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High Streets (Planning)

Volume 532: debated on Monday 5 September 2011

It is a devolved matter for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, but the Government are committed to the “town centre first” approach, which prefers to site new retail developments on the high street.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The new planning system framework calls for a presumption in favour of sustainable development. Today, however, the Financial Times describes that phrase as “vaguely defined”. Will the Minister please take this opportunity to offer us a precise definition?

It is the same definition that the previous Government and Governments before them applied. In fact, it is the classic definition. It is that development that takes place should not be at the expense of the interests of future generations—and that is defined economically, socially and environmentally.

The national planning policy framework has a welcome heading on promoting the vitality and viability of town centres, but the Minister was reluctant to make an addition to the Localism Bill concerning district centres and the important relevant hierarchy. What protection will he give to local neighbourhoods in the control of uses and in keeping local district shopping centres viable and vital?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. The Localism Bill, through neighbourhood planning, provides precisely such a basis to protect and, indeed, promote the future of district high streets, and we have already funded a number of areas, especially on high streets, in order to demonstrate their ability to capture the importance of regional high streets as well as of city centres.

One of the most successful policies of the previous Conservative Government was their change to the planning guidance in the mid-’90s to ensure that priority was given to retail development in district or city centres or adjacent to them. Will the Minister now give an assurance that his proposed changes to the planning system will not water that down in any way and lead to an increase in stand-alone retail developments at the expense of our city and town centres?

Local communities, such as Chippenham, which choose to bring forward neighbourhood plans to facilitate redevelopment of their town centres may at the same time wish to restrict development of out-of-town and edge-of-town developments. Will neighbourhood planners have the authority to do that?

Not only will they have the authority do so, but national policy will continue to be clear that retail developments should be in town centres first. That is crystal clear. It has been a very successful policy, which was first introduced by John Gummer when he was Secretary of State.

The Government have weakened protection for the high street in the national planning policy framework and rejected Labour’s call for local people to have the powers to plan their high streets, instead setting up a review and a retail summit. Does the Minister not recognise that what the high street needs is real action and real shops if we are to put the heart back into Britain’s hard-hit high streets?

There is no dilution of the importance of town centres—of putting high streets first. In fact, over and above the planning system, we have relaxed parking standards so that people are able to drive and park in town centres—crucial, if they are to compete fairly with out-of-town centres. It repeals something that the previous Government introduced, sadly, which was blighting town centres. We reversed that.