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The solution is not further regulation and more and more dense and expensive regulation. It would be expensive; if we were to have this system in place it would be horrendously expensive. The solution would be a change of approach from the Minister and the relevant government department to planning appeals of this nature. There may be a good legal reason why that has not arisen so far, but I have never particularly heard one. In matters such as this, colleagues who serve with me in local government and colleagues who have long since left local government all too often are not masters in their own house. There are good reasons for that too. One of the problems with this Bill is that it does nothing to change that situation anyway. The powers of the Minister and the powers of planning appeals are written into the system for very good reason, and there would be great difficulty in trying to change that.
Much as I sympathise with the ambition that the noble Lord, Lord Cotter, has expressed, on balance, my conclusion is that, great and good though his intentions are, what he is proposing would not achieve the results that he hopes. On that basis, I do not
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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cotter, on introducing the Bill this morning. It has certainly stimulated a valuable debate on a subject that clearly exercises many noble Lords. I have listened to a number of noble Lords this morning talking with great wisdom about the retail sector, and they all seem to have said the same thing in the end; that they do not go shopping with their wives. I warn noble Lords about this. There is a danger in setting those words out in Hansard. People do read them.
I listened carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Cotter, said, and I thought that he was overly gloomy in his analysis when he talked about the danger of us moving towards clone towns and ghost towns. I thought that was too dismal a general approach in introduction. Of course, I understand the principles behind the Bill, and the objective of attempting to revitalise our towns and city centres through retail is noble and one which, from listening to the contributions this morning, I think we all share. Of course, we need to do much more to revitalise our high street by encouraging more small retailers to open shops there and for those shops to be sustained. Clearly, the nervousness expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Cotter, has touched a raw nerve.
Although the noble Lord was well supported on the Liberal Democrat Benches, the debate was fairly wide-ranging and well balanced. For me, the noble Lord, Lord Cope, was right; he said that he supported the Bill until he read it. When he did so, he could not find a great deal to support. That in the end is the way that I will approach the issue. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, in his thoughtful reflections on the Bill, expressed great support for it and, again, as he went though his story, he, too, was concerned that we get the balance right. While he welcomed the Bill as a valuable tool for discussion, I suspect that he could see some of its flaws.
We had our Ooh la la moment, with the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, who told us about the wonders of French shopping and community life. Like him, I love France and its shops; but I live in a part of the world where booze cruising became a great thing for a short while, when friends of mine went over the water from Newhaven to Dieppe, hit the local hypermarket, cleaned it out and brought back all their drink and goodies. That of course did not do much for the small shops around Dieppe, but it probably did quite a lot for local trade in terms of bringing stuff back to their home town and having a good time with itand perhaps selling it on sometimes.
We need a broader and more corrective view. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, for his contribution because he made the important observation
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Let us come to the Bill. As the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, said, we must give smaller shops a fair chance to survive. Is this Bill the right way to do it? In the end, I shall conclude that it is not. Our local high streets and town centres are crucial to creating sustainable communities and as a Government we recognise the importance that small shops can make to the vitality, viability and character of our high streets, to communities and, more critically, to the national economy.
However, as I said, the Government do not consider that introducing additional legislation to promote small businesses, as is the intention of the Bill, is necessary or desirable. We have taken significant steps to strengthen the powers and incentives available to local authoritieswhich have a critical roleto promote their local areas. The main problem of the Bill is that in introducing a new central body such as the Office for Retail Planning, it will restrict and further undermine local decision-making processes and is contrary to the flavour, intent and general drift of our local government White Paper proposals to strengthen local leadership. The introduction of new-style retail development plans will not help further to streamline the planning system, which is contrary to the reforms that we set out in our White Paper, Planning for a Sustainable Future.
As I see it, there is no reason why local authorities cannot already develop local retail plans. I urge local authorities to get on and do it, because the good local authoritiesthose with strong and effective leadershipare doing exactly that through their planning processes. Do not undermine that planning process by imposing on top of that a centralising Office for Retail Planning. That would take powers away from the locality and put them in the wrong place. It is for local people to determine issues and to take a lead in shaping the local commercial environment. Of course the planning process has a part to play in that. It needs good leadership and effective local governance.
Small businesses already receive wide-ranging support from Business Link and financial sector small business advisers. We have also introduced small business relief for sole occupiers and the rural rate relief scheme enables local authorities to provide critical support for important institutions such as village shops. The level of small business relief given in 2006-07 was some £252 million. By the end of December 2006, some 392,000 hereditaments were reported by local authorities
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The Local Authority Business Growth Incentives scheme further incentivises the promotion of local business growth. We have enabled the creation of Business Improvement Districts, BIDs, which enable partnerships between local authorities and the local business communities to be set up and which provide a means to improve local high streets. I live in a city where one of those schemes has been adopted in the North Laine area; on the evidence in the past year or so, the extra improvement to the street scene and the extra security that has been provided through the buying in of street stewards, security staff and so on seem to be making a commendable difference to the feel of that area, which has very many small businesses in it. The rate of business reformation is very healthy in an area that is benefiting from the operation of BIDs.
We are making other reforms. Under our review of subnational economic development and regeneration we are looking further to strengthen the local authority role in economic development by introducing a statutory economic assessment duty on which we will be consulting further. We are also consulting on a draft new planning policy statement on sustainable economic development, PPS4, which, when finalised, will ask local authorities to plan more proactively for the needs of businesses, large and small. It is also important to recognise that the Local Government Act 2000 gives local authorities in England and Wales a wide-ranging power to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas. Ultimately, however, the structure of local businesses has to be a commercial decision for the proprietors, and central or local government do not have a remit to influence their ownership.
Our policy is to simplify publicly funded support for business, not complicate it further. We do not support a review of business rates as proposed in Part 1. We do not, therefore, believe that further legislation to support small retail premises, as envisaged in the Bill, should be introduced. We already have a well established planning system that provides a positive framework in which local authorities are required to plan for the needs of small and large businesses. Under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and the related regulations, local authorities are required to prepare statutory development plans for their areas. That includes plans to guide retail and town centre development.
Our policy in Planning Policy Statement 6: Planning for Town Centres asks local authorities to plan proactively for high streets and retail development by assessing the impact of development proposals and having proactive local policies that take account of the needs of all types of shops and town centre facilities. Our policy
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The policy also requires local authorities to assess the impact of their planning policies and to test the impact of unplanned proposals on town centres and retail premises, especially larger proposals such as superstores on the edge of or outside town centres. The noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, referred to one horror story in the Glasgow area; we could all come up with an example. Those things are probably more in the past than in the future, because the success of our policy over the past 10 yearsa policy that has been carried on across governmenthas led to a rebalancing in favour of city and town centres as opposed to out-of-town development.
Such impact assessments, where required, need to be prepared by a developer and submitted with a planning application. We therefore see no need for separate legislation which requires retail development plans to take into account the impact of different types and classes of development, as proposed in Part 3.
Perhaps here I should say a little more about our proposals to improve the effectiveness of PPS6, which we announced in the planning White Paper and on which we will shortly be consulting. It provides an opportunity further to strengthen the policy framework through three mechanisms. First, we propose a new impact test that allows local authorities more effectively to assess the impact of retail proposals outside town centres. Secondly, we will strengthen our policy which asks local authorities to plan proactively for their town centresin other words, to get a grip on what is going on and to think very carefully about what they do, so that they meet the needs of whole communities in partnership with retailers and other stakeholders. Finally, that policy approach will produce new guidance to assist local authorities and developers in the implementation of the town centre policy.
We also have a well established planning inspectorate whose experienced independent inspectors, who are appointed by the Secretary of State, routinely examine the soundness of emerging development plans and determine contentious planning applications in the context of our policies and the local circumstances. There is therefore no need for an Office for Retail Planning to oversee the preparation of local retail development plans, as set out in the Bill, or to intervene in planning applications for certain classes of retail development, as proposed. We do not see the need for the creation of an additional layer of regulation and bureaucracy in the form of an independent Office for Retail Planning to oversee the preparation of new retail development plans.
It is also important to recognise that there are limitations on the scope of the planning system to consider issues such as competition, as proposed
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However, as we said in the planning White Paper, we will look to ensure that our policy improvements to PPS6 will promote competition and consumer choice and that we do not unduly or disproportionately constrain the market. In addressing those issues, we have said that we will take into account the final conclusions of the Competition Commission grocery inquiry, to which several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Cope, referred. The Competition Commission has just published its provisional remedies, which we generally welcome, but we need to bear in mind that its proposals are not yet final. We will need to think very carefully about what the proposed introduction of a competition test into the planning system would mean for businesses, local authorities, consumers and communities before we finalise our consideration on those issues, but it is a welcome proposition and one which should stimulate further debate.
In closing, although we recognise the need to support small retail premises, it is important to recognise that we already have a well established legislative and policy framework to enable the needs of the retail sector and small businesses to be addressed. We are also bringing forward further initiatives to help in planning for and offering support to retail development. Therefore, ultimately, we argue that the introduction of further legislation, as set out in the Bill, would not be in the interests of further devolving powers to a local level and incentivising local authorities to take the firm action we believe that they need to take, to reflect on local needs and to stimulate local business. It would put additional burdens on local authorities and would not help further to streamline what is sometimes an overly bureaucratic planning system. For those reasons, we cannot support the Bill.
I think that I have covered most of the points that noble Lords have raised. I am conscious that there is the important and heady business of considering Lords reform to come. For those reasons, much as I have enjoyed and welcome this debate, it is probably only right that I leave it there and thank the noble Lord, Lord Cotter, for the precise and courteous way in which he introduced his thoughtful Bill.
Lord Cotter: My Lords, I thank the Minister for attending. Of course there is important business to followreform of the House of Lordsalthough I submit that a lot of people out there are also very concerned about the issue that I have raised today. I appreciate seeing the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, here, who I know has a great interest in the retail field. I certainly hope to use some of his experience in future when we proceed on this issue.
I guess that if I had produced a Bill of warm words and hopeful aspirations today, it would have been fantastic. Everyone would have stood up and said this is great, wonderful, excellently good, or whatever and we would all have gone away with a glow and been
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I was very pleased when the noble Lord, Lord Cope, started to speak. I welcomed his support, with his distinguished experience in the business field. Then, of course, my heart dropped. I could probably do without that sort of support. He went on to a detailed discussion of all aspects of the Bill, trying to destroy many of my implementation measures. I take, for example, his talk about the Bill bullying local councils. For God's sake, it is the big four and the powerful people who bully local councils. The Bills intention is not to bully local councils; it is to give them power to ensure that they are not bullied in future. If local councils mean anythingand they certainly do on these Benchesthey are there to represent the people of this country and they must be strengthened in that representation. In that respect, I would say that people are right to raise those concerns, but the fact is that if you have a detailed Bill of this nature, there will be issues that people will take up. Without detail and some muscle, nothing will change.
I also refer the Minister and others to Clause 13, in Part 2, which is a whole page on the duties to review regulatory burdens. We have written this into the Bill. It is quite a lengthy part of the Bill, but it is important that there is at the very basis of the Bill a duty to review and to ensure that no burden is put on to other people. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, in particular talked about the points that needed to be addressed and about the need not to place burdens.
It was much appreciated that the Minister spoke in detail about what I propose, but I take issue with him about rates. It is very easy, as we all know, to come up with statistics, total them all up and say that so many millions are spent here, there and everywhere. I ask the Minister to say, I agree that small shops appreciate what is being done, but not enough is being done, because the issue is the proportionate amount that small shops pay against the very big businesses. I am sorry, am I running over time? In that case, I shall try to speed up so that I save something for Committee. I thank my noble friend Lord McNally and others for what they have said, and I thank my noble friend Lord Dykes, who supported my view that we should look elsewhere and should be concerned not simply to talk about competition but to address the detailed issues.
Given the time left, noble Lords will be denied the slightly light hearted comment that I was going to make. In fact, may I have a moment to say that I have a great task in front of me in promoting this Bill? This morning before I came to the Chamber, I had my Force wheat flakes. For those who do not know, Force wheat flakes were the first manufactured breakfast cereal, introduced into the UK in 1902. I have not exactly been eating them ever since, but I have been eating them ever since my childhood. Some will know of the iconic Sunny Jim, who was probably one of the first marketing characters. He is still going strong, and his slogan is:
Clearly by having only one bowl of Force cereal this morning, I have not quite overcome the fence, but I hope that, by taking a few in the future, I can renew my efforts and go forward with the urgent need to address this issue.
It might be useful to explain first why this Bill is being reintroduced when the Bill of my noble friend Lord Steel, of which it is a subset, had its Second Reading and first day in Committee just over a month ago. My noble friends Bill has attracted a large number of amendments, and it seems unlikely that the time needed to dispose of them will be available. My Bill is concerned with only one issue: the by-elections for maintaining the number of hereditary Peers at 92, as provided for in the Weatherill amendment of 1999. None of the existing hereditary Peers would be displaced by the Bill, nor would the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain be affected by it, and the hope was that such a modest and uncontentious reform would be readily accepted and would attract only a very short Committee stage. However, if any noble Lord was determined to oppose it, purely on the grounds that the Weatherill scheme was binding on us until the second stage of comprehensive reform, they would find that it is not susceptible to the wide range of amendments that have been tabled to my noble friends Bill. I am advised that its strictly limited purposes restrict the scope of amendments to the situation of the hereditaries, and would not allow for debates on the many other issues raised in the 200 or so amendments to my noble friends Bill.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that what he has just said is not my view. This is a Bill to amend the House of Lords Act 1999. Therefore, any amendment in Committee that amended that Act would be wholly in order.
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