law it is impossible to have a satisfactory definition of what a chain is. A small individually owned shop may set up a branch in a neighbouring high street and become a chain, but it should not be thrown out of the original high street simply because it is part of a chain. It would be a penalty of success if belonging to a group of more than one shop was a reason to refuse planning permission.

We must find other ways—proxies—to provide a distinction to enable planning authorities to control the tendency for large chains to take over shopping centres, push out individually owned or characterful shops and create a high street identical to one somewhere in the London suburbs. One can walk down several high streets, see exactly the same shops and wonder which particular high street one is in. Northcote road is nothing like that yet; it is a characterful shopping parade. People love it for its character, and they want to preserve that. I fear that the fundamental problem is that the planning system leaves too much to the whim of the market and gives too few powers to the local community to defend its own high street.

Of course, I fully accept that shops come and go—they always will. I am not making an argument for or against town centre shopping. I am not an opponent of supermarkets; on the contrary, I like to shop in them myself. However, I am saying that we must be alive to new trends such as those in places such as Northcote road. Many people there want to be able to shop for everything on their own high street. Such people are not particularly price sensitive. They do not mind if the small individually owned butchers that they go to charges a little more for a leg of lamb, because they value knowing the butcher and being able to discuss with him
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how he has treated the meat, how he cuts it and what his cooking recommendations are. People know that they and the butcher are part of a community.

That is the high street many of us know from our childhoods, and it is how the traditional English high street is described in history books. It is ironic that there was a time when the only people who did not shop in the high street were wealthy people, who shopped in Harrods food hall. Now, those at the lower end of the income scale shop at Asda, and those at the higher end prefer to shop on a traditional high street. However, this is not solely a matter for one income group, because the high street is one of our traditions. Although I do not wish to detract from the need for supermarkets, we ought to be alive to fact that many people want to preserve their local high street. In relation to this example, huge numbers of people have signed petitions, campaigned, and attended protests to defend their high street. What people do not have, and what I hope the Minister will point us towards, are the planning powers that would enable them to defend those high streets.

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