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High Street Shops (Planning)

Volume 474: debated on Wednesday 26 March 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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