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Local Services (Planning)

Volume 548: debated on Tuesday 10 July 2012

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable local planning authorities to require the granting of planning permission prior to the demolition or change of use of premises or land used or formerly used as a public house or local independent shop, to enable local planning authorities to require the granting of planning permission if premises or land will be used for a supermarket; and for connected purposes.

I am sure that the whole House would agree that we all seek to protect local communities, and the essence that holds them together and makes them different from other communities. We know that our villages, towns and cities are becoming ever more alike. There are ever more chain shops and supermarkets, progressively turning every high street into a clone town, and those vital community hubs, the British pubs, are closing down across the country. It is vital that we keep and support our pubs and local independent shops; otherwise, we risk losing them for ever.

The Bill that I seek to introduce today would help local communities to protect their shops and pubs. It would tweak planning law—only slightly—to rebalance the playing field in their favour. Technically, it would allow the use of locally determined use classes to separate local independent shops from chains, and supermarkets from other grocers, as well as placing new constraints on changing use away from pubs. Critically, it would be up to the local council to use the measure if it wished to do so. Every area is different, and no council would be forced to use it if it was not appropriate for its area.

I certainly do not claim that the measure will fix every problem faced by local shops and pubs. Independent shops face many wider problems, some of which have been identified in the Portas review. For example, they face institutional landlords who will, in some cases, deal only with national chains and not even consider renting premises to an independent shop. This is affecting a start-up in Cambridge, Caffè Sicilia, at the moment. Supermarkets have the economic might to drive out local shops, and pubs face challenges from the sale of cheap alcohol in those supermarkets, as well as from predatory pubcos, demand for housing and much else. We can take a stand, however, and hand local people the power to separate independent shops from chains, supermarkets from grocers, and pubs from estate agents.

What exactly is the scale of the problem? Let me start with pubs, many of which are at the core of their communities. I believe that Cambridge has some of the greatest pubs in the country, such as the Eagle, where Watson and Crick announced that they had discovered DNA, the secret of life. In reality, it is the local community pubs, those that do not have a famous story to pull in the punters, who will benefit the most from local control. Many fleeting conversations over a drink between academics and entrepreneurs who have created partnerships and founded companies have made Cambridge into the city it is today.

There are more than 80 pubs in Cambridge, serving very different communities: some local, some attracting people from across the city. We have great pubs such as the Maypole, the Empress, the Cambridge Blue, St Radegund and the Devonshire Arms. Over the last three years, however, more than 20 pubs have closed in Cambridge. This is replicated nationally, with 12 pubs closing every week. This is not simply some cold fact of life that our constituents should have to accept and deal with.

Many of these pubs are profitable. The Flying Pig, near Cambridge station is immensely popular and is doing better every year, especially since becoming a free house. Built in 1832, it was one of the first buildings on Hills road, but it is threatened with demolition to be turned into flats. In my old ward of East Chesterton, the Green Dragon is now the only trading pub. The local Penny Ferry, Dog and Pheasant and Haymakers are all boarded up, and local councillors struggle to find planning grounds to protect them.

Rural pubs face similar threats. When the only pub in a village closes, that is a huge blow for the residents there, as well as posing a risk in respect of drink-driving. Pubs are, ultimately, a responsible place to drink: landlords can control excessive drinking, and rural pubs can quite literally keep whole villages on the map. Pubs are valuable economically, too—each pub injects an average of £80,000 into a local economy, and pubs in Cambridge alone employ just under 1,500 people, many of them young—as well as promoting the intangible “well-being” that local councillors must be able to protect. So pubs provide a valuable service to local communities, beyond just the purely economic. The Government’s national planning policy framework recognised that fact, but still more is needed. We should help local people to protect their pubs.

Much the same is true when it comes to independent local shops and the high streets they create. Nationally, 12,000 local shops closed in 2009. On every high street across the country, we can see many of exactly the same shops—chains of coffee shops, clothes shops, betting shops. Now chains have many advantages—economies of scale, for example—and they can afford better lawyers and get cheaper rent. There is nothing wrong with having some of them. If there are too many, however, our high streets become identikit clones of each other. We lose the variety that makes our towns and cities special and different from each other. Our shopping options become ever blander and the range of options available diminishes more and more, as we see the demise of the specialist, the different, the quirky.

Some high streets have already succumbed, and could be anywhere in the country. Others fight on: Bridge street and Mill road in Cambridge are good examples, well worth visiting. They work together to look after their areas, and have strong local groups to help each other; but across the country, the traffic is largely one way. Independent shops turn into chains, but they rarely go back the other way. This has economic effects, as well. The proliferation of chain shops is often a false economy for local residents. At their worst, they can temporarily sell below cost to force independents to close, but when they are the only shop in town, prices can go back up again. More of the takings get sucked away from local people. A 2009 report by the New Economics Foundation found that twice as much money is kept in a local community if people buy locally than if they buy from a chain.

There is, of course, a particular issue around supermarkets, which are growing strongly in number. In Cambridge alone, there are no fewer than 15 branches of Tesco. In and of themselves, supermarkets are not a problem—people choose to shop there—but an individual supermarket or supermarket chain can utterly dominate a local economy. Monopoly powers apply nationally, but the residents of Mill road in Cambridge care very little about whether a supermarket holds a national monopoly. They care immensely, however, if it is the only local place to shop and if a supermarket has a local monopoly that eradicates a local high street much loved for its diversity. Currently, planning law simply does not allow for a discrimination between Abdul Arain’s Al-Amin grocery store and the Sainsbury’s planned for the other side of the road, but residents know that they are a very different proposition.

People know what it means to live in a free-market economy, and they appreciate that if shops are unprofitable, they cannot stay open. What I am talking about today is giving councils the power to stand back, if they wish to, and ask, “Would this supermarket represent a local monopoly? Would it actually decrease choice and competition? Would it ultimately produce a worse place to live?”.

I asked my constituents, and others more broadly via Twitter, to suggest which Bill to propose today, and this issue was suggested by very many of them. The Bill has received support from many residents, from local independent shops in Bridge street, Mill road and elsewhere, and from pub landlords in Cambridge. An online and a paper petition have received hundreds of signatures. Nationally, the Bill has secured the backing of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, which has been immensely helpful throughout the process; the all-party parliamentary Save the Pub group; the Local Government Association, which represents all our councils; and a strong cross-party group of MPs.

The Government have shown some commitment to localism. It has been observed in the past that Britain is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, and it has been a pleasure to welcome some of the devolution that we have seen over the last few years—including that provided for by the Localism Act 2011—but there is still far more to do. When the Localism Act was working its way through both Houses, I fought for more local power along with a number of colleagues. The so-called Cambridge amendment tabled in the other place, to which I have referred in this place, would have granted powers comparable to the power that I am proposing today. It was not accepted—much to the disappointment of Cambridge city council, which had proposed it—but perhaps this approach will be more successful. In the words of CAMRA,

“we need to give communities a much greater say over the future of valued local services such as pubs.”

CAMRA also says that the

“proposed Bill would go a long way to protecting local pubs and the communities they serve.”

This is, appropriately, independent retailer month. Let us in Parliament do something to mark it. I urge all Members to support the motion, and also to shop locally and sample their local pubs.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Dr Julian Huppert, Caroline Lucas, Tim Farron, Greg Mulholland, Simon Wright, Mr John Leech, Sir Peter Bottomley, Grahame M. Morris, Jim Dowd, Andrew Stephenson, Nicola Blackwood and Jonathan Reynolds present the Bill.

Dr Julian Huppert accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 October and to be printed (Bill 58).

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The media have announced that there will not be a programme motion. According to Standing Order No. 63, by rights the Bill should not be committed to the whole House, but should go to a Public Bill Committee upstairs. Will that procedure apply in this case?

I do not think that Standing Order No. 63 applies in this case, given that the programme motion has been tabled. I am happy to take further advice on the matter, and to consider whether the hon. Gentleman’s point is valid—

—but help may be at hand, both for the hon. Gentleman and the House, courtesy of its Leader.

I beg the right hon. Gentleman’s pardon. I thought that he was seeking to respond to the point of order, but no. However, we shall hear from him very soon.

Let me simply say that Members take a huge interest in the debate on Second Reading of the Lords Reform Bill. Almost 90 right hon. and hon. Members have applied to speak, and that fact is reflected in the six-minute time limit. Obviously, there is no time limit on Front-Bench speeches, but I am sure that Front Benchers will tailor their contributions accordingly. I also ask Members please not to come to the Chair inquiring whether, and if so when, they will be called. We will do our best to accommodate as many of them as possible.