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Westminster Hall

Volume 563: debated on Tuesday 21 May 2013

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 21 May 2013

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]

UK City of Culture 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Nicky Morgan.)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to talk about the merits of Southend being chosen as the city of culture in 2017, but it would be remiss of me to claim credit for securing the debate, which was entirely the idea of the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth). I am truly pleased with the number of colleagues who have turned up this morning. I had intended to speak for about 20 minutes, depending on interventions, but I think that everyone here wants to contribute so I might have to shorten the speech a little. I want to give everyone the opportunity to talk about their own area.

I will start with a quote from Gandhi. He is not someone I have quoted before, other than on dieting. Gandhi said:

“No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.”

That is true, and certainly so of the 11 areas and towns bidding to become UK city of culture in 2017. None of the areas bidding would have much culture at all if it were not for the fact that they belong to the United Kingdom. Every part of our country, of which we are all so proud, is rich in culture.

I must warn Members that the building is, at this very moment, surrounded by people. The good residents of Southend are peace-loving people. They want to encourage people peacefully, so right now the building is surrounded by the thoughts of Southend residents, who are urging the judges to choose Southend as the city of culture. If colleagues feel unwell during the debate, it might be because they are having unkind thoughts about Southend, which are being attacked by the powerful thoughts of Southend residents.

That leads me on to a number of remarks, with which I have been charged, about the 10 competing cities. As far as I am concerned, the United Kingdom is a wonderful country, and I will not have a bad word said about any part of it. When I look around this Chamber, I feel that the idea that any part of the United Kingdom could be called a dump is absolutely disgraceful. The idea that any part of the United Kingdom would not know what culture was is also absolutely disgraceful.

When the remarks were reported, it was suggested that I tour the United Kingdom to see the competition at first hand, and I am delighted to say that I have started on a tour. It is a big area to get around, and it was suggested that I visit places by helicopter—I was not too keen on that—and then someone proposed that I borrow Nigel Farage’s light aeroplane, the one he used during the general election campaign. If using it was as successful as it was in 2010 it would no doubt cause a bit of publicity, but it would be the end of me.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, and whoever else was responsible, on securing the debate. As part of his grand tour of prospective second UK cities of culture, will he respond to an invitation from me—and, I am sure, from my colleague, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan)—to visit the first UK city of culture, Londonderry, which is currently enjoying its year of culture? We would be delighted to see the hon. Gentleman, perhaps at the tattoo in August.

Absolutely. Both I and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) will certainly be visiting that city.

I will start with my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd). I had a wonderful visit to Hastings—if I had the money, I might even buy a little holiday home there—and I was very impressed with the hospitality that I was afforded by her good self.

We very much enjoyed my hon. Friend’s visit. He saw around the Jerwood, which is a fantastic new gallery. Is he not now reconsidering some of his earlier phrases? He must be rather anxious about the high level of competition from other places, such as Hastings.

As politicians, we all suffer from misreporting. I think that Hastings has a splendid bid.

Moving on to Kent, which will be my next visit, we know that it is the garden of England. I absolutely condemn all the rumours about the roses being infested with black fly, greenfly and rust, and I very much look forward to visiting Kent shortly.

My hon. Friend rightly says that the garden of England is in full bloom—it is as beautiful as ever—but on his tour around the country he should take advantage of the unrivalled high-speed rail link, to get swiftly from London down to east Kent and see the cultural attractions for himself.

That is a controversial path down which I will not go.

Moving on to Wales, I have had some very unkind remarks made about Wales on my website. I think that the people there are absolutely fine. I have a number of relatives living in Wales, and they seem all right. What we know about the Welsh is that they have magnificent voices and produce some wonderful actors and actresses.

Moving on to Scotland, I had a very nice letter from the Lord Provost, and I think that all the suggestions I have had on my website about Scottish people being mean and that some of them conduct interviews while chewing gum are very unfair indeed. I very much look forward to visiting Scotland, not least to sample the whisky and the haggis.

It is indeed a very polite and kind letter from the Lord Provost. I hope that the hon. Gentleman makes it to Aberdeen, because he will then realise that the competition is really on.

I am looking forward to my visit.

Moving on to Leicester, we all know what a strong bid it has. It has a wonderful cricket ground, but I have to say that I had no idea about its secret weapon, in the form of the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). Anyone who has not seen him perform on YouTube is missing a joy. I, for one, think that we need not spend any more money on finding someone to represent us in the Eurovision song contest next year because it must be the right hon. Member for Leicester East.

Then we move on to Hull.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I am pleased to hear him make these points, which I think can be summed up by saying, “You don’t promote your own bid better by denigrating other bids.” Indeed, would he go a little further and say that anyone who described other towns and places in the UK as dumps would be hindering rather than helping their campaign?

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and that is why, when various individuals suggested on my blog that Hull was the riviera of the north, I had no hesitation in agreeing with them. Hull is a wonderful place, and I have many relatives living there as well.

Then, I have, of course, been to Chester, which has a wonderful race track and some iconic buildings. Jessie J is supporting Chester, and I will come shortly to the fact that I hope that will.i.am will support Southend’s bit.

Then we come to Plymouth. Again, I have rebutted all the suggestions on my website that whenever someone goes to wonderful Plymouth the clotted cream seems to be curdled. I am very much looking forward to my visit to Plymouth, which my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) has suggested I make.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend will be coming. He will, of course, have the opportunity to come to one of the finest theatre production companies—one of five such companies in the whole country. He will also be very welcome to meet his fellow Southend Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), whose father-in-law was, as it happens, a councillor on Plymouth city council and is backing our bid.

That was a blow below the belt, of which I was not warned. I shall not cancel my visit—I suppose I shall still go. I look forward to it. Plymouth is where my mother always took her holidays, and it is wonderful there.

The competition is potentially very lucrative to the winner in two ways: it brings cultural benefits as well as tremendous economic ones. Londonderry, the current United Kingdom city of culture, and Liverpool, European city of culture in 2008, can certainly support that view.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter before the House. I am surrounded by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), and we are very aware of the good that comes from being city of culture. This year, the 2017 city of culture will be announced in Londonderry. The jobs and the opportunities are there, as is the focus of the world, but although Londonderry may be the city of culture for the United Kingdom, it is for the whole of Northern Ireland in particular, and we will all benefit from that.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the spin-offs from being the city of culture go across not only the whole of Northern Ireland, but the United Kingdom? May I also invite him to come to Londonderry for the historical event on about 12 August. It will be a very good event that I know he will enjoy, as everybody else does.

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s invitation with enthusiasm. Given that Derry is a similar size to Southend, there is much encouragement for us in how the unbiased judges will look at the 11 competitors.

It is difficult to measure cultural benefits, but the Royal Ballet has performed in Londonderry, the National Youth Orchestra has held concerts in the homes of ordinary people and—I hope that I am not ruining the Minister’s speech—the Turner prize exhibition and award ceremony will be held there, which is the first time that it has been held outside England. Those are just a few of the events, but there are many more.

I must say that I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s pinball tour of the country, as he visits the other bidding cities. Does he appreciate that one reason why the Derry/Londonderry bid succeeded was that people concentrated on what we had to do to get our bid right, and did not bother much about what other people were or were not doing?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the impact of the city of culture achievement on the city this year, which includes the fact that the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann is being held for the first time in a city anywhere in Ireland. It is the biggest Irish event in the world and is being held north of the border for the first time, just after the tattoo that other hon. Members have mentioned.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his advice. Southend borough council and Evolution Squared are doing a first-class job in promoting our bid, but I do thank him. The events in Derry that we have heard about will inspire the youth of Londonderry to take up instruments, and will be things to tell their grandchildren about. Liverpool saw record numbers of visitors to its museums throughout 2008, and I am sure that the end-of-year figures will be similar in Derry, so the cultural benefits are absolutely clear.

Economic benefits are slightly more measurable. At a conservative estimate, Derry/Londonderry expects 600,000 extra visitors to the city over the course of 2013. Three thousand new jobs have been created in the city, and £100 million has been invested in its infrastructure. I am advised that for every £1 invested, the city of culture is expected to generate £5. Those facts are all the more staggering given its relatively small area. The competition is not a joke, but a prize that is well worth winning for each of our constituencies or areas. Although the analogy with Liverpool is less perfect, because it won a pan-European competition, it is worth noting that it generated an extra £176 million in tourism spending alone in 2008, so there is an economic benefit. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East and I believe that being the city of culture will be vital to the continued regeneration of Southend.

I want to say some words about Southend. I am biased: I think that Southend has the strongest bid. If anyone agrees, the hashtag to use is “Southend on Culture”, although I advise the House that I do not use Twitter. Our bid is themed—quite beautifully, if I may say so—around the Thames estuary, which flanks our town and is at the end of one of the most famous waterways in the world. Fittingly, if Southend wins the bid, a museum of the Thames estuary would be developed, and we would continue to partner other estuarial areas across the world, such as the River Plate—if that happens, we will not discuss the Falklands.

That, of course, is just the start of what we have to offer. Saxon remains have been found in Prittlewell. They are very valuable, being similar to finding Edward underneath the car park—[Hon. Members: “Richard!] Well, a king who deserved better. We, too, have royalty in Prittlewell. The remains were uncovered during a road-widening exercise. Archaeologists discovered an undisturbed 7th-century chamber grave beneath a mound, which has been described as

“the most spectacular discovery of its kind made during the past 60 years.”

Professor Christopher Scull said:

“The Prittlewell Prince Burial is one of the most significant archaeological discoveries bearing on Anglo Saxon England. As such it is a find of international significance for early Medieval Europe.”

Some 110 objects were excavated, ranging from bowls to a sword and a lyre. That is just one example of our rich history in Southend.

Equally detailed is the work of the UK Hand Engravers Association in Southend, which is quite simply exquisite high culture. I am well informed that Southend is a hotbed of metal culture, which was created initially in Liverpool. That modern art form celebrates interdisciplinary artwork and art in civic space. It will be celebrated at the village green festival in Chalkwell park on the 13 July. When the torch came to Southend last year, a famous composer worked on the anthem and we had the biggest choir in the country. The people following the torch around the United Kingdom said that the Southend welcome was the best in the country. We are blessed with a great host of artists—Paul Karslake, Mark Wallinger, Benjamin Grosvenor, Mary Flanagan and Elizabeth Price, to name just a few—so we have a strong bid.

I do not know whether this event is being held in conjunction with my celebration—or commiseration—of having been a Member for 30 years, but on 8 and 9 June, a festival in Southend will give people just a taste of what they can expect if we win the bid for 2017. There are plans to have a fashion show on the iconic pier—it is the longest pier in the world—and we hope to set a world record for the longest catwalk. I do not know whether supermodels will turn up, but I think that some very famous people will support that event. There will be live music, and the Wiggles dance club will perform—we must borrow the hon. Member for Leicester South for that performance. That diverse group loves all forms of dance: body popping, swing, jazz, tap and Latin-American. Furthermore, East 15, which offers the world’s only stage fighting degree, will be in attendance, as will various local world-class jewellery makers. Not only will all that be on offer, but a song called “I love Southend” will be written specially for our bid.

On the topic of festivals, it should not be forgotten that Southend has a film festival and a jazz festival, and I will appear in a comedy festival. Our jazz festival was supported by none other than Sir Michael Parkinson last year, and our comedy festival is set to be opened by Russell Kane this year. I recently attended our film festival, which was very enjoyable, and I met many famous actors and actresses. Most festival goers no doubt take the opportunity to sample Rossi ice cream while in Southend, which is the finest ice cream in the world. The company has existed for more than 80 years, and lucky members of the public will be served with it—we may even keep some for hon. Members.

Finally, Southend has a contestant in “X Factor” and a contestant in “The Voice”. Leanne Jarvis, who is being tutored by will.i.am, went to Earls Hall infant and junior school and Chase High secondary school. She and I went to No. 10 yesterday to offer the Prime Minister some further advice and encouragement on how to run the country, but after hearing her sing, we decided that we would just support her bid to win “The Voice”. She is a fabulous singer, and I hope that everyone will support her.

The UK city of culture contest is undoubtedly very important. All the bids are excellent. The judges will have a very tough time deciding which city wins the bid and which cities should be in the last four. I very much hope that Southend makes it.

Some people look at the word “Southend” and pronounce it as it is written. In actual fact, it stands for “Sou the ND”, which means “sue the national detractors”. Southend very much condemns all those people who have made disparaging remarks about every other part of the United Kingdom; we could not be more patriotic and proud of our country. I simply think that Southend deserves to win the bid, and I hope that, in 2017, we will be the city of culture.

Order. A large number of Members wish to speak. I intend to call the Front-Bench speakers no later than 10.40. If Members stick to five minutes, we might get everyone in. If they do not, we will have a problem. Those wanting to intervene should also bear that in mind.

I thank you, Mr Weir, for your words, and the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) and other colleagues for securing this debate. As one of those who also put in for this debate, I am absolutely delighted that it is taking place this morning. I appreciate the difficulties that you have, Mr Weir, because when I tried to lobby you to support the Aberdeen bid, I discovered that you were supporting Dundee.

Unfortunately, Mr Weir, your position this morning does not allow you to speak in the debate.

Aberdeen is an important economic driver not just of the Scottish economy but of the British one, too. We have a thriving offshore oil and gas industry, which is doing extremely well and is now moving into renewables. We like to call ourselves the “energy capital of Europe”. Aberdeen is a vibrant city that is full of life and energy, so why on earth do we want it to become the city of culture? It is because the one thing that is missing in our city is a strong cultural identity. Unfortunately, the participation rate in cultural activities by the people of Aberdeen is lower than the national average—both in Scotland and in the UK as a whole. We want to use the bid to build up the part of our community that has perhaps not always got the attention that it deserves because we have been too busy making money and running the energy sector.

The emphasis has always been on the economic side of Aberdeen and not so much on the cultural side or on making the city a much more attractive place to live. Many agencies say that it is difficult to attract staff to Aberdeen because everyone thinks that it is much too far north—it is quite far north—and too cold. They come up with all the negative things about Aberdeen. Indeed, it is also said that the locals themselves take after the grey granite of the buildings. However, when people move and make a life in Aberdeen, they discover what a wonderful place it is, and it is then difficult to move them somewhere else if their job demands it.

What we want to build on and what we want to use the bid for is the cultural offer that will be there for the people of Aberdeen. Although Aberdeen is far north, it is not too far north, and that is another reason why the city of culture bid would be so great for the city; it would bring us more into the centre of the UK. Hopefully, it would help us to create a centre that people would be prepared to travel to in order to take up the cultural offer.

Aberdeen already has great buildings that deliver aspects of culture. His Majesty’s theatre, for example, is incredibly grand. It was only when I went to theatres in London that I discovered just how grand it is, because the ones in London are quite pathetic in comparison. We have an art gallery on which we are about to spend a few million pounds, refurbishing and extending it. We have Peacock Visual Arts, which has a world-famous print works, the Gray’s School of Arts, the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and two universities that also do cultural things. Indeed the Aberdeen university festival is just finishing at the moment. It is perhaps worth pointing out here that we had two universities in Aberdeen when there were only two universities in the whole of England—in Oxford and Cambridge.

We have a strong cultural history, but we would like to build on the cultural involvement in our communities. Although we are a rich and vibrant city, the wealth does not always trickle down to the poorer areas. We hope the culture bid might be able to reach the parts of our communities in Aberdeen that the oil wealth has not necessarily reached, and we are keen to build up localised events that will involve people more than the local galleries. We know that there is an appetite there and that people want to be involved, but we need something that will pull it all together and act as a dynamic force on the city council and on Aberdeenshire council to bring the cultural offers together.

Finally, when the tall ships came to Aberdeen in 1997, the whole town turned out for the event; it was fantastic. We had Vikings from Shetland wandering about the town, which was bizarre. They turned up in the local pubs and restaurants. That was a wonderful example of what Aberdeen could do if it got the opportunity to become the UK city of culture in 2017.

Many right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of the beautiful city of Chester: our world-famous Roman city walls; our historic cathedral; the unique mediaeval shopping galleries, the Rows; our beautiful River Dee; and the Eastgate clock, which is the most photographed clock in the world after the clock that stands above this House. All are key features in our city, and all are known across the globe. My hon. Friend the Minister recently described Chester as

“a jewel in the crown in the north-west”.—[Official Report, 18 April 2013; Vol. 561, c. 466.]

He was wrong, because Chester is much more than that. It is a unique city, and if it qualifies and wins the city of culture, it will be a national treasure. However, we are not resting on our laurels. Chester is not merely a museum, but a living, thriving city. It is a city that is facing up to the challenges of the modern day, adapting and constantly changing, and our heritage and culture play a massive role in that.

Culture is being used as a key catalyst for change. For hundreds of years, Chester has been a market town and a shopping centre for north Wales and Cheshire. As shopping habits change, it is essential that our high street offerings change too. Chester is embracing that change, ensuring that our city offers a unique and complete experience—whether that is through street festivals, music and dramatic art in our unique historic public realm or through guiding shoppers to visit some of our many cultural attractions. We recognise that culture is essential to our economic growth and to ensuring that Chester can compete with our larger metropolitan neighbours.

The council is investing heavily in our heritage and our culture. Millions have been pumped into our historic environment: restoring our city walls; creating a unique interactive heritage trail; renovating the town hall, to bring it back to its Victorian splendour and create a new performance venue; restoring the Roman gardens; refreshing the riverside promenade; and reinterpreting Chester’s Roman amphitheatre, to allow visitors to see what it would have been like and to bring it back into use as a city centre performance venue, not for gladiatorial combat but for modern film and music festivals.

All the time, new festivals are being introduced, such as the film festival in the amphitheatre, a new Chester fringe, theatre in the park or Chester Rocks, which makes use of Chester’s race course, the oldest in the country, and which this year will feature one of my daughter’s favourites, Jessie J, who has already been mentioned in the debate. At the same time, our traditional festivals, such as the food festival, the music festival, Theatre in the Quarter and the literary festival, are now making a real impact on the national stage and attracting an ever-increasing number of visitors.

Chester mystery plays, the mediaeval passion plays, were first performed more than 600 years ago by the guilds of the city. They continue to grow and are a highlight of the city’s 2013 cultural calendar. Although they are traditionally only performed once every five years, they will be performed in 2017 if we are successful in our bid to be city of culture. The council also has massively ambitious plans to build a new first-class theatre in the city. Work has recently started on the site, and the new theatre is due to open in 2016.

Culture in Chester is back on the scene and back with a bang, and the reaction from the people of Chester has been fantastic. The local newspapers have been backing the bid, claiming that the city’s cultural offering is at a historic high, and their letter pages have been filled with residents saying how proud they are of our city and our culture. Social media are also playing a part, allowing Cestrians to engage with and support the city’s bid in new and exciting ways.

Our bid to be the city of culture 2017 harnesses that public enthusiasm. The council is hoping to create a cadre of community volunteers, similar to the hugely successful volunteers programme at the London Olympic games. These volunteering opportunities will allow young people to become involved with culture, art and music, and to further their own skills and enthusiasm. Part of the aim is to encourage unemployed people to become volunteers, giving them opportunities of responsibility, boosting their self-esteem and allowing them to learn new skills that can be transferred into the jobs market.

The fact that we have been long-listed to be the city of culture 2017 is a massive boost for Chester, and the changes in expectation and attitude in our city during the past few years show that we are able to compete and to show Britain and the world what a fantastic city of culture Chester would be. I am not the only one who thinks that. The bookies agree, with Chester the 4-1 favourite to win the bid according to William Hill. I am delighted to back Chester’s bid to be city of culture.

It is a pleasure to speak in this very important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) on securing the debate and I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), because I know he has been trying to secure such a debate for many weeks.My hon. Friend will probably mention the fact that a king has been found in Leicester recently. In Hull, we cannot boast of finding a king under a car park, but we can say that in 1642 Hull Corporation declared support for Parliament by denying Charles I entry into the city.

I support and welcome the bid that Hull city council has submitted for this prestigious title. In economic terms, Hull—like many areas—is having a tough time, but winning this title would hugely boost the city’s morale. More importantly, it would create a great number of social and economic benefits, as we have seen in other cities that have previously held the title. It would be the tipping point for the council’s 10-year plan, which hopes to deliver 7,500 new jobs, many of them focused on culture and tourism.

I think that I am right in saying that in Hull as many as 50 people are chasing every single vacancy, so it is important to emphasise how winning the bid might benefit the city. Hull often gets a bad press, but we have an awful lot to boast about. We have contemporary festivals and modern cultural attractions that would challenge those on offer in any European capital. We have some beautiful buildings built at the height of Hull’s prosperity, which was in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Mr Weir, I had intended to speak for about 10 or 15 minutes, but I am afraid that when I saw the number of right hon. and hon. Members here in Westminster Hall today I had to cut down my speech considerably.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for Hull. Does he agree that one of the most exciting things about Hull and the Humber area is the opportunity that exists for digital creation? We have artists, graphic designers, musicians and technicians from Grimsby institute and Hull university creating a real opportunity, both to make digital creation part of the redevelopment of Hull and to provide jobs for our future.

I absolutely agree—my right hon. Friend is completely right about that. I was going to address the issue of digital creation, but now I need not say any more about it.

There seems to be an imbalance whereby other northern cities have capitalised on cash for arts, and I hope that a successful bid for the prestigious city of culture title will rebalance that situation a little for Hull.

I will finish by quoting Rupert Creed, the famous playwright from Brighton who moved to Hull and settled in the city. He argued that Hull has always been a creative city and a place prepared to try new things, saying:

“There’s this blank canvas, this willingness to make things happen.”

We want to come out of the shadows, shine and become the gateway to the world, as we once were.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) for securing this debate, and it is fantastic to hear from so many Members about the benefits of their own constituencies. I know from conversations with colleagues that for many people Hastings summons up three things. First, there is our famous battle—I am happy to say that there is no historical confusion about that—as well as the Norman conquest and the castle on the hill, which was built just four years after the conquest. Secondly, there is the fishing port, which is still a major issue economically in the town and in terms of fairness: we are always campaigning to get higher quotas for our fishermen and I hope that this Government will be able to deliver them. Thirdly, there is our famous seaside, which attracts so many visitors.

However, Hastings has recently become a cultural storm of activity in art, music and literature. We have both a history of culture and modern cultural initiatives being established in the town. Historically, we have had the International Chess Congress, which has been going since 1920, and to bring us right up to date we now have the Jerwood gallery, which has recently been built and which has a fantastic exhibition of modern art. Also, it has recently been announced that our pier, which sadly burned down just over two years ago, is to receive £13.5 million of lottery grant, and during the next few years it will rise like the phoenix to invigorate the town.

However, the strongest cultural base that Hastings has is its events. It seems that every other weekend, particularly during the summer, there is some fabulous event, which is inclusive and open to everybody, to liven up the weekend and to attract tourism and investment. We have just had the May day bank holiday, including the Jack in the Green event. There was also marching, drums and our famous Morris dancers. Incidentally, two years ago our Morris dancers came up to London to protest against the proposed changing of the May day bank holiday; they performed outside Parliament and were fantastic. In August, Hastings has old town week, which includes parades, bike races, street races and—perhaps more unusually—a pram race. In September, we have a month-long arts festival, Coastal Currents, and a seafood and wine festival that now runs for two days. In October, in common with local tradition, at the end of a week’s events the Hastings Borough Bonfire Society burns an effigy of someone it really dislikes. That always causes nervous tremors in elected officials locally.

My favourite event is the recently introduced pirate day, which has been going for four years. It was set up to beat the “Guinness Book of Records” entry for the largest number of pirates to congregate on a beach. It has to be taken seriously: a cutlass and an eye patch will not do. This time last year 14,231 people were there. I warn people coming to Hastings on 21 July that they will look out of place if they are not dressed as a pirate.

Hastings, city of culture, has the right ring to it and is something that we could build on. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) said, it is also about trying to move people who are not so familiar with culture into having a cultural experience, and that is what our bid does. Supported by the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer, we are planning a marvellous march, if we succeed, from France, up to York, along Harold’s journey, exhibiting the cultural strengths of the whole area. Between us, we feel that we could make a huge impact. We are, by the way, supported by Bexhill as well. This is an opportunity for Hastings and the country to see the fantastic cultural centre that our town has become.

When people think of Swansea, naturally they think of Dylan Thomas, who was born there 100 years ago next year, when we celebrate the centenary. Of course, Dylan Thomas is the most translated poet of all time, second only to Shakespeare. I am putting forward this bid on behalf of Swansea bay city region, which includes Carmarthen and Neath Port Talbot.

There is a glistening array of stars from Swansea, both past and present. One only has to think of Sir Anthony Hopkins, Michael Sheen and Catherine Zeta-Jones—I am sure that Michael Douglas is applying for a visa as we speak—and many more.

The industrial revolution, in many senses, started in Swansea. Swansea was the first globally connected location for heavy industry, with the price of copper being set there. Indeed, Copperopolis is the latest idea: a museum of metallurgy in an environment, that will attract an international audience.

We have thriving universities, which are at the forefront of innovation, both in metallurgy—for instance, working with Tata Steel—and with modern connected creative works, such as 3D imagery, interactive, animation, etc. We are very much on the cusp of the future.

Does my hon. Friend agree that Copperopolis, the nickname we give to Swansea, is well supported in its cultural bid by Tinopolis, the name we give Llanelli, which has a tremendous tradition in south Carmarthenshire of cultural and industrial heritage? Its latest venture, the state-of-the-art Furnace theatre and associated venues, offers fantastic opportunities, from the more traditional male voice choirs and Llanelli proms, to avant-garde groups, such as Llanelli Youth Theatre, performing “Tomorrow I’ll Be Happy”. Does he agree that the support from that industrial base in Llanelli, with its bilingual cultural heritage, will add a great deal to Swansea’s bid for cultural city 2017.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s contribution. The tin, steel, copper and coal, the Welsh and English languages, the land and the sea, and the urban and the rural together provide diversity and a global reach. Choirs and the history of singing and music are also important for our bid, as is the setting of Swansea bay city region. We have some “pier” pressure from Southend, but Mumbles pier is a great pier and Joe’s ice cream is fantastic, and I confess that I would prefer it to the ice cream that can be found in Southend.

The brand of Swansea is now on the world map, thanks to Swansea football. We are an emerging sports city: the Ospreys rugby team is an example of that. We have just had the Olympic kit brought to Swansea bay for beach volleyball. I hope and expect that we will be a national venue for a national beach volleyball competition.

Swansea university is now the closest in the world to the sea, having previously been second only to California, as I understand it. We are a diverse and multicultural emerging city with a global reach. We hope that a lot of our celebrations—for example, the Dylan Thomas celebration next year—will be globally networked, including people from Bollywood as well as traditional literature. We need to build on the wider Dylan Thomas brand. Of course, Dylan Thomas enjoyed a couple of beers, as well as a quite exciting lifestyle. We hope, over time, to bring a sustainable festival, a bit like the Hay or Edinburgh festivals, alongside other assets, such as Copperopolis. We also have the National Waterfront museum for Wales, which, again, celebrates and builds on industrial heritage. Swansea market is the largest of its type in Wales, with a great heritage over hundreds of years.

Obviously, Swansea has borne the scars of its industrial past, plus the tragic three nights of the blitz that we suffered under the Luftwaffe, but we hope to move forward, with further development of the port, which, historically, was industrially geared for trade. There are new, emerging opportunities, from the cultural point of view, for ferries and for cruise-borne people to visit Swansea and Swansea bay city region.

The news, following our campaign, of electrification of the railways will increase the connectivity and the opportunity for people to see wonderful Swansea and Swansea bay and the Gower, with beautiful golden sands, where people can enjoy culture, the sun and environment, and the good food of Swansea. I hope, later this year, to have a Swansea food day in Parliament, to celebrate some of the great foods created across Swansea bay city region.

We have been the forge for generating steel and various sorts of metallurgy and now I hope that the basic resilience and creativity of the community will help hurtle us forward to the celebration next year and onwards to 2017, so that we have a sustainable cultural legacy that will underpin our position as the true cultural centre of south Wales.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess)—my very fine hon. Friend—on securing this debate. I am delighted that he did not try to rubbish Plymouth during the past few months and delighted, too, that Plymouth did not appear in “The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy”, in which Arthur Dent, as my hon. Friend may recall, thought he had died and gone to hell, but in reality had gone to Southend. Ford Prefect, another character in that story, said that he was surprised about Southend, because although the sea remained where it was, the buildings and the rocks went up and down.

I support Plymouth’s city of culture bid. I am looking forward to my hon. Friend visiting Plymouth in the next few weeks. Our bid for the city of culture in 2017 will help regenerate parts of our city, including our inner city. In the Efford ward, during the past 10 years, the local community, through the Heart of Efford and the city council, has used grants and the arts to regenerate a council estate, built immediately after the last war in an area previously decimated during the blitz.

My hon. Friend will also have the opportunity to see where my mother’s acting career started, in Devonport, probably at the age of five. She went on to act at Birmingham Repertory before the war.

By making Plymouth the city of culture in 2017, the authorities will build on its cultural heritage and reputation. Plymouth has the Theatre Royal, one of the five UK production companies; the Drum theatre, often used by Plymouth’s vibrant amateur dramatic societies; TR2, which manufactures many of the sets for theatrical productions throughout the country; Plymouth university’s Peninsula Arts; Plymouth College of Arts, one of the UK’s five independent arts schools; and a proposed new arts free school, which is to be sponsored by the college and the Theatre Royal, and which has attracted Government funding and support.

Plymouth was also home to the late Robert Lenkiewicz, Beryl Cook and Joshua Reynolds. We have some of the UK’s finest post-war architecture, following the devastation of the blitz. In addition, we have a large number of Georgian buildings, including Admiralty house, which was the home of Nelson’s deputy, Lord Collingwood; the royal naval hospital; the home of Captain Hardy—also of Nelson fame; and Conan Doyle’s home, where he wrote “The Hounds of the Baskervilles”. Furthermore, we have the Barbican theatre, a community-based theatre company; the New Palace theatre, where Laurel and Hardy put on their last performance, and which we are keen to rebuild; and the Ten Tors orchestra, which put on a brilliant proms concert on Saturday.

This is a unique opportunity, and I very much hope the Arts Council will listen to Plymouth’s case and give us its support.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess), who put in a tremendous performance in opening the debate. Earlier this morning, I was looking at the betting odds, and the bookies have Southend second from bottom, at 14:1, but it will certainly be worth a flutter after the hon. Gentleman’s speech. I also noticed that Leicester is the second favourite, at 5:1, and I hope we do not go down the betting league tables after my speech.

As hon. Members would expect, I want to focus on Leicester. I come with the support of the two other Leicester MPs, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), as well as the support of Leicester city council and Leicestershire county council. I was pleased to see the hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) in her place a few moments ago, because she is also very supportive of the bid.

We have heard much about the history of different cities and towns this morning, and Leicester, too, has a great history. We can trace our origins back to the iron age. We have Roman settlements, as well as Saxon and Norman influences. We have tremendous architecture and historical buildings, such as the Roman Jewry wall and the Guildhall. We hosted Shakespeare’s company, and there are suggestions that Shakespeare himself may have been in Leicester.

In recent years, of course, we have found and dug up Richard III. He was buried in Leicester for 500 years, and we recently found him in a Leicester city council social services car park. We therefore have royalty in Leicester, and I say to hon. Friends from Yorkshire, “We are holding on to him. Keep your hands off!” Cardinal Wolsey is also buried somewhere in Abbey park, and it is perhaps time we dug him up, too.

For the benefit of Opposition colleagues, I should say that Leicester has a history of radical politics. As Members might expect from a city that was built on textiles in the past 200 years or so, we had a luddite tradition. At one point, of course, Ramsay MacDonald also sat for a Leicester constituency—may he be a reminder to any Liberal Democrats of the fate of leaders who go into coalitions.

Leicester is a city of tremendous diversity. Forty years ago, families from Uganda made their home in Leicester. They were followed by families from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. We have many Hindu temples, gurdwaras and mosques, all within yards of each other. We had the first Jain temple in Europe. In Leicester, Members could be greeted with the words, “Assalamu alaikum”, “Namaste”, “Sat sri akaal” or, more simply, “Alreet, ma duck.” That is very much part of Leicester. We all celebrate our faiths, and we all come together to celebrate Diwali, in the biggest such celebration outside India. We all celebrate Vaisakhi and Eid, and we all join in the lighting of the Hannukkah candles in Victoria park, as well as celebrating all the Christian festivals.

There are not just religious festivals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West would have said had she been here, we have the biggest comedy festival in Europe after that in Edinburgh. After his performance today, I hope we can book the hon. Member for Southend West for our comedy festival. We also have lots of community festivals. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East organised a mango festival. Ours is therefore the only bid that can guarantee that it will have the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee handing out mangoes to those who come to the city to celebrate.

Across the city, we have different community events. ITV did a documentary saying that crime and antisocial behaviour on one of our estates was terrible. People on the estate came together and put on a tremendous summer community event, showing that they were not prepared to take what an outside TV documentary was saying about them. That is our trump card: the people of Leicester coming together, whether to support our football team and Leicester Tigers or to join in the various religious festivals we organise. That is what Leicester is about, and that is why our case is overwhelming—we have the best people.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. The fact that you chose to chair the debate, and the bids from Scottish cities, including Aberdeen, underlines your confidence in the fact that Scotland will be fully part of the United Kingdom in 2017, when the city of culture year starts.

We have heard wonderful presentations from different Members of Parliament about the cultural and creative merits of their areas. Surely, the purpose of the UK city of culture year is not just to change perceptions in the community about the importance of culture and art and the incredible contribution they make to economic regeneration, but to change perceptions about the cultural offer among people outside our home areas, across the UK. One of the great successes of the Derry/Londonderry city of culture year must surely be that it has not only inspired people in Northern Ireland, but brought in many new visitors to the city who had not previously had the chance to experience its delights.

That is very much at the heart of the east Kent bid, which is about what the city of culture year has to offer not only east Kent, but the rest of the UK. Kent is on the frontier of the UK, facing our European neighbours, so we have a chance not only to bring in people from the UK, but to show the rest of Europe what the UK has to offer in a new, challenging, surprising and creative location.

East Kent’s is a unique bid, because it is not based on one city. Instead, as the bid says, it is based on “a city imagined”—a city drawn from a diverse collection of communities and towns, as well as the city of Canterbury, all of which make up the east Kent area. From Whitstable and Margate, around the coast to Dover, Folkestone and Romney marsh, and inland to Ashford, we have a new creative area, which is at heart of the east Kent bid.

The area has a terrific cultural heritage. We have a King, in the form of Henry IV; he is not under a car park, but buried safely in Canterbury cathedral. In the early days of English literature, Chaucer wrote the tales of the pilgrims making their journey to Canterbury. The area was the inspiration for many of Charles Dickens’s books. He wrote “Little Dorrit” while staying in Folkestone. Many will be familiar with the dramatic scene from the recent dramatisation of “Great Expectations”, when Pip meets Magwitch on the coast, which is set in Romney marsh, in my constituency.

The area is also a vibrant centre for the cotemporary arts, with the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate the home of that great international artist Tracey Emin. The Folkestone Triennial arts festival is one of Europe’s leading festivals of sculpture and contemporary art, and the last festival was opened by the Minister. He has seen first hand the impressive work of Roger De Haan and the Creative Foundation in Folkestone. They hold fantastic creative events, making creative regeneration part of the economy. By making east Kent the centre of the UK creative world in 2017, we are seeking to acknowledge what has been done so far, to build on the important work of creative regeneration in the economy and to celebrate the work of local artists.

Derry/Londonderry put ambassadors at the heart of its bid, and we have many fantastic ambassadors, drawn from the sons and daughters of east Kent. We have people such as Tracey Emin and Orlando Bloom, who is from Canterbury, as well as Jools Holland, who now lives in Kent, and Mark Sargeant, who came back to Kent to open his fantastic new restaurant, Rocksalt, in Folkestone, which has been a great success.

We want to build on the experience of the sons and daughters of east Kent and the fantastic network of creative and innovative businesses and cultural centres which already exists. East Kent will make a tremendous ambassador for our country in 2017. If we are successful in our bid, I would urge all Members to come and be part of it.

It is a huge honour for any city to win the title of UK city of culture, and I am sure all the bids will be strong. The value and kudos involved in winning are enormous. Sarah Shortland, who was vox-popped in The Herald in Plymouth, said:

“It would be good for Plymouth—I visited Liverpool after they won European Capital of Culture and they’ve changed lots there.”

We all know just how important winning the bid will be.

Although I am sure that everywhere we have heard spoken about today is lovely, those places cannot compare with Plymouth. As TripAdvisor points out, there are more things to do in Plymouth than in cities such as Bath, Oxford and Cambridge. Its setting alone is breathtaking: the third largest natural harbour in the world—a magnificent backdrop for cultural and sporting events, such as the America’s cup and the British fireworks championships.

Plymouth’s heritage and cultural links are many and varied, and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) has touched on some of them; but I want to consider it from the perspective of its maritime history, and use that as a starting point, to whet people’s appetites. It was important in Tudor times. Francis Drake of course set off from Plymouth to circumnavigate the globe. The church where he was married is in St Budeaux in Plymouth. There is a wealth of archive material that would certainly be brought out and displayed during a city of culture year. The pilgrim fathers left England for a place that they named Plymouth. They did not name it Southampton, or after anywhere in Essex; so Plymouth is known globally. Charles Darwin, in HMS Beagle, left from Plymouth. Captain Cook is also associated with it; and Francis Chichester returned to Plymouth in Gipsy Moth. Napoleon spent time on board a British warship in Plymouth harbour.

Of course, there is also wartime history. At the time of the D-day landings many troops, particularly Americans, left for Normandy from Plymouth. The civilian history of those dark days is also interesting, and many memories and much history could be brought out during a city of culture year. Jill Craigie’s film “The Way We Live”, about the post-war reconstruction of Plymouth, stands out. It set out the Watson-Abercrombie plan for rebuilding the city centre, which was so special architecturally. Jill Craigie was of course the wife of Michael Foot—politician, journalist and writer—and we are launching a fund to build a memorial for Michael, a man of so many talents.

We have the Royal William yard and Twofour Productions, which is the largest independent production company outside London. It was a pleasure to invite my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) to visit it recently. The south-west media are wholly behind our bid, including Ian Wood, the editor of the Plymouth Herald. We have heard about the theatres in Plymouth, but we also have museums. We have the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in the English-speaking world, which is still in regular use. We hold regular multicultural events to celebrate Diwali, Eid and the Chinese new year. The new chief executive of Destination Plymouth sums it up:

“Plymouth has assets most cities can only dream of—a stunning waterfront, a city surrounded by outstanding countryside; it’s fast becoming a foodie heaven and is the cultural arts and entertainment capital for the region.”

We are going to use Smeaton’s tower and the lighthouse—the model for modern lighthouses, which sits proudly on Plymouth Hoe. That will be the beacon for our city of culture bid for 2017.

In many ways this debate is wrongly named. As I have listened I have felt it should clearly be named “Cities of Culture” as it is not about a single city of culture. I urge the Minister to consider the possibility that, although there will be only one city of culture, some of the other bids should be recognised additionally. The Southend bid, rather like the Kent one, has considered not just Southend-on-Sea but the region as a whole, in the country as a whole. In fact, the front page of the bid documentation positioning Southend for city of culture in 2017 states that it would explore the heritage, landscape and character not just of Southend but of the Thames estuary, and the way it has defined the culture of the whole United Kingdom. Perhaps the status of city of culture would be used not just to showcase a city or town, and a region and county, but all our constituencies. If people flood in from overseas to visit Southend I am sure they will also have time to visit one or two of the other places mentioned by hon. Members today.

I congratulate Southend council, and particularly Rob Tinlin, the chief executive, as well as the leader of the council, on pulling the bid together. It is not simply a detailed 30-page document. It is a movement within the town; that movement and the enthusiasm for the culture are building. It feels almost embarrassing that we have been given three opportunities in relation to the bid. Not only has my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) secured the debate, despite Leicester’s good work, but now that he has introduced it, I can bookend it. If there are any constituencies or areas that he has not yet offended, time will unfortunately not allow me to mop up.

There are a few things to do with Southend that I want to talk about—specifically education and its role in culture. I went to the Colchester campus of the university of Essex in the 1990s, and now we have a campus in Southend. We have a wonderful college with many cultural programmes and degrees, which add to the fabric of society. All too often in the past, young, talented people moved away and did not come back. Now they want to stay in Southend. There are truly many opportunities. It may be that when people think of Southend they think of the pier—the longest pleasure pier in the world—Rossi ice cream, and the sea front; but perhaps we should also recognise the art galleries with fabulous Constable paintings, and the history that goes far beyond the town’s boom time of the 18th and 19th centuries. There is a monastery built in the 11th century, with 45 acres of park land, right in the middle of the town. That is a wonderful resource. We have Porters, a 16th century house that is the mayoral residence, which was visited by Disraeli, and by Churchill during the war, on his way to Shoebury ranges. In fact it was Disraeli who called Southend the riviera of Essex.

Some hon. Members have made literary references. I found a whole book in my office about authors with Southend connections, rather than just one or two references. Southend has a strong bid, and is doing well. I suggest to the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) that since the debate started the odds have shortened and Southend is in an even stronger position to win.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess), not only on securing this important debate, but on the strong case he has made for Southend-on-Sea to be named as the UK city of culture in 2017. I agree with him that it is a town that offers many cultural opportunities. Last year it opened the new cultural centre that can be found at the tip of the world’s longest pleasure pier. The Focal Point gallery houses the town’s contemporary art, and Priory park bandstand provides the town with music throughout the summer months. In its own words, it is “Town, shore and so much more”.

The debate comes at an opportune time as 11 areas—Aberdeen, Chester, Dundee, east Kent, Hastings and Bexhill-on-Sea, Hull, Leicester, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Southampton, Southend-on-Sea and Swansea bay have all applied to be the next UK city of culture in 2017. I am delighted that so many towns and cities from regions across Britain are competing for that important title. It is a testament to what culture means to our country and the value it brings to our communities, but importantly it also means that each of those communities will place culture at the heart of their agenda in the coming months and years.

The cultural sector of this country is hugely successful. It creates jobs, generates revenue, attracts inward investment and enriches the lives of individuals, families and communities. We are a creative nation. Our cultural sector is the lifeblood of the creative industries, which provide 1.5 million jobs and are a major contributor to our economy. Last year’s Olympic opening ceremony and the Cultural Olympiad reminded people across the world that Britain is a cultural world leader—that our artistic traditions are strong and we are rightly proud of them. However, that success happened not by chance but by choice. The previous Labour Government invested in the arts, and that investment enabled culture to revitalise some of our previously grey city and town centres. As the cultural scene has developed, so too have jobs, growth and the social well-being of the people who live there. Labour introduced free access to museums and galleries, ensuring that the number of visitors increased year on year.

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that the former Ford plant in Neath Port Talbot is now hosting “Da Vinci’s Demons.” There is a huge film set for an American-geared production that will bring vital jobs and income. Does he agree that such evolution from traditional industry to creative industries can bring jobs and added value to our communities?

I absolutely agree. I am particularly interested to hear about the transition that the industrial base has made to some degree in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Perhaps there will be an opportunity for me to visit at some point in the future.

I was talking about some of the things that the Labour Government did. We introduced creative partnerships, which gave more children than ever before the opportunity to take part in cultural activities, thereby developing an interest and a passion for the arts that will hopefully serve them well in the future. Nowhere are those benefits more clear than in those cities that have been named cities of culture: Liverpool, which held the European title in 2008; and Londonderry, which held the first UK title this year.

In 2009, following the success of Liverpool’s status as European city of culture, the then Labour Culture Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), launched the UK city of culture. Today, that vision has become a reality, with Londonderry being transformed to unlock creativity and ensure that thousands of people flock to visit the city in the coming months. The immediate and lasting impact of a city that embraces culture in that way is clear. The effect in Liverpool in 2008 was striking. In that year alone, visitors voted with their feet, ensuring that the city had almost 15 million cultural visits. Some 67,000 schoolchildren in the city were involved. There was an £800 million economic benefit, and the number of residents who visited a city attraction was 10% above the national average. Liverpool has been transformed and is now known throughout Britain as a cultural hub.

Today, we are debating the UK city of culture bid for 2017. In our country we have the appetite, the skills, the talent and the tradition, but many organisations within the cultural sector exist on a complex funding stream of public investment, commercial revenue and private giving. That ecology ensures creative independence, freedom of artistic innovation and, in good times, stability, but some decisions currently being made by the Government are putting it at risk.

Since 2010, the Government have cut the budget of Arts Council England by more than 30%. Local councils across the country are dealing with devastating cuts to their funding streams. They are struggling to balance those cuts, and the Local Government Association has warned that, by 2019-20, 90% of discretionary funding streams, such as culture, leisure and libraries, may be cut.

It is not all bad news. Many local authorities are innovatively working in partnership to minimise the damage caused by the funding crisis, but that is a result of new thinking from councils. The cuts come without any real Government guidance for local community arts organisations or any real national Government support for local councils. Today, I ask the Minister to pledge to work with councils, which are leading the way, and to provide all towns and cities with guidance on how culture can be protected.

Given the hon. Gentleman’s criticism, what are Labour’s proposals to increase the arts budget? Will he use this opportunity to apologise for the last Labour Government’s slashing of the lottery budget?

I am grateful for the Minister’s intervention, which I will use as an opportunity to respond to a point he has made elsewhere on a number of occasions on the Labour-run local authority in Newcastle.

Newcastle is losing £100 million over the next three years, which is a 6.8% cut, whereas the Secretary of State’s local authority is gaining 4.4%. I want to put the record straight. In those unfair circumstances, I took the decision to visit Newcastle and instigate dialogue between the local authority, Arts Council England and local cultural institutions. As a result, the arts cut has been revised downwards from 100% and the cultural sector will now receive £600,000 a year and have access to a £6 million capital fund. That represents a very good example of what we are doing in opposition to work constructively with local authorities in these difficult times. Perhaps the Minister will give some indication of the conversations he has had and the work he has been doing with local authorities to safeguard the arts in these difficult times.

I notice that the hon. Gentleman takes all the credit, having initially supported Newcastle’s 100% arts cut, and gives no credit to the hard work of Arts Council England, which works closely with Newcastle city council. Will he take this opportunity to praise the Arts Council’s work with Newcastle city council?

The Minister may have missed my reference to Arts Council England, and I pay warm tribute to it and its work. We should be careful about the tone of this debate. We have all come here in good faith to talk about the relative merits of a number of bids, which is the tone at which we should pitch this debate.

Newcastle has not bid for the city of culture, so I urge the hon. Gentleman to give his views on the city of culture process. In the spirit of cross-party engagement, I ask him to observe that my borough council, which is Labour-run, has been leading on its bid, with which I have been involved. Now is not the time to make so many political comments; instead, we should celebrate how, together, we can do city of culture bids for the best of this country.

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention. She might note that I was actually conducting this debate in a manner of which she would approve until the Minister intervened, which is when I felt the need to respond. I suggest that we move on and raise the tone of the debate.

As the MP representing Derry/Londonderry, I put on record our huge thanks to Arts Council England, which got behind our city once the bid was won. It shared funding, insight and key introductions. Whichever city wins the 2017 bid will get huge, positive and key support from the Arts Council.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that useful intervention. I completely agree. Arts Council England is doing important work in these challenging times. It has recently published a significant report that clearly articulates and reflects on the economic benefit of the arts within our country. I will highlight a couple of the points that the Arts Council has made recently.

The report states that 0.1% of Government funding is spent on the arts, yet the arts make up 0.4% of the economy. That, of course, does not account for the creative industries or for tourism. The arts provide 0.5% of total UK employment, and at least £856 million a year of spending by tourists visiting this country can be attributed directly to the arts and to culture. Those points were recently made in the important report of Arts Council England, and I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to its important work on preserving our arts in these difficult economic times.

Beyond doubt, the cultural sector is a driver of jobs and growth in the UK. It is clear that public money invested in the cultural sector represents good value and offers a good return, which is an incredibly important point in the context of this debate.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, given the huge debate on growth versus cuts to reduce the deficit, and given the enormous emerging middle class in English-speaking markets in China, India, south America and so on, investment in the arts now will be paid back many times over?

Order. Before the shadow Minister responds to that intervention, I remind him that we need to give the Minister time to reply to the debate. I urge him to bring his speech to a close.

Okay. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) for his intervention. Unfortunately, there will not necessarily be time to address it. Let me move on briefly—because I know that the Minister will wish to conclude the debate—and say some things on which I hope we can all agree.

I believe that the cultural sector provides unlimited opportunities for young people, invoking imagination and creativity while ensuring that they learn the dedication, commitment and dexterity that come with playing a musical instrument, singing in a choir or performing in a theatre or dance group. I see in my constituency the value that young people get from those kinds of activity. I saw that on Saturday night, when I attended a concert by the brilliant Barnsley youth choir, and I very much look forward to that choir hosting the world-famous Aurin choir from Hungary, who will be coming next month to sing alongside our own choir. The value that young people get from such opportunities is hugely important.

Mr Weir, I am conscious that we are running short of time, so I will conclude by saying that Labour Members believe that our creative sector deserves creative thinking and that that is exactly what we should be providing to ensure that the arts continue to thrive in these tough times. The hon. Member for Southend West has, in his typically ebullient way, made an excellent case for Southend-on-Sea. I wish him and Southend-on-Sea the very best with their bid, as I wish all the other cities that are competing to be the UK city of culture in 2017 the very best. I hope that the appetite to hold this title will provide further proof to the Minister and to the Government as a whole that culture is worth supporting for 2017 and beyond.

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I thank the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), for his 15-minute speech. In the eight minutes remaining to me, I will try to pay tribute to the many interventions and contributions made by hon. Members.

The debate was framed by an elegant Southend sandwich—my hon. Friends the Members for Southend West (Mr Amess) and for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge). I confess that of the many cities bidding to be the UK city of culture, I have not yet visited Southend. That is something that I will remedy over the summer, because I know that Southend is “Town, shore and so much more”. The “so much more” must refer to my two hon. Friends, who represent it so well in Parliament, but perhaps also to the Focal Point gallery, the Beecroft art gallery, the Old Leigh studios, the Southend Pier cultural centre, the Priory Park bandstand and, indeed, the Cliffs pavilion, where this Sunday Tony Stockwell, the psychic medium, will be appearing and will no doubt be able to tell us who will win the title of UK city of culture.

We also heard a fantastic contribution from the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg). I visited Aberdeen with Ken Baker many years ago when he was Conservative party chairman, and what a cultured chairman he was, because before we went to the Scottish Conservative conference, we made a beeline for the Aberdeen art gallery and saw the wonderful Richard Long sculptures. It is the granite city, and what better adornment to its cultural heritage could it have than being the birthplace of our brilliant Secretary of State for Education?

Of course, there is also Hull, which I visited on the way to the by-election caused by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), a former Minister for Europe. Hull has eight museums. It also has the Hull Truck theatre company. Perhaps the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) could tell the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who is no longer in his seat, that I also said that of course Hull is now the home of the author of the best political memoirs for a generation. It is my birthday on 5 June, and I intend to ask my mother for a copy, but I will not do so if a signed copy appears in my office in the next few days.

Swansea, too, is a city that I have not yet visited, but I will remedy that over the summer. As we learned today, it is the home of beach volleyball, the national waterfront museum and, of course, the filming of “Da Vinci’s Demons”. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) for pointing out that tax reliefs for film and now for television and animation—and soon, we hope, for video games—are supporting our creative industries.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) pointed out the adornments of that fair city—a city that I visited recently, that is building a new library and new theatre and that understands the importance of culture.

I failed to mention properly the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East, who again made a fantastic intervention on behalf of his city. Of course, we also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd). That, too, is a town that I have visited. I have gone with her to visit the Jerwood gallery. That is another good example of lottery money being used to regenerate culture.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) was ably supported by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck). I gather that they are working in tandem. That picks up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye that the support for culture and for the UK city of culture transcends political divides. Plymouth, too, is a city that I have visited. Its bid is backed by Tom Daley. I have visited the Theatre Royal. The original building was built 200 years ago this year; unfortunately it was demolished in 1937. I have visited TR2, the Drum theatre and Plymouth art school. They are all fantastic adornments to that city.

The hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) was bigging up the virtues of Leicester—a city that I visited recently to speak at the vibrant Leicester Conservatives’ annual dinner. I also visited recently its newly built Curve theatre—another arts building built with lottery funding. Of course, there is also the amazing story of the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton—a story that has captured the public imagination.

I am delighted that the Minister visited Leicester and that he has referenced Richard III. Does he agree that Richard III should remain in Leicester?

I am staying out of that one.

We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). East Kent is a place that I visit frequently. I spent my summer holidays in Ramsgate, where my aunt lived. I am to open the Deal music festival. I pay tribute to the work of Roger De Haan and his support for Folkestone and of course Turner Contemporary. The area is also the location of the Romney marshes, where my own father is buried. We have no idea why he wanted to be buried there and we got lost on the way to the burial, but it is a very beautiful place for him to be buried.

This is probably the first proper debate that we have had in this House on culture in general, rather than a specific issue, since I have been the Culture Minister.

We have not had an Opposition debate yet. I yearn for the hon. Gentleman to use his influence—to call an Opposition debate on arts and culture and we can talk about how we have restored the money lost in the lottery cuts by the last Government in order to support our culture. Of course, the lottery, which was brought in by the Major Government and supported by the last Labour Government, has invested a huge amount in our cultural infrastructure. I want to talk about that. I want to talk about the fact that I am passionate about our culture. I want to talk about the fact that the UK city of culture, a concept introduced by the last Labour Culture Secretary and supported by the Conservative Culture Secretary—it has cross-party support—is incredibly important. It has shown how important culture is to cities and towns throughout the country. There is no public money invested in this; it has come from the grass roots up, supported by hon. Members and by their towns and cities.

In terms of the origins of cities of culture, I recall that back in the 1980s—was it in 1988?—Glasgow was a city of culture. Was that something that the UK Government supported or was it European?

This is exactly the point. Glasgow was European city of culture. That was 23 years ago, but I can still remember the slogan: “Glasgow’s miles better”. If people go to Glasgow now, they will see that the legacy is still there. People can also go to Liverpool, which, five years ago, was the city of culture. The economic benefit was £800 million. I visited a video games developer there who had previously lived in Liverpool but had left the city. He said, “I came back to Liverpool because when it became the city of culture, I knew there was stuff going on. That’s why I’m back in Liverpool.”

Derry/Londonderry will have an extra 600,000 visitors this year. That is twice as many as normal. We are talking about 150 events, 75% of them free. We are talking about the Royal Ballet, the Turner prize, the Ulster orchestra and Seamus Heaney. This is what it is all about, and culture has cross-party support in this House. That is why we are doing our best to support—

In relation to cross-party support, I do not know whether the Minister realises, but it is a Scottish National party council in Dundee that is behind the bid putting forward Dundee as the UK city of culture 2017. Does the Minister have any observation to make on whether it knows something that we do not know about the outcome of the referendum next year on Scottish independence?

The hon. Lady is right: we are better together. That is a good example of how the cultures of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England all work together to create this fantastic nation that is known all around the world for its incredible culture.

Will the Minister be promoting the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas? Does he regard him as an iconic UK poet and literary person as well as a Welsh one?

Yes, I regard Dylan Thomas as a Welsh poet, a British poet and a poet of the world.

I want to end on this note. I am proud that this Government have restored the money lost in Labour’s lottery cuts, that we continue to support arts and culture and that the Arts Council is working so effectively with local authorities up and down the country. People who do down culture in our local areas outside London—

Planning (Broughton)

It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this special parliamentary debate to highlight the planning issues affecting the important village of Broughton in my constituency.

I welcome the planning Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), to his place. He takes such issues extremely seriously and I know that he will listen with an attentive ear to what I have to say on behalf of my constituents. My aim is to relay to him the feelings from a recent public meeting that was held in the village of Broughton on 11 May, attended by significantly more than 200 villagers. I wish to relay to him what they were telling me and other local elected representatives about their concerns to do with the development of their village.

I want to pay particular tribute to local borough councillors, Jim Hakewill, who stepped down as mayor of Kettering last year, and Cliff Moreton, who have been effectively representing local residents’ concerns on the issue. Likewise, the Broughton parish councillors, including Mary Rust and Hilary Bull, and Mr Gary Duthie, the clerk to the parish council, have all been doing sterling work.

The problem is that national planning policies are allowing inappropriate housing development to take place in the village of Broughton. For those who are unfamiliar with Kettering, it is middle England at its very best. Geographically situated in the heart of England, it represents all the best that middle England has to offer. Broughton has about 2,500 people, making it one of the largest villages in the borough of Kettering; it is located in the south-west of the borough, just off the A43 which links Kettering to Northampton. Before the completion and approval of a neighbourhood plan for the village, however, building developers are able to use national planning policy guidelines and the lack of a demonstrable rolling five-year housing delivery target from Kettering borough council to submit planning applications for housing developments around the village, confident that the applications will meet with approval from the borough council or be won on appeal to the Planning Inspectorate.

The developments are in unsuitable locations that are unlikely to be included as preferred development sites in the village’s neighbourhood plan, once it has been produced, and as a result there will be unacceptable pressure on the local infrastructure used by existing residents. Broughton parish council is firmly committed to the development of a neighbourhood plan for the village, but before such a plan is signed off, there is in effect carte blanche for developers to choose sites around the village, put in a planning application for housing development and get it approved.

The problem started with a planning application from Redrow Homes South Midlands—the Kettering borough council planning reference is KET/2012/0709— for the development of 65 dwellings at Cransley Hill in Broughton. There are to be 46 homes, 19 affordable homes and a substation. On 12 February, the application was put before the borough council—I have the privilege of being a member—and 67 comments were received from local residents, 65 of which objected to the application.

The site in question is to the north-west of the village, on a parcel of land between the built-up part and the A43. It is adjacent to but outside the village envelope and on a greenfield site. Objections included: the site is greenfield and good farmland; sewerage and electricity supply are at capacity; there is a problem with water pressure in the village; there is pressure on school places; the village does not have a doctor, dentist or chemist’s; there will be traffic congestion as a result of the development, on top of the existing parking problems in the village; there is not enough local public transport, and the bus service is often inadequate; many of the local footpaths are unlit; lanes in the village are unsuitable for construction traffic, and the density of the development is too great. That is a flavour of some of the objections to the application.

However, Kettering borough council granted approval for the application. It did so not because it wanted to, but because of the Government’s national planning policies, which insist that, if the council cannot demonstrate a rolling five-year housing delivery target, it must grant permission to such sites. If it does not do so, the Planning Inspectorate will, charging costs to Kettering borough council.

According to a statement from Kettering borough council:

“The five year land supply is pretty simple—the Council has to be able to demonstrate that there are enough housing sites with a realistic prospect of being built out to satisfy the targets in the Core Spatial Strategy over the coming five years, and if we cannot do that, then there is a presumption in the national planning framework that consents will be given to new applications, unless there are sound planning reasons for refusal. Because of the slow down in the national economy, we can no longer argue that we have a five year land supply but the government have not changed the rules; indeed they have strengthened them.”

That is right, because the present Government have enhanced the policy adopted by the previous Government in insisting on a rolling five-year housing delivery target for each authority—it is now plus 20%.

There were good reasons for the council to refuse the application. It was contrary to: policy 1 of the local core spatial strategy, “Strengthening the Network of Settlements”; policy 7, on housing delivery; policy 9, “Distribution & Location of Development”, and policy 10, “Distribution of Housing”. It was also contrary to the local plan, to policy RA/3, about restricted infill villages, and to RA/5, “Housing in the Open Countryside”. According to the council:

“Saved policy RA/3 of the Local Plan defines Broughton as a Restricted Infill Village. Policy RA/3 states that where development is proposed outside of the defined boundaries of a Restricted Infill Village, open countryside policies will apply (policy RA/5). Saved policy RA/5 states that planning permission will not normally be granted for residential development in the open countryside, and sets out several exceptions. The development proposed does not meet any of the exceptions in the policy.

Therefore, the adopted Development Plan position is that the village is not a priority for development, and development outside the boundary is contrary to policy unless the development is required to meet local needs”,

which it clearly is not.

Kettering borough council cannot be accused of developing its planning policies slowly. Indeed, Kettering is part of the north Northamptonshire core spatial strategy, which was adopted in June 2008. It was the first core spatial strategy of its type in the whole of the country. That was as a result of the planning policies of the previous Government, but Kettering was not slow in coming forward—it ticked all the boxes and in pretty smart fashion. In policy 10 of the core spatial strategy, there is a housing requirement of 1,640 new dwellings in the rural area of Kettering during 2001 to 2021. Just over half way through, in March 2012, there had been 1,421 housing completions in the rural area, with a further 41 soon to be constructed. That left an outstanding requirement of just 178 dwellings over the best part of 10 years. The council cannot be accused of not building houses in the local area, and it seems extremely punitive that, as a result of the Government’s planning policies, this application for 65 houses in Broughton was approved. I am not blaming Kettering borough council for that. It is doing only what it has been told to do by the national Government, but I blame the national Government’s policies.

Redrow Homes has set an example, and another application has just been submitted, this time by Glanmoor Investments Ltd, for development of 67 dwellings with associated parking at Glebe avenue, Broughton on the other side of the village, again in an area unsuitable for development. There is every likelihood that that planning application, under the same criteria, will be approved. The village of Broughton is likely to find itself with an additional 130 houses, and will find it difficult to cope with such a scale of development.

Councillor Jim Hakewill has highlighted the problem effectively. He was so cross on behalf of local residents about what is emerging in Broughton that he delivered a letter to the Prime Minister at No. 10. On 12 March, he wrote:

“The desperate problem we have is that developers…are seeking to exploit the fact that, whilst Kettering Borough Council have gone through the pain of approving permission for some 7,500 homes, some of those are unable to be built until the A14…has a new junction”—

junction 10a. Kettering borough council

“has done all it can to create a five year supply, making hard, sometimes unpopular decisions.”

He continued:

“The Borough Council are well on their way to creating the Local Plan framework under which the communities will have their Neighbourhood plans tested.”

Broughton

“Parish Council are desperately keen to engage with the Borough to create a Plan to be proud of, a positive independent inspection and a referendum to support it. All of this will be of no consequence whatsoever should this current application be formally approved. It will be imposing development that has no local support; it will set a precedent for uncontrolled development and disillusionment for local people, who would normally be prepared to get involved with their community’s future. Worse than that by pre-empting the decisions about where best development would suit Broughton the applicant will have no obligation to deliver”

community infrastructure levy

“funding for the benefit and mitigation of development that a Neighbourhood Plan would demand. The application contravenes all the current Local Plan and Core Spatial Strategy policies we are used to relying on. Indeed it has significant highway implications for the safety of villagers, present and future, using the village centre shops and particularly the primary school.”

Councillor Hakewill continued:

“Our request is simple: Stop the current permission from being issued, give a clear lead that the development and completion of a Neighbourhood Plan must happen before applications will be approved, and that Government Inspectors will uphold that right, dismissing appeals in advance of”

an

“approved Neighbourhood Plan. Don't let random development spoil”

villages like Broughton.

That sums up the position well. I invite the Minister to come to Broughton, to speak to and listen to local residents who are worried about the future of their lovely village. Broughton is not against any development, but it does not want inappropriately large development on inappropriate sites, especially when Kettering borough council has a very good record of working with central Government to provide local homes for local people. Indeed, it approved 5,500 homes under the previous Government on the outskirts of Kettering at Kettering East. Those homes cannot be included in the rolling five-year housing delivery target because, for the development to go ahead on that site, the Highways Agency must approve a new junction—junction 10a—on the A14.

Many housing starts are waiting to happen, dependent on a Government decision on highways. Kettering borough council is doing its best to unblock that blockage, but while it is in place, those houses cannot be counted against the borough council’s rolling five-year housing delivery target and that exposes villages like Broughton to inappropriate development. Developers know that, which is why they are coming forward.

Through you, Mr Weir, I appeal to the Minister for help. Kettering borough council is trying to be helpful, but it is in a difficult position with the Government’s national planning policy framework on rolling five-year targets. I appeal to the Minister on behalf of my constituents in Broughton and all those who live in rural communities in Kettering. He is welcome to come and listen to local concerns, but will he please use his authority to allow authorities such as Kettering to say no to such development when neighbourhood plans are being worked up and will be in place soon? We need his help in the interim.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate on an important local issue. He is, as you know, Mr Weir, the living embodiment of localism, being a representative of his constituents not just in this Parliament as a Member of Parliament but as a borough councillor. I am in awe of his work ethic in taking on two such testing roles.

I strongly welcome Broughton’s interest in pursuing a neighbourhood plan. It is probably the most transformative of the Government’s planning innovations, and I am delighted that it is making particularly good progress with the first three referendums on neighbourhood plans, which were passed with overwhelming majorities. Thame in Oxfordshire secured a higher turnout than the county council elections that took place on the same day. People went to the polls to vote for the neighbourhood plan, but did not vote for a county council candidate. There is a huge amount of popular interest in neighbourhood planning, and I strongly welcome any community that wants to pursue one.

My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot discuss individual applications, past or prospective, but I hope that I can explain to him how the balance of planning policy works and offer to engage with him and Broughton’s residents in future. At the heart of the Localism Act 2011 and the national planning policy framework that it introduced is our wish to devolve to local communities responsibility for making provision for future development as well as the power to plan how those development needs should be met. It is important to understand the combination of the power and the responsibility.

This country has an intense housing need; that is true in Northamptonshire, in my county of Lincolnshire and certainly to the south of both. Every year, the country has built many fewer houses than we need just to meet the growth in our population as a result of ageing and other social changes. That is why we placed at the heart of the framework the idea that discharging responsibility to the local community involves providing sufficient sites to meet the five-year land supply need. That means having sites that are available for development now that could satisfy the area’s housing needs over the next five years. The framework then says that if a local authority does not have the five-year land supply in place, its housing policies will not be considered robust, and applications for housing developments will therefore have to be judged against the national framework policies, which cover a wide range of planning issues, and the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

To reassure my hon. Friend, it is important to understand that it is not a presumption in favour of all development—it is not a free-for-all. The presumption is in favour of sustainable development. The sustainability policies, which are clearly set out in the national planning policy framework, relate to environmental protections and to the importance of sufficient infrastructure. Sustainability captures not only environmental concerns, but economic sustainability and physical sustainability, in terms of the infrastructure supporting development. I am well aware of other decisions by inspectors. They regularly turn down proposals for development when authorities do not have a five-year land supply, because they accept that those development proposals are not sustainable and would conflict with important policies in the framework.

The presumption kicks in when there is no five-year land supply. As my hon. Friend has accepted, that is unfortunately, at the moment, the case for Kettering borough council, although he makes a good argument about why that is, in part, a result of problems with the A14 and its new junction. I would like to reassure him that, as somebody served indirectly by the A14, I am very keen for the A14 improvements to be brought forward. Just yesterday, I met the Minister in the Treasury with responsibility for infrastructure, Lord Deighton, to discuss major national infrastructure projects, and I know that improvements to the A14 are absolutely at the top of the Government’s list of priorities for such projects.

I hope that together we can work to try and accelerate those improvements and the creation of the junction, which my hon. Friend supports. I hope, however, that he also accepts that national policy must be made to apply equally everywhere. Having a policy that requires boroughs to have a five-year land supply means that his borough then needs to find alternative sites while the sites off the A14 are not available, knowing that there will continue to be development needs, and perhaps at the back end of the 15-year plan, those sites will come on stream and other sites will not need to be provided, once the A14 development is complete.

My hon. Friend quoted Councillor Jim Hakewill’s eloquent letter, which I read and replied to on the Prime Minister’s behalf, and which asked, importantly, whether it would be possible to call some kind of moratorium on development applications while neighbourhood plans are under way. That case has been made by other Members of Parliament and by a number of organisations, including the Campaign to Protect Rural England. The difficulty with that proposal is that, first—of course, Parliament could change this—there is no legal basis for introducing a moratorium on development applications while plans are under way.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly—because we can change the law any time if we are persuaded of the merits of doing so—it would, unfortunately, create a perverse incentive that I fear communities less responsible and less proactive than my hon. Friend’s would be inclined to abuse. If we said that once work had started on a neighbourhood plan, there would then be a moratorium on all development applications until the plan process was complete, every single community in the country that wanted to stop development would have a clear incentive to start a neighbourhood plan and take their own sweet time to conclude it, as they would know that they could see off any application in the meantime.

Unfortunately therefore, we need to have, embedded in the system, a dynamic incentive for communities to get a move on and put their plans in place, whether at neighbourhood or local level. The fact is that only through having a robust plan can the community make decisions about speculative applications and know that they will stick. That provides the incentive to take the difficult decisions involved in drawing up a plan, and for the borough council, of which my hon. Friend is a member, to put in place its five-year land supply. That same incentive puts a tiger in the tank of people working as volunteers in neighbourhoods to do their community plan, because they will then know that if they want to control the future development of their community, the plan is urgent, important, and worth getting on with.

In the meantime, I accept that a few applications may be made that will ultimately be accepted, either by the planning authority or by a planning inspector on appeal, that the community would rather not see happen. I completely understand that, but planning is a long game. My hon. Friend has been representing his constituents and residents for a very long time at different levels, and I hope that he will carry on doing so for an even longer time in future. Even if an application that a community does not like gets through in the next year or two, the game is over the next 10 or 20 years. If, 15 years ago, there was the possibility of having neighbourhood plans in all those communities, they would have been able to shape such developments in a way that they were never able to.

I hope that the community of Broughton, which my hon. Friend is representing so well today, will see that even if they cannot control the application that he referred to, they have the possibility, through plan making, of controlling developments for the next 15 years. That applies not only to housing developments, but to the development of community facilities, green spaces and design codes, and to lots of other issues that are vital to people growing up and living in a community.

I have been listening to what the Minister is saying. He has obviously spent a lot of time on the brief and is explaining the policy clearly. On the way home to his constituency, I have a feeling that he probably comes very close to Kettering. Would he be kind enough to call in at Broughton, at a meeting that Councillor Hakewill and I would be pleased to arrange, so that he could listen to residents’ views on the issue and explain the policy?

I would be delighted to. There is nothing I enjoy more than getting out of Westminster and talking to people. I was in Worcestershire and Shropshire last week, and next week I am in Devon and Cornwall—it is rather quicker and easier to get to Kettering and Broughton. I would be delighted to come and talk to residents, and hopefully explain to them the benefits of neighbourhood planning.

It is not that there are no frustrations—there are. It is not that there are no disappointments—there are. It is not that it is easy or quick—it is not. It is a long, painful process that requires volunteers and local councillors to undertake exhaustive efforts on behalf of the common interest, which is a thoroughly admirable thing that I applaud. However, we have a support contract in place to offer communities such as Broughton direct support. There is the possibility of securing a grant of £7,000 towards the out-of-pocket costs of organising a neighbourhood plan. I would be happy to explain that to them, and hopefully, to share the experience of other communities that have done neighbourhood plans successfully. Neighbourhood plans, such as that in Thame, have had to wrestle with substantial development. A plan has been backed that includes plans for 775 additional houses in Thame; nevertheless, it secured the support of more than 70% of the people who voted.

I believe that neighbourhood planning is the answer. I hope that the people of Broughton will not be downcast or put off this important initiative, and I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend in meeting them to discuss how we can make their neighbourhood plan come to reality.

Sitting suspended.

The High Street

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and delighted to have the opportunity to introduce this debate on the future of our high streets. Let me start by saying that, as it is a widely recognised barometer for the performance of our economy, it is especially worrying to have seen more retail chains go into insolvency in the past 12 months than ever before. Yesterday’s British Retail Consortium report, showing that the number of empty shops has reached a new high, adds to a growing sense that our high streets are experiencing a short and painful decline, which the Government, I will argue, are not doing enough to address. First, however, I want to put into context the value of our high streets in terms of retail, as a focal point for communities and as a generator of social capital and civic pride.

As retail is the traditional home of Britain’s biggest private sector employer, it is worth noting that the latest figures from the House of Commons Library show that the retail sector employs 4.2 million people—more than 15% of our work force. It accounts for 34% of all turnover in the UK and, according to the British Retail Consortium, employs 40% of all those aged under 20. UK retail sector sales were worth more than £311 billion in 2012. It is a massive sector and an important rung on the employment ladder for young people.

However, high streets are more than just a place of commerce. They are dynamic hubs of social activity where enduring social bonds are formed that help to create strong and vibrant communities. Local high streets are also a strong source of civic pride; they can help shape a keen sense of local identity, common heritage and local values.

If we take all that into account, it is hard to imagine a future in Britain without the high street playing a substantive role in community life, but as we all know, high streets currently face enormous challenges and many local high streets are fighting for their lives. Faced with that threat to such an important economic and social driver, it is incumbent on Government to act. In the early days of the coalition, Ministers at least gave the impression that they recognised that. The Minister responsible for high streets—the Minister for Housing—said in November 2010:

“My colleagues and I are committed to tackling these challenges head on. After all, our high streets need to be centres for economic growth as we move towards the recovery.”

Two and a half years later, those words have a distinctly hollow ring. Instead of commitment to tackling the problems, Ministers have shown indifference. Indeed, their actions have made things worse. They have not only failed even to give a full response to Mary Portas’s 2011 review, but, year after year, they continue to ignore calls from business groups for some respite on business rates. Every year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer keeps piling millions of pounds on to the bills of retailers, which is causing insolvencies everywhere. And whereas Mary Portas, the Government’s high street tsar, said in her report that the high street had reached “crisis point”, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills blithely claims that there is no crisis on the high street. Those are not the actions of a Government committed to tackling a serious problem. They are the actions of Ministers with their heads in the sand.

My hon. Friend is making powerful points. Does he agree that the biggest boost that the high street could get would be to be on a level playing field with Amazon, which is not paying taxes in this country at the moment?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I will come to the point about Amazon, and not just in relation to business rates; corporation tax is also an issue.

Let me examine the flagship Government policy to tackle the problems facing our high streets—the much talked about Portas pilots. I was an initial supporter of the Portas review and I thought that the pilots were a good idea, but that was before the previous Minister responsible for high streets, who is now the Minister without Portfolio, turned what should have been a serious policy exercise into a farcical circus. Further help was on hand from Optomen Television, which managed to hijack a Government policy and turn it into a reality TV series.

I should like at this point to praise the current Minister responsible for high streets for distancing himself from the antics of his predecessor. He has had the good sense to change the ridiculously titled Future High Street X-Fund to something that is more appropriate to public policy, instead of trying to ape Peter Kay’s last spoof reality TV show. The High Street Renewal Fund sounds much more dignified, but the damage has been done.

It is a year this Sunday since the first wave of Portas pilots was announced. The retail grade magazine, The Grocer, reports that an “emerging findings” report was supposed to be published this April, but has now been shelved. People close to the situation are quoted as saying that there have been

“teething problems including concerns over corporate governance.”

They go on to say that

“having a formal audit-style report may not have been worth the paper it was written on.”

When will the Government’s “emerging findings” report be published, and when will the Government respond to Mary Portas’s recommendations?

Ministers called the Portas pilots the

“vanguard of a high street revolution”.

However, they have been not so much a revolution as a revelation—the revelation that we need substance, not just public relations, to deliver real change.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this very important debate. Does he agree that there is a very important role for local authorities and local business groups in helping to encourage businesses? For example, in Hackney, we are trying to develop outlet retail, to boost the local high street, on Mare street. That one-to-one engagement with businesses is very important at local level, in addition to whatever might happen nationally.

I could not agree more. However, the engagement of businesses has been successful in some areas, but very unsuccessful in others, not least in terms of some of the pilots.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Local people in Houghton tell me that they are concerned about the growing number of fast-food and takeaway outlets on the high street there. They want a better retail offer; they are concerned about the damage that that is doing. Should local people not be offered a greater say in the planning of high streets? In the current circumstance, local people feel powerless to stop that and feel as though they do not have a say on the offer available to them on their town centre high street.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is one that the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of the Labour party, addressed just before the county council elections in terms of planning abilities for local authorities so that they can shape their town centres and high streets more effectively.

My response to the hon. Gentleman’s point is that the high street is too important to communities simply to be left to the free market. There is a requirement for intervention both nationally and locally.

It has been widely reported that many of the first and second-wave Portas pilots have spent hardly any money and some have spent nothing at all. Did Ministers not award the pilots to towns that already had ready-to-go plans to transform their high streets? At a time when urgent action was needed, everyone anticipated that the pilots would hit the ground running. Instead, most of them have withdrawn into a shell and are in a state of paralysis. It now looks as though some of the plans had been drawn up on the back of an envelope and were nowhere near viable. Can the Minister explain how long those pilots are supposed to last? Will they carry on struggling to put plans together indefinitely?

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and I praise the work that he has done in Rochdale. The debate has been quite partisan so far. I am a bit more favourable towards what the Government have done so far. I think that the Portas review was quite a good piece of work. However, I share my hon. Friend’s concern about where the money has been spent and the fact that it has not been spent in some towns. Our experience in Stalybridge is the opposite. We have done some great work, but without any resources. I just wonder whether the Government will be able to say something about how they might get resources to town teams who are doing very good jobs in their areas if places that have been pilots have not been able to do the things that they wanted to do already.

That is an interesting intervention: if money is not being spent in some pilot areas, surely it could be moved to areas with more innovative approaches that are ready to hit the ground running. It would not be fair to tar all pilots with the same brush. I am aware of excellent work that is making a real difference in Market Rasen and Nelson, both of which have shown strong leadership and rich community engagement.

Given the problems, it is no wonder that the Co-operative Group recently—just this week—demanded a review of the Portas pilots. If ever a programme illustrated the disconnect between Whitehall and local communities, this is it. The e-mail exchange that has come to light between Mary Portas’s team and officials from the Department for Communities and Local Government serves to highlight the problems. An example of how Government officials let TV companies set public policy can be seen in an e-mail about local councillors and residents arguing over their high street. A member of Mary Portas’s team e-mailed the DCLG stating:

“In TV terms the fight between the bureaucrats and the passionate citizens could be great”.

That Government officials were having such a conversation beggars belief. The Portas pilots were supposed to be about improving local high streets, not creating arguments for argument’s sake to make good TV. Robin Vaughan-Lyons, chairman of the Margate town team said that people had been left in tears by the antics of Mary Portas’s film crew. He told The Grocer, not a publication given to sensationalist reporting, that they

“are a group of people who are more interested in publicity and being on TV than they are in helping Margate and they have been deliberately encouraged by the film crew to make personal attacks on us.”

We should all celebrate bringing together volunteers to form town teams, for which people give up their time freely to help make their community a better place to live. Surely that is what the Prime Minister envisaged as the big society in action. How disgraceful that Government officials colluded with a TV company to sow seeds of division in communities and stoke up resentment simply to create a dramatic storyline for an hour of tawdry TV. That is not the government by citizens for society that the Prime Minister promised us, but government for television. As one soap opera inspires another, the Minister who was responsible for high streets made sure that the Portas pilots spawned other funds and initiatives. The Government’s high street innovation fund is one such example.

In her review of December 2011, Mary Portas underlined what she wanted councils to do:

“This should be game-changing stuff and thoughtful engagement, not just the usual suspects round a table planning the Christmas decorations.”

How do Ministers square that, I wonder, with the fact that many thousands of pounds from the high street innovation fund has been spent by councils on Christmas lights and hiring Santa Claus and reindeer? Last month was the launch of high street champions, an initiative to support high streets by partnering them with large businesses, but only in the pilot towns. Obviously, it is good to see businesses working together, but I am not convinced that matching big national chains with independent businesses is the best approach.

There can be exceptions. Tesco was born in Hackney on a market stall in Well street, which has great challenges. The local manager had the freedom, after, it has to be said, some negotiations with headquarters, to refuse to have a fresh meat counter because there was a butcher outside the door and to refuse to have a fried chicken counter because of the number of fried chicken shops in the street. Where partnership works, it works well, but, as my hon. Friend highlights, it is challenging for the individual managers of big stores.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The question is about how Government can affect the situation locally. There are lots of examples of good practice at a local level, but we have not had a strong sense of direction or leadership from the Government on town centres and high streets.

Rather than talking about high street champions, I would like the Government to consider funding digital champions: experts in multichannel retail, who can make a real difference and work with the independent retail community to help it embrace multichannel retail to supplement shops and safeguard its future. Independents make up 69% of all shops, and we need to do everything we can to safeguard their presence on our high streets.

When we look back on high street policy carried out by the coalition Government, we see that the multitude of headline grabbing initiatives have blinded us to the elephant in the room that is causing the most damage on the high street. I refer of course to business rates. The Government have collected an extra £500 million over the past two years through increased business rates, and yet they have spent only £20 million on the Portas pilots. Week in, week out, businesses in Rochdale tell me that the tax is far too high and is dragging them close to the brink. Research published this year by the Forum of Private Business shows that 94% of small business owners think that business rates are far too high. There is a growing sense that the Government see the high street only as a cash cow to milk to exhaustion.

The sense of injustice is further embedded by the Government’s decision to postpone next year’s business rates revaluation. While London property prices continue to rise, business owners in more affluent metropolitan areas can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the Government will keep their rates artificially low, but many northern businesses, which have seen property prices fall by 40% in some areas, have to pay the top-of-the-market 2008 rates until 2017. We end up with the absurd scenario of Burnley effectively subsidising Bond street, and Rochdale subsidising Regent street. Business rates for an Amazon fulfilment centre in Doncaster are calculated at £44 per square metre, yet for an out-of-town Comet store in Rochdale, which as we know subsequently closed, they were £125 per square metre. Even worse, the rates for one unit in a Rochdale shopping centre are calculated at £1,080 per square metre—24 times more expensive than the rates Amazon pay in Doncaster.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Does my hon. Friend agree that, although business rates show no flexibility, landlords are being flexible over rents? Business rates represent a barrier to trade.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I have seen properties in Rochdale with business rates that exceed the price of the rent; that cannot be right. There is a significant and serious problem with business rates. There is no doubt that they are past their sell-by date. Will the Minister use today’s debate to acknowledge that this prehistoric tax regime is unfairly holding businesses back and is not fit for purpose? The Valuation Office Agency needs an urgent overhaul and business rates desperately need reform.

Many people are of course already doing their bit to try to reform our high streets and move away from the chain stores’ monopoly, to give a new generation of people the skills to set up new and diverse businesses. I pay tribute to Retail Ready People, an initiative led by vInspired and the Retail Trust, which works with young people in Rochdale to help them set up a pop-up shop on the high street. It is working all over the country to give young people the skills and confidence to take over empty shops.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on his attempt to blame the coalition for many of the problems with our high streets—it is inventive, if nothing else. Amazon is a big employer of my constituents. Last year I tried to help secure transport for people from my constituency to work there. It is an important local employer that he has bashed a couple of times. Does he want Rochdale business rates to move towards Amazon business rates or does he want Amazon business rates to move towards Rochdale business rates? If it is the former, can he tell us where the money will come from?

It is neither. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) made the point that Amazon is not paying full corporation tax, and there is a discrepancy in business rates, so I suggest that we need to overhaul the whole business rates system. It is simply not fit for purpose.

I am aware that many other voices are not locked into the myopic consensus that characterises Government thinking on the high street. One of them is that of Bill Grimsey, a turnaround specialist, who was formerly the chief executive of Wickes, Iceland and other companies. I met Bill recently, and he explained that town centres cannot be saved as pure retail destinations. Technology is already influencing how we shop, and in the future everything will change. What is required, he argued, is a holistic approach to creating vibrant high streets that addresses housing, education, health, entertainment and shopping.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He has not yet addressed something that probably costs retailers more than business rates: credit card interchange fees. If they were reduced to what Europe has said the cross-border level should be, £1 million would be put into every MP’s high street. That is an enormous amount of money. Would the hon. Gentleman therefore give the Government credit for acting on credit card interchange fees through the recent consultation, and does he hope that we can make progress? That would make a substantial difference, by putting demand into local economies.

I welcome that intervention. I am not very familiar with the issue, and it has not been raised with me in relation to the high street, but the hon. Gentleman makes an interesting and important point, about which I am keen to learn more.

We need a fully focused, committed approach by Government, not another dose of dilettante PR. Currently, it is hard to know who is in charge of high street policy. Let us just spend a moment trying to make sense of where the change we need is coming from.

The Business Secretary turned up at the recent Retail Week Live conference and talked about accepting Mary Portas’s 38 recommendations, when there were only 28. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is constantly in the newspapers, using emotive language to talk about car parking charges while he continues to cut council budgets to the bone. A Department for Communities and Local Government Minister claims that the unfair business rates revaluation delay is right, despite not one voice in retail supporting the move. The Minister with responsibility for Portas pilots and high streets carries out the role on a part-time basis while he tends to his main duties as housing Minister, and today we have a planning Minister addressing this high street debate.

I say to the Minister that someone needs to get a grip. We need a full-time high streets Minister and clear, strong leadership from the Government. Only then might the Prime Minister’s woolly rhetoric about ensuring that high streets are at the heart of every community start to mean something.

I have six or seven Members wishing to speak, and I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at no later than 3.40 pm. I do not intend to put a fixed time limit on speeches, but if people speak for about seven minutes, everyone should be able to make a decent contribution. I hope that everyone will look to that kind of time scale.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk)on having introduced the debate with his usual cheery optimism, in a slightly more partisan way than he needed to. I must apologise to you, Mr Davies, because I am moonlighting from the Finance Bill and might have to return there before the final summing up. I have another colleague here in a similar situation—the Whips should not be informed.

On Sunday I had a very optimistic experience. I was in a small street in Southport called Wesley street, where the traders have suffered for some time, blighted by shops not being filled and worries about custom. They have done a great deal for themselves, including painting their shops in contrasting vibrant colours. On Sunday they had organised a festival. They had put a green swathe down the middle of the street and a series of events was taking place. The place was absolutely buzzing. That group of traders have had the courage and initiative to reinvent themselves, and that is what we need in the high street.

The high street must, in a sense, reinvent itself. Certain pressures are not due just to the coalition Government, as might be supposed from the opening contribution. They are due to fairly long-term things, such as changes in shopping and working habits, the fact that we are living in an age of austerity and there is generally less money around and less profit for companies, and the fact that the drift out of town continues. Overwhelmingly, they are due to the threat of the internet and the fact that people can now shop at any time of the day or night. In some places, including my own constituency, the pressures are also due to the threat from increased mega-retail development—as I call it—such as at Liverpool One, Bluewater and the Trafford centre.

People look at what is happening on their local high street and see it as a kind of blight. They regret the lack of vitality. They look at the empty shops, and believe that something must be done. That is apparent, but what is not is what must be done. Some things clearly will not be done. The clock will not be put back, the internet will not be abandoned—people will use it more—and people will continue to change their habits. We cannot roll back to the 1960s.

Above all, the high street cannot buck the markets. Certain things are thriving. In the high street, things that may be undesirable, such as charity shops, and payday loan and cash register companies, are thriving in the current regime. Nail bars seem to do extraordinarily well in my neck of the woods, and coffee shops are in wild abundance—no one need be short of caffeine in any part of the UK as far as I can see. Building societies are also there, but they are a rather dull and sober presence. Most of the general public do not see that as satisfactory, and they say that something must be done. But it is not obvious what must be done, or who will do it.

Businesses are doing something anyway—they are pulling out. The chains have deserted many of our towns, some by going bust and some by moving to retail in other ways. Councils must do something, but they are desperately short of cash, and I agree with the hon. Member for Rochdale that metropolitan boroughs in particular are getting a poor deal at the moment with regard to the grant support settlement. Councils also complain about being short of certain necessary powers and levers—the Minister might have something to say about that—and they are also short of options.

Very early in any conversation with retailers we are asked, “What can you do about parking and the onerous charges? What can you do to level the playing field with out-of-town shopping?” Councils can tinker, but they cannot stop rationing parking because people will have just as many cars and there will be no more space in town centres than before. There will need to be some sort of system.

People say that the Government must do something, but the Government do not seem to have a clear or obvious solution. If they had one, I think they would employ it, because there is certainly the public demand, and also demand from other Members of Parliament. They do fund schemes, such as the Portas ones, and they employ advisers, such as Ms Portas. I think that they also employ Terry Leahy, which I am not so sure about. In my view, he is not necessarily the guy who has done the most for the high street over the past few years—certainly not in my town. We have a big out-of-town shopping centre, and Tesco made an unsuccessful bid to increase its area for non-food retail there, which would have hugely damaged the high street.

What I am trying to say is that the solution is elusive, which is probably because there is not just one solution but a range of individual ones. During the Portas phase, the Government did not approach a local authority and say, “You must do this,” or “You must do that,” but rather, “Bid for what you think you can do that will work”. The Government have a positive role. They can spread good practice. If they find that something works in Stockport or Rochdale, they should tell the world about it so that other local authorities and communities can follow suit. They can encourage the reinvention of the high street, through the promotion of business improvement district projects and the like. In my constituency, we hope soon to have a BID of some sort. A business improvement district gives local retailers more control over their immediate environment, and that can only be a good thing.

The Government need to do something, and sometimes it is easier to reduce the retail footprint, where that is sensible. If that means more domestic use in town centres, that is not necessarily a bad thing, as far as the vitality of towns is concerned. It might bring young people to a town who otherwise would not get housed at all.

The Government can do something about out-of-town development. I am told by the Federation of Small Businesses that Tesco often pays no rates on its car parks. It pays rates on its stores, but it has often negotiated an environment in which it pays no rates on its car parks. That is a clear anomaly that could be addressed to level the playing field.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, above all, the Government need to do something about the rates system, or about stimulating and producing some change in the commercial property market.

The hon. Gentleman touches on an interesting topic when he says that Tesco and other large stores pay rates on their stores, but not their car parks. In examining the possibility of large out-of-town stores paying rates on their car parks, would it not make sense to redeploy and recycle that money into the regeneration of town centres to give them innovation, as well as colour, class and style, and so ensure that they are reinvigorated, even if that costs a bit more for out-of-town centres?

Totally. Out-of-town shopping centres have a duty to the town that they are outside, and with which they are often not engaged.

I understand that, during the pre-Budget negotiations, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills thought it reasonable to investigate whether something might be done about retail business rates, but that the difficulty is how to advantage the people we want to be given an advantage—the small shopkeepers—not the big players, some of whom need no financial support whatever. I could refer again to Tesco.

Where we want to do something about business rates, that is currently more complex than it need be, which I want the Minister to investigate. I have heard reports from small business sources that when they want a downward valuation of their business rates and have a serious case—and when business rates are out of kilter with rents, as the hon. Member for Rochdale suggested—it takes far too long to get a result. By the time that it has all been sorted out, they will be out of business.

My fundamental point is that retailers must adjust to the shock of the new. They need to see their shops not as antagonistic to the internet, but must play along with it and be portals for it, because they have certain advantages. The current system, with white vans constantly going up and down the country and leaving brown parcels in the porches of people who are out, is not frightfully efficient. There is no capacity within internet marketing or sales for much to be done about repair or return, at least not without additional expense. Very little quality control can be exercised when people deal with an internet retailer, as opposed to one whose shop they can walk into to complain about the product. The interesting point—this is why I think that the hon. Gentleman is really on to something—is that some big stores, such as John Lewis, which have used the internet very well, have found that that has not corrupted or reduced their in-store sales, but has enhanced and developed them, so antagonism need not exist.

In conclusion, there is a need for the retail sector and the high streets of this country to pull themselves up by their own boot straps. There is significant help that the Government can get, and I am sure that there will be lots more sensible suggestions.

Order. I reiterate, I hope with more success, the need for brevity from Members to allow everybody to speak.

This has been a good debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) began it very well by pointing to the sharp and painful decline of the high street, and by drawing attention to the importance of the retail sector for the employment of young people in particular, and for the vibrancy of our communities and culture. As he said, local high streets are now fighting for their lives.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), who has reminded us of the obligation on high streets to reinvent themselves. That is something that they have done over the ages. In the 1950s, Scunthorpe high street was dominated by the Co-op. Every store up and down the high street, from the butcher’s and the baker’s to the carpet maker’s, was the Co-op. It has since gone through many changes, and now faces more challenges.

The challenges have been clearly spelled out in this debate. High streets are operating in the worst recession since the 1930s, with people understandably not spending money. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale covered the issue of the rigidity of business rates, which, still set at pre-2008 boom-time levels, act as corsets round the high street in this time of challenge. The Government should have the imagination and ingenuity to respond to that. The predilection for online shopping, which is not going to go away, is also changing habits on the high street. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said, it is important to have a level playing field between online retailers and those on the high street.

Car parking is an issue in Scunthorpe in relation to how the high street manages to compete against out-of-town shopping. Scunthorpe has two high streets: one in Ashby, which is a small market centre, and the main one in Scunthorpe itself. Scunthorpe is being challenged by a big development proposal led by a developer called Simons, with an anchor store for Marks & Spencer, which is of course attractive to the area. There is plenty of space in the town centre that would be good for a Marks & Spencer store, but we unfortunately live in a world where the business model is to develop out-of-town retail. If local people had any purchase on the decision making, they would encourage Marks & Spencer to come to the area, but to a town centre retail position.

As Members have said, incentives encourage retailers to go out of town rather than to the high street, which is part of the challenge that we face. The Government might reflect on how best to respond. Planning permission has been agreed for the out-of-town development that I have mentioned, but the developers now want to alter it to allow them to have coffee shops on the site as well, which would further disadvantage the town centre, despite its being made clear in the original application to the planning committee that that was unlikely. Retailers feel that the advantage is moving against them.

What do retailers in Scunthorpe and Ashby say that they need to equalise the playing field? They say, “Give us two hours’ free car parking.” That is the key to the equalisation of the playing field. To be fair to Conservative-controlled North Lincolnshire council, it has gradually moved on that point. There has been a bit of kicking and fighting. I produced a 2,000-person petition in favour of two hours’ free car parking in Scunthorpe and Ashby. Retailers have made it very clear that they need it to transform their chances of staying alive through these difficult times. The Scunthorpe town team, led by Eddie Lodge and colleagues, has done an excellent job in highlighting its value for the Scunthorpe retailer and shopper, as has Keep Scunthorpe Alive, which is led by Des Comerford and town-centre retailers. Two hours’ free car parking is needed to equalise the playing field through these difficult times. It would be helpful if the Government came up with a bag of cash, but I suspect that that will not happen.

As the hon. Member for Southport pointed out, council budgets face very difficult challenges, and North Lincolnshire council is no different, but it has gradually moved towards creating two hours’ free parking. It is obvious to anybody who understands the area that if the Parishes multi-storey car park in the centre of Scunthorpe, which is not heavily utilised, had two hours’ free car parking throughout the day, with payment still being on exit, that would transform opportunities. Perversely, the Conservative-controlled council is flirting with the idea of changing it to a pay-and-display car park, and having two hours’ free car parking from about 2 pm, but that would vitiate the dwell time. When people go into town centres, we want them to spend time there and, if they bump into my colleague the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), to have a coffee with him, without worrying about getting a ticket on leaving the pay-and-display car park—unfortunately, we have very vigilant car park attendants. I am using the debate to spell out the case for two hours’ free car parking in the Parishes multi-storey in Scunthorpe. That would be a shot in the arm for the local economy and the local high street.

I recognise and commend the work of local businesses Primark, BHS, Barclays, the Poundshop, Vodafone, and Coe and Co. They have all made investments in the town centre in the past two years, so this is a changing scene. I also highlight Fallen Hero, which won the Drapers award for young fashion retailer of the year only last year. It is a model of what my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale called multi-channel retail, in that it has a high street presence and an online presence, and that is a dynamic way forward for the high street.

The recession; the progression to out-of-town shopping and superstores; the march of the internet; Lord Prescott’s decision to get rid of Tynedale local authority in favour of a Northumberland county council in Morpeth, which is miles away; and the car-parking inequity in Northumberland: those and many other problems bedevil our high streets. Worst of all, however, is our convenience culture: our innate desire to take the easy path or the soft option, and that leads us to the one-stop shop. All of us, in this room and in life, are guilty of taking that option, but if we do not use our high street, we will lose it.

The reports of the death of our high streets are, however, greatly exaggerated. They remain the beating heart of our communities. They are more than just a row of shops; they and their small business are the heart of our local communities. To be fair, the Government are, as I am sure the Minister will outline, doing good work on extending small businesses rate relief until April 2014 and on changing the planning laws to assist the high street. I strongly approve of those policies, which are helping, and I hope to see improvements in the way the Valuation Office Agency goes about its business, and all of us will have had experience of inequities in that respect as constituency MPs.

I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman. I know Hexham, and I believe it won an award a few years ago for being the best place to shop in England or the UK—I cannot remember which, but I am sure he will tell me. He sounded a bit gloomy, but perhaps he could share some of the secrets of Hexham’s success so that we can take them back to our constituencies.

Watch, listen and learn. The truth is that Hexham has a wonderful high street. As the hon. Lady correctly said, Hexham was named market town of the year in 2005, with a mix of charm, accessibility and community spirit that set it apart from its peers. The judging panel said:

“There is a definite sense here of a town with a pride and a purpose. It is friendly and welcoming, where people matter and visitors are made to feel at home.”

I could go further, but time does not allow me to.

The blunt reality is that the town has suffered the same problems as all other towns. It may have an abbey that has been there since 600, it may have Hadrian’s wall on its doorstep, it may have God’s own county around it and it may have a plethora of wonderful independent retailers, book festivals and music festivals—all manner of good things—but it is not immune to the problems that affect other towns.

That brings us to what individual Members of Parliament and the Government can do. What we can do to address the points that have been identified—this is what I would like to think we are doing in Hexham—is roll up our sleeves and come up with a plan to reinvigorate our high street. With the town council, the county council and the proponents of the town plan and the neighbourhood plan, we have formed an action plan, which we have called “In Hexham, For Hexham”. It sets out six key objectives for restoring the town to its former glory. It takes on some of the good ideas from the Portas review, such as free parking. It looks to employ town centre managers to co-ordinate everything on behalf of retailers. It is transforming sites that welcome visitors, such as the bus station, so that they actually look good. We are cleaning the town, painting the town and planting the town. In those three aspects, there is great scope.

Fundamentally, we are inviting all retailers to give us a wish list of what they would like to see changed, and we are actioning those lists through MPs’ offices and the county council. We are also physically rolling up our sleeves. On 6 July, along with all the retailers, I will be going around the town and smartening it up. That is very much what individual retailers have to do: they must come together and work strongly so that there is positive change in their local area. There is much more I could say, but I hope that, over the coming months, we will see significant and real action to transform Hexham town.

To finish, let me take my cue from the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and celebrate Hexham. No less a newspaper than The Guardian, which I obviously read every day, said Hexham remains one of the best places to live in Britain. It informed its readers that Hexham is

“as cute as a puppy’s nose”

and

“as handsome as Clark Gable”—

it was not talking about the MP, I hasten to add. It asked whether my humble home is

“the nicest market town in the known universe”.

Finally, it urged its readers on, saying, “Let’s move to Hexham”. I am not sure what that would do to my majority, but I welcome one and all to come and taste the unique retailing and high street blend that is Hexham in Northumberland.

Order. Five people are seeking to catch my eye. We have less than 25 minutes before I call the Front Benchers. I therefore urge people to show some self-control and consideration for others so that we can get everybody in.

From Hexham to Hackney. There are some of the same delights, but also some of the same challenges.

I want to focus particularly on the plans for Mare street and the Narrow way, but we also have Dalston shopping centre, which is a little tired, although there are plans to revamp it, and it is a busy, active level B shopping centre. We have the wonderful Broadway market, which was improved as a result of residents and retailers joining forces, and it has very much become a destination where people meet up. We also have Victoria park, and estate agents have dubbed the surrounding area Victoria Park village. The local food retailers, particularly the Ginger Pig butchers and the local fishmongers, act as anchor stores, helping to attract shoppers who will browse in other shops in the area, such as the excellent Victoria Park Books, and in the local art galleries.

There is also Chatsworth road, which is still on the turn from being a high street with many challenges to one where there are now some quite expensive shops and a nice market with expensive goods. There are still some of the lower-end, cheaper goods, and there is a challenge to make sure the local community is served by having affordable as well as destination shops. Then there is Well street, which has faced many challenges, and which still has some way to go, partly because one local charity owns a lot of the premises, and it has been difficult to turn them over to new retailers, for reasons I do not have time to go into. Finally, there is Hoxton Street market, which is very old and famous. Again, it is being revamped, as part of an attempt to improve our markets.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) summed up Hexham in his own way, and I would sum up Hackney in terms of its three main markets. There is Broadway market, where it costs about £2.50 for a loaf of bread, but people have a great time sitting watching the world go by. There is Ridley Road market, where people can buy traditional fruit and veg, and where retailers have been known to sell bush meat and cane rat, which the council clearly clamped down on very quickly. Parts of the Ridley Road feel very much like a Nigerian market. There is also Hoxton Street market, where you can get three pairs of knickers for a pound—I see you are very interested in that, Mr Davies. However, that sums up the many differences in my constituency, which covers a wide range of people. We then have Kingsland Waste market, which is a sad shadow of its former itself, although there are plans to improve the markets generally.

I want to touch particularly on Mare street and the Narrow way. The council is looking at trying to improve the high street. A recent survey measured the footfall and conducted face-to-face interviews with 478 individuals. It showed that the area is popular for shopping, particularly with people who live nearby, but only 5% of those surveyed planned to meet friends there. That is one of the challenges: this is not a destination that people go to do things other than their basic shopping.

Some of the overall strengths and weaknesses highlighted were quite interesting, and they perhaps sum up the challenges facing high streets up and down the country. The strengths were that there was an established local catchment—so people went there because it was convenient —and great good will and loyalty. It is the main local centre for more than 140,000 consumers—so friendly, not frenzy, Mr Davies, is what you get in Hackney shopping streets. There are many reasons to visit. There are still banks and useful shops. Buses are a key strength: people can get there easily by public transport.

On the negative side, customer numbers appear to be in decline, not just in Mare street and the Narrow way; there are few new customers. We are not getting the destination shoppers we need to increase the footfall. There is little new development. The shop fronts are tired, and the area has been left behind for a long time. Trading is down, which is a sign of the times for all of us on our high streets, and the retailers’ offer is limited—particularly on food and beverages, where provision is particularly poor. The study by the Retail Group for Hackney council concluded that people need more reasons to visit, and more trip generators.

What, then, has the council done to try to improve things? The balance between the roles of the council and Government and of retailers is interesting. The Manhattan Loft Corporation has been brought in by the council and is investing significant amounts of money in a fashion outlet retail centre, close to Mare street and the Narrow way. We have had a Burberry outlet store for many years. The way to tell a Hackney councillor was by their smart mac and fold-up Brompton bicycle; but we now have Aquascutum and Pringle outlet stores recruiting local unemployed people—so that is a boost to jobs, and there are great plans for redevelopment there. Anyone who wants cheap, high-end fashion can come to the new outlet store in Hackney when it is fully developed. There will be a range of developments in the railway arches nearby, and they will entice in local designers for pop-up stores. We are a fashion hub, with some top designers interested in coming to the area. That must all filter through to the old Mare street and the Narrow way, however, to ensure that there is change.

I have two key pleas to make to the Minister. The first is about bookies and change of use—and we have the planning Minister here. I am not against high street bookies, but we have 65 in Hackney and five, I think, in that one high street, so they are too concentrated, and the ease of change of use makes it far too easy for them to open next door to each other. Secondly, we need the Government to think seriously about business rates. I shall not repeat the points that my colleagues have made, but it is a big issue. When businesses tell me that they pay more in business rates than in rent, it is a real issue. No wonder high streets are struggling.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on raising this important subject. It is one about which I am passionate, because my parents ran shops, so after school I often played behind the shop counter. We had wool shops—so I wore ill-fitting jumpers well past the time when it was socially acceptable—and a series of hairdresser’s shops, which were ultimately wasted on me. I am also the vice-chair of the all-party groups on town centres and on retail. I am unashamedly a big fan of Mary Portas and her work. In my constituency, I have organised retail forums and I regularly attend the inSwindon business improvement district company board meetings, working with retailers.

Town centre regeneration on the high street is a major issue in Swindon. We were on the cusp of major regeneration when the 2008 economy crashed, and the developers, as they did across the country, went out of business. However, thankfully, the diggers are now in place. We have a brand new cinema, restaurants and all sorts of regeneration, and it is a huge relief to the town—a town with 300,000 people within 20 minutes of its town centre and 3 million within an hour. It is no coincidence that a £65 million rebuild has just been confirmed for our Oasis leisure centre, because it is so easy to get to Swindon.

We have a McArthurGlen outlet village, which is a model of the retail world. It has been hugely successful and continues to expand at an incredible rate. That is the basis of some of the points I want to make: what works so well for the McArthurGlen outlet village is that it is one centre and one point of contact, so a retailer needs to talk to only one person—not the local authority, or so-and-so the landlord. There is one point of contact, with one set of marketing, employing all the staff and ensuring that customer service is good. If any of the retailers fail to conform, they are out. That improves the customer experience. We have the potential, with the proposals for super-BIDs, to give an organisation such as a BID all the powers in a town centre, treating it a bit like one big shopping centre, making it easier for retailers, and consolidating marketing and promotion.

Several hon. Members have rightly highlighted the importance of parking. Probably the biggest disaster under the previous Government was the obsession with green travel plans, under which councils built on car parks, hiked up parking charges and forced shoppers to use buses. Buses have their place but that decimated town centres. Thankfully my local authority recognised that, and after a 22% fall in footfall in five years, car parking charges were cut. There was praise for that in the Mary Portas review. The charge is now £2 for 4 hours, and, unsurprisingly, there has been an 11% increase in footfall. Crucially, the dwell time has also increased. Over time, reversing that policy has meant collecting more income. Flexibility is vital. From a planning perspective, town centres need to change, so local authorities must accept—this will be music to the Minister’s ears—that they need to be absolutely flexible. In Swindon, whenever developers came along and said, “Look, we want to flip the town centre on a 5° axis,” the local authority said, “No problem at all.” That is why we will get major town centre regeneration.

Several hon. Members have highlighted the problem with business rates. I do not want to repeat arguments, but I know that the British Retail Consortium has done fantastic research on that, and it is true that something is terribly wrong when business rates are higher than rent. Landlords are being flexible and lowering costs. In my constituency I think the cost has gone from £180 to £140 per square foot; but business rates are rigid. I know that in theory local authorities can be flexible, but they do not necessarily have the funding for that. I propose that either we need a system linked to the rent being paid, so that if a landlord is flexible, the business rates would be flexible, or—and this will upset my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy)—we need to deal with Amazon. It is destroying the high street that is its shop window. There should be some form of internet consumer tax, with the revenue ring-fenced to subsidise the traditional high street business rate case. It will not be popular with Amazon. I met its chief executive and he did not share my view, but that suggests it is probably the right thing to do.

We need the next generation of independent consumers, so that we do not have identikit town centres. I have been doing a huge amount of work to encourage opportunity for young entrepreneurs. Some local authorities have not been quick enough about spending the money that the Government have provided for the high street. There should be opportunities, to give young entrepreneurs a go. I have set up several schemes, which have proved very successful. Mary Portas made a relevant point, which was that retailers got lazy and need to sort their game out. Customer service is crucial. That is why John Lewis has been doing so well. In previous debates I have highlighted businesses in my constituency, such as Bloomfields and the Forum. They have set themselves apart and bucked the trend, and are expanding.

I urge the Minister to remain flexible, promote best practice and work with the all-party groups on town centres and on retail and the British Retail Consortium. Let us be proud that we are a nation of shopkeepers.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on securing the debate.

As the chair of the all-party group on small shops, I welcome the opportunity to discuss the high street. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) I am the child of shopkeepers. I grew up over the shop—and under the till, half the time. I am proud of the small shops heritage that I have, and which our nation has, as a country of small shopkeepers.

Witham town has had several challenges to its high street, as other towns have, but it is an entrepreneurial community. There is phenomenal good will among the residents and the town team group. Despite the occupancy rate—there are about 114 empty premises in Witham town; it is slightly higher than in other parts of the Braintree district—there is no doubt that with the right amount of support from our local authority and the business community and community groups, we are coming together to innovate and address the town centre challenge differently and creatively.

The Government should be commended for many positive schemes, such as the town team partners initiative, StartUp Britain and the high street innovation fund. For entrepreneurs in particular, who will be the next generation of business leaders in the community, such schemes are engaging.

I should like the Minister to comment on several issues. One of our priorities in Witham town is to reinvigorate the high street by renewing interest in the local market. That includes relocating it to the high street. It is all about location. It will expand the offering and make the high street more attractive. Of course we can consider parking and similar issues, too. I should be grateful if the Minister elaborated on the measures that could be used locally to implement changes successfully—to cut through red tape and some of the local government bureaucracy and barriers that hinder the town team.

Like many town centres, Witham needs investment in its public spaces, and our local community groups coming together to do something about them is one of the greatest areas of recent work. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) mentioned painting and tidying up the local community, and I commend the initiative of the Witham Boys Brigade to plant flowers and tidy up what I call the Witham gateway, which is straight off the A12. Small solutions such as that, once they spread across our towns, bring a great sense of community and enhance the aesthetic values of our communities. Getting businesses and local firms to sponsor such community initiatives is also a great way of involving them.

We have touched on business rates, but I want to discuss the impact of crime on our high streets, in particular on small shops. There is no doubt that crime undermines businesses. It is terribly demoralising for business owners who put their lives into their small shops and high-street businesses. Shopkeepers who work hard to earn every single penny are being threatened by criminals and find their lives and livelihoods being put at risk, which is absolutely awful. I want the Minister to join me in calling on the police, prosecutors and courts to do more. While our law enforcement agencies have good intentions, more should be done to support those setting up businesses and investing their livelihoods in our high streets, and to compel offenders to pay more in fines.

I will leave it there owing to the time, but sending a positive message to businesses about crime should be part of the Government’s wider programme to support our high streets, which includes all the successful measures already put in place.

Order. We will go to the Front-Bench spokespeople at 3.40 pm. That leaves the parliamentary neighbours the hon. Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) eight minutes to divide between them.

I think my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), is more than happy for me to eat into his time as we are such good neighbours. I thank him for the confirmation I just got from the look on his face.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk)—apparently that constituency is in Lancashire —on securing the debate and on much of what he said. Like other speakers, I agree with the comments about the need to deal with business rates, so I will not repeat those arguments. Similarly, I am grateful to my flatmate and hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) for making some response to comments of the hon. Member for Rochdale about the previous Government’s planning policies. I sat on a local authority for 10 years and I can say that the planning policies of the time seemed to work against our town centres in many ways, so the failures cut across political divides.

I should also point out that we, as consumers, are hypocrites when it comes to our high streets. We all love them, but how many of us have recently ordered online? How many of us have recently ordered from Amazon? The arms are not going up, but I have no doubt that I am not the only one here to have ordered from Amazon in recent months. Of course, Amazon does employ local people, but we have to understand that we are all slightly hypocritical.

I want to focus on what local authorities can do, because they can play a really positive role. Indeed, the local authorities in my constituency—North Lincolnshire council and East Riding of Yorkshire council—are currently playing positive roles. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) made an excellent speech. Scunthorpe’s is probably the most challenging high street in our area in terms of regeneration, and its difficulties are much more complex. He said that the local Conservative council was edging towards free parking, which is slightly disingenuous given that it was the previous Labour administration that scrapped free parking and imposed charges across north Lincolnshire. It was the Conservative council, when it took control in 2011, that scrapped the charges in Brigg and introduced free parking periods in Scunthorpe, which had never been done before. The hon. Gentleman did at least acknowledge that it was the Conservative council that was behind those measures. The introduction of free parking has made a huge difference in Brigg. Talk to retailers and they will say that the two-hour free-parking period has had a massive impact on the number of people coming into the town. In Epworth, the council has worked incredibly hard to provide 40 extra parking spaces, which was a big boost to its town centre.

Councils need to get a bit smarter about their resources. The council in Brigg has tied together its vision for the high street with its vision for tourism, leisure and heritage and has created a new heritage centre. The library has been moved closer to the town centre, which is now becoming a hive of activity that people want to visit for a whole range of reasons. The previous Labour council was going to close the tourist information centre—[Interruption.] It was consulted on. We have not only refurbished it, but have developed that service even further. There is much that councils can do.

Another scheme that should be considered across the country is the creation of wi-fi hotspots in our town centres, something that North Lincolnshire council is committed to funding. Across in the East Riding of Yorkshire, I have managed to get a local company to offer the service for free in Goole town centre. It is another way of drawing people in with a USP that says, “This is a modern centre.” Shops and cafes can also make use of it. They can have a shop front, but they can also generate online sales and promote themselves that way.

A great deal can be done and I ask the Minister, if he wants to, to come and spend some time in north Lincolnshire and look at what we have done on free parking and on trying to put services back into our town centres. We are currently working on another project with another town in my constituency that I hope will come to fruition soon. Even in these tough times, local authorities can do things to help to bring people back into town centres.

I had plenty more to say, but in fairness to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes I am going to sit down and allow him to talk about his constituency. I ask hon. Members to count how many times he says “England’s premier east coast resort.”

It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to speak in this debate as the third member of the north Lincolnshire trio. This debate provides an opportunity for us all to showcase our high streets, and I will be no exception to that. First, however, I want to touch on the Portas review, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and others.

As I have said in previous debates, I do not regard the Portas review as a panacea for the revival of our high streets. I do not want to pour cold water on it, but as a former member of a town team for many years, I can assure hon. Members that virtually every idea in the review has been discussed, debated and tried not only on the Grimsby town team, on which I was representing the local authority—like this Government, it was at the time a successful Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition —[Interruption.] I take the applause of the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). My point is that we cannot just assume that reducing parking charges, for example, is the absolute answer. I say that not because I am against it—I would have free parking wherever possible—but the reality is that we at North East Lincolnshire council wrestled with how we were going to deal with the £1 million income that we get from parking charges and set that against the obvious attractions of trying to provide cheaper or free parking. As we heard from the other two north Lincolnshire Members, North Lincolnshire council has come up with a good scheme that contributes considerably towards that, but it is not the absolute panacea.

There is a danger that such debates can turn into a round of “knock the supermarkets,” but let us not forget that, as we heard earlier, supermarkets such as Marks and Spencer and Tesco actually grew from market stalls. Meeting the demands of the consumer is the key here. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe mentioned the Co-op, and I can remember being dragged down Grimsby’s Freeman street by my mother to the Co-op, which was an enormous department store in those days. It dominated the whole shopping centre and was the Tesco of its day. So there has always been a department store, as it were, with everything under one roof, but the independent retailers must be able to compete with that.

Let me turn to Cleethorpes, the pre-eminent resort on the east coast. It has a very successful high street, St Peter’s avenue, which is only a mile and a half from Tesco’s out-of-town development. However, having a mix of shops, including independent shops, that meet consumer demand is the key. Those shops in Cleethorpes are thriving and successful.

As I close, I have one point to put to the Minister. We all recognise that, with changing consumer patterns, there are too many retail units, or former retail units, in every high street and every parade of shops in every town up and down the country. I appreciate that the Government are doing some things in terms of planning to help with the reclassification—change of use, and so on—but what is needed is a scheme to regenerate those properties, to bring them back into use and to prevent the dereliction that plagues so many of our high streets.

Thank you, Mr Davies, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on securing this debate. The fact that it is timely, necessary and topical is evidenced by the number of Members who are here in Westminster Hall today. I also thank him for his excellent contribution to the debate, which clearly pointed out the lack of appropriate action being taken by the Government to regenerate our high streets.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) for raising the issue of payday loan companies, which is an issue I will return to later, and my hon. Friend for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for reminding us that the retail sector is very important as an employment base in our constituencies and for offering opportunities to young people. I must also say to him that, having heard his contribution, I now feel I know the members of his town team personally; I hope they appreciate that.

At one point, I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) were trying to outdo each other in arguing about which place was the best to visit—Hackney or Hexham—and in particular where the best market was. I have noted their comments for future shopping trips.

Of course, other Members pointed to the need to have greater differentiation on our high streets and to the need to invest in public spaces, and we heard lots of other ideas about how to improve the high street. There were also lots of invitations for the Minister, which I hope he is grateful for.

At the outset, I will say that I do not particularly want to criticise Mary Portas and the approach she has taken. She and the Government were right to flag the challenges that our high streets face from the recession, online trading and out-of-town centres. It was right that we had a focus on the high street and I do not blame Mary Portas for being a celebrity or for wanting to make a TV show. However, I am critical of the Government for not taking this issue seriously enough and for not having an approach to the high street that is capable of meeting the challenges that Mary Portas identified.

I feel a bit sorry for the Minister who is here today—the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles)—because of course he is not the Minister who was responsible for setting the Government’s approach. The Minister who was responsible is the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), who has been mysteriously quiet on this issue, which is not at all like him. Of course, he is not here today to answer for the lack of action, but the Minister who is here will know that there is much criticism of the Government’s approach.

Retail expert Paul Turner-Mitchell put it perfectly when he said it is

“wrong to call the winning bids Portas pilots when most town teams were left to their own devices to try and turn things round. The problems on the high street are deeply entrenched and they need serious attention, not an off-the-shelf reality TV approach”.

Indeed, we know that only seven of the current round of Portas pilots have spent any money and that in total—across all 27 town teams—only 12% of the budget has been spent. That points to something going seriously wrong with the Government’s approach and we are entitled to ask what they will do to address the more “entrenched” issues.

The fact is that the Government have seriously let down the Portas pilots, and although those pilots may make good TV the communities that submitted winning bids have not received the support they were promised. Even more seriously, the Government have let down the rest of the country’s high streets and town centres. More than 400 towns competed to become Portas pilots. At the time the pilots were announced, the Minister without Portfolio said that the other areas could learn from their example, but that seems scant consolation now. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) pointed out, perhaps the Government should consider how to make the money that has been put into the Portas pilots go further if it is not being spent by the areas that have already been successful. My question to the Minister is this: what is being done to help the many towns and areas up and down the country that simply do not have any means at their disposal to help them turn their high street around?

We know that this problem is very serious, with as many as one in three shops closed in some areas and 14.2% of shops closed in the country as a whole. Surely it is time for the Government to focus on real policies to support our high streets, rather than on helping to make reality TV shows.

Perhaps that was what was in the Government’s mind last week when they announced changes to use class orders. Members could be forgiven for not noticing that announcement, because this huge change to our policy for the high street was sneaked out in a written ministerial statement, accompanied by regulations that the Government are currently proposing to put through by use of the negative procedure. However, what these changes to use classes could do is to allow virtually any class of commercial premises on our high streets to become any type of shop, fast food restaurant or shop in the euphemistically called “financial and professional services” sector, which, alongside banks and estate agents, includes payday lenders or legal loan sharks and betting shops.

Given that this is an area that the Minister who is here today has responsibility for, I hope he can tell us what was going through his mind when he decided that what struggling high streets need is to make it easier to have more bookies and more payday loan companies sprawl across them. I would like to hear the rationale for that decision today.

Nationally, there are now 20% more payday loan shops and 3.3% more betting shops than there were a year ago, and I do not think there is a huge clamour out there in any of our communities to have any more of those shops; we want fewer of them. They are taking the place of independent retailers, clothes shops and health food shops. There are now more than twice as many betting shops on British high streets as all the cinemas, bingo halls, museums, bowling alleys, arcades, galleries and snooker halls combined. I am sure that the owners of the payday loan companies were jumping for joy when they learned that this year they could accelerate the growth of their businesses without even having to ask permission for a change of use of the buildings they intend to occupy.

That policy is so disastrous that I am not at all sure who the Government think it will help. It certainly will not help independent start-ups, which are hampered—as we know—by the lack of available credit. Somewhat belatedly, the Chancellor seems to have recognised that, in that he has set up a new fund to support small and medium-sized businesses to gain access to credit. However, we also know that the current use class system allows a change of use for a premises in the A class from another type of use to use as a shop. So there are already ample opportunities for empty shops to be used in other ways, or for pop-up shops to be created in empty buildings. The Government should be encouraging that process, rather than the creation of yet more payday loan companies.

Indeed, in that regard it is Labour that is being really localist, because the Minister has effectively, for a period of two years, deregulated use classes on the high street. We want to give local authorities real powers to be able to decide what use classes there are and how they operate on the high street, and to give all our communities a real say in shaping their high street, differentiating it and making it something that local people can be proud of. I want to hear why the Minister has taken the route he has.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on securing this debate. He brings huge authority to all our debates in the House because of his particular life experience and honest common sense. He is a forensic member of the Communities and Local Government Committee and I am already nervous at the prospect of facing him in a Committee sitting relatively soon.

We can start with some common ground—there may not have been a huge amount of it, but there is some—which is that the importance of our high streets is greater than purely economic. They are not simply businesses; they play a role in our communities as the hub of the social and cultural life of our towns. It is, therefore, important for all of us to find ways to help them adjust to change.

We have heard from all hon. Members who participated in the debate a wide range of stories about many situations, including the fact that people can buy three pairs of knickers for a pound in Hoxton market—I shall be taking up that offer soon, though for which purpose we will not describe now—and that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) is cuter than a puppy’s nose. I think, Mr Davies, that you will agree that that is a fair description. However, it is interesting that, despite the variety of communities, economic circumstances and geographical locations that have been discussed, a number of common themes have emerged. That is because the changes taking place in our high streets and town centres are not just a reflection of the recent recession, devastating though that has been for some businesses, or of particular Government policies, though those policies over the years have had positive and negative effects, which I will go into, but are a result of some dramatic technological and behavioural changes taking place in society, of which I suspect we have seen only the beginning.

My starting proposition to all hon. Members who have taken part in this debate is that we cannot stand Canute-like and command the waves of technological and social change to turn back. That has been the approach of past Labour Governments in response to industrial changes. That has always been a disaster and has always cost the taxpayer a huge amount of money, and it has never saved anybody their jobs or their livelihoods.

We need to do what my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) suggested and help retailers and high streets, and the local authorities that govern them, to adjust to the shock of the new. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) mentioned ways that that is happening in her constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) spoke about how his town is exploring interesting approaches to tempt new retailers, with new formats and new ways of serving the customer and giving them an offer that competes with the convenience of ordering stuff from their sofas.

What can the Government control and what can they not control? We need to mention business rates. The business rates system is simple. A single amount is raised that is uprated every year by inflation, but by no more, and the increase in a business rate on one business has to be matched by the decrease elsewhere on another business, because the total contribution to the Exchequer is the same and simply increases by inflation.

I say to the hon. Member for Rochdale that in the five years of the Labour Government’s last term, the total take from business rates went up by £4 billion and in the five years of this Government’s term it has increased by a bit more than £2 billion, so there has not been the swingeing increase in business rates that he tried to show. In the meantime, we have introduced a doubling of small business rate relief, which is extended until 2014. That is benefiting a huge number of small retailers. Although business rates will need to be taken into account with regard to the changes that we have been talking about—I do not suggest that the business rates system will not need to change over the medium term—there has been no shift under this Government that might explain the problems faced by our high streets.

Parking is a slightly more relevant issue, in terms of changes that have happened. When it is possible for people to buy whatever they need from their sofa, it needs to be easy and comfortable for them to buy something from a shop. I detected from the physical movements of Opposition Members that even they recognised that the last Labour Government’s policies on parking charges were entirely counter-productive. In backing a rise in parking charges to try to drive people out of their cars, they succeeded. People got out of their cars and got on to their laptops, on their sofas, and bought stuff that way. I am glad to hear many examples of far-sighted Conservative authorities cutting parking charges introduced by Labour authorities, thereby benefiting north Lincolnshire, in Brigg, Scunthorpe and other places, and tempting people back into town centres. That is a constructive approach.

Ultimately, central Government, and sometimes even local government, cannot pretend to themselves that they have within their gift the power to conjure a renaissance in our high streets. This Government believe that all we can do is try to anticipate what is happening and try to liberate, so that people can try out new ways of doing business, and back innovation. Through anticipation we can try to understand how the technological sea change that is taking place will affect people in future. My hon. Friend the Minister responsible for this area has set up the future high streets forum to explore the longer-term changes—perhaps slightly longer term than those addressed by previous studies of this problem.

It is in an attempt to liberate that we have introduced the temporary changes to the use class orders and will look at further changes to those orders, to make it easier for local authorities to decide that some retail frontages should benefit from greater permitted development rights. We are saying that no national Government, no planning Minister—neither I, nor the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), should she ever succeed me in this position—and no other Minister can possibly determine what is the right use for a particular property. I would even go so far as to suggest that some local authorities are too slow to adapt to change. They would love, as in France, to declare that particular premises had to be preserved for ever for a baker or a butcher, but unfortunately this is not realistic. It does not work and the state of the French economy is proof enough of that fact. We have to liberate so that they can experiment.

That brings me to the various ways in which this Government are backing innovation, through the Portas pilots, the town team partners, the high street innovation fund and the high street renewal awards. All these measures are helping to back innovative ideas. It is no surprise to hear, yet again, from Labour Front Benchers that they consider the best way of measuring the success of a policy to be how quickly public money has been spent. We do not consider that a measure of success. We consider it prudent of those Portas pilots that have received grant from this Government but have not yet convinced themselves that they have a worthwhile investment to wait until they have worked out something that they think will make an impact.

It is simply not good enough to persist with the approach of the last Government, spraying money around, hoping that some of it will stick and make a difference. Every pound and penny is the earnings of a member of the British public and constituent, and that money should be spent only when the innovation it is supporting will deliver real change.

We all want our high streets to revive, but we should recognise that when they do so, that will be in many different forms across the country and will not look anything like anything any of us grew up with. We should not be afraid of that; we should embrace that future and back those who will bring it about.

Armed Forces (Recruitment Age)

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Davies, although I wonder whether, in different circumstances, I might hear you use the words “nanny state” after you hear what I have to say.

I am pleased to secure this debate on a topic that most hon. Members will agree is sensitive and important. I have every respect for the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), who has served with distinction in our armed forces and who will respond to the debate, but I am disappointed that the Ministry of Defence could not field a Minister to do so.

That said, I do not consider this a party political question, and Governments of all colours have maintained the status quo. In fact, when I raised the issue during the Armed Forces Public Bill Committee in 2011, the challenges from my own colleagues were even more robust than that from the Minister for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), who was then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence. The purpose of this debate, however, is to raise the profile of the issue and to ask the Government to consider being the one that makes this much-needed change.

Most people know that the armed services in Britain can recruit from the age of 16 upwards. Most accept it as simply the way things are, but I think many have never really considered what it means to enlist 16 and 17-year-olds and whether the needs of the military really justify that position. It strikes me as amazing that in the 21st century we have 16-year-olds deciding to sign up for the UK’s armed forces—and, in time, for combat roles—when the vast majority of nations across the globe have ended the recruitment of children.

It is correct that recruits do not take part in armed conflict until they are 18, but 16-year-old recruits overwhelmingly enlist into combat roles, so as soon as they turn 18 they can be sent to the front line. Those enlisted as adults are less likely to be in front-line combat positions. I am pleased, however, that following the 2011 Public Bill Committee, the Minister amended the terms of service regulations to allow young people up to the age of 18 to leave the armed services, but he now needs to do more.

I am most interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Having commanded a company of junior leaders and a battalion of more than 1,000 regular soldiers, I seriously challenge his figures. How can he possibly say that the majority of adults do not go into combat roles and that combat roles rest more with those who are recruited at 16? Nothing in my 25 years as an infantry officer supports that.

I respect the hon. Gentleman and his work in the military. Perhaps he has more knowledge of the matter than I do, but my understanding is that it is less likely for a person who enlists as an adult to be in front-line conflict. I will check my facts and ensure that, if I address the situation again, I am correct.

The time has come to heed the advice of Child Soldiers International, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, UNICEF, the United Nations, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Select Committee on Defence and raise the lowest age of recruitment from 16 to 18.

I spoke to the hon. Gentleman before this debate. Through my role in the armed forces parliamentary scheme and my contact as a cadet force representative in Parliament for those in Northern Ireland, over the past 20 years I have met some of the most excellent young men and women. They have tremendous qualities and, having been introduced to the Army at 16, are leaders of men today. With great respect, I cannot understand how the hon. Gentleman can advance this point of view when we all have experience of young people who excel at what they do having being inducted at 16.

I have no doubt that there are young people recruited at a very early age who go on to excel, but there are some people who might have chosen a different path had they been given the opportunity. I will address some of that later in my speech.

There is no similar under-age recruitment in other dangerous public service vocations, such as the fire or police services. Young people under 18 are legally restricted from watching violent war films and playing violent video games, yet they can be trained to go to war.

Not many people realise that having 16 as a minimum recruitment age is hardly typical among developed and democratic countries. In fact, the UK is the only member of the European Union and the only permanent member of the Security Council that still recruits at 16. We are one of only 20 countries that continue to recruit at 16, while 37 countries recruit from the age of 17. We receive the same criticism as several countries that I am sure no one here would want to see us lumped in with.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has asked the Government to

“reconsider its active policy of recruitment of children into the armed forces and ensure that it does not occur in a manner which specifically targets ethnic minorities and children of low-income families”.

I am saddened that such language could be used about our country.

Will the hon. Gentleman make a clear distinction between those countries that routinely exploit children as young as 10, 11 and 12 and this country, which recruits 16 to 18-year-olds in non-combat roles where they have an opportunity to change their view of what they want to do at 18 and beyond?

There is a tremendous difference between countries that deploy children as young as 12 or 13, or even younger, and what we do in Britain, but we are still recruiting children into our armed services. Although they do have the opportunity to leave the armed services before the age of 18, they do not have to make that specific decision. I will address that later in my speech.

Despite the recommendations from the various groups I have mentioned, no British Government have yet carried out a feasibility study for an all-adult military. I realise the Minister’s representative cannot speak for previous Governments, but is that something on which the Government will keep an open mind? Is it something that will be considered within the MOD?

I certainly do not wish to denigrate the efforts of our troops and those who serve at the age of 16 and 17. They serve our country proudly and should be congratulated, like all armed service recruits, on their bravery and commitment, but these are decisions that should be made on the basis of as much information as possible and with full adult consent—and I do not mean the signature of a parent or guardian, but young people making their own decision when they reach adulthood.

No, I will not.

In most other walks of life, we would not expect 16-year-olds to make commitments that could potentially endanger their life and safety, and I hope hon. Members agree that the armed services should not be any different, although I again acknowledge the change that means recruits now thankfully have the right of discharge up to their 18th birthday. I also hope that Ministers will agree that someone at that young age is not equipped to take such a serious decision that could bind them to fighting on the front line, in some cases many thousands of miles from home.

That commitment to duty is often made when the recruit is 16 years old, with no obligation proactively to reconfirm their enlistment once adulthood is reached and they can be deployed. We ask an awful lot of our recruits. Teenagers are significantly less mature emotionally, psychologically and socially, and young people from deprived backgrounds, who form the majority of under-age recruits, are particularly vulnerable. It can be no coincidence that recruits who sign up as minors suffer higher rates of alcoholism, self-harm and suicide than those who enlist as adults.

Aside from the moral rights and wrongs of tying children to service at a later date, there is a compelling fiscal case for an all-adult military. Based on data from the MOD compiled by ForcesWatch, the cost of recruiting and successfully training those aged 16 to 17-and-a-half is between 75% and 95% higher than for adults. The longer period of initial training, at 23 weeks or 50 weeks, is enormous compared with the 14 weeks for adults.

According to the latest report of Child Soldiers International, “One Step Forward,” the annual saving of increasing the armed services recruitment age could be up to £94 million, which is enough to fund more than 24,000 civilian apprenticeships. I doubt the MOD wants to surrender even more of its budget, so that cash could instead be used elsewhere to offset the cuts that will see it reduce its regular fighting force from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2017.

I do not want to make my case on the basis of cost savings, but I hope that those who are more motivated by fiscal concerns will see the scope for assisting with the MOD’s commitment to cutting its costs. If the Minister’s representative is not convinced by my argument, or interested in the substantial savings, he may be motivated to make changes because of their political appeal. In March 2013, ICM asked respondents what they thought the minimum age should be to join the forces. Some 70% of those who expressed an opinion said it should be 18, so there may well be votes for him and his colleagues in a change.

There are also issues of long-term social mobility and employability to consider. I have no doubt the Minister’s representative will rehearse the well-worn argument that the Department uses of giving employment and training opportunities to young people who may otherwise be unemployed. The fact is, however, that most 16-year-olds are not in the market for work. In 2009-10, 94% of 16-year-olds stayed on in education. Others may argue that the armed forces provide for young people who come from difficult home circumstances, from a background of suffering abuse or simply because they have been thrown out on the streets. As I argued during the Armed Forces Bill Committee nearly three years ago, the armed forces must not be seen as some kind of escape route from abuse or unemployment. As a nation, we need to develop the support and services young people need, rather than holding up the armed forces as an easy option so early in life.

While I am pleased that the Army continues to set targets for functional skills qualifications in literacy and numeracy, the case can be made that young recruits would be much better served by the state education system in developing those skills. A higher minimum recruitment age would mean that young people need not choose between a higher standard of post-16 education and armed service.

Our country would be better served by an all-adult military. Is it right that many soldiers serving in Afghanistan find themselves there due to a decision they took when they were still children? It is a decision that many would have reversed in adult life, had they been given the chance. We should listen to what the United Nations and the Joint Committee on Human Rights are saying, and join with the overwhelming majority of nations worldwide, which have stopped recruiting children—that is what they are: children—and have raised the age to 18 and upwards. We could do it because it would save the Government money or because it would be popular, according to the polls, but I hope we do it because it is the right thing to do and so that we can leave the military to adults.

It is a pleasure to be able to respond to this debate, and I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing it. I acknowledge his genuine concern about the recruitment age for armed forces personnel and, in particular, the recruitment of those under the age of 18. I fondly recall serving with him on the Armed Forces Bill Committee a couple of years ago and to his credit he has been consistent in his view; he raised this issue then.

Let me begin, however, by reminding the House that there is no compulsory recruitment into the armed forces. All those under the age of 18 are volunteers and the Ministry of Defence takes pride in the fact that our armed forces provide challenging and constructive education, training and employment opportunities for young people while in service, as well as after they leave. The armed forces remain the UK’s largest apprenticeship provider, equipping young people with valuable and transferable skills for life.

I declare an interest, because I applied to join the Army before the age of 18. I went through a regular commissions board, and I made an informed choice to join the Army when I was still a minor. Although I did not attend Sandhurst until shortly after my 18th birthday—a short course for the type of commission I was undertaking—I recall my time in the regular Army while I was a teenager with great pride and a sense of satisfaction. That may in part be due to my posting to Hong Kong, but that is another matter.

I thought it would be useful for the House if I set out our recruitment policy. The minimum age for entry into the UK armed forces reflects the normal minimum school leaving age of 16, and although changes under the Education and Skills Act 2008 are being progressively introduced between 2013 and 2015, the minimum statutory school leaving age will remain at 16. Participation in education or structured training will be mandatory until 18. In the services, all recruits who enlist as minors and do not hold full level 3 qualifications are enrolled on an apprenticeship scheme unless their trade training attracts higher level qualifications. All undertake structured professional education as part of their initial military training and therefore automatically fulfil their duty to participate under the new regulations. No change in policy is required.

Many individuals who join under the age of 18 are not academically high achievers and the duty of care and the training that the armed forces provide enhances their self-esteem and prospects for their whole working life, within or without the services.

I think I omitted this part of my speech, but I wonder whether the actual educational outputs for young soldiers are poor. What will the Government do to drive up the amount of education, so that they have transferable skills when they leave the armed forces? We find that so many of them do not have those skills.

I am afraid I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. In my experience as a Royal Engineer, I commanded some young soldiers. The standard of the training in the secondary skills they obtain, be it in bricklaying or plumbing or as an electrician, was second to none. I experienced that first hand, so I do not agree with his point.

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene. While I absolutely applaud many of the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), not least the financial argument, which I partially buy, does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that it is difficult to recognise the element of despair that the hon. Gentleman brings into his arguments? It is as though these individuals have no choice and their backgrounds are so dreadful that it is either prison or the street. It is as though the Army is a bad alternative to those things. My experience commanding junior soldiers and regular adults was just the opposite. Juniors in particular were treated with kid gloves and not a single soldier in the infantry ever went on operations if they did not want to.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which I agree with. I fully respect the position of the hon. Member for Stockton North, but, with the greatest respect to him, I am not sure that his concerns are borne out by our experiences of service within the armed forces. I will return shortly to the point, not least the cost-benefit aspect.

We fully recognise the special duty of care that we owe to under-18s, and commanding officers have had that made clear to them. Our recruiting policy is absolutely clear. No-one under the age of 18 can join the armed forces without formal parental consent, which is checked twice during the application process. In addition, parents and guardians are positively encouraged to engage with the recruiting staff during the process. Once accepted into service, under-18s have the right to automatic discharge as of right at any time until their 18th birthday, as the hon. Member for Stockton North said. All new recruits who are under the age of 18 and have completed 28 days’ service have a right to discharge within their first three to six months of service if they decide that the armed forces is not a career for them. All service personnel under the age of 18 have the right to leave the armed forces before their 18th birthday, following an appropriate cooling-off period. It is not in the interests of either the individual or the services to force them to stay where they are not happy.

MOD policy is not to deploy personnel under the age of 18 on operations. Service personnel under the age of 18 are not deployed on any operation outside the UK, except where the operation does not involve them becoming engaged in or exposed to hostilities. I am aware of instances where minors have inadvertently entered operations, but on those occasions we have taken immediate action to correct any breach of policy as soon as it has been discovered.

The total number of armed forces personnel under the age of 18 was 3,130 in 2011-12. The majority of them were in training. That figure breaks down to 90 in the Navy, 2,930 in the Army and 110 in the Royal Air Force. There is evidence to suggest that those joining at a younger age remain in service for longer and that under-18s in the Army achieve higher performance based on their earlier promotion. For example, when we looked at the 2001 intake of junior entrants, we found that the number still serving after six years was 44%, compared with only 33% of those who joined when they were over the age of 18. For the same intake, 23% of junior entrants reached the rank of lance-corporal or corporal, compared with 16% of the standard entry cohort. Figures for other cohorts reinforce that picture. Evidence clearly shows that junior entrants are likely to serve longer and to achieve higher rank than some senior entrants, so the additional costs incurred in their training reap considerable benefits for the service, the individual and society as a whole. As the hon. Gentleman said, that additional cost is recouped because, generally, the individual remains in service for longer: an additional three years for the infantry, four years for Royal Engineers, Royal Signals and Army Air Corps, and 10 years for the Intelligence Corps and the Corps of Army Music.

I am sure that some Members are aware that the services are among the largest training providers in the UK, with excellent completion and achievement rates. Armed forces personnel are offered genuine progression routes, which allow them to develop, gain qualifications and play a fuller part in society, whether in the armed forces or in the civilian world. In the naval service and the Royal Air Force, initial military training is conducted on single sites and, because of the smaller scale, no distinction need be made in the training provided to those under age 18. In the Army, phase 1 training for under-18s, the basic military training course, is completed at the Army foundation college, where the facilities have been specifically designed for this age group. The training courses last either 23 or 49 weeks, both of which are longer than the basic over-18s course, dependent on the length of subsequent specialist training. Since junior entrants are likely to serve longer and achieve higher rank than some senior entrants, as discussed, the additional costs incurred can reap long-term benefits.

Our duty-of-care policy for under-18 entrants is laid down in a defence instruction and covers the duty-of-care obligations of commanding officers, together with welfare, mentoring and discharge regulations. This is a comprehensive document, setting out for the chain of command the many aspects of a commanding officer’s responsibility for addressing the particular issues that can affect those under the age of 18. It makes clear that the care and welfare of under-18s require particular attention by the chain of command. It refers to the supervisory care directive, through which commanders are to set out for their environment, based on risk assessments, the processes that are to apply in caring for the particular vulnerability of young recruits. Commanders are to ensure that they comply with the wider legislation, which prohibits under-18s from purchasing or consuming alcohol, from gambling or from purchasing cigarettes and tobacco. Commanders are to ensure that they maintain appropriate contact with parents and guardians, and not only when there is the possibility that the recruit wishes to leave the service. The policy is regularly reviewed, to ensure in particular that it keeps pace with changes in legislation as they affect young people.

All recruits enlisted as minors who do not hold full level 3 qualifications are enrolled on an apprenticeship scheme, unless their trade training attracts higher-level qualifications. The time taken to complete the apprenticeship varies according to the programme being followed, but completion rates are high. There are two levels of apprenticeship: intermediate, which is equivalent to GCSEs at grades A to C; or advanced, which is equivalent to A-level. Additionally, while in service, all armed forces personnel, subject to meeting certain qualifying criteria, can claim financial support for education under the standard learning credit scheme and the enhanced learning credit scheme.

Inevitably, some recruits leave the armed forces after a relatively short period. All service leavers, regardless of their length of service, can attend housing and financial management briefings to assist their transition to civilian life. In addition, those with less than four years’ service are entitled to advice on the type of state and voluntary and community sector assistance available to them post-discharge. I am aware of the criticism made of the support available to armed forces personnel who decide to leave. In recognition that we can do more for early service leavers, an enhanced package of resettlement for those having served less than four years has been trialled. Those trials have recently ended and the results are being evaluated. The evaluation will help to decide what resettlement provision for early service leavers should be made available. Furthermore, all service leavers, regardless of how long they have served, are entitled to lifetime job-finding support through either the Officers’ Association or the Regular Forces Employment Association.

In conclusion, it is important to state that under-18s who choose to join the armed forces are an important and valuable cohort among those starting their military career. We invest strongly in them and they repay that investment with longer service and high achievement. The duty of care for that cohort is paramount, and we are regularly inspected by Ofsted. Their training and education are clearly first class, and our policies on under-18s in service are robust and comply with national and international law. We remain fully committed to meeting our obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict. The armed forces provide prestigious and respected career opportunities for young men and women who may not have achieved the same in civilian life. We shall not deny them that opportunity.

Marine Conservation Zones

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Davies. I requested this debate on marine conservation zones so that, in the short time available, other Members may also intervene; one or two have indicated that they would like to do so. My remarks are directed at the consultation on marine conservation zones and in particular at how the proposals affect Hythe bay in my constituency.

Everyone has an interest in a sustainable fishing industry, which can support many generations for decades to come, fishermen most of all, because they require a sustainable industry for their families and themselves to work in. That applies in particular to fishermen who work in areas such as Hythe bay, which is operated by the inshore fishing fleet of boats of less than 10 metres long. They are largely family businesses, and in Hythe bay we have a number of them along the 20 miles or so of the shore, in Dungeness, Hythe and Folkestone. Not only do they employ people directly in the fishing industry—catching in the boats and at sea—but onshore businesses rely on their work as well.

The fishing businesses sell directly to restaurants and food businesses in Kent and throughout the country and to the public. Such businesses include Griggs of Hythe, which was listed among Rick Stein’s food heroes, or M. & M. Richardson of Dungeness, which was on the 2009 national short list for the BBC good food awards for food retailer of the year. Fish landed in Folkestone and sold through Folkestone Trawlers supply many restaurants, in particular Mark Sargeant’s new restaurant in Folkestone, which is popular, and selling locally caught fish is a significant part of what it offers.

Hythe bay has been fished for thousands of years, probably for as long as men have been at sea in boats. Hythe and New Romney, both cinque port towns, have been represented continuously in Parliament since the first Parliament was called in the 13th century. Fishing is not only an industry for Hythe bay, but an important part of its culture and heritage, which is why I and others throughout the constituency who do not work directly in the fishing industry take the issue incredibly seriously and are as one in support of the fishermen in their concerns.

Those concerns have been brought about by the proposals published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the consultation on the marine conservation zones and where they are to be established around the country. A particular concern is that the proposed Hythe bay marine conservation zone is to be set at a “recover”, rather than a “maintain” level. The fishermen do not have any objection to strong environmental standards to maintain the important habitat in the bay, but they think that that is being done successfully already. They would be happy with a marine conservation zone set at a level of “maintain”, but not “recover”, which suggests that there is a problem at the moment, and would prevent direct commercial fishing in that area. That applies not only to commercial fishing, but to fishing by many of the individuals who sea fish as a pastime, which is popular in Hythe bay and a source of considerable tourism to the area.

The main purpose of the marine conservative zone, as set out as part of the consultation, is to preserve the spoonworm, which lives in the sand in Hythe bay. It is very small and many of those who have fished in those waters all their lives have never seen one, but this is the habitat that Natural England is seeking to protect and was the object of its concern in the consultation on marine conservative zones. However, recent surveys commissioned by the Government show that there has been a near 100% increase in the local spoonworm population over the past decade, and that numbers in sand samples have increased from 800 per square metre to 1,400 per square metre. That suggests a conservation success story in Hythe bay: the fishermen understand that the delicate balance of creatures living in the waters is important to the fish and shellfish they catch, and it is being properly maintained.

Folkestone Trawlers showed me the equipment that the fishermen use to fish in Hythe bay, which is not heavy dredging trawlers and nets. The relatively small boats use light nets that skim across the surface. They have no interest in churning up the sea bed. The association pointed out that movement of the sea bed is perfectly natural. This area of water in the English channel was heavily defended during the first and second world wars and it is not unusual, particularly during storms at sea, for ordnance or even old mines from those wars to come up to the surface undetected because of the natural movement of the sea bed. There seems to be little evidence at the moment that disturbance of the spoonworm, which Natural England is seeking to protect, should give rise to concern.

A second concern that is incredibly important to the geography of Hythe bay, which is the coast that guards Romney marshes, is that a large area of the marshes is below sea level. They are important for sea and coastal defences. Some are maintained by major sea walls, such as that at Dungeness, but many are maintained by management of the high water mark shore, which is largely shingle. The shingle banks are moved and replenished as part of the natural work of sea defence that the Environment Agency conducts throughout the year.

It is proposed that the landward boundary of the marine conservation zone being set at the high water mark would be within the area that needs to be maintained, and is considered to be part of the one-in-200-years risk that is maintained along that part of the coast. It could mean that special licences are required for that basic work of rebuilding the shingle sea defences along that part of the coast, or even that that work could be prohibited. If so, new flood defences would be required at perhaps much greater cost to the Environment Agency or the Government or, worse, homes that are currently protected by the work may be in jeopardy. Clearly, that would not be acceptable to residents following the consultation on the marine conservative zones.

I know nothing about my hon. Friend’s constituency, the case for the spoonworm, or the shingle banks, but having taken marine conservative legislation through Parliament as the Liberal Democrat spokesman, I know that it was carefully put together. He is absolutely right that it is not obligatory to consult industries such as the fishing industry or to involve it in the management plans for the marine conservation zones. Does he agree that the Government must ensure that those industries are fully involved in the negotiation of the management plan which then underpins the marine conservation zones that he is eager to defend, as I am?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and goes to the heart of the matter. Fishermen are not against marine conservation. Their livelihood depends on its being managed successfully, but they are worried about the specific proposals for Hythe bay and their impact, and do not believe that that level of intervention is justified. They have been concerned about the consultation process and whether the industry’s views have been listened to. I was shown an e-mail exchange by the Kent Wildlife Trust, which has supported marine conservation zones as constituted. It included a telling e-mail from a former fisheries liaison officer, who said of the consultation:

“The Hythe Bay”

marine conservation zone

“was originally proposed by a staff member of the Kent Wildlife Trust…during a Regional Stakeholder Group…meeting in London. The proposal received little support from other stakeholders and was totally opposed by all fishing industry representatives (this area being of vital importance to all the fishing fleets ranging geographically from Hastings to Ramsgate).”

He continued:

“At no stage during the stakeholder-involved Balanced Seas”

marine conservation zone

“process was there support for the whole proposed Hythe Bay”

marine conservation zone

“to be ‘recover’ as opposed to ‘maintain’”.

It is equally not the case that, during the consultation process, the fishermen opposed establishing any areas of protection. The local fishermen had proposed a zone between Dover and Folkestone that is not heavily fished, which they would be happy to set aside as a conservation zone. However, that recommendation was rejected as part of the consultation process and, instead, they were asked to accept restrictions in a zone that they were seeking particularly to defend and protect, and on which their livelihoods depend.

Other information from the Kent Wildlife Trust, which is part of its recommendation on Hythe bay, is telling about the conservation of the area and the success story there. It says:

“Hythe Bay is fortunate in having been the subject of a”

long-term

“series of surveys by the Environment Agency, with samples from the 20 point stations being processed by Heriot-Watt University Institute”

of Offshore Engineering. The surveys

“found an unusually rich assemblage of species to be present in the Bay”.

To my mind, that suggests a great success story of management of that water.

I believe we must have a very robust scientific case even to think about changing the status of that water because the livelihood of an entire fishing industry—the inshore fishing fleet in Hythe bay—depends on that consultation and what happens. What must not be allowed to happen is that people’s livelihood is jeopardised on someone’s hunch that some intervention is possible, based on surveys that were conducted not in Hythe bay, but elsewhere in United Kingdom waters, and not based on a robust study of the problem in those waters. People want a robust, clear scientific argument to be the basis of any decision, and unless that scientific argument can be made, the status of the conservation zone in Hythe bay should be set at “maintain” rather than “recover”.

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with interest. He says that Hythe bay is already a well-preserved marine environment, but have the Government’s own statutory nature conservation bodies not advised that 58 of the 127 originally proposed zones were vulnerable to immediate damage and that Hythe bay was one if action was not taken?

I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but I do not believe that there is any evidence to support it. The evidence from the Government’s own survey suggests that the spoonworms, which they are seeking to protect, are recovering strongly. The Kent Wildlife Trust’s submissions made it clear that it was not party to the latest survey information.

We must not gamble on the matter. If a case could be made to show that the waters in the area are causing grave concern, and that there is a real conservation risk that would impact in the near term on the biodiversity of the waters in Hythe bay, in turn on the local fish and shellfish populations, and then on local fishermen’s livelihoods, the debate would be viewed in a different way. Families are worried that the waters on which they depend will become unavailable and drive them out of business altogether, or drive them to seek new waters elsewhere along the channel coast, moving to already congested fishing areas around Rye and down the coast. They are worried that such a decision will have to be taken without a clear and robust scientific case behind it. That case does not seem to exist.

Fishermen are conscious of the fact that they fish in a special area of water and that it is of great interest because of its rich biodiversity. They are happy for it to continue to be monitored and studied, but they believe that the level should be set at “maintain” and not “recover” because the case is simply not there for a recovery plan to be put in place, and if it was, it could have devastating consequences for businesses and the fishing heritage of the coast.

I have had meetings as part of my discussions with the fishing industry with Fisherman’s Beach in Hythe, Ken Thomas and councillor Tony Hills of Lydd, who represent the fishermen from Hythe, Lydd and Dungeness, and with Folkestone Trawlers to get the views of fishermen in Folkestone, who also fish in Hythe bay. A petition has been raised, which was signed quickly by more than 1,000 residents. I presented it to Downing street with Councillor David Monk, who is the leader of Shepway district council, the local authority.

As part of our submission to the Government—I have also made a formal submission as part of the consultation on marine conservation zones—we have requested that serious consideration be given to the argument for the zone being set at “maintain” rather than “recover”. We have also asked whether the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who has responsibility for fisheries, could meet the fishermen, see the waters that they fish and the type of equipment that they use, in order to understand the local case that they are making. They tried, as part of the initial consultation, to make the case—they felt that it was not listened to—about other waters that may be more suitable, why the special nature of Hythe bay needs to be protected and maintained, and that we should not lose the important inshore fishing fleet, which has been part of the culture, heritage and the economy of the south-east Kent coast for many centuries.

I remind colleagues that permission should be sought from the Member who secures the debate and from the Minister. The Minister has indicated that he is happy for other people to speak briefly, if that will help.

Thank you, Mr Davies. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am thankful to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) and my hon. Friend the Minister for allowing extra contributions.

On marine conservation zones, people generally agree that it is important to protect our seas. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe was discussing the importance of his fishing community. My own fishing community has been part of aspects of the Greenpeace and the Fish Fight campaign about protecting diversity. However, in my constituency, there has been local uproar in Aldeburgh, Orford and surrounding areas about the potential designation of the Alde and Ore estuary. That, again, as my hon. Friend referred to, is based on flawed evidence.

There are different examples—the Alde and Ore has three or four characteristics, one of which relates to smelt. However, there has only been one sighting of smelt in eight surveys over five years, and partly that is because it is not a freshwater river. Smelt is normally found in those areas, and although local fishermen have seen it once, that was deemed to be because it was chasing its food stock. The issue of being a rocky habitat beggars belief locally. It is believed that the rocky habitat now deemed so special was ballast tossed off barges about 40 years ago—they are, literally, big circular discs. There is astonishment that that can now be treated as something special and grounds on which to curtail activity. In terms of muddy gravels, no evidence has been supplied. More work is going on in that area.

With all that is happening, the Marine Management Organisation is getting in on the act and causing quite a lot of concern for local activities—whether it is painting the lines for racing, or repairing a patch on the slipway. We were promised by DEFRA—and the Department has delivered—that some deregulation would be undertaken by the MMO, but not if the area is in a designated MCZ. Some small activities are being hampered or cost a lot of money to fulfil. I also refer to the larger one in the Stour and Orwell estuaries.

There is no doubt that my constituency—about 40% is designated as areas of outstanding natural beauty—has almost any designation that we can think of. There are Ramsar sites and special protection areas, and all those different things. The port of Felixstowe has been able to work alongside precious habitat nearby to ensure that that is preserved. At the same time, while trying to continue as a commercial port, the marine conservation zone suggested for the area throws blanket coverage over the entire estuary, which is causing great consternation among the Harwich Haven Authority and the port about future activity. At the moment, certain areas where there is special designation are protected, and that should be respected, but I am very concerned that some unintended consequences of what is notably a good policy—trying to restore and conserve parts of our seas—may cause big problems for my constituents and their businesses in future.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing the debate and on the careful way that he presented the case for his constituency.

I want to make three brief points. First, fishermen are not the only stakeholders in this. Although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) that fishermen should be more involved in the process, their views are not the only ones that the Government have to take into consideration.

Secondly, marine conservation zones work, and that is proved by the marine protection areas that have been extremely successful on the west coast of north America. There is also some evidence of the success of marine conservation zones around Arran and the Isle of Man in Europe.

Is the hon. Gentleman also aware of research commissioned by the recreational anglers? It shows that fishing interests are not always allied. Sometimes the commercial fishing sector can be in conflict with the recreational sector, and the recreational sector, in many parts of the country, brings more income in to those local communities.

The right hon. Gentleman is correct. There are also divers and other people using the seas who contribute financially to the economies of the local areas concerned.

My third and final point—I hope that the Minister will refer to this—is the fact that we have to judge marine conservation zones as a whole, not individually. The network is crucial to their success. By altering one, we perhaps diminish the potential success of the concept as a whole.

I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing the debate. I should immediately apologise for the absence of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who cannot be here this afternoon. In some recompense for his absence, I make it immediately plain to the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe that the Minister has offered to come and meet him, and to talk to his constituents to understand the factors in his constituency better. I hope that that goes some way towards entering into the necessary dialogue. Whether I am at liberty to extend that invitation on the Minister’s behalf to Suffolk Coastal as well, I am not sure, but knowing my hon. Friend, I am sure that he would have no problem entering discussions with the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey).

Perhaps it will be sensible if I outline the purpose of marine conservation zones, as we see it. The UK has a large marine area, which is rich in marine life and natural resource. Our seas are not just places of important biological diversity; they provide us with a variety of goods and services that are important for our social, economic and environmental well-being.

The Government are committed—in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders)—to contributing to the development of an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas. However, we have been clear that we want successful, well-managed sites, created in the right places in the right way, and not only lines on maps. We have to get this right so that our seas are sustainable, productive and healthy, and to ensure that the right balance is struck between conservation and important industries.

MCZs are a new form of marine protected area provided for under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. The new MCZs are part of a wider agenda for protecting the important habitats and species in our seas. They will complement other marine protected areas —special protection areas, special areas of conservation, sites of special scientific interest and Ramsar sites—to contribute to a coherent network in our seas. About 24% of English inshore waters, out to 12 nautical miles, and more than 8% of the UK sea area are already established as marine protected areas to protect important habitats and species. In the UK, there are already 107 special areas of conservation, 107 special protection areas for birds with marine components, and 377 coastal SSSIs.

That is the overall framework in which we are working. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe is concerned, quite properly, on behalf of his constituents, about the balance that we must strike in his area between the interests of his constituents and their economic future, and the need for effective ecological support. I understand that. I am also well aware of the concerns that are being expressed in relation to the proposed site at Hythe bay and the “recover” conservation objective. An official from my Department attended a local meeting during the consultation to hear those concerns. Officials are currently reviewing the responses to the consultation, including considering evidence provided, and we will respond to the consultation in the summer.

Let me go back to the overall picture. The four regional stakeholder projects did some very good work to provide an initial list of proposals. We do not think it appropriate to designate all 127 site recommendations straight away, because of weaknesses in the evidence base for many of the sites noted by the DEFRA-appointed science advisory panel in its review of the recommendations. However, we have since committed additional resources to plugging those gaps and, in the consultation, we proposed pressing ahead with the first 31 sites that we considered suitable for designation. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will announce the timetable for future designations of MCZs later this year.

We are aware of the concerns that some people have raised about evidence standards. Adequate evidence is vital. Without it, it is impossible to define the management measures necessary and take effective conservation action. We want to see that happen quickly after designation. There will be no prospect of securing agreement from other member states to regulate the activities of their fishermen where this is required in waters beyond our 6-mile limits. We would also lack a proper justification for the regulatory burden placed on business or the enforcement and monitoring costs that fall on the taxpayer. That is why the evidence is essential.

The impact assessment that accompanied the consultation gave an indication of the costs and benefits of possible management measures for all the sites and provided a good indication of what might be expected. The management measures noted in the impact assessment were provided for illustrative purposes and to allow for the calculation of a range of potential cost implications for each site. Consultees were invited to comment on those in responding to the consultation and provide additional information to facilitate a better understanding of the possible implications of site designation and to help to refine associated costs. Management measures were not being consulted on at that stage. When an MCZ is designated, that does not automatically mean that economic or recreational activities on that site will be restricted. Restrictions on an activity will depend on the sensitivity of the species and habitats for which a site is designated to the activities taking place in that area and on the conservation objectives for those features.

I know that my hon. Friend cannot make up policy on the hoof in the absence of his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, but the Act says that the Government are required to consult on the designation, although it does not say that the Government or the MMO is required to consult on the management plan. Would the Minister be prepared to say that he will ensure that the Department makes sure that all stakeholders have the opportunity to be consulted on the management plan as it applies within the new MCZs?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I would not make up policy on the hoof even if my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was here, because that is not the way we do things in our Department. That said, the actual management measures will be drawn up separately and put in place by the relevant public authorities after designation and will be open for consultation, as appropriate, before they are implemented. I can say to my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) that that is exactly what will happen.

This is particularly relevant to the point raised by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe, where there is a dispute about the evidence. I accept that the evidence at the moment is generic across the Hythe bay area. That is why we need more information about what is happening. Within the site, a rich sea pen and burrowing megafauna community is present in the soft sediment, which is presumed to be continuous across Hythe bay, based on data from sample points taken annually over a 10-year period. That is why the site is considered overall to be a biodiversity hot spot within the balanced seas area, but we need more information on exactly what is happening within that site.

On that point, does the Minister agree that it would be wrong to change the designation of the area unless there was very clear scientific evidence as to why that change needed to be made?

The precautionary principle suggests that we should do the reverse—that we should up the level of designation until such time as we can be confident that we will not be damaging the very ecological factors that give rise to the designation in the process—so that is the approach that we take, but it is sensitive to the information that we receive from the hon. Gentleman’s local fishermen, among others, who will have a deep interest in and knowledge of the seas with which they are familiar. We need to look at that, along with all the scientific evidence, and then make a subsequent assessment of how to manage the site. That will be based, as I said, on the real factors. What is there? What is its value? What would be the potential damage from unregulated activity on that site? That would apply to any site.

The hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal was a little dismissive of ballast thrown overboard being a valuable habitat. I have to tell her that it can be an extremely valuable habitat if it is colonised by the right species and has therefore formed an ecosystem that is worthy of preservation. The derivation of the rocky material on the sea bed is not the issue. The issue is what is then growing on that material and how it relates to the surrounding environment.

I am not prejudging the hon. Lady’s case. I know nothing about the sites off Suffolk Coastal and I have not been briefed, because I was not aware that she was coming this afternoon, but I promise her that the same considerations will apply to her site as will apply to that of the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe in ensuring that we have the right information on which to base a reasoned argument. That really is the answer, and I am sure that it is what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will say when he goes to Hythe to discuss these issues. Let us look at the evidence, see what the appropriate designation is and work with those who have a specific interest in those waters—of course that includes the fishing community—to arrive at something that will work for everyone concerned. There is a very heavy responsibility on Government to get this right.

I have no responsibility directly for fishing and maritime policy at the moment, but I was involved at the very start of this process, back in the 1980s, when I was arguing on behalf of the World Wide Fund for Nature for conservation of our seas. At that time it was not even being thought of, but we are now at a highly developed stage in the process, where we have something that is realistic and holistic around our island nation, and it is really important that we get it right.

To recap, the public consultation was launched on 13 December 2012 and closed on 31 March 2013. It gave stakeholders the opportunity to comment and provide more evidence on the proposed sites before final decisions are made. DEFRA received more than 40,000 responses to the public consultation. The evidence received from the public consultation, along with other evidence collected since the statutory nature conservation bodies submitted their advice in July 2012, is being evaluated and will be taken into consideration before Ministers make their final decisions on which sites to designate in the first tranche.

The Government remain committed to the development, as I said, of an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas. Now that the public consultation has closed, we aim to publish our response in the summer before making final decisions on which sites to designate in the first tranche this year. These zones are not the sum of our ambition: we expect to be taking forward more sites in the next phase. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury will announce the timetable for future designations of MCZs later this year.

The area of Hythe is a vital one. We want to get this right. I can assure the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe that we will make strenuous efforts to listen to what his constituents have to say and to the views of others with specialist knowledge in this area, and I hope that we will reach the right decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.