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Mr Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I would certainly join him in calling for that. Many businesses in my constituency have contacted me on that very point.

Let me move quickly on, because other Members want to speak. The second issue that is vital to managing the transition in our town centres is car parking and particularly short-stay car parking charges. Car parking charges are a tax on our town centres; they very much detract from them and lead people to look for alternative shopping destinations. There are a number of things we could do about that. First, the Government could work more with local authorities and even incentivise them to reduce car parking charges. Secondly, I would like them, perhaps through the Department for Communities and Local Government or town teams, to work with local businesses, local authorities and private car parking firms to see how we can develop systems to incentivise shoppers. For example, we could, in partnership with retailers, put in place systems that took a certain amount off the customer’s car parking charge for every purchase they made. Utilising such a system could help some of our small and medium-sized town centres.

The third issue is regulation. I would like the Minister to advocate to every Department the idea that any unnecessary regulation that has an impact on our town centres and high streets should be completely resisted. A classic example is the proposed EU harmonisation of permitted vitamin and mineral levels in food supplements. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is alive to this issue, and he is trying to resist the EU’s directive, which could impact on our town centres and high streets. The industry thinks that 4,000 jobs could be lost if the directive is implemented, and many of them would be in small health food shops and in health food chains across the country.

To sum up, we cannot ignore structural change, and the Government are hard-pressed in terms of what they can do, but they can make a difference in the three areas I have identified. There are ways in which they can help to manage structural change, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to tell us about how the Government can help at this difficult time for our retailers.

3.12 pm

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I join hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on securing the debate. I want to focus on high street retail. I beg Members’ forgiveness because I want to be fairly parochial and to talk about the challenges and opportunities facing my home town.

Croydon used to be one of the top 10 retail centres in the country, but it has been in relative decline for 20 to 30 years. It might help colleagues if I examine the things that led to that decline. The first is the mismanagement of parking policy. I do not wish to make a particularly strong party political point, but the previous Labour-controlled council sold the multi-storey car parks to NCP. I am not arguing about whether there is a problem with their being in private ownership, but the council took no control over subsequent parking prices. Prices have gone through the roof, so many people no longer come to Croydon to shop.

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In the 1980s, the previous Conservative Government made a mistake on out-of-town planning policy. In Croydon, there have been major developments along the Purley Way, which drew people away from the town centre.

There are also issues about how the council has managed the public space in our town centre over a number of years. We have two covered shopping centres, and the main pedestrianised road—North End—goes between them. There are issues about people feeling safe when they come into the centre. There are issues about aggressive charity collections. The area is meant to be pedestrianised, but there is fairly regular vehicle access so that things can be delivered to shops. There are lots of people playing music, but that is poorly controlled, not well structured or organised. There are therefore issues about the quality of the public realm. There is also the general problem Croydon faces with its overall reputation and brand.

However, Croydon has just had the most incredible news. Westfield and Hammerson—two of the top retail developers in the country—have formed a joint venture, with a plan to invest £1 billion in our town over the next three years. That is game changing for my home town; it is the best news we have had in my adult life. The aim is to make Croydon one of five retail destinations in London. We have the west end, Westfield London to the west, Westfield Stratford to the east and Brent Cross to the north, and Croydon will become the destination for south London. That will, I hope, bring some of the big brands, such as John Lewis and Apple, which we are missing at the moment. That is the key to then having the independent shops that everybody wants. Those independents will exist only if we get sufficient footfall to support them, and that comes from the big brands.

The scheme will create thousands of jobs. One thing I hope the council will do as part of the planning permission is try to ensure that as many construction and subsequent retail jobs as possible go to local people. I hope that Westfield and Hammerson take control of parking provision so that we can have sensible parking prices. I am a great believer in public transport, and I want improved public transport access so that those who can come by public transport do. However, the reality is that when some people go shopping—particularly if they buy a lot—they want to take their car. If our parking policy penalises them for doing that, we will be shooting ourselves in the foot.

I also want to make a point about mixed use. The development scheme is not just a retail transformation; it will provide hundreds of new homes and leisure opportunities. We want Croydon’s major town centre to be an active destination not just during shopping hours but pretty much around the clock.

The scheme will not just be good on its own terms, but catalyse other development around the town centre. A number of schemes have been consented, but they are not being developed, because of the current economic climate. The new scheme will clearly bring them closer to fruition.

The scheme will be an important first step in transforming Croydon’s reputation, along with the Mayor’s policing plan, which will address the long-term under-resourcing of policing in Croydon, giving us 117 extra officers by 2015. There is also the money the Government and the Mayor generously gave us in response to the riots, which will be used to transform the public realm in the town centre. That really is great news.

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I am conscious that others want to speak, and I do not want to talk for too long about my own parochial concerns, so I will mention just three other things. First, I would like the Minister to pass on to his colleagues the idea that, if we are to realise the full potential of the extra jobs that are created, we will require some transport infrastructure improvements. We need to ensure that we have better connectivity between Croydon town centre and the motorway network through the A23. We also need to improve capacity on the trams at East Croydon station. The Mayor will have to foot the bill for a significant chunk of that, and so will the developers as part of the planning process. We may well want to talk to the Chancellor about the jobs that could be created with a relatively small additional investment.

I also want to talk about the Portas pilots. The centre of Croydon is too big for the Portas pilots, but we have one connected with our historic market in Surrey street. One real issue is how we connect the new retail destination with that market so that it reinvigorates that great destination.

Let me emphasise that the residents of Croydon want this scheme to be an urban regeneration scheme, not a box full of all the big brand names that is plonked down on them. They want a scheme that better connects our town centre and that ensures that Surrey street and London road, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed), which took such a hammering in the riots, benefit from being adjacent to the area that is redeveloped. They want much better connectivity with our key gateways at East Croydon and West Croydon.

Finally, I want to plug the idea of business improvement districts. We had a vote in Croydon a few years ago. There was strong support from all the major business rate payers for paying a bit more in business rates, as long as they had control over how the money was spent. They have invested in additional policing, improved cleaning and some really great events, which have drawn people back into the town centre.

My constituents are passionate about their home town. They have been put off going there by its image, concerns about safety and parking prices that are too high. On the horizon, we now have a potentially transformative scheme, and I wanted to put on record my strong support for it. There are some real lessons to be learned from what has happened to Croydon and what will be done to put that right, and those lessons are relevant to many other town centres around the country.

Several hon. Members rose

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Order. Thank you very much, Mr Barwell. I am going to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 3.40 pm. That leaves about 20 minutes, and four people have indicated that they wish to speak, three of whom wrote in. I also need to leave a couple of minutes at the end for the hon. Member for Watford, who introduced the debate, to summarise what he thinks of it. It is down to Members on the Government side of the Chamber whether they help each other out.

3.19 pm

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on obtaining the debate, which is important.

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I must declare an interest. My first job, when I was at school, was at the local greengrocer’s. I can make a fantastic stack of oranges and apples if given the opportunity, but time is probably too pressing. I also spent many years as a senior executive for major retailers—Safeway and Asda. While I was at Asda I was fortunate enough to move the business on, in its involvement with financial services, and to run its e-commerce and home shopping business.

It was incredible to see the degree of trust that people put into big retail brands, which was such that when the tsunami struck in December 2004 our website was almost crashed by the number of people who wanted to come to the retailer to work out how to respond to the challenge on the other side of the world. The retailers need to support that trust fully, and each needs to build a relationship with its customers. To do that, retailers must be better at adapting and more flexible in how they tackle the challenges and conditions around them. Let us not forget that Tesco started as a market stall, and is now taking on great media companies and trying to deliver movies and a cinema experience for people in their front room, at a click of a button, on their smart TV.

Retailers must be more responsible and more responsive to conditions in the marketplace. That means that they must embrace all the channels that are available to them. Too many have been too focused on bricks and mortar and have not thought about the opportunity that comes through the click of a mouse or, perhaps more importantly, about the integration of channels and how to appeal to changing customer needs across those channels. For example, the British Museum has a small physical retail presence, but a multi-million pound website with appeal across the world. In Macclesfield there is a fantastic business called musicMagpie, which some hon. Members will be familiar with. It engages not only in e-commerce, but in re-commerce. It recycles DVDs, CDs and computer games, selling them on through multiple channels including the high street. That recycling fits the need for greater sustainability and suits our times of challenging economics. We need to help retailers to realise that they must be more responsive.

Several hon. Members have highlighted the need for more flexible use of physical space by traditional retailers. That means that planning authorities need to think more creatively. A space that has had a certain use in the past need not in the future be linked to retail, but could be linked to residential or other uses, as my near neighbour the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) said. That process—making the use of space more flexible—is vital, and it is something for landlords, not just councils and planning authorities, to engage in. Too often their expectations are far too high, as my hon. Friend the Member for Watford said.

It is easy to try to get rates lowered, but it is also vital for retailers to think more effectively about how they engage the community. We were not able to become a Portas pilot—we wish Stockport well—but despite that we moved on to work out what else we could do. We created a forum called “Make it Macclesfield”, which is the town’s new brand identity, and there is a town team. We have brought life back to the historic Barnaby festival, celebrating the fact that we used to be the world’s leading producer of finished silk. Each month there is the Treacle market, which brings more people to

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the marketplace on a Sunday afternoon than we normally see on a Saturday morning. Winterfest and other events and community programmes bring countless more people in. We have created a plan for the whole town: we must consider the whole town, and not just retail. There is a plan for the silk quarter, to celebrate our silk heritage, for the heritage quarter, to celebrate our independent retailers, and for the marketplace, to bring everything together and enable the town to thrive and flourish flexibly.

There are challenges on the horizon, but the future may be brighter than the cynics believe if we can help retailers to be more responsive, use space more flexibly and get communities to engage better in the task of bringing town centres to life.

3.25 pm

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. Like other hon. Members I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) for securing the debate, which comes at an opportune time, two weeks before the Chancellor is to deliver the Budget.

The retail sector, as we have heard, is a vital component of the UK economy. At present, the sector faces challenges, which it is important for us to address. I shall concentrate my remarks on the high street, which some pundits have written off, but which I passionately believe still has an important role, not just as an engine of economic growth but as a focus for communities and leisure activities. I shall comment particularly on business rates and the unfair burden that retailers must carry, paying 28% of all business rates despite accounting for only 5% of the economy.

Lowestoft, in my constituency, is a Portas pilot town. The town team is putting in place a range of initiatives to create the sense of place that we need to get back to. They include mentoring small businesses, the introduction of town rangers, the hosting of musical and cultural events and the creation of a voucher discount scheme for those who shop in the town centre. Such initiatives provide high streets and towns with an opportunity, but it is important for traders and retailers to be able to compete on a level playing field with out-of-town stores and internet operators. Sadly, at present, the business rates burden means that they cannot do that. In the past two years business rates have increased in line with the retail prices index, by 4.6% and 5.6%. The increase in 2012 meant that retailers had to find a further £350 million in taxes when trading conditions were particularly challenging. At a time of falling disposable income and low levels of bank lending to small businesses, business rates are unsustainable.

I urge the Government to consider various measures, and I will be interested in the comments of my right hon. Friend the Minister. First, the Government should review the mechanism for increasing business rates annually. Instead of making increases in line with RPI based on a particular month, in which there may be a spike in inflation, they should use an annual average consumer prices index rate, subject to a 2% cap, in line with the Government’s inflation target.

Secondly, the Government have decided, as we know, to defer the revaluation that was due in April, with the new list that was due to come into operation in 2015. I

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question the merit of keeping a rating list based on rental values from April 2008, when the property market was at an artificially unsustainable level. The Government have said that the reason for the delay is that the result of a revaluation would be more losers than winners, and that the centre of London would benefit to the tune of £440 million, which might not be palatable to the rest of the country. However, the evidence that I have seen shows that retailers in many provincial towns will be penalised by the delaying of the review. I urge the Government to introduce measures to reduce that burden.

My third point is that there is a need to address the inherent unfairness of the current system, which favours out of town development at the expense of town centre shops. Out of town car parks are not subject to business rates, as long as they are free for customers’ use. As those locations compete with the town centre, where shoppers must invariably pay for their parking, the financial incentives are effectively the wrong way round. Consideration should be given to raising business rates on out-of-town developments and investing the money in town centre regeneration schemes.

Fourthly, the Localism Act 2011 introduced welcome new powers for local authorities to provide discretionary rate relief, which can be used to incentivise new investment in the high street and in shopping parades. However, to ensure widespread take-up of the relief, more funding is needed for councils to deliver it. It is important that the Government develop a mechanism for local authorities to fund discretionary rate relief through those new powers.

Finally, I urge the Government to conduct a full review of the means by which business rates are set. The rise of the internet means that retailers who trade from high street and mall shops are unfairly penalised when competing against rivals that sell exclusively online. Let me provide the example of a book retailer. A national bookshop company may have a chain of shops for which it is paying rents in excess of £100 to £150 per square foot, on which its rates are based. In contrast, their internet competitor will have one—albeit very large—warehouse in the middle of the country, where the rent may be to the order of £4 to £5 per square foot. It is important that business taxation properly reflects the underlying profitability of a business.

I know that the Treasury—whatever parties may be in power—rather likes business rates. They are easy to collect, difficult to avoid and highly productive, generating 5% of the UK’s tax bill. However, I submit that the system is no longer fit for purpose. If we carry on as we are, the future of British retailers is at best uncertain, and I urge the Minister and the Government to carry out a full root-and-branch reform.

3.31 pm

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on securing the debate. I will try and curtail my remarks to allow other speakers in.

Prior to arriving in the House, I spent 15 years as a Conservative party agent but before that, I spent 15 years in the retail trade. I worked, as it happens, for a small, family-run business that is still trading—successfully trading, I would add—so it is important to note that

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small, independent, family businesses can survive the onslaught of the big multiples. The retailer that I worked for was in the electrical retail trade, so it could say, in relation to Comet, for example, that it has seen off its competitor.

I do not want to dwell too much on statistics, but in preparing for the debate, I came across research by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Local Data Company, indicating that retailers with more than six stores are closing shops at a rate of 28 a day, and that there are 35,500 empty shop units in the UK—a national vacancy rate of just over 14%. Clearly, the financial situation is not favourable at the moment and retailers are finding it exceptionally difficult. The Government have done a great deal over the past couple of years on changing planning procedures. In that respect, they have helped by making change of use easier, and I am sure that some provisions in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill will also be beneficial.

However, the high street does not only require planning laws and deregulation. As has been mentioned by previous speakers—in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous)—we must have a level playing field for high streets, out-of-town stores and online retailers, if the high street is to survive in anything like its current state. I would be reluctant to add additional burdens to existing businesses. I would rather look at reducing them, but we must look at evening up the difficulties. Business rates, as has been mentioned, are a particular burden on small shops. We have to acknowledge that, and I sincerely hope that the Government are looking at possible changes to taxation, business rates, and so on, which will level the playing field.

In my constituency, there are three major towns. Barton-upon-Humber, which is a relatively small market town, has a very good retail mix, with thriving local shops that seem to be able to co-exist with the local Tesco. In Immingham, they are desperate for Tesco to arrive, because that will switch the engine on for local regeneration schemes. Planning permission has been given, and that highlights the fact that out-of-town stores or incoming supermarkets can regenerate existing towns. Immingham is particularly unfortunate in that it has a very run-down shopping centre, and people are desperate for the arrival of the supermarket. In Cleethorpes, St Peter’s avenue and Sea View street are littered, as it were, with independent retailers. People can get everything from a cup of coffee and a sandwich to furniture, jewellery, and so on, and there are all the usual stores that used to make up every high street, such as the butcher, the baker and the fishmonger. There are models across the country of thriving high streets where, occasionally, some of the larger chains are mixed in.

The Portas pilots have been mentioned, and although I welcome the aims and objectives of the Portas review, I have reservations about some proposals. Obviously, I welcome the fact that the Government have taken on board the celebrity status of Mary Portas and used her to promote schemes that will help to regenerate high streets. Going back to the time when I was a Conservative party agent, our office was in Market Rasen on the high street, which is now a Portas pilot, but the fact that that office has closed and become a tattoo parlour may not help the Mary Portas scheme.

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Some of the proposals are a little too simplistic. As a local councillor in north-east Lincolnshire, I was a member of the town team, which was mainly concerned with the Grimsby town centre, which serves Cleethorpes, Immingham and Grimsby, and we worked tremendously hard. We had a local businessman who had a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but we must recognise that the local council is a key element of any successful high street. It deals with traffic regulations, parking pricing regimes, and so on. North East Lincolnshire council, when I was the portfolio holder, had an income of £1.25 million from its parking charges. We cannot cast that out of the council’s budget and assume that it will provide the same services. Last week my hon. Friend the Minister was in Scunthorpe, which is part of North Lincolnshire council and has a very successful parking scheme that benefits local shopkeepers. It can be done, but I urge Members not to think that it is as easy as can be.

Finally, as has been mentioned, every town in the country has far too many empty retail shop units. We need urgent Government help to regenerate those and bring them into residential use.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): I have one Back-Bench speaker left to fit in. I hope you will be able to confine your remarks to three or four minutes—I call Caroline Dinenage.

3.39 pm

Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): Thank you, Sir Alan. I will speak really fast, and I apologise to anybody who cannot keep up with me. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on securing the debate. I also have a background in retail; my first job was at Marks and Spencer when I was 16, and I am still very good at packing groceries.

The debate takes place against a backdrop of record profits for some retailers such as John Lewis and Primark, while we have seen others disappearing over the past few years. On one hand, the growth of internet shopping does not help high-street retailers, because it results in redundancies, and it does not even always result in the same levels of corporation or income tax being paid, as we have seen with some high-profile online retailers. In the modern world, however, we have to realise that online shopping is here to stay, because people will not want to give up the luxury of shopping from their armchairs. It is important that we look at the pros and cons of the move online, including the fact that Britain is at the forefront of e-retailing and provides unique opportunities for kitchen-table entrepreneurs. There is no doubt, however, that it is changing the face of our high streets and threatening jobs in an industry that employs 4 million people.

However, we see success where things have come full circle and people are getting on our high streets things that the internet did not provide for them. I am talking about opportunities to see and touch things and to try on clothes and accessories that they might previously have bought on eBay, and without the hassle of waiting for delivery. That is what a shop in my constituency is providing, and as a result it has smashed its first-year growth targets.

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There is also an increasing trend of retailers who started on the internet and now want to dip their toes in the waters of shop trading. Markets offer a great opportunity for them to do that, as do pop-up shops— small spaces that people can use for a couple of weeks and with low overheads—which the Department for Communities and Local Government has been trying and testing.

Given that retail represents about 11 % of the economy but accounts for 32% of business rates, the burden of taxation on the sector is a major issue. The overheads of retail outlets are a huge disincentive, so reform of business rates is desperately needed, and I hope that there will be good news on that in the Budget.

The importance of regenerating the retail sector cannot be overstated. The industry is responsible for nearly 15% of total employment and is crucial to the resurgence of our local economies. It is just as vital to our national economy, generating almost 11% of GDP if we include wholesale. Business, like life, is not plain sailing, but the fact that retailers are continuing to do well is testament to the hard work and support of communities and shopkeepers. I hope that they will be supported by the Government as well.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): I thank the hon. Lady for an extremely full and helpful speech.

3.41 pm

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): As colleagues have said, it is a tremendous pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. This is one of those rare occasions when Chesterfield is under Mansfield. That has not happened in the football leagues for many years. None the less, it is a tremendous pleasure.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) not only on securing the debate, but on the contribution that he made to it. It was very important that we got this debate, as the contributions that we have heard and the interest that we have seen from so many colleagues have shown.

I would like to reflect particularly on the point that the hon. Member for Watford made about the importance of the retail sector as an employer of apprentices. He reflected on his own background as a graduate trainee at John Lewis and how that may have given him skills that he subsequently took forward in order to set up his own business. That is one of the things that can happen and it is vital for the UK economy. He also argued that consumer choice is wide, albeit different from how it looked previously. That is a question to which I shall return.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) reflected on the significance of retail’s contribution to UK GDP and employment, and on the measures taken in Stockport to make alternative use of retail units. That was a very important point.

The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) tantalised us by suggesting that he might be able to come up with a freeze on business rates, which he and many other hon. Members were calling for in different ways, on a cost-neutral basis. I am sure that if there is a way in which that can be done, he will have huge support on both sides of the

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House. He also reflected on the potential for Government to incentivise councils, which we all know are incredibly hard-pressed at the moment, to reduce the level of parking costs. We all recognise that parking is a barrier in town centres. Again, it sounded slightly like a spending commitment, but perhaps it was not. If something could be done in that respect, that would be very important.

The hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) reflected on great news for Croydon—the big development that is happening there—and on the success of business improvement districts. The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) was critical of the disproportionate level of business rates and called for reform of the whole system.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) reflected on how, after 15 years on the straight and narrow in retail, he wasted the next 15 years of his life in the service of the Conservative party, but he did hold out a glimmer of hope that Conservative offices are now being closed down and turned into tattoo parlours. As a growth policy, that is not the worst I have heard.

Martin Vickers: I must intervene just to inform the hon. Gentleman that the Conservative office moved to make way for the tattoo parlour.

Toby Perkins: Like so much that we have heard from those on the Government Benches, it was not quite as good as it originally sounded. None the less, it is an idea to consider. More seriously, the hon. Member for Cleethorpes also revealed statistics that graphically exposed the challenges facing our retail sector.

The hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) reflected, at amazing speed, on her own background in retail and the importance of the retail sector in her constituency and more broadly.

We are all conscious of the pressure on the retail sector at this time. We have seen some very high-profile failures on the high street in the past few months. The lesson from those failures is that businesses that do not modernise—that do not harness the power of the internet and take the opportunities that are available out there—simply will not continue to succeed.

We all want to see a diverse offering on the high street. We need to consider how the power of Government can be used to support small businesses to strengthen their internet presence. With regard to the reduction in business support that is out there, anything that we can do to support small businesses to harness that power would be tremendously important. With that principle in mind, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) has launched Small Business Saturday, copying an idea that is already successful in America. Many Labour local authorities are involved, and I hope that local authorities of all political persuasions will sign up to have a Small Business Saturday identified every year on which local authorities and the local small business sector can work together to encourage people to shop locally. Local authorities are coming up with very innovative ideas to promote their local small businesses.

In Chesterfield, where I am the Member of Parliament, we have a tremendous retail offer. We have a huge market. We have a market festival, which has brought a lot of publicity. It supports not only our retail offer, but

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our tourism offer. However, an issue that we have had in Chesterfield and that I touched on earlier is the massive emergence of the big supermarkets and particularly Tesco in the convenience store sector. We already have a huge Tesco Extra store. We have a Tesco petrol station and convenience store on Newbold road. We have a supermarket in the town centre. We have a Tesco that has moved into the former Angel pub on Derby road. There is a Tesco moving into the White Horse at Old Whittington, and there are now plans for a Tesco at the site of the Crispin Inn on Ashgate road. That will be six in one town. People in Chesterfield have been calling it Tesco Town and are very concerned that the offer available is far too limited.

I recently met with Tesco. When I asked whether it felt that six stores was going to be enough, I was told, “No, not nearly. We think there’s going to be loads more growth in Chesterfield and we see a lot more opportunities right across the country for many more of these Tesco stores in the convenience sector.”

I am not anti-Tesco, but I do think that something radical is happening that has the power to change dramatically our communities and the diversity of food on offer. I do not think that we have really stopped to think about whether we want that to happen. It is important that we have a debate about what we want the convenience sector to look like. Are we happy for all food shopping to be in the hands of three or four major retailers, or do we want to say something about that? Are there things that we can do through the planning system to ensure that local authorities have the opportunity to say, “No, this is not what we want in our area”? This is not just about Tesco. Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda are also moving into the convenience store sector. Those stores provide very good value and are popular among consumers, and we do not want to stop people having the right to shop where they want, but it is a debate that we need to have and an area that we need to think about.

This debate is incredibly important. The Portas review was a tremendously useful piece of work. What Mary Portas identified in her work was that planning and regulation, if they are done correctly, can boost and support the diversity of the retail offer, rather than necessarily always being a barrier. We need to get the right balance between planning controls that give local authorities and communities the opportunity to say what they want, and giving businesses the freedom to operate in the way they want. There is a fine balance. It is not always true that less regulation is good and more regulation is bad, but good regulation is important and ill-thought-out regulation is problematic. I congratulate the hon. Member for Watford on securing the debate and I congratulate everyone who has spoken on contributing so well to it. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s contribution.

3.50 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): Thank you, Sir Alan, for enabling at least nine other Members to contribute to this important debate. All the points made today will be digested, and I will ensure that I reply to particular points later if I cannot do so directly in the remaining minutes of the debate.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on securing the debate. He almost apologised for being parochial, but there is nothing parochial about the retail sector. It is our largest private sector employer, employing one in nine of the workforce. It is a £300 billion industry and the end point of many supply chains. As we have heard, retail plays a vital role in the national economy, local economies and communities, and the Government fully recognise that.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend on what he has done to ensure a healthy future for the heart of Watford. I hope the senior management at John Lewis fully appreciate that their loss is Watford’s, and indeed Westminster’s, gain. I know how important retail is to his constituency. Watford was one of 100 towns sharing the £10 million high street innovation fund, which is contributing to the widespread regeneration and revitalisation projects that are under way.

As we have heard, retail is a diverse sector in the size and structure of businesses, what retailers sell and to whom, and where and how retailers operate. From micro-businesses to international players and from high-end luxury to providing for our daily needs, it is a lively, competitive and innovative industry. There are some outstanding success stories of competitive retailers operating here and in international markets. Conversely, many smaller retailers are battling to survive—we have all seen the reports.

A high street or town centre needs a thriving and diverse retail sector, and retail needs thriving town centres, but as we have heard today, the town centre is no longer just about shopping—it is about eating and drinking, entertainment, services and culture. Successful towns know that and nurture it. Because retail is so important, it was chosen as one of the first sectors to be the subject of a growth review and was the first theme chosen for the red tape challenge. The initiatives identified several barriers to retail performance and growth, which we are addressing. We are delivering measures to support retail, including doubling small business rate relief for three and a half years to help small shops and making it easier for small firms to claim. More than 500,000 businesses in England are expected to benefit, with about 300,000 paying no rates at all.

We are focusing retail development in town centres through the “town centre first” planning policy; changing planning rules to allow councils to provide more parking spaces in town centres; and issuing guidance encouraging councils to set competitive parking charges. We are also working with the retail sector to develop the retail strategy, published last September, which focuses on what we can do at national, local and European level while avoiding market distortions. That includes reducing the burdens of regulatory compliance through better inspection and performance and helping to understand and analyse town centre performance.

As we have heard today, we cannot discuss retail without talking about help for high streets and town centres, especially where there are empty shops. Many hon. Members have spoken about empty shops in their high streets and town centres and will know the impact that closures have had on retail employees and their families. To alleviate some of the problems that causes, new planning measures introduced in January will ensure that empty shops and offices can be swiftly converted

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into much-needed housing. That will help town centres by increasing footfall and providing badly needed homes for local people.

The Government have always recognised that high streets are important for communities and growth, which is why we commissioned Mary Portas to carry out her review of the high street. We published our response to the review last year, accepting nearly all the recommendations, and we are going further with the Portas-plus package, designed to revive ailing high streets. We have doubled the number of Portas pilots—there are now 27—and announced a £10 million high street innovation fund, which is benefiting Watford. We received 55 nominations for the £1 million future high street X-fund, which will make awards to locations delivering the most creative and effective schemes for revitalising their high streets. Winners will be announced in March.

In October, we announced support for over 300 towns that had come forward to be town team partners. They are receiving funding, plus a package of support through the Association of Town and City Management. We will publish a further response to the Portas review later this year, building on what has been learned across the country and the progress we have made on the other recommendations.

The debate is not about high street versus out of town or the internet. A feature of today’s debate has been that every speaker has accepted that high streets must change and evolve to compete, and in some cases to survive. The Government are committed to supporting high streets, but we cannot dictate what should and should not be done; the vision and innovation has to come from places and communities, with the public and private sectors playing their part.

I turn briefly to two particular questions that my hon. Friend asked about business rates. The estimate from the valuation office was that the revaluation would have increased bills for about 800,000 properties and decreased them for only about 300,000. We would have seen significant tax increases for food, retail and convenience stores. We think it better to give businesses more certainty, which is why we postponed the revaluation. He also asked why we could not index the annual rise to the

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consumer prices index rather than the retail prices index. He will know that RPI is much lower for the year beginning in April than it was for the year beginning the previous April, but we are continuing to review the situation.

I turn to the main feature of the debate: the future of retail. Analysts at Verdict research have predicted that UK retail will grow by about £4.9 billion in 2013—the highest increase since 2008. Online sales are increasingly important. They accounted for 5% of all retail sales back in 2008 and more than 9% in 2012. Verdict predicts that they will account for 12% of all retail spending this year and 17% of all non-food spending.

Those numbers do not really tell us what is happening and why. What are the drivers of change? UK retail faces challenging trading conditions, but it is simultaneously having to adapt to massive structural challenges driven by changes in consumer lifestyles and preferences, the impact of new and emerging technologies and the constant evolution of how technology is used. Technology is driving change. Tablets and smartphones are making it easier for consumers to buy online in any location, and new delivery options such as click and collect are reducing the problems customers face with home deliveries.

I shall conclude, because I want to allow my hon. Friend a few minutes to sum up at the end. Retail is an important barometer of our economic and cultural well-being. It is going through a period of rapid change, but Britain has the companies, the brands and the entrepreneurial spirit to ensure that we will always have successful retailers. It is part of the Government’s job to ensure that we have the right environment for them to thrive, prosper locally and compete globally. There are no easy answers or quick fixes for either the retail sector or the high street. We all have to play our part—central and local government, businesses, communities and local partnerships—in helping the adaptation of the future of retail and helping to shape that future.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Mr Harrington, would you like a few seconds?

Richard Harrington: No, thank you.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): I am grateful.

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Youth Participation: First World War Commemorations

4 pm

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I thank the Minister for his time.

It probably does not take me to alert the House and the nation to the fact that we are rapidly approaching the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of world war one, which will unfurl four years of solemn remembrances of different events. None of us would disagree that it is important that we remember and commemorate, but equally important is how we commemorate and what we do as part of the commemoration. That matters as part of our sense of national identity.

For our close allies such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, sites such as Vimy ridge and Gallipoli are not just sites of memory or commemoration, but part of a national story, not of constitutional development so much as the birth of real nationhood—of real people losing their lives on the battlefield. That is why nations truly came into being; it is not just that they received a constitutional charter.

I pay tribute to what the Government have already announced as part of the commemorations of world war one, to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who has chaired a group, and to the Minister’s work. I pay particular tribute to the notion of spending of £5.3 million on sending children to visit the battlefields, not least because my own constituency is a hotbed of school travel—bizarrely, it is our one growth industry. I know that it is a particular pleasure to the WST school travel trust and the school travel forum.

I went on such a journey for the first time last autumn. I studied history at university and I have studied the period, so I have always wanted to go and see what I had been studying. I had never been; I have driven past quickly on the motorway, if ever at all.

What the visit brought home to me was that the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission is the one of the greatest publicly funded pieces of civil art ever undertaken in the history of humanity. We do not fully appreciate that in this country. The work of Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield is testament to the ability of architecture to inspire emotion and encapsulate complex feelings. Even to this day, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is one of the best run and best presented of our public bodies.

It is hard not to feel a sense of hopelessness when standing at a memorial such as the one at Thiepval—those grand Indo-Saracenic arches. All the schoolchildren were running around and making noise. Then the rain started to fall and they all scattered to the shelter of the visitors centre. I was left in the silence of a Somme morning—misty and cloudy—and I had a real sense of the tragedy of the loss of 20,000 people in one day. It is hard to imagine just how many people that is, but that is what occurred. At a time when we are once again debating what should be in our history curriculum, 1 July 1916 rarely seems to feature as a focal point for our national story, yet I believe it should be at the heart of what we think about when we study history.

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I was fascinated and inspired by Thiepval, but I also visited some of the Canadian sites at Beaumont-Hamel and Vimy ridge, to which I referred earlier. The reason why I secured today’s debate is to promote a Canadian idea that we could learn from. Visitors to those two Canadian sites are greeted by a young Canadian student, who is there for four months, and explains what is available to people of all ages, what they could do on their visit, why the location is there and what it means to Canadians.

There is an interesting contrast with Thiepval. We have put great effort into an excellent visitors centre there, which I cannot praise highly enough, but on arrival, people are not greeted by a young person or someone who can explain to them why the place matters. For visiting schoolchildren, being welcomed by someone of their own age group would connect them more to what they are about to see; it is not just a theme park, but something that someone of their own age thinks is sufficiently important that they are spending a long time there welcoming people.

The scheme might also benefit more elderly visitors, who often visit battlefield sites. Perhaps it is unfair to cite reported speech, but we often hear criticisms such as, “Oh, the children run around. They don’t show respect. They don’t understand what they are coming to see.” I do not think that that is true, but such a scheme would encourage older generations to think that what they had done in world war two and indeed in world war one was not in vain, because younger generations were still explaining it to their children and their children’s children.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way on an important educational and historical issue. The first world war is important in Northern Ireland. The 36th (Ulster) Division suffered and gave greatly at the battle of the Somme. In Northern Ireland, we have tried to bring both communities together on the back of the story about the battle of the Somme. There were Ulster divisions, but there were also Irish divisions that died and fought together in the first world war. It is a good historical issue.

The Bowtown community group in Newtownards try to educate young people on the estate about the importance of the first world war and to bring together other communities, so that nationalists and Unionists can look at what happened in the first world war together.

Paul Maynard: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s observation is replicated in all our constituencies, up and down the country. Everywhere we look, we can find examples where we utilise world war one as a means of communicating across generations.

It would be naive of me to pretend that the Canadian model is cost-free. As we approach the Budget, cost considerations become all the more important. The cost of the Canadian scheme is roughly £400,000 per annum, of which about three fifths are salaries for the guides. University students are subsidised for four-month stays at the two sites. The Canadian Government own accommodation in Arras where students can lodge, and air fares are refunded on the successful completion of the course. The Veterans Minister, Steven Blaney, wrote to me:

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“Without a doubt, the student guides’ enthusiasm serves as an inspiration to the many school and other tour groups that visit Vimy and Beaumont-Hamel each year, as well as to their peers when they return to Canada.”

That is an angle that I have not yet touched on. Once someone has served the four-month internship, they can return home and spread the message of what they have done. That is doubly welcome.

We have an eminently sensible opportunity to build on what the Government are already doing with the National Citizen Service—a chance to recruit young people who are between A-level and university or other employment to spend a set period of time at one of the major memorials to the missing, to welcome visitors, explain the facilities and the opportunities available and to try to connect each visitor with their own experience of what they are about to see. What connects them to the location?

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): One of the key things that young people notice when they go to such cemeteries is the age of the people slumbering beneath the earth. That has a dramatic impact on them, especially when they consider that often they are older than the poor fellow beneath the ground.

Paul Maynard: It is fair to say that before people visit one of the sites, they never quite know what their response will be. Many young people are often surprised by what they discover there and even by what they discover in themselves. They are emotional visits, and they should be.

It is essential that we do all we can to maintain the golden thread of remembrance. We have now reached the point when the last living veteran of world war one is no longer with us. He passed away last year.

Bob Stewart: In this country.

Paul Maynard: Indeed. In not so many years’ time, that will also be true of the second world war. We do not want to reach the stage when we have forgotten our past. I want places such as Thiepval to have as important a part in our national story as Gallipoli and Vimy do in other countries’ national stories.

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I am hugely impressed by my hon. Friend’s speech and the points he is making. Does he agree that as well as encouraging people to see those sites overseas, we should celebrate the heritage connected with the first world war in our towns and cities? For instance, Gheluvelt park in Worcester commemorates the battle in which the Worcestershire Regiment stopped the German advance and achieved great success. We should ensure that we engage young people in understanding the relevance today of the monuments that exist in towns and cities throughout the country.

Paul Maynard: I entirely take the point made by my hon. Friend, who has pre-empted my final comments. Every time I return to my constituency, I get off at Preston station, and I tend to get out of the carriage in front of the waiting room, above which is a plaque to the Pals, because that is where the feeding station was during world war one. Every time I get off the train, I am confronted by that memorial.

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The biggest issue in the first few weeks after I was elected was the desecration of the cenotaph in Blackpool. That got me interested in the protection of war memorials, and in ensuring that they have better statutory protection. A common theme in all our constituencies is that how we commemorate and how we remember matters.

I hope that the Minister will take away my ideas. I believe that he already has a hard copy of my letter from Canada, which I hope he will consider. It may be too soon to do it in time for 2014, but I hope that in years to come we can make progress towards better involving our young people in meeting and greeting at those important sites.

4.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): I am grateful to you, Sir Alan, for the chance to participate under your chairmanship, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for securing this important debate. It gives me an opportunity not only to debate his ideas but to set out some of the Government’s plans for the commemoration of the anniversary of world war one—the great war.

I commend the contributions made during this short debate by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Worcester (Mr Walker). For the record, I also note the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). He was appointed as the Prime Minister’s special envoy to oversee the commemoration of world war one, a role that he continues to hold despite being elevated to being a Defence Minister. I shall set out that role in detail later.

It goes without saying that the first world war was a period of almost unparalleled importance in our country’s history, and the Government are therefore committed to commemorating its centenary appropriately. The scale of the figures that we have to contend with is overwhelming. I do not think that I can match the poetry of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. Certainly, 16.5 million deaths, both military and civilian, are directly attributable to the conflict, including those of 1.25 million people from the British empire, colonies and dominions alone.

It is appropriate that remembrance—both of those who died and, of course, those who returned with physical and mental scars—should lie at the heart of our plans. However, to pick up on my hon. Friend’s theme, it is also important to secure an enduring legacy from the centenary commemorations, so youth and education must be absolutely at the heart of everything that we do.

My hon. Friend was kind enough to congratulate the Prime Minister on his work to ensure that we have the resources to create an appropriate commemoration. As he will know, last October, the Prime Minister announced a £53 million programme of funded activity, including not only national commemorations to mark the key events of the war but measures specifically designed to engage young people.

In particular, the Government are providing £5.3 million to offer every maintained secondary school in England the opportunity to send a teacher and two pupils to a

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first world war battlefield. A key objective of the project is to improve teachers’ understanding of the war and to deliver more effective lessons and future battlefield tours. Pupils will develop a deeper understanding of the causes and consequences of world war one and its impact on people’s lives.

I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester about the local impact of the great war on individual areas. It is vital that our students can learn the stories of people from their local area who were involved in the war and establish related projects and events in their schools and communities.

It is important to say that the £5.3 million will effectively establish a bridgehead. We want to engage teachers in an understanding of the battlefields, and to have two pupils who might become ambassadors in their secondary school community. We certainly hope that schools will use that as a jumping-off point for sending more of their pupils on battlefield tours, which are important. I hope that the message goes out that Government assistance is available, but we certainly do not expect schools necessarily to limit their engagement with battlefield tours only to the teacher and two pupils who will benefit from the direct assistance.

The second important element of the £53 million is the £35 million project to refurbish the Imperial War museum’s first world war galleries. They will obviously provide a huge and highly visible centrepiece to the Government’s programme of commemoration, benefiting adults and students alike. The new galleries are set to open next year; getting them ready has involved closing the museum for some six months.

The Imperial War museum will lie at the heart of a range of activities across the UK. It has put together a centenary partnership that involves 900 members across 25 countries and will bring together a programme of cultural events and activities. It will use technology and digital platforms to enable millions of people across the world to benefit from the museum’s information and vast expertise, and to discover more about life in the first world war.

Bob Stewart: I thank the Minister and you, Sir Alan, for letting me intervene again. Is it possible for the Imperial War museum to put together a pack for schools—the Minister mentioned maintained schools—so that they could pre-brief or post-brief their classes about such visits?

Mr Vaizey: I understand that digital tools will certainly be available to all secondary schools. They will be able to visit a website to understand what the opportunities are for battlefield tours. When invitations for the battlefield tours programme go out to schools, they will obviously be accompanied by appropriate material showing schools how to take advantage of it. It is important to have a digital portal to support schools in engaging not only with battlefield tours, but with a whole range of potential activities commemorating the first world war.

Jim Shannon: I thank the Minister for his positive response. As a Northern Ireland representative, I am keen to see everyone in the United Kingdom involved in the scheme. The Minister mentioned partnerships. Through the scheme, will it be possible to have a partnership arrangement between a school in Northern Ireland and

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one in the Republic of Ireland, so that we can take advantage of building on relationships that clearly exist through service in the Ulster and Irish Divisions?

Mr Vaizey: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. It gives me the chance to mention the fact that the Government recognise the enormous contribution to the allied cause of more than 200,000 service people from all parts of Ireland during the first world war. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Administrations in Belfast and Dublin are working together to commemorate a decade of anniversaries, which will run from 2012 to 2022, to cover not only the first world war but events subsequent to that including the partition of Ireland. It goes without saying that there are political sensitivities involved, so I hope that all Members will welcome the positive approach.

While we are on the subject of Northern Ireland, I should also say that the Northern Ireland Executive has welcomed the National Heritage Memorial Fund’s award of almost £1 million to restore HMS Caroline, which is the last surviving warship of the battle of Jutland and was decommissioned at the headquarters of the Ulster division of the Royal Naval Reserve on 31 March 2012. It has been berthed in Belfast since 1924.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and the important point about the tone of the debate is that although our plans for the commemoration of the first world war are well advanced, it goes without saying that we welcome contributions and proposals from all Members who are well versed in the ways and wishes of their community. For the record, I note his proposal of potentially twinning schools across the border in Northern Ireland and Ireland to take advantage of the opportunity to commemorate world war one.

I should of course say, in relation to the partnership put together by the Imperial War museum, that universities, colleges and schools are members of the partnership. The Imperial War museum already has excellent education resources aimed at supporting the national curriculum. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is also a key programme partner, and provides a range of impressive educational resources to support the learning of young people. There is also the Heritage Lottery Fund’s £6 million grants programme, which will encourage young people to learn more about their local first world war heritage. That goes to one of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, which is that the Heritage Lottery Fund will encourage applications that show that young people will benefit from a grant in order to learn about the history of their local community and its involvement in the great war.

The HLF has also been supporting for some time an open grants programme for first world war themed projects, and more than £10 million has been allocated to it. It goes without saying that many of those programmes involve children or young people. The Government, therefore, are leading the nation in appropriate commemoration. They are supporting the participation of local communities and interests, with a particular focus on young people.

It is entirely appropriate that the theme of youth is central to our plans given that people as young as 18 could enlist in Britain’s military for service in the great war. There is plenty of evidence that people even younger than that served, including Jack “Boy” Cornwell, whose

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actions at Jutland at the tender age of 16 and a half years were recognised with a posthumous Victoria Cross. Again, it is important to stress that the first world war involved many more than those just fighting at the front. There was of course the home front—the young women and children who contributed to the war effort in factories and on the land.

Civilians were also in the firing line, whether from bombardments from the sea or from air raids. One of the less known but most poignant stories of the first world war concerns the bombing of North street school in London’s east end, resulting in the deaths of 18 children, nearly all of whom were under the age of seven.

Our key objective in the commemorations will be to provide younger people with a better understanding of the enormity of what happened between 1914 and 1918 to secure a legacy of remembrance for generations to come. We must not forget that this was a conflict that involved more than 30 countries across the world, and we are in contact at ministerial or official level with 22 Governments from countries that were on either side of the war, acknowledging that the loss and suffering recognised no national boundaries. I hope that there might be opportunities for closer international understanding, particularly among younger people.

The Government are working hard to deliver and support a commemoration that is wide in its focus, inclusive in its nature and appropriate for an event of almost unparalleled importance. We will shortly be announcing our plans for the opening day of the centenary on 4 August 2014, and it will reflect our themes of remembrance and youth and education. There will be a number of announcements thereafter as our plans unfold. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire sit on

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a Committee that meets regularly to take forward the proposals. A range of stakeholders take part, including organisations involved in commemorating the first world war and some of our most distinguished historians. We are committed to ensuring that we keep the House fully informed as our plans develop.

It is telling that the Imperial War museum’s conception was during, not after, the first world war. At the museum’s opening in 1920, Sir Alfred Mond described it as

“not a monument of military glory, but a record of toil and sacrifice.”

I can think of no better words to guide our work today in both staging a fitting commemoration and creating a legacy for the future.

In conclusion, I welcome the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. In looking at the Canadian scheme, he recognised that there was an opportunity to involve young people in commemorating the first world war. Whether we take the Canadian scheme lock, stock and barrel or just take the sentiments that he expressed in his support for the Canadian scheme remains to be seen. Although our plans are well advanced and we have certain fixed proposals that we are ready to take forward to ensure an appropriate commemoration and support the education and involvement of young people, the door is always open. We are committed not only to informing the House but to hearing from hon. Members about their thoughts and proposals for commemorating the great war and to seeing whether we have an opportunity to take them forward.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Thank you, Minister. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on his contribution, particularly his reference to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We are all very grateful in that respect.

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Managed Motorway Scheme (South Yorkshire)

4.27 pm

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I am pleased to have secured today’s debate on the managed motorway scheme consultation for the M1, between junctions 32 and 35a. The consultation that could have such fundamental consequences for the safety of motorists on this section of the M1 was just eight weeks long over the Christmas period.

The Highways Agency’s proposals recommend the implementation of variable mandatory speed limits between junctions 32 to 35a, which is a section of motorway around the city of Sheffield. The section carries around 110,000 vehicles per day, and is congested during the weekday morning and evening peak hours and, like all roads, at other times.

The consultation document recommends that variable speed limits should be set in response to traffic conditions, automatically calculated from sensors buried in the road. Speed limits would be displayed on the motorway indicator signs above lanes, mounted on existing overhead gantries, and on additional verge-mounted signs. Where no speed limit is displayed, the national speed limit would be in force. However, the proposals, unlike other managed motorway schemes, include the use of the hard shoulder 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Emergency refuge areas would be created at intervals of a maximum of 2,500 metres, and would include emergency telephones. All other telephones would be removed from the hard shoulder, as it would in effect become a permanent fourth lane.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, as I wanted to have the opportunity to intervene on the issue of refuge areas. I note that the Highways Agency website refers to the emergency refuge areas that will be in operation, saying that they will provide

“an area of relative safety”.

Is she satisfied with the concept of “relative safety”, and does she hope that the Minister, in his response to the debate, will define what that means?

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend makes an important point about “relative safety”. There are lots of concerns about “relative safety”. Having driven down the M1 on Sunday and having looked at refuge areas in other managed motorway areas, it concerns me that “relative safety” is not equivalent to the kind of safety that we expect for people on the edge of motorways.

The consultation document suggests that the benefits would lead to an increase in motorway capacity and reduced congestion; smoother traffic flows; more reliable journey times; an increase and improvement to the quality of information for the driver; and lower costs and less environmental impact than conventional widening programmes. In effect, the Highways Agency is suggesting that this proposal is the best solution to add capacity to the existing strategic road network. It claims that these benefits can only be achieved by the use of variable mandatory speed limits and the use of the hard shoulder as an additional lane 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I do not agree with all the recommendations, and I

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challenge some of the argumentation set out in the proposals. Worryingly, there is no objective to increase road safety on this section of the motorway, which I would have thought should have been a priority.

Managed motorway schemes have been introduced elsewhere, notably on the M6 and M42. As I said earlier, schemes on those motorways differ from the proposals for the section of the M1 that I am discussing. Other schemes have only been introduced at peak flow times—weekday morning and evening rush hours—and with the overhead gantries spaced at 500 metres. The hard shoulder then reverts to just that—a hard shoulder—when congestion is not an issue. Evidence suggests that the introduction of a managed motorway scheme on those motorways has indeed led to a reduction in congestion and an improvement in traffic flows, resulting in fewer accidents and more reliable journey times.

In response to a parliamentary question that I asked, the Minister said:

“The safety risk analysis of all lanes…of the M42… showed that the average number of personal injury accidents reduced from 5.08 per month…to 2.25 per month following the introduction of hard shoulder running.”—[Official Report, 14 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 846W.]

That is a statistic for which the Highways Agency should be applauded, but my concern is about the very different proposals for the M1. The two schemes are not directly comparable and it is misleading to suggest, both in the consultation documents and in the reply to my parliamentary question, that they are. What is different, and what has not been taken fully into account, is the issue of hard shoulder running for 24 hours, seven days a week. I am particularly concerned that this part of the proposal, if it is adopted, would have a detrimental impact on safety and the ability of the emergency services to respond to major incidents.

It is in non-peak times that accidents are most likely to occur, a situation that could potentially be aggravated by poor visibility. The detection of a stranded vehicle would be very difficult unless CCTV cameras are constantly monitored, and as I understand it the electronic detection system will only activate when traffic slows and therefore it would do little to warn approaching drivers.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. I think that she is aware that I have written to the chief constable of South Yorkshire police, David Crompton, about these matters. In his reply, he says:

“Of main concern to the partnership”—

the South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership—

“is the anticipated 200% increase in risk of having stationary vehicles in live lanes, which by its very nature may result in collisions.”

That is a very different situation from the one on the M42 that she has just referred to.

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If a vehicle broke down where a refuge could not be reached, its occupants would have to exit the vehicle in a live lane, which would be an increased risk to them—as the chief constable said, an increased risk of “200%”—as well as endangering other drivers, who might hit the stationary vehicle. Information provided to the South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership indicates that, while the Highways Agency predicts an overall decrease in

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risk, certain risks will increase significantly, as my hon. Friend has outlined, including the risk of a collision with a vehicle that has stopped in a running lane outside of peak periods. That risk would be further increased by the volume of lorries, which are often driven by foreign drivers, that use this stretch of the M1 particularly at night, when the traffic is fast-moving and the lighting is turned off, as it now will be.

The proposals make much of verge-mounted speed enforcement equipment and traditional enforcement by the police to ensure that speed limits are not being exceeded. However, the roadside speed enforcement equipment that has been cited has not been approved by the Home Office. Also the traditional enforcement action by police of pulling over drivers on to the hard shoulder when they are in contravention of the law will be taken away, because there will not be any hard shoulder. This is already reflected in the enforcement strategy within the existing schemes in the west midlands, where different and more challenging methods of policing have had to be adopted, but only at peak times; at other times, which of course is the majority of the day and night, the police can revert to traditional enforcement methods.

Let me give the Minister some examples. The police chase a 16-year-old in a stolen car late at night. They manage that situation by forcing the car on to the hard shoulder. That will not be an option for them if these proposals are adopted. Similarly, in the case of an accident leaving debris on the road, the police use the hard shoulder to drive ahead and create a sterile area to protect other road users. That will not be an option for them if these proposals are adopted. Also, police chase suspects at high speed and the cars enter the motorway system. The police use the hard shoulder to intercept and contain the perpetrators, and to minimise danger to other road users. Once again, that will not be an option for them if these proposals are adopted.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): I was interested to hear the first example that the hon. Lady gave. Of course, South Yorkshire police is quite different from other police forces around the country. I am not sure whether she was saying that that was an incident that had happened on the motorway, or that South Yorkshire police—using a practice that is quite contrary to that of a lot of other police forces—actually sees the motorway as a device that it drives offenders on to, which is quite a different way of operating.

Meg Munn: I am not sure that the Minister understood what I said.

Stephen Hammond: I said that I was not sure whether the hon. Lady was saying that the offenders in the speeding car start on the motorway or that the police force them on to the motorway, which I understand is a practice prevalent in south Yorkshire.

Meg Munn: No, I am not talking about a situation in which the police are forcing a driver on to the motorway. I am saying that they can manage the situation of a stolen vehicle on the motorway, which is a dangerous

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situation, by using the hard shoulder. If the hard shoulder is being used for permanent running, that possibility is no longer available.

A major incident in south Yorkshire would require a response by fire and rescue services from all bordering areas. Emergency services use the hard shoulder to speed up response times. Again, that will not be an option for them if these proposals are adopted. Even normal operations to reinforce good driving would no longer be an option. I recently spent time with police officers who were specifically looking at the behaviour of lorry drivers, which included identifying one who was watching a DVD. With no hard shoulders, such routine operations could no longer take place and drivers’ bad habits would not be identified and prosecuted. Such operations have been normal practice, in order to improve driving on this motorway.

Stephen Hammond rose—

Meg Munn: The Minister will have a chance to respond to the debate later, so I will continue.

South Yorkshire police said publicly that if the proposals are adopted, they would cause fundamental operational difficulties, and it has gone on to say that the proposals could also cost lives. In addition, I am sure that the proposals will undoubtedly place a greater burden on hard-pressed police officers and other members of the emergency services.

South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership is a multi-agency partnership consisting of representatives of the south Yorkshire local authorities and the accident and emergency services, and it is chaired by the South Yorkshire police chief inspector responsible for roads policing. The partnership has welcomed the proposal to introduce hard shoulder running in peak flow time—the morning and evening rush hours. However, like me, the partnership is opposed to the suggestion of hard shoulder running 24 hours, seven days a week. This opposition is based primarily on safety grounds. The partnership contends that variable messaging for speed management purposes should use signs on the well understood and widely established gantry system, rather than using verge-mounted signs. Verge-mounted signs are not as visible; they are often obscured by high-sided vehicles in the slower lanes; and drivers have to take their eyes off the road ahead to view them. Gantries that are properly spaced are visible by drivers when they are looking straight ahead; therefore, they are easier to see at a glance, and importantly a glance ahead where any traffic or debris would still be visible. It agrees that the reinstatement of the hard shoulder outside peak flow times would also ensure that emergency services could use the motorway system more effectively to attend major incidents, and that safety would not be compromised by having no hard shoulder when traffic is light and fast moving, and when visibility is poor.

The proposals suggest that, where danger exists, red X signs would flash and a lane divert signal would be shown over a lane, but accidents can only be avoided if sufficient gantries are provided. Safety cannot be enhanced by the use of roadside signs, which are not as clearly, safely or instantly visible. Therefore the proposals will not be as effective or safe as having the hard shoulder available outside rush hours and using overhead gantries for messages.

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The safer roads partnership also disputes the passing reference to safety in the consultation documents, where it is claimed that this section of the M1 has a trend of increasing accidents and casualties. Its data suggest the opposite: in the past six years there has been a 25% reduction in collisions on this section of the Ml.

In this short debate I have not had time to go into other concerns in detail. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who wants to make a brief contribution, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who cannot attend, are particularly concerned about the impact on their constituents of increased noise and pollution, with nothing being offered by the Highways Agency to mitigate the effects.

I welcome the proposals to introduce a managed motorway scheme on the M1 in south Yorkshire during peak times, but only peak times, with proper regard to safety and signage delivered via overhead gantries. I cannot support proposals to have 24-hour, seven-days-a-week use of the hard shoulder. The adoption of the proposals will be the thin end of the wedge, and further schemes to use the hard shoulder permanently as a fourth lane will be forthcoming for all stretches of our motorway system. That will reduce road safety and have a detrimental impact on the police’s ability to uphold the law and on emergency services’ response times.

I suspect that the Minister’s reply will repeat much of the misleading and inaccurate information. I understand that he will not be able to respond immediately to all the issues I have raised today. I know he cares about road safety—he has recently been involved in campaigns about it—and will want to consider what I have said. I am asking him to go back to his officials and the Highways Agency and consider all this information carefully. I am asking him to recognise that it is highly unusual for the police to say, without good reason, that something will cost lives.

We need a proper managed motorway scheme built on facts, not one built on cutting corners, to be done on the cheap without regard to road safety.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): For the record, Mr Betts, I realise that you have the permission of the hon. Member who secured the debate, but do you have the permission of the Minister to make a speech, however brief?

Stephen Hammond indicated assent.

4.43 pm

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): I asked the Minister for permission beforehand, and I thank you, Sir Alan, for reminding me of that and for allowing me the opportunity to speak. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn).

First, I quoted the chief constable’s letter, which indicates that he is concerned that the Highways Agency’s proposals are constrained by budgetary matters. It would be a matter of concern if the safety of people on the M1 around Sheffield was put at risk because of budgetary constraints. We are looking for absolute assurances from the Minister that the scheme will not go ahead until the chief constable in particular and the South

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Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership in general are satisfied that there is no risk of a reduction in safety under the scheme.

Secondly, I think that the Minister is aware that I wrote to him about noise levels on the M1 in this area, particularly near Tinsley junior school, where on a hot summer’s day the windows cannot be opened because the noise from the motorway means that teachers cannot be heard by their pupils. That is unacceptable. The Minister said that he does not expect hard shoulder running to increase this problem. All I would say to him is that the problem is there anyway. I am looking for assurances that noise on the motorway, right next to Tinsley junior school, will be dealt with by the Government, irrespective of the hard shoulder running and particularly if the proposals go ahead.

Thirdly, and finally, the Minister is probably aware of a report by the Highways Agency and Sheffield city council about pollution levels around the M1 in the Tinsley area. Surveys of nitrogen dioxide levels, arrived at as a result of EU directives and translated appropriately into UK law, which were carried out in that area showed that in virtually every instance levels were 25% to 50% higher than the maximum allowed in 2010. Anything that worsens those levels should not happen. I say again to the Minister that we are looking not merely for assurances that the scheme he is proposing will not worsen those levels, but for assurances that action will be taken to deal with the unacceptable pollution that already exists in this area.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Before you proceed, Minister, it is not practice or acceptable for officials to pass notes to you. You have a Parliamentary Private Secretary and they should be present; that is their role. That is just a reminder for the future.

4.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): Thank you, Sir Alan. I will remember that for the future.

I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) for initiating the debate. I hope to address a lot of what she said. If there is anything that she thinks I have not dealt with, I am happy to write to her.

I was quite disappointed by the hon. Lady’s remarks at the end of her speech and by the remarks made by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). This is not about cutting corners; it has never been about that or about downturn in money. It has always been about ensuring that we get the most efficient and safest motorways. I hope that they see, from my remarks, including my responses to points that they made, that that is exactly where we started from.

Mr Betts: I made my comments in light of a response that I received from the chief constable, in which he raised the possibility that budget constraints were causing the scheme to be produced in such a way that safety could be put at risk. I wrote to the Secretary of State about that, enclosing the chief constable’s letter, so perhaps the Minister will have an opportunity to respond to that point in due course.

Stephen Hammond: It might have been helpful if the chief constable had spoken to the Highways Agency before making that remark, because substantial work

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has been done with the agency and the South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership subsequent to some of the information that was mentioned. It would have helped if that had happened, rather than that remark being bandied around.

The managed motorway design and operation is well established and is already successful on the M42 in Birmingham, which we spoke about, on the M6 between junctions 4 and 5, and in other places on the M6. The latest refinement to the design is called managed motorways, with all-lane running, and it builds on our experience of operating similar schemes over the past seven years.

The infrastructure growth review in November 2011 supported the move to the revised design, recognising that the congestion and safety benefits from previous experience could be brought into other schemes. The latest design is being applied to all future managed motorway schemes, not just the project on the M1. It is the first scheme subject to some things that I will mention. Construction will start this year and the first section is scheduled for operation in 2014.

Managed motorways are about supporting safer motorways and the economy, providing much-needed capacity on our busiest motorways. They bring benefits to road users in terms of reduced congestion and improved reliability on journey time; they support the local economy and, by improving the key link, they help move people and goods around, and give people better access not only to the things they want to do in their lives, but to jobs. By providing that additional capacity, we reduce congestion and smooth the flow of traffic, which can reduce the cost of delays.

A cost saving of between 40% and 60% is associated with managed motorway schemes, which goes towards some of the motorway widening schemes. We can build more of those and benefit far more people, right across the country. The scheme makes best use of the existing infrastructure, providing maximum value for money for the taxpayer.

We know that managed motorways work. They reduce congestion and improve journey times by using variable speed limits, by giving more road space to road users and by making the hard shoulder available as a traffic lane. There is evidence that the hard shoulder can be used as a traffic lane without worsening the safety experience. Although the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley is right to say that the hard shoulder is not used exclusively on the M42, there is plenty of experience of the safety aspects of using the hard shoulder as a traffic lane and very few vehicles have experienced the issues she outlined. Moreover, there is an improvement because a number of drivers found it difficult to switch from hard shoulder running to non-hard shoulder running.

Meg Munn: That goes to the heart of my point. It is easy to see why using the hard shoulder would reduce accidents when there is a lot of traffic, when people can see the car in front and when people are running at managed speeds. I entirely understand that, but only this afternoon, following all the publicity, I was contacted by someone—not one of my constituents—who was hit by a lorry on the hard shoulder. The problem is that

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vehicles will be going at faster speeds on all lanes, with nowhere to go, unless they happen to be by one of the refuges, which are very small.

We all know that we are advised not to get out of the car on to a live motorway lane, which is what is proposed—and at faster speeds. It is simply not good enough to replicate the peak-time experience, when there are a lot of vehicles, at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning or at 7 or 8 o’clock at night, when people are going much faster and cannot see far enough ahead to know whether there is a problem in one of the lanes.

Stephen Hammond: There is no evidence that that experience is often seen on the M42. I will look at that point again and consult officials on the experience of others, and I will write to the hon. Lady.

Variable speed limits do not only allow faster traffic flows; they allow the smoothing of traffic flows, thereby making journeys more reliable. Variable speed limits also allow the eradication of the stop-start effect, and smoothing means that traffic sometimes moves more regularly without the speed that the hon. Lady describes.

When the M42 pilot scheme was designed, the target was to ensure that there was no worsening of safety as a result of implementing the active traffic management pilot. There was a three-year safety report and trial on the M42, although I accept that the hon. Lady will want to point out that there are differences. The pilot showed considerable improvement in safety—accidents involving personal injury were reduced by some 55%—and that was with hard shoulder running. Overall, there was a reduction in the severity of accidents, with no fatalities and fewer serious injuries, so to suggest that a move to managed motorways, or indeed to hard shoulder running, necessarily represents a decline in safety is not shown by the evidence.

Paul Blomfield: Will the Minister respond to the point I made in my intervention? The Highways Agency’s website states that refuge areas provide “relative safety.” Relative to what? Are we not seeking maximum safety on our motorways, rather than making the sort of compromise implied even by the agency’s website?

Stephen Hammond: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. There are two ways of answering it. There can never be total safety. As to whether or not we describe refuge areas as being as safe as possible, let us not play with semantics. Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that anywhere on a working motorway is totally safe; even motorway service areas can never be totally safe. I am not sure that it would be right for the agency to say, “This is a totally safe area.” We can play around with that. If the hon. Gentleman does not like the words, we can look at the description, but if I were to suggest that the proposed refuge areas are totally safe, I am sure he would attack me because I cannot possibly give that guarantee. I understand his point, but I hope he agrees that it is sensible to indicate that even in the refuge areas there is an element of risk.

Paul Blomfield: I framed my comments in the context of remarks by Chief Inspector Stuart Walne, head of roads policing in South Yorkshire. He talked about fundamental operational difficulties and, as my hon.

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Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) said, about lives being at risk. The problem is that the scheme, as proposed, will be relatively less safe than the current arrangements.

Stephen Hammond: I am happy to be corrected, but my understanding is that the Highways Agency met South Yorkshire police in several workshops, the most recent being on 5 February. My understanding is that the police at senior level and the Safer Roads Partnership are no longer opposed to the proposal in principle, and they are now working with the agency to find ways of operation.

Meg Munn: I assure the Minister that my speech was prepared in discussions and it is up to date. The South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership and the police do not think the proposal is safe. The police are very professional; they say that if things come in, they will have to manage them, but they do not accept that the proposal is safe.

Stephen Hammond: The Highways Agency met both the police and the Safer Roads Partnership. The agency has demonstrated its safety rigour and experience, and it is now working on the operating principles. I will check again, but there is plenty of evidence from pilot schemes, safety records and the safety trial to suggest that the proposal will be as safe, if not safer, than the current system.

There are three managed motorway projects on the northern section of the M1 in south Yorkshire: between junctions 28 and 31; between junctions 32 and 35a; and between junctions 39 and 42. The managed motorway scheme between junctions 32 and 35a aims to do exactly what we have done with other managed motorway schemes

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—to reduce the frequently experienced congestion, to provide more reliable journey times and to ensure that the road remains as safe as it is now.

The work between junctions 32 and 35a will support and enhance the role of the M1 as a national and inter-urban transport artery. The estimated cost of works for the scheme is some £150 million. The scheme requires no additional land and is built entirely within the highway’s existing boundary. As a result, the scheme can be built more quickly than would be the case with conventional motorway widening. That means we can start to reap the benefits sooner. The scheme’s environmental impact is also minimised.

The hard shoulder between the junctions will be converted to a permanent traffic lane. We are currently undertaking a thorough assessment of the environmental impact of the proposals for the M1 in south Yorkshire. The assessment is nearing completion, and I am happy to share it with the hon. Members for Sheffield, Heeley, for Sheffield South East and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) when it is completed. The assessment will confirm whether the scheme will result in any perceptible change in noise or air quality levels. If additional mitigation is needed, it will be provided as part of the scheme. The environmental assessment is being undertaken in accordance with best practice guidelines, and it will be used to judge whether the scheme is detrimental in any way.

We know managed motorways work well and improve journey times. The evidence from a number of trials is that managed motorways are as safe, if not safer, than current motorways. I am convinced that the scheme will enable us to reduce congestion, thereby benefiting the people of south Yorkshire, earlier than had we carried out conventional motorway widening.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.