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26 Mar 2008 : Column 126WH—continued

4.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones, and it is a long time—about five hours—since I last saw you. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) for his thoughtful contribution to the important issue of the future of our high streets.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of our high streets and town centres—whether they are larger cities, market towns or small villages. The places that provide goods, services and amenities for our day-to-day needs are much more than just places to shop or work, to which my hon. Friend alluded. They also provide the focus for our civic and cultural life and are at the heart of our communities. When I or other Ministers talk about the importance of place-shaping, a vibrant high street and town centre is at the heart of what we mean.

That is why the Government are committed to providing a suitable and appropriate framework to help develop and maintain thriving high streets and town centres. I hope that my hon. Friend and others would agree that the past decade has seen a welcome renaissance for thriving town centres. I grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s and I remember the ghost towns that were caused by economic depression. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a tendency for planners to concentrate on out-of-town development. Independent retailers in towns and cities struggled because of the emergence of retail parks. Town centres virtually shut down at 5pm and became cultural deserts and havens for crime.

In the past decade that situation has been turned around. The proportion of new retail development in and around town centres has increased from less than 25 per cent. in 1994 to around 40 per cent. in 2005. Most of the top 50 retail centres have received a new major town centre retail scheme. I was in Birmingham recently, for the Labour party spring conference, where there is the exciting and vibrant Bullring. Manchester is a fantastic northern city that has smart new shops and high-quality public spaces. Other areas, such as Reading, have new developments in the pipeline to maintain their competitiveness.

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A significant amount of retail development is now planned for smaller and medium-sized centres, as well. To see the difference such a development can make, I suggest that people have a look at Corby. I was there recently and it has a fantastic, positive and optimistic future, which is largely thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope). Corby has ambitious plans regarding an Olympic swimming pool and other Olympic facilities, and a fantastic theatre. Other successes will build on the positive work of Willow Place, which is at the heart of the town. That is the model that we need to take forward.

The turnaround over the past decade that I have mentioned is the result of a number of factors. A favourable economic climate over the past 10 years has helped to provide confidence and has ensured that previously boarded-up properties in our town centres have become vibrant areas in which to shop, relax and work. The planning system has also been important in leading to a turnaround. We have maintained a strong planning policy over the past 10 years, and we have sought to promote the vitality and viability of town centres and to ensure that they meet the needs of the entire community in a good environment that is accessible to all.

Our planning policy statement 6, “Planning for Town Centres”, asks local authorities to plan proactively for how they want their area to develop, and to take the lead in preparing a shared vision for town centres in partnership with business, retailers and the wider community. Good development plans can be immensely powerful. They can effectively target the range of specific challenges that different places face. If local people want to preserve the character of their high street, as in the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, development plans can seek to provide a mix of uses in high streets and limit the size of new shop units. If local people are worried about a dwindling number of local shops, and independent retail units have been converted to other uses— such as estate agents, takeaways, cafés and offices—without regard for the wider impact, development plans can oppose that trend.

If parts of a town centre need regeneration and investment—that does not necessarily apply to my hon. Friend’s constituency—development plans can prioritise them. As he said, it is important that local authorities use their development plans to create development opportunities that are suitable for businesses of all sizes, large and small. In introducing the debate, he cited examples of places where local planners are doing exactly that. I am impressed by the way in which some places have used the wider range of tools at their disposal to translate plans into reality. I encourage all local authorities to consider that approach and to use the tools available. I shall outline some of the further tools that we have put in place and the methods that they can employ.

Where it is justified in local circumstances, planning authorities can use planning conditions, when granting planning permission, to control the size of shop units and the goods to be sold in them. They can seek financial contributions under new development proposals, where justified, to help regenerate secondary shopping
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areas where many smaller shops operate. Where it is necessary and appropriate, they can use conditions to prevent changes of use that would not otherwise need planning permission.

In some cases, local development orders and directions under article 4 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, which remove permitted development rights for certain designated areas, may be helpful in managing development. Local authorities can also use compulsory purchase orders to help achieve their objectives—for example, to ensure that key sites within or on the edge of town centres are brought forward for development, in line with their vision and strategic ambition for those centres. They can work with businesses to create business improvement districts to spearhead the regeneration of shopping areas.

Our policies promote the use of those tools to enable local authorities to manage development more effectively and to maintain and promote a locally distinctive mix of uses. I therefore strongly suggest to my hon. Friend and to hon. Members more widely that local authorities already have a wide range of planning powers available to help them protect and promote diverse and vibrant town centres.

That said, I accept that, with 60 per cent. of retail development still outside town centres, there is still some way to go. That is why we intend to improve the effectiveness of our town centre planning policy, as we said in last year’s White Paper, “Planning for a Sustainable Future”. We will shortly publish for consultation limited revisions to PPS6. Those will maintain a strong “town centres first” approach and introduce a new impact test, which will replace the current need and impact tests and enable local authorities to assess more effectively the impact of out-of-town development proposals on town centres. We will strengthen the way in which policy is designed to promote competition and improve consumer choice and retail diversity. We propose to introduce additional guidance to help local planning authorities apply our policies and make more effective use of the planning tools available to them.

I would like to make it clear that small independent retailers remain at the heart of our vision for town centres. We do not want a greater number of larger stores being developed where they may not be appropriate and where their impacts are significant, at the expense of small businesses and traditional high streets. As my hon. Friend rightly said, successful high streets need to offer something diverse and distinctive, which includes independent stores and multiples. We want a productive retail sector, which gives consumers a real choice in obtaining the goods and services that they need and want. On environmental and health grounds, I personally would like more local produce from independent retailers to be sold in our high streets.

We will therefore continue to work closely with our stakeholders, including organisations such as the Association of Convenience Stores and the Federation of Small Businesses, to ensure that we strike the right balance in the policy changes that we make. We look forward to hearing everyone’s views in response to our forthcoming consultation—I encourage my hon. Friend to contribute to that—and to continuing the helpful dialogue that we have had so far with stakeholders.

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We are preparing a new planning policy statement on planning for economic development—PPS4—which sets out a policy framework for how planning authorities should positively and proactively plan for sustainable economic development, including retail, that is responsive to the needs of businesses both small and large.

We will publish very shortly our proposals for taking forward the review of sub-national economic development and regeneration. That includes proposals for a stronger local authority role in economic development, including a new statutory duty to assess local economic conditions. That would improve the evidence base to inform the sustainable community strategies, local planning policies and local area agreements. It would also improve the understanding of how economic development can better support regeneration priorities in a given area and the conditions required for businesses, including retail businesses, to flourish.

I cannot respond to a debate on high streets and town centres without referring to the concern about the potential implications of the recommendations arising from the current Competition Commission inquiry into the groceries market. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the commission has provisionally recommended that a “competition test” should be introduced within the planning system when local planning authorities are assessing planning applications for new large grocery stores and supermarkets. It is important to place the commission’s suggestions in context. Its provisional decision, made last year, stated that it was not intending to make any further changes to planning affecting grocery retailing, as the Government have already set out revisions, to which I have referred. The commission’s proposals are provisional. I stress that we need to see what the commission recommends when it publishes its final report on 8 May.

If the commission recommends that a supermarket competition test should be introduced, that would require significant changes to the planning system in England, and we would need to consider carefully what that would mean for business, local authorities, consumers and communities before we could accept such a recommendation and make further changes to the planning system. I reiterate that we await publication of the report on 8 May.

My hon. Friend has raised important issues. I hope that I have demonstrated that the Government recognise that small shops make an important contribution to the character, diversity and vitality of our high streets. Planning can play a key role in promoting retail diversity in our high streets and fostering the conditions that enable small shops to thrive. Local planning authorities have a wide range of planning tools available to help them plan proactively for the needs of their high streets, large and small. Robust, locally specific and proactive local planning policies that are based on a clear evidence-based local vision are an essential part of that toolkit. It is critical that local authorities and others use those tools effectively.

We have put in place a range of planning policies and statutory instruments that help to ensure diverse and vibrant town centres. We are introducing further proposals to help local authorities still further in achieving that aim. I am keen to do what I can to assist my hon. Friend and others to ensure that we have vibrant and thriving town centres and high streets.

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Recycling (Plastics)

4.27 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I fear that the debate that we are about to have will be slightly overshadowed by President Sarkozy’s address to the joint Chambers of Parliament. I must apologise to the Minister, because I am sure that she has a marginal preference for listening to President Sarkozy rather than me—in fact, I think I have a marginal preference for listening to President Sarkozy rather than me—but the fact is that plastics are fundamental to modern social life. I find myself sounding rather like the character of Dustin Hoffman’s future father-in-law in “The Graduate”, who, when discussing his future son-in-law’s prospects, looks at him very earnestly and says, “Plastics, my son, that’s the future.” I have great empathy with the Dustin Hoffman character, because my father has been very involved, as a chief executive, in the plastics industry and that message has certainly been pointed out to me from time to time.

The reality is that plastics are crucial to our lives. They are light, versatile and extremely durable, and they take many and various forms. They are also chemically inert, which is good for medical uses, culinary uses—we have all used plastic utensils for eating food—food packaging and other things. The electrical industry and the construction industry make very heavy use of plastics. We could have a full half-hour session just listing the various things, including the microphone in front of me, that involve plastic in one way or another, but I will hurry on.

Chemical inertness is one reason why people take against plastic or dislike it, but it is not the only reason. Fundamentally, people dislike things made of plastic for cosmetic reasons; they do not like the look of them. I have a plastic glass in front of me, but people often prefer to drink out of glass glass, particularly if they are drinking beer—I have been told that beer tastes completely different out of a proper glass rather than out of a plastic cup. It is mainly the chemical inertness that generates the problem and the animosity to plastic. It is the reason why it lingers around and the reason why, when it is disposed of, it gets in the way.

In the Daily Mail a few weeks ago, we saw some graphic photos of bits of plastic in strange foreign seas that had started off in British supermarkets. If we sit in the countryside for any length of time and look around, it is not unusual to notice a plastic container that has been left by a picnicker. It will remain there until someone clears it up.

The city is littered with plastic in one form or another. In landfill sites, there is always an element that does not disappear. It is not bulky, however, and does not take up a massive amount of space. In one sense, therefore, it is not all bad. Something that is not biodegradable, that hangs around and is chemically inert, does not react and does not leak methane and other gases, even if it is left in landfill, is a positive thing in favour of the plastic industry. The plastic industry is not slow to point out that benefit in its products. Plastic does not generate the same amount of greenhouse gas in landfill as other materials.

The industry also points out that plastic is an eminently reusable and recyclable material. It will add to that the entirely fair argument that the carbon footprint for
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plastic containers is relatively low. For example, plastic packaging reduces the weight of packaging in general. I am told that the amount of plastic used to package any one utensil is being reduced all the time. Although we have all heard arguments about little electrical gadgets such as USB sticks being wrapped up in enormous quantities of plastic, by and large, the weight of plastic used to package goods across the piece is genuinely reducing.

The production of plastic involves a less high-energy process than the creation of other materials that are a substitute for plastic. For example, an intense amount of energy is used to generate glass products as opposed to plastic products. The plastic industry also points out the clear environmental benefits of plastic, particularly plastic packaging. It points to the fact that we waste far less food than we used to. Food is biodegradable and produces gases that are hazardous to the environment. Plastic not only makes the food last, but it protects goods from breakage and ensures that they do not get damaged on their way to sale, which is a good thing in itself.

The down side of plastic is that it enables people to move food that much further, increases the amount of food miles, and ensures that products that we would not ordinarily eat travel from places such as Africa and South America and get to our shops. While that is a culinary benefit, it is not necessarily an environmental benefit because of the CO2 emissions involved. I do not know how we can assess the overall carbon footprint of plastic, but we have no reason to think that it is any more damaging than some of the alternative products that we might use for the same purposes. That said, we must note that plastic—the use and disposal of it—features very heavily in the environmental debate, even if that debate appears to be centred on issues such as global warming. It features very prominently in environmental policies of various parties and Governments. All are keen to do something about plastic bags, whether prompted by the press or by the consumer.

There are reasons for that focus on the industry at this particular time. One reason that I can identify with, and which I have observed within my local council area, is the fact that if there is a drive on recycling and if people are encouraged to waste less and reprocess what they can, refuse collections can be altered to enable them to do that and to encourage and incentivise them. One refuse system that is well used by councils is the alternate weekly collection, which often excludes plastic as a recycled material. When looking at their residual waste stream, householders will look at plastic and say, “This forms a very large and substantial part of that.” They will urge their councils to do something about it and include it in the items that are recycled. However, there are obstacles to that, and I will enlarge on them in a minute.

The second reason for the particular concentration on this material as an environmental hazard is the fact that plastic waste is more visually intrusive. It is certainly more highly coloured and more easily noticed than most other forms of waste. Therefore, there is a general demand to reduce waste plastic. Clearly, recycling plastic must come after avoiding unnecessary use of plastic and plastic containers in the first place.

When I was queuing up to buy a newspaper in WH Smith the other day, I was horrified to see people who were not buying much more than a newspaper—perhaps
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a newspaper and a pencil or a packet of cigarettes—habitually being offered a bag. In times gone by, they would have put their goods in a bag that they had with them, stuffed them in their pocket, or just carried them out. The habitual reminder that they did not have a bag to carry their goods in was there and was slightly disturbing.

I have quizzed the Minister at the Dispatch Box about Sunday newspapers. Such papers bang on a lot about how desirable plastic recycling is, but they are delivered in a non-reusable plastic bag—the broadsheets in particular. They often omit that fact. The first stage, therefore, is to avoid unnecessary use. The second stage is to encourage reuse, and clearly the supermarkets are doing that. Most hon. Members will have been invited to their local branch of Asda and been asked to pose with various plastic bags that are being put to second, third and fourth use. That is totally desirable and quite the thing to do.

Much of the drive and discussion concerning plastic bag taxes and many of the campaigns against unnecessary packaging are designed either to deter unnecessary use or to encourage reuse, both of which must stand ahead of recycling. Those are well worked-up themes and ones that we all applaud and have no problem with. I do not see any particular problem in developing those types of initiatives. We would all be hypocrites or capable of self-deception if we thought that we could easily dispense with plastic. When I am handing out political literature, as I do from time to time, to people who are eager to distribute it on my behalf, I find a reusable plastic bag extraordinarily useful. I do not know how I would manage leaving bundles of “Focus” on people’s doorstep without using a plastic bag. It would be dishonest and hypocritical of me to visualise a day when we could totally manage without them, because managing without them might mean that we have to use substitute materials that create other environmental problems.

There will therefore always be demand for recycling—it will not go away. That demand is quite legitimate, whether from the public—society in general—or the Government. The debate is about the fact that the demand is hard to satisfy, and I am looking for and expect a positive response from the Minister in that respect. It seems that there is a triad of problems—collection, processing and a lack of mature markets for the recycling product—all of which require some sort of attention.

Of the three, I am most familiar with and informed about the first, namely collection problems. Plastic is light and needs crushing, but there is not much weight in a lorry full of plastic bottles. To collect plastic, one might need several lorries to make several trips, which adds to the cost. We are all familiar with the overflowing plastic bottle banks in supermarket car parks and how difficult it is to educate the public to crush the bottles to make more room in the containers. We have also seen how people indiscriminately, despite notices, put any plastic in the banks, any how, thereby contaminating the waste stream. Many lorry journeys are involved in the removal of plastic from people’s doorsteps, and there is much corruption of the waste stream. Clearly, one obstacle, which I am not sure we can easily get over, is to educate the public about different kinds of plastic, how to deal with them and how to put them into the appropriate waste stream.

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