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Written Statements

Volume 403: debated on Thursday 10 April 2003

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Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 10 April 2003

Deputy Prime Minister

Building Regulations (Electrical Safety)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Mr. Christopher Leslie)

We published a consultation on 21 May 2002 on proposals to introduce into the Building Regulations 2000 new electrical safety requirements for dwellings. We have taken this course because of concerns about increasing risks of electrical accidents in the home. This is coupled with the apparent absence of voluntary controls or legislation that effectively reaches much domestic electrical installation work. Although it will be some time yet before the analysis of the response to the consultation can be completed, and final decisions on whether amendments to the Regulations can be made, I am pleased to say that preliminary analysis indicates our proposals have broad support and the signs suggest that positive progress may be possible.The consultation document contained a draft. Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA) and a proposed new Approved Document (AD) giving guidance on how a safety requirement could be met. The draft RIA made it clear that the proposals would probably be too costly without a new system of competent electrical firms able to self-certify their work, and the AD included guidance on the circumstances when self-certification (and the avoidance of much of the regulatory burden) would be appropriate. Consultees strongly agree that self-certification is a vital component and I therefore encourage those who are already working to develop a national competent firms system to press ahead.There are technical, administrative and commercial issues to resolve, no doubt. But I hope this early statement helps to stiffen industry's resolve to complete the task of bringing large numbers of electrical firms into a satisfactory system sooner rather than later. In the meantime the analysis of the consultation response will continue, including a careful review of the arguments in the RIA. The decision on whether or not to introduce the proposed requirements will depend on the final RIA and the prospect of a viable self-certification system, in place ready for implementation, will be one of the key factors influencing this.

Town Centre Planning

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Mr. Tony McNulty)

The Government's planning policy on town centres is set out in:

Planning Policy Guidance Note 6 (PPG6): Town Centres and Retail Developments (June 1996);
the Parliamentary Answers given by the then Planning Ministers, Nick Raynsford on 5 December 1997 and Richard Caborn on 11 February 1999 (the Caborn statement), together with Mr Caborn's contribution to a debate in the House of Commons on 11 March 1999;
the Government Responses to Select Committees in July 1997 and May 2000;
PPG11: Regional Planning (October 2000); and
PPG13: Transport (March 2001).
The policy has operated successfully since 1996 but there is increasing evidence of differences in interpretation. This statement sets out the policy and how the First Secretary of State intends to operate it when determining planning applications and appeals. He expects local planning authorities to apply the same policy when determining planning applications.POLICY TESTSThe purpose of the policy is to sustain and enhance the vitality and viability of town and other existing centres by focusing retail, leisure and other key town centre uses which attract a lot of people within those centres. PPG6 emphasises the plan-led approach to promoting development in town centres, both through plan policies and the identification of locations and sites for development. It sets out a number of tests that must be satisfied if applications to develop retail or leisure facilities are to be successful. The Caborn statement further clarified the application of the test of need and the sequential approach as applying to proposals to develop at edge of centre or out of centre locations which are not in accordance with an up to date development plan strategy that is itself consistent with PPG6.In summary, applicants must:

demonstrate that there is a need for the development;

having established that such a need exists, adopt a sequential approach to site selection;

consider the impact on nearby centres; and

provide evidence on the site's accessibility by a choice of means of transport, as demonstrated by a transport assessment (see PPG 13), the likely changes in travel patterns over the relevant catchment area, and any significant environmental impacts.

All these tests apply equally to proposals for extensions as well as to new developments.

NEED

Proposals which would be located at an edge of centre or out of centre location and which:

are not in accordance with an up to date development plan strategy; or
are in accordance with the development plan but that plan is out of date, is inconsistent with national planning policy guidance, or otherwise fails to establish adequately the need for new retail and leisure development and other development to which PPG6 applies,

should be required to demonstrate both a retail need for additional facilities and that a sequential approach has been applied in selecting the location for the site.

Some applicants have sought to make a distinction between quantitative and qualitative need for new retail facilities. PPG6 does not make this distinction although evidence on both has frequently been presented at planning inquiries. The First Secretary of State accepts that need can be expressed in quantitative and qualitative terms but considers that evidence presented on need is becoming increasingly and unnecessarily complicated. He therefore places greater weight on quantitative need for new retail provision to be defined in terms of additional floorspace for the types of retail development distinguished in PPG6, which are comparison and convenience shopping. Where both comparison and convenience goods are proposed to be sold within the same development, the First Secretary of State will expect to have evidence on the need for each type of goods.

Regeneration has also been argued to be a component of the need for additional retail floorspace. There is no Government guidance that supports this interpretation. The First Secretary of State considers that the contribution that a proposed development might make to the regeneration of a site or its area could be a material consideration to be taken into account in determining an application, but does not consider it to be an aspect of retail need.

Equally, the net additional employment created by a proposed development is not an indicator of retail need but may be a material consideration.

For the avoidance of doubt, the First Secretary of State does not regard regeneration or employment creation as aspects of retail need for the purposes of the tests set out in PPG6 and the Caborn statement.

The principles outlined above apply also to leisure uses.

SEQUENTIAL APPROACH

PPG6 seeks to promote sustainable development by locating major generators of travel in existing centres, where access by a choice of means of transport, not only by car, is easy and convenient.

PPG6 requires a sequential approach to be adopted in selecting sites for new development. Both local planning authorities and developers should be able to demonstrate that all town centre options have been thoroughly assessed before less central sites are considered for development for key town centre uses. This means that the first preference should be for town centre sites, followed by edge of centre sites and only then out of centre sites in locations that are accessible by a choice of means of transport.

In providing evidence that they have complied with this guidance, applicants must demonstrate flexibility and realism in terms of the format, design and scale of their development, and the amount of car parking, tailoring these to fit local circumstances.

The First Secretary of State will follow the approach set out in the Government's Response to the Environment Select Committee in 2000. Where a class of goods is capable of being sold from a town centre location, that is the preferred location for the retail development and he will expect to see flexibility in the scale and format of a proposed development to meet that objective. A retailing format that can only be provided at an out of town location is not regarded as meeting the requirements of this policy.

The First Secretary of State does not consider that developers and retailers always take sufficient account of this element of planning policy and further considers that this is potentially undermining the Government's objectives for town centres and their policies to achieve development that makes efficient and sustainable use of land and reduces social exclusion. He will look for evidence of, for example, more efficient design and layout, greater use of multi-storey developments, more efficient car parking provision, mixed-use development and opportunities for home delivery services. Where development consists of defined elements, such as a retail warehouse park or a grouping of retail or leisure uses, the First Secretary of State expects developers and retailers to consider the degree to which constituent parts of the development could be accommodated on more central sites.

In applying the sequential approach, the relevant centres in which to search for sites will depend on the nature and scale of the proposed development and the catchment that the development seeks to serve, as set out in the Caborn statement. The scale of such proposals should also be appropriately related to the centre and catchment that the development seeks to serve. The First Secretary of State therefore wishes to make it clear that development that would serve a wide catchment should be located in a centre that serves a similar catchment area.

BULKY GOODS

PPG6 recognises that some types of retailing, such as large stores selling bulky goods, may not be able to find suitable sites either in or on the edge of town centres. The First Secretary of State considers that it rests with developers and retailers to demonstrate that a majority of their goods cannot be sold from town centre stores. He does not consider that developments involving the sale of bulky goods are exempted from meeting the policy tests in PPG6 and subsequent clarifications.

REVISED PPG6

The First Secretary of State will be issuing revised planning policy guidance for town centres and retail developments for consultation in due course.

Treasury

Inland Revenue Approved Schemes (Armed Forces Reservists)

The Inland Revenue will publish shortly an Extra Statutory Concession (ESC) to enable Armed Forces Reservists called up for active service in connection with the current conflict and who participate in their civilian employer's Inland Revenue approved share scheme, to continue to do so during their period of active service.The ESC will ensure as far as practicable that Reservists who are members of such schemes continue to benefit from the tax and National Insurance Contributions advantages such schemes offer.

The ESC will be retrospective back to 7th January 2003, the date the first call up order was issued by the Secretary of State for Defence and will be followed up with legislation in next year's Finance Bill (2004).

Home Department

Animal Procedures Committee

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Bob Ainsworth)

I have appointed two new members to the Animal Procedures Committee. Mr. Graham Moore was appointed from 1 December 2002. He is a veterinarian, who recently retired from Pfizer UK where he was Director of Animal Welfare. Professor Dawn Oliver was appointed from 1 March 2003. She is a barrister and Professor of Constitutional Law at University College London. Each member has been appointed for a four-year term. I am grateful to both for accepting membership of this important committee.

Home Detention Curfew Scheme

I am today announcing a change to the Home Detention Curfew (HDC) Scheme that will provide earlier resettlement opportunities for lower risk offenders and help to deal with the pressures on the prison population.I have tabled a draft Order under Section34A(6) of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (as amended) to change the "requisite period" that a prisoner must spend in custody before becoming eligible for HDC. This will mean that the maximum period a prisoner may spend on HDC will rise from the present three months to four and a half months, according to sentence length. Since all prisoners must spend at least 25 per cent. of their sentence in custody, this will mean no change in the maximum curfew length for prisoners serving between three months and under 12 months. Prisoners serving 18 months and over will be eligible for the maximum four and a half month curfew period. Prisoners serving four years or more are not eligible for HDC. The Order will come into force on 14 July 2003.Eligible prisoners who are assessed as suitable for HDC, and who have not already been released by the time the Order comes into force, will be released in phases between 14 July and the end of August if their new HDC, eligibility dates fall prior to 1 September 2003.It is extremely important to maintain public confidence in the HDC Scheme. So, at the same time as increasing the maximum curfew period, I will set a presumption that prisoners convicted of certain serious offences will not be suitable for release unless exceptional circumstances exist. Offences involving the death of the victim, attempted murder or threats to kill, serious offences involving the possession of firearms or offensive weapons, child cruelty, and all racially aggravated offences will be subject to this presumption. This will also apply to prisoners convicted of any sexual offence who are not already statutorily barred from HDC. As at present, Governors will only release prisoners on HDC if they pass a risk assessment and following a satisfactory home circumstances report. Public safety is of paramount importance and offenders will be released on HDC only where it is safe to do so.Under the HDC scheme prisoners serve the remainder of their custody period at home under electronic curfew usually from 7pm to 7am. The scheme provides prisoners with a smoother and more effective re-integration into the community, enabling prisoners to be released from prison early, while remaining subject to significant restrictions on their liberty.At any one time this measure will increase the number of prisoners serving the latter part of their sentence on an electronic tag by up to 1,000 prisoners. No further changes to the scheme are planned but, as always, the scheme will be kept under close review.

Transport

Maritime And Coastguard Agency Business Plan 2003–04

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency's Business Plan 2003–04 and Forward Look is published today and copies have been placed in the Libraries of the House. The key targets of the Plan are:

In at least 96 per cent. of incidents, take a decision on the appropriate search and rescue (SAR) response to accidents and life threatening situations and initiate action if necessary within five minutes of being alerted;
Deliver at least 97 per cent. of planned ship inspections using a risk based approach;
Ensure that at least 5 per cent. of available Coastguard time is spent on prevention activity;
Introduce initial on-line services for customers;
Introduce a national regime for inland waterways vessel standards and boatmasters' licences.

Defence

Free Postal Service (Armed Forces)

The Ministry of Defence, with the generous support of the Royal Mail Group, plans to introduce a free postal service to Armed Forces personnel currently serving in the Gulf.From Thursday 17 April, families will be able to post letters and packets of up to 2 kilograms in weight free of charge to BFPO addresses in the Gulf. Priority will be given to the delivery of letters, 'Blueys' and 'e-Blueys', which are the primary means of communication for families. Packets will be delivered to the troops as soon as is practicable depending on the operational situation.This service is designed for close family and friends. Packets can only be accepted addressed to named individual Service personnel. We would urge families to limit the number of packets they send so that the system works for everybody and does not become overloaded. Those who wish to show more general support to the Armed Forces serving in the Gulf should not use the system and we would encourage them instead to contribute to the UK Armed Forces Gulf Fund (details available at http://www.ukforcesgulffund.org and (0800 107 0200).

We are working very hard to implement the new system and need to put mechanisms in place to handle the expected increase in mail. We hope that families will be patient in the interim period, since we still need to get essential stores and equipment to the Gulf to support the front line.