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Urban Supermarkets (Planning)

Volume 515: debated on Monday 13 September 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in the short time available this evening the issue of planning regulations for urban supermarkets and convenience stores. There has been quite a lot of interest in these issues, both in this House and outside, so let me start by saying what I hope this debate will not be about. First, it is not about making a general attack on the growth of supermarkets and their power in this country, which I am sure is a matter of fascination but would probably take us beyond the time available. Nor is this debate about saying that we have too many supermarkets, although my constituency might have more than any other. According to The Daily Telegraph, in January 2007 Bicester was called “Tesco Town” because it had six outlets, yet one street alone in my constituency—Fulham road—has more than 10 branches of Tesco.

Nor is this debate about the important role that small shops and a diversified retail base can have. I support, for example, the Evening Standard campaign on that issue, although it should also be recognised that there are parts of the world, such as Fulham, that suffer from not having a high street with the chain stores that one might expect. I am also careful not to prescribe too much Government interference in this area. I take the view that, after all, there would not be 10 Tescos on Fulham road in my constituency if there was no customer demand for them. Tesco and the other supermarkets are, after all, successful private sector enterprises that study and understand their customers effectively.

This debate is about empowering local authorities to defend residents who face the immediate consequences of an urban supermarket or convenience store setting up nearby, next door or, at worst, below them. There is currently no planning classification for supermarkets or similar outlets: they are classified as A1, like any other retail shop. Many urban local supermarkets—if not the great majority—have been set up on the premises of other retail outlets, for which they do not require planning permission. Furthermore, planning permission is not generally required for converting many other premises into urban supermarkets. I shall illustrate that phenomenon in due course, but it can include conversion from pubs, cafés, banks or building societies, estate agents’ offices, and so on. Pretty much any customer-focused premises can be converted into a supermarket. Such changes are generally viewed as permitted development in the planning system.

The problem is one that I have been aware of for the past 12 years, since being elected for the first time as a councillor in the urban area of Hammersmith and Fulham. As it happens, 1998 was the same year that the very first Sainsbury’s Local supermarket was established, on Fulham Palace road, in what was part of my constituency before this year’s boundary changes. It was a first, and that model of urban supermarket has now been rolled out by Sainsbury’s, Tesco and others, with huge success. It has met customer demand in urban areas—not least from the likes of me, as I do not have a car. Before this debate, Sainsbury’s provided me with figures which show that, since that first Sainsbury’s Local opened on Fulham Palace road, a further 334 Sainsbury’s Local convenience stores have opened in the UK. No one doubts that it has been a huge success.

A number of voices have been raised to try to change or tighten the planning rules. For example, as recently as July 2010, the London Assembly published its report, “Cornered shops: London’s small shops and the planning system”, which recommended dividing the A1 class into supermarkets on the one hand, and—broadly speaking—all other retail units on the other. The Assembly felt that that would allow local authorities to control the proliferation of supermarkets.

My objective is rather different. It is not arbitrarily to restrict the number of such outlets, but to allow local authorities to ensure that the new store either has no negative impact on nearby residents or at least reduces it. In other words, the planning system, through local authorities, would nudge the supermarket companies into changing their behaviour, becoming better neighbours, and reducing noise and other environmental impacts. To put it more simply, they would be able to get their change of use if they installed noise abatement measures, especially in relation to refrigeration units, if they restricted delivery times to after 7 am or 8 am, if they ensured that no alcohol was served after 10 pm, and so on.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. When he gives that gentle nudge to the supermarkets, will he bear in mind the fact that, in the run-up to Christmas, they often install floodlit marquees containing refrigerated units? They do not worry about local authority planning regulations because the marquees are removed after 28 days, when Christmas has passed, and that is how long it would take to do anything about them. Supermarkets do this regularly, and it causes great annoyance and disturbance to local residents.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and I am sure that the Minister will wish to respond to her point. It sounds as though such temporary structures would require planning permission, but I am not intimately familiar with that. We do not have a lot of space to erect temporary marquees in Chelsea and Fulham, but they sound as though they should be covered by existing regulations.

My objective is to ensure that the planning system works for local people, particularly those finding themselves living near, next to or above a supermarket. I do not want local authorities to micro-manage retail frontages, flying in the face of customer demand, but I do want supermarkets to try to become better neighbours. Let me illustrate that with four examples from my constituency.

The first involves a success story. In 1998, I worked closely with residents on Parsons Green lane who had bought flats in a new development called The Square, which was above proposed retail premises. I was told later that the residents had been informed, during the process of buying their flats, that there was to be an antiques store below them. As one might expect, however, given that the development was opposite Parsons Green tube station—some would say that it was almost inevitable—it turned out not to be an antiques store but a branch of Budgens. Working closely with the council, however, we managed to get restrictions put in place, and Budgens effectively floated the ceiling—I believe that that is the terminology—by putting in new acoustic protection for the benefit of the residents above. That was possible only because it was a new build and the local authority was able, because it had to grant full planning permission, to impose such a restriction, with which the supermarket had to comply.

That was a rare success, however, and I am afraid to say that other residents have had much less happy experiences in recent years. Let me first detail the case of the Salisbury Tavern on Sherbrooke road in Fulham. To my certain knowledge, it had been a public house for decades. It became a rather successful gastro-pub in about 2001, but in recent years the population of Fulham has changed. It has aged a little and become more family-oriented, and many of the gastro-pubs have been closing. So, after many decades, the Salisbury Tavern closed down. Tesco appeared from nowhere, and before anyone really had time to react, it was approved in April 2010 to convert the premises.

Permitted development rules allowed a change of use from class A4 to class A1. Some small planning permissions were needed, for illuminated signage, the installation of an ATM and an air-conditioning unit. However, we should note that, as far as I could tell, they were not needed for the inevitable refrigeration units that were going to be installed or for the restrictions on opening hours, delivery times and so forth. When it comes to things that really impact on neighbours, the council had few, if any, powers in this case. The local community around Dawes road hope that Tesco will be a good neighbour, but there does not appear to be anything pushing it in that direction.

The third example takes us back to Fulham road. It is not the opening of the 11th Tesco there; permission has been sought to convert in order to create another Sainsbury’s Local. The three existing retail units—an A3, A2 and an A1 class—are to be converted to create one single A1 premises, a Sainsbury’s Local. The council tells me that that constitutes permitted development and does not require planning permission. There are some smaller ancillary applications related to the installation of an ATM, some illuminated signage and some machine plant, for example. I shall probably object to them, but I am not hopeful of any real success because the grounds on which I would like to object are unlikely to be taken into account. If the new Sainsbury’s at the North End road is anything to go by, it will have a dramatic impact on its neighbours above, alongside and in the immediate vicinity.

Finally, I want to illustrate this phenomenon with reference to the misery that the Heap family has faced on North End road over the past five or six years. The Heaps are tenants of the Notting Hill housing trust, and I know them to be quiet, clean-living, working people who take great pride in their home. They are not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. Until 2004 or 2005, the retail premises below them had for a considerable period been used as a bed shop. We all know that such retail outlets have been going out of fashion, as people tend to buy at Ikea or purchase on the internet. Almost inevitably, the bed shop in the centre of Fulham closed down and Sainsbury came along and opened a Sainsbury’s Local. I could be wrong, but I do not believe that any planning permission was needed, except for the ancillary features such as the ATM and some signage. No planning application was necessary for the considerable refrigeration units put in or for the new goods lift, which makes a lot of noise at rather inconvenient hours of the day.

This should begin to illustrate why I believe supermarkets are different from other retail or A1 uses. Refrigeration units can and do have huge impacts in terms of noise, especially in Victorian buildings. The same goes for industrial lifts, delivery palettes, daily early morning deliveries, again with refrigeration—in this case, the units in the lorries. The impact on the Heaps’ quality of life has been devastating. Unlike in the Budgens example I cited earlier, Sainsbury was not obliged to do anything to design in noise abatement at the converted premises.

Throughout, Sainsbury has treated the Heaps, the Notting Hill housing trust and me with a mixture of foot dragging and obfuscation. In my eight years as the Heaps’ local councillor and then my five and a half years as their MP, I have had perhaps half a dozen site meetings with Sainsbury—quite a lot for an individual item of MP casework. Every time, small, incremental improvements are promised by Sainsbury, but only some are delivered and they are often reversed, as with the installation of acoustical flooring. Staff are told to be more respectful, but it rarely lasts. Senior management occasionally respond to e-mails from me, but almost never to those from the Heaps. I have called the office of Justin King himself on a number of occasions, chasing up responses, as has Notting Hill—but it has similarly had no real response. To be fair, Sainsbury is now promising what appear to be better improvements, but only as a result of my securing this debate tonight. Miraculously, it appears to have sprung into action and answered many of my requests over the summer.

To conclude, the Minister will know better than me what overall approach our new coalition Government are taking towards supermarkets, in respect of planning and of competition matters, which I have not dwelled on tonight. Certainly, the below-cost selling of alcohol is attracting attention. I think that the time has come to try to effect a new classification in the planning rules for supermarkets or to allow tighter local authority controls over changes in classification so that additional resident-friendly conditions might be able to be applied. In that sense, I might agree with the London Assembly, although I think we are approaching the problem from rather different angles.

I appreciate that this throws up some issues of definition—for example, what actually constitutes a supermarket or a convenience store, which is obviously vital when planning regulations are being designed. The key definition for me might include the use of large-scale refrigeration. By requiring supermarkets to get planning permission, we empower local authorities—and thereby local communities—to secure improvements and environmental changes that will improve lives in the immediate vicinity.

I start as someone who is not naturally hostile to expanding private enterprises, such as supermarkets, which are seeking to meet customer demand. However, urban convenience stores, and Sainsbury’s in particular, need to do much better in their communities. I urge the Minister to take another look at the matter, and I look forward to his response.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) on securing this debate about planning regulations on urban supermarkets and convenience stores, which is a concerning area of policy for many of his constituents. The debate seems quite well attended compared with some I have seen in the past.

The debate has raised important issues around balancing sustainable development with community needs, so I am pleased to be able to respond. My hon. Friend is particularly concerned about problems that might arise in the planning process, where planning permission is not required to change the use of a building. First, however, it would be helpful if I set those issues in context.

To achieve the aim of balanced and sustainable communities, we need homes, jobs, leisure facilities and places to shop in locations where they can be accessed by all. That is why we focus new development and activities in the cities, towns and villages in which we live. However, we understand the tensions that occasionally arise from locating different types of development and land uses next to one another. That is why it is important to have a planning system that balances the need to allow businesses to grow with protections for the community from the negative impacts of some development. The planning process seeks to ensure that our communities get the right type of development, located in the right locations, to maximise benefits for all, and to prevent, as far as possible, negative impacts.

Where proposed developments are likely to cause problems for neighbours, local planning authorities already have powers to attach planning conditions to permissions. Those conditions are aimed at preventing the problems from ever occurring. For example, a local planning authority may impose a condition that can specify time limits within which deliveries to a shop may take place, to avoid traffic congestion or noise sensitivity issues in the vicinity of the development.

Of course, local planning authorities can also use planning conditions to restrict certain uses to particular sites. Where a local planning authority thinks that problems may occur, it can restrict planning permission for a shop to non-food A1 use class only. That could be used, for example, to prevent a hairdresser’s becoming a convenience store. By using those powers properly, local planning authorities can prevent the types of conflict that my hon. Friend has mentioned, particularly in residential and more sensitive areas. Similarly, planning permission is still required if a change of use of a building needed significant structural alterations: for example, if the change of use required changing the street frontage of a shop. Those are all important safeguards of the interests of local residents.

Having set that context, let me move on to the specific subject of this evening’s debate—the problems that can arise when planning permission is not needed, because the use class order allows one type of shop to be converted into another type without planning permission. Let me explain the background to the use classes order, because its purpose is often misunderstood. The order was introduced to remove unnecessary planning applications from the planning system, and, therefore, to speed up the system. The use classes order groups together uses that have similar land-use impacts and characteristics into classes. Changes of use within a class are not considered to be development and therefore do not require planning permission. Relevant to this discussion is the A1 use class, which includes a range of different shopping types including corner shops, supermarkets, retail warehouses and post offices. Of course, I accept that two developments, even if categorised in the same use class, may not have exactly the same operating characteristics. Shops, for example, can have different opening or delivery times.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the planning system grants further flexibility by allowing some changes of use between classes without the need for planning applications. That applies when the impact of the proposed use is considered to be less than that of the existing use. Obviously it did not happen in this instance, but it is an important aspect of the system. Hot food takeaways, pubs, restaurants and financial services such as banks can all convert to shops without requiring planning applications if the impact on neighbours is regarded as being less than that of the existing use. The key difference in this instance is that local authorities have the power to remove that freedom of movement and require planning permission if there is local concern about such a development.

I take the concerns of my hon. Friend’s constituents seriously, and I recognise that at times there will be tensions between businesses and their neighbours. However, we must not forget that the planning system cannot deal with all community tensions. The system is often criticised for being slow and bureaucratic. It can create a significant amount of work for local planning authorities; it can also act as a disincentive to development, thus stifling economic and physical regeneration. That can frustrate the legitimate development that we all need. Planning controls should be introduced only when there is a strong case for doing so.

In a case in my constituency, the fact that there was no need for a change-of-use permission removed the trigger mechanism that sometimes acts as an early warning in the planning system. A shop that has invested several hundred thousand pounds is three doors from what is about to become a local branch of a chain of supermarkets. Will the Minister comment, or at least reflect, on the fact that the ease with which change of use was allowed, enabling a pub to become a Sainsbury’s Local, removed the trigger mechanism that might have informed other local shops, as well as residential neighbours, of what was in the pipeline?

I will reflect on that, and explain the ways in which we propose to deal with such issues in a moment. The example given by my hon. Friend highlights the balance that must be struck between competition and trading opportunities between different operators in the same area on the one hand, and legitimate planning considerations on the other. Sometimes there appears to be an overlap between the two in the minds of the general public, which is not so easy to translate into planning law.

Let me return to the issue of the impacts of changes of activity that do not require permission. In general, we would expect businesses to operate responsibly, and to be sensitive to the communities within which they operate. When neighbours raise legitimate concerns about development, it is in the interests of businesses— particularly those with a strong community presence, such as supermarket chains—to take them seriously and respond positively.

Local authorities also have wider responsibilities and powers to investigate complaints about problems such as noise. Authorities must take “all reasonable steps" to investigate any complaint in relation to noise. I have no doubt that the local authority cited by my hon. Friend is diligent and well aware of those powers. Authorities are expected to raise the issue with the person or organisation causing the nuisance, giving the details of the complaint and asking for steps to be taken to reduce the noise. If the local authority believes a statutory nuisance is occurring, or is likely to occur or recur, it must take action.

That is where we are at the moment and we do not want to dismiss my hon. Friend’s concerns. There may always be individual cases where the balance between avoiding bureaucratic overload by requiring permission for a simple change of use and guarding against unacceptable impacts gives rise to unintended consequences. With more and different types of retail activity and means of dealing with storage, for example, one must be alert to changing circumstances that may not have been anticipated when the regulations were drafted. I have a lot of sympathy for this situation and, as I have indicated, I would hope that the local authorities use powers against nuisance if that is the appropriate route.

The point raised by the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) relates rather more to the case of the operation of the rules in relation to temporary permission rather than use classes, but it is a legitimate area of concern. I do not doubt that.

The Local Government Association and local authorities know that supermarkets will breach their planning consent for six or seven weeks each year coming up to Christmas. By the time authorities act, the supermarkets have taken things down and it does not matter. They are flouting the rules and getting away with it. The LGA is looking to us to try to do something about it.

I understand that, which is why I am about to set out the way in which we will address these concerns. We are keeping the use classes order under review, but at present we feel that the balance that it strikes is about right. However, there are specific issues that need to be examined. We are determined to do more to help local planning authorities and communities shape the places in which people live.

Much of the coalition's work since May has therefore focused on overseeing a fundamental shift of power away from Westminster to councils and communities. We believe that, generally, planning should be a local matter, with planning decisions being made at local level wherever possible. We will ensure that national planning policies support local decision making. In the past, national planning objectives have been set out through a series of planning policy guidance notes, and more recently planning policy statements. These cover a broad range of policy themes and are piecemeal in nature. This is why we said in the coalition agreement that we will publish and present to Parliament a simple and consolidated national planning framework covering all forms of development. This simple and consolidated framework will set out not only what the Government's economic and environmental priorities are, but how they relate to each other. Such a framework would also set out, in general terms but in sufficient detail to provide clarity, what was expected, both of the planning system and in terms of delivering national priorities.

We will make an announcement—in short order, I hope—as to how we propose to take forward the national planning framework and the implications for specific areas of policy. That is an appropriate vehicle to look at the operation of the PPSs and PPGs. In pulling together a more holistic approach with the national framework, I suggest that that is the appropriate vehicle by which the Government can address what may have been anomalies or circumstances that have arisen since the previous use classes orders were drawn up and to see if what we have now remains appropriate for the future. There may be ways in which we can better achieve a fair and proportionate response to the legitimate needs of development on the one hand and the equally legitimate concerns of the neighbours of those who carry out economic activity on the other. The coalition’s proposals for that framework provide a good opportunity for us to address sensibly precisely the issues raised in this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.