Skip to main content

Retail Development

Volume 279: debated on Thursday 20 June 1996

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3.58 pm

I am pleased to announce that I have today published the Government's revised planning policy guidance note on town centres and retail development, which honours our pledge to the Select Committee on the Environment in the Government's response to the Committee's inquiry, "Shopping Centres and their Future". The Select Committee endorsed our policy, but asked for it to be clearer and stronger. We consulted on the revised document last July. That attracted considerable support in more than 500 responses and also proposed numerous useful suggestions, many of which have been incorporated in the final version.

The revised guidance note is a further landmark in our planning policies for revitalising town centres, and it emphasises our determination to maintain and enhance them. On returning from the United Nations conference Habitat II in Istanbul, I am more than ever convinced that cities and towns are the heart of our civilisation and that we need their life and vigour for our survival.

Towns are where most of our population live, work and shop and where much of the 4.4 million growth in households projected for 1991 to 2016 will need to be located. It is where we should be encouraging the location of shops, offices, leisure and housing. People have mistakenly characterised our policy as a ban on out-of-town development—all stick and no carrot. We must encourage sustainable development that helps make towns and cities attractive places to be, attractive to those who work and live there, and attractive to those who visit. We want to encourage urban regeneration and focus development in existing centres.

We are proposing a planning policy that promotes development in town centres. We want development plans to contain the positive message that development is welcome here—and to say where in general terms and, if possible, to identify sites. Developers and occupiers— whether retailers, firms needing office space, leisure operators and others who attract a lot of people—all need greater certainty from the planning system. To create that climate of confidence, we need a new approach to planning that can articulate the city's vision, inform developers where development will be encouraged and work with them to identify sites—and so speed up the process and reduce uncertainty.

The revised guidance sets out as clearly as possible the importance that we attach to the revitalisation of our city, town and local centres. We are proposing a positive approach to planning, based on a clear strategy about where we will encourage development. That marks a change from the reactive approach that planners have often had to take in relation to a succession of out-of-centre developments. The guidance provides clearer tests for proposals for out-of-centre developments—whether shops, offices, leisure, higher education, health or other uses that attract a lot of people and are best located in, or close to, existing centres. I emphasise that it is a question not just of shops but of those other important developments as well. We expect local planning authorities, after consulting widely, to provide clear guidance on where development will be encouraged in their areas.

As well as that plan-led approach, the guidance advocates a sequential approach to choosing sites, starting with the town centre or other centres, then edge of centre—defined in terms of easy walking distance—and only then, other sites that are well served by a choice of means of transport. Public transport and access will be important if people want to go for that type of answer.

In drawing up development plans and in individual cases, I expect that approach to be followed, with local planning authorities and developers able to demonstrate that they have thoroughly examined more central sites before they look further afield. I shall require that examination to be thorough—not merely a statement that an examination has been made. The guidance recognises that some uses, such as shops selling bulky goods or certain large-scale leisure developments, may be able to establish a need for development that cannot be accommodated in the town centre. In those circumstances, the guidance suggests that they combine with existing out-of-centre facilities and provide improvements to access by public transport.

The main emphasis of our policy is to revitalise town centres by focusing investment and development, to reinforce their economic prosperity. We need to build on their strengths, on the links that exist between businesses, and on the synergy that makes the pay-off of an individual development much more than just its incremental effect. There is a strong economic argument for recapturing the advantages that town centres traditionally had. Town centres are also the focus of our communities—not just economic, but civic and social. The town is also the most accessible place. Developments on the bypass—whether shops, offices, multi-screen cinemas or hospitals—apart from undermining the vitality and viability of existing centres, are often accessible only by car. As such, they are inaccessible to about one third of the population. Town centres, by contrast, are usually accessible to all.

There is, finally, the environmental rationale—our concern about sustainable development. The dispersed pattern that has grown up over the past 50 years has been made possible and been driven by our increased use of the car, which has given us individually greater freedom, but has made us collectively increasingly reliant on it. By locating development back in centres—town centres or local centres—we can also recapture some choice about how we get to the facilities that we need and how we can achieve a range of tasks in a single trip.

Again, I underline the need for a greater variety of uses in existing centres, moving away from the long-term trend of segregation of uses and the creation of large single-use developments. Since the war, that has been one of the matters that has very much divided our cities. We want to re-establish the diversity and mix that makes town centres vibrant.

Above all, we need to make our town centres places where people want to work, visit and live. We need to encourage more housing in our town centres through flats over shops, conversion of redundant offices and mixed-use developments. We need policies that positively enable such developments, rather than rules that prevent them. I expect local planning authorities to have positive policies to help such developments happen.

To revitalise our town and city centres will take more than just planning policies. It will need vision—a shared vision of the local authority, the local private sector and the local community. The guidance that I published today stresses the need for everyone to get together to generate a clear way forward, a strategy and an action plan. For many centres, there will be a need to address issues of traffic and parking, improving the environment and improving the management and maintenance of public spaces to create the confidence that will bring in the development.

Town centres need a clear strategy, and many need positive management. They cannot just drift, as many have done up to now. Town centres have to remain competitive, and, to do so, they need to be better managed. There is no point in protecting town centres by stopping development elsewhere, only to find that town centres cease to be attractive and do not put in an effort because they feel that they do not have competition.

Part of making our town centres more attractive to investors and to people as places where they can work, shop, worship, take their leisure and live is to improve the quality of the environment. The guidance emphasises the need for raising the quality of urban design, urban spaces, car parks, shop-fronts and street furniture.

Access by car and—more particularly—car parking is a key issue in the guidance. We need to cater for visitors arriving by all means of transport. To cater better for town centre shoppers, the guidance recognises that the main gain will come from reallocating existing parking from commuters to the town centre shopper and visitor. Additional provision, even when it is part of a town centre development, needs to be seen as a contribution to the town centre rather than as tied to the individual development. We need to make car parks work for the town centre.

I have left until last reference to shopping, if only to put it into perspective. The guidance is not about a moratorium on out-of-town superstores—as the French and others have recently produced. Shopping is only one, albeit the most high-profile, of our key town centre uses. The same broad principles—the plan-led and sequential approaches—apply to all such developments, not only to shopping. Shopping gets more publicity simply because it is a dynamic industry and it is an activity that we all do.

The guidance, however, spells out in more detail our policy for shopping. The policy of getting new shopping developments into town or local centres wherever possible applies as much to food stores as to non-food stores. No one type of shopping is singled out for special treatment. We have clarified the tests that out-of-town retail developments should meet—in terms of impact on the vitality and viability of existing centres, their accessibility by a choice of means of transport and their impact on overall car use.

The publication of the revised PPG6 is another major step in promoting planning policies that will produce more sustainable patterns of development. It also confirms our commitment to the revitalisation of our town centres, to put the heart back into our high streets. It will help focus investment and development, to capitalise on the advantages of locations that are accessible to all. I know that the policy will be popular with many people across the country. I commend it to the House.

That was not a statement—it was an apology. This is the Secretary of State's apology for years of neglect by the Government of Britain's town and city centres. Every hon. Member will know as they walk down any high street that the Government's legacy on town centre policy is obvious to anybody—the empty shops, the lack of amenities and the fear of crime.

The Secretary of State has sole responsibility for the Government's abdication of their role of providing leadership to the private and public sectors in retail and other development. Will he explain to the House why it has taken him so long to publish the proposals? Does he realise that that delay has caused enormous uncertainty? Does he accept that the only reason why retail development looks elsewhere is the Government's failure to make proposals to revitalise town and city centres?

In what way is the Secretary of State proposing to target regeneration funds in support of the renaissance of our town centres? Will he accept responsibility for the appalling time scale in dealing with planning issues? Will he explain to the House why it is he who takes so long to deal with call-ins on retail development, knowing full well that delay causes additional economic burdens and is an unnecessary interference in the diversity of local policy?

Does the Secretary of State not agree that the Government, through legislation, have directly hampered the ability of local councils to support their local town centres? What does he propose to do with the hundreds of extant planning permissions for developments outside town and city centres?

Labour Members are serious about protecting Britain's town and city centres. They are part of our heritage and a vibrant part of our economy. They are our future. Over the years, we in the Labour party have warned time and again that the pursuit of the Government's planning policies would destroy town centres. They have ignored our concern and the pleas of the private and public sectors.

British retailing is among the most sophisticated and technologically advanced in the world. We have witnessed a retail revolution that has obviously passed this Government by. Over the years, there has been tremendous innovation in retailing, which the private sector has ably demonstrated in its evidence to the Labour party's review of planning policy. Never mind about Istanbul; it is Labour councils that have led the way in city centre management. They are initiating impressive schemes, working in partnership with the private sector, and bringing people back into our town centres so that they are vibrant and exciting places in which to live and work and for our children to play in. They are challenging the fortress approach that has been imposed on them over the past 17 years.

Labour in Coventry has innovative car parking schemes, York has its city centre housing policies, Leeds has proposals for a 24-hour city and there is Birmingham's dynamic use of culture and the arts. There is no need for citizens to retreat to the suburbs after dark.

Every town and city centre in Britain is different, but they all have one thing in common. It was interesting to hear what the Secretary of State said about the heart of Britain being our town and city centres. They have been left with a hole in their heart because of the Government's policies. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker of middle England, so beloved by the Secretary of State, are being driven away by the twin burdens of economic recession and an absence of Government strategy, including a totally non-existent transport policy. Up and down the country, family businesses with a history spanning generations have closed.

Every town and city centre that has suffered over the past 17 years should erect a suitable monument to the Secretary of State to which the local pigeons have access. It should bear the legend, "He did too little, too late, and when he did something, it was not enough." The Labour party believes in making the high street work, not in letting the high street down, which is what the Government have done.

No one would know from that that almost every one of those cities has a Labour council that has driven out of the centre time and again every shop that tried to make money. Let us talk about Newcastle, where John Lewis used to pay three times as much in rates per square foot as it did in Westminster, because Newcastle city council used to tax people out of the city. Leicester, from which the hon. Gentleman comes, has a notorious city council, pushing businesses out of the city centre into the surrounding county. Fosse park in Blaby district has prospered directly because of the city's appalling attitude to business.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Leeds. That city did not start to think about partnership until the Government forced it to do so because of the Leeds urban development corporation. We had to take over areas of our great cities to rejuvenate them, because of the appalling history of Labour councils that did not care about business, never cared about the city and drove people out into huge soulless estates.

When I appeared before a Select Committee in the other place, one of the questioners was an ex-Labour councillor who was still defending the destruction of the centre of Liverpool by building outside it towns without amenities, without decent public transport and without any of the things that make a town work.

The hon. Gentleman has no right to come to the House and talk about those matters in the way that he did, because we know from reports in The Independent that he is busy telling people that, if there were ever a Labour Government, they would be much softer on out-of-town developers. There has been no direct denial of that. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is precisely why the Opposition had a nice cosy little meeting with various representatives of business whom they thought they could cajole on to their side.

The hon. Gentleman's speech was an attempt to cover up the fact that, from Newcastle in the north right the way down to the great cities of the midlands and the south, where Labour has been in charge, city centres have increasingly died. The new programme that we have now put into operation and the partnership in which we have led the way have driven even the city of Sheffield—with two of its worst leaders now sitting in the House—to join the partnership. The hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of himself and he should support our proposals.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that for anyone who has the remotest remembrance of Labour party policies when it was last in government, the uncharacteristically churlish remarks of the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) beggar belief? Will he accept the congratulations of all clear-thinking people on his personal initiative in this whole area and the impetus that he has given to it, which is worthy of the utmost commendation?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with encouraging high street shopping is that it demands unpopular decisions, perhaps relating to new bus routes going through streets unaccustomed to such traffic, or the provision of more car parking? If there is to be success in this area and if retail outlets are to return to our high streets, it is absolutely essential that there is the utmost co-operation between local authorities, local traders and local residents.

My hon. Friend is right. He may have noted that in my statement I made no reference to anything that could not be supported by the Opposition if they had chosen to take a bipartisan approach—such as I have done—rather than the extremist view adopted by the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) as a fig leaf to cover up a very sad history. The truth is that we need to ensure that the city centres live—and that costs. We also need to take unpopular decisions, and that is what we have done. I note that the Labour party has even criticised me for calling in some of the developments and thinking about them carefully before making a decision.

The hon. Gentleman says that I take too long—that is because he is used to making decisions and speeches without thought.

Does the Secretary of State accept that much in the document should be welcomed by all hon. Members, and that it gives some real substance to the sentiments that he has expressed for some years? The tragedy is that the document should have been published 17 years ago, when some of the Secretary of State's less environmentally conscious predecessors allowed the stable door to be opened, to the great detriment of traders across the country. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, although the document will help in the long term to alter the planning policies that have so changed our towns over the past few years, it is not good enough to think merely of the long term, given the number of developments already in the pipeline for which planning permission has already been granted?

Does the Secretary of State agree that a moratorium should be introduced until developers can demonstrate firmly and convincingly that their projects will not harm the vitality and viability of existing town centres? Does he accept that there are still some unenlightened local authorities that seem to believe that out-of-town developments are beneficial? Does he accept that once such authorities give approval to a development, there is little that retailers can do to prevent it, whatever harm they believe it may do? Does he agree that there should be a simple appeals system, so that the guidelines he now supports can be put into practice by traders?

Where is the money to come from, to pay for some of the town centre improvements described in the document? Surely there is a need for pricing mechanisms to ensure a better balance between the advantages enjoyed by car users at out-of-town developments and the advantages for those using car parks in town centres.

The hon. Gentleman would do well to note how many planning permissions sought previously have not been proceeded with. I do not think that the problem is as worrying as he makes it out to be. In any case, as he knows well, there are no powers under which a moratorium could be brought about, so that is not a possibility.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about the timing of the document. Much of our retail development has brought about what the hon. Member for Leicester, East, in one of his more sensible moments, called the retail revolution. Many people want to use supermarkets. I have never been opposed to them and, as Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I often commended the fact that people had wider choice and fresher food in city centres than they had ever had before, and at prices that were extremely competitive. I am not opposed to supermarkets, but I am saying that there should be a reasonable balance. That reasonable balance can be achieved by concentrating now on our town and city centres, and that is what I seek to do.

The hon. Gentleman referred to price incentives. It is difficult to imagine how they would operate. No doubt I shall have the opportunity of seeing a Liberal Democrat working party document which, if I know such documents, will be strong on platitudes but not very good on practicalities.

I have the remainder of the day's business to safeguard. More than 40 Members seek to speak in the debate that follows. I therefore require hon. Members to put single brisk questions to the Secretary of State and I require the Secretary of State to answer briskly so that we can proceed properly with our business.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that local planning controls properly reflect the needs of shoppers? Is he aware that retail costs in this country are much higher than those in, for example, the United States? What will his proposals do to reduce the high cost of shopping here?

I shall certainly look at the particular points that my hon. Friend raises. I am sure that he is pleased to see that I have put much emphasis on what local authorities can do to release more land in the centres of cities, to assemble suitable plots and to use their powers to help in exactly the way that my hon. Friend wants.

Is the Secretary of State aware that he should also look at the new gimmick that developers use in coalfield areas in particular? They put in applications for opencast, thereby getting rid of valuable agricultural land, and a planning development comes along later. There is such a development in my constituency, adjoining the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). An opencast application has been put in, and there will then be an out-of-town shopping development. If the Secretary of State does not ensure that the opencast application is turned down, that valuable land will be almost fit for a set-aside scheme, so the planning application will go through. If he does not do that, the Duke of Devonshire will make a lot of money.

I have not heard such an assembly of prejudices in one question for a long time. The hon. Gentleman must accept that PPG6 makes it quite clear that planning applications for out-of-town shopping centres will not be accepted unless there is no other place for necessary shopping development. That is quite clear, so what he says does not apply.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the joy that his statement will bring to the town centre of Kingston upon Thames, which has been nurtured by Conservative councils over the years? Will also assure me that he will protect historic marketplaces such as that of Kingston upon Thames and ensure that parking charges do not get totally out of hand, thus killing shopping? Will he give us assurances on security and street cleaning?

On street cleaning, Conservative councils are more likely to get the streets cleaned properly, particularly if they contract out the service. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will have words to say about further moves on security. If people live in town centres, that helps security considerably. I have the same affection for historic markets as my hon. Friend, and I am pleased that Kingston has been so well protected by Conservatives in the past, as it will be in future when the present lot gets out.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government's conversion is most welcome? It is also welcome that they have accepted so many of the Select Committee's recommendations. However, does he realise that it is rather late for places such as Greater Manchester, where new developments at Cheadle and Dumplington have done a great deal to damage the existing town centre? What does he plan to do to make it possible to convert many of the empty shops in town centres and suburban shopping parades into housing? That excellent proposal needs to be effected, because empty shops make shopping areas depressing.

I agree. That is why we are doing a great deal of work on building regulations, for example, which are different for different types of development. If we can make the whole system more sensible and make it hang together, we shall help to encourage that. We are looking particularly at the problem that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I remind him that, although we responded to the Select Committee, it was because of our moves in that direction and my announcement that the Select Committee decided that the issue was worth examining. Therefore, it is fair to say that the Government have driven the proposal right the way through.

Does my right hon. Friend realise how much his statement will be welcomed in middle England, particularly in small cathedral cities such as Lichfield? In particular, does he realise that his hierarchy of development—town centre, edge of centre and out of town—and the proactive moves in respect of town councils will be very much welcomed? Will my right hon. Friend explain how he intends to ensure that local councils properly explore the possibilities of development in town centres before it is proposed out of centre?

My hon. Friend must understand that the guidance is the mechanism by which inspectors make their decisions. Local authorities that do not follow the guidance will find that their decisions are overturned and in many cases they may well find themselves carrying the cost of that. Therefore, local authorities will understand precisely what needs to be done. I am working closely with them and in most cases they have had a change of heart. However, it has been very hard in a number of cities. I am pleased to say that even in Sheffield, the new council leader is beginning to think seriously about participation and partnership.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituents will warmly welcome his statement? In particular, a group of traders in Tewkesbury have written to me today to thank my right hon. Friend for overturning his own inspector and making a landmark decision under the new guidelines. Does he accept that the new guidelines are particularly necessary in small and medium-sized historic market towns, not least because large developments are of a disproportionate size to the retail base in those towns? Will he instruct his inspectors rigorously to uphold the guidelines, so that I shall not need to talk to him about some cases that may be building up in future in respect of Cirencester?

My motive for doing that will not be merely to avoid seeing my hon. Friend—but I promise him that not only will I do as he says, but that people who believe that they can get round the rules by renaming their shops and giving them some other sort of title so that it appears that they are not a retail centre, will find themselves caught by exactly the same regulations.

I welcome the further retreat from Thatcherite dogma, inadequate and late though it be. However, does the Secretary of State accept that the damage done while that dogma prevailed, and while planning applications were being accepted over the heads of local authorities throughout the country, was profound and long-lasting? What on earth can he do now, as he shuts the stable door after the horse has bolted? Are there not hundreds of planning applications, which were approved by his predecessor while he sat on the Government Benches, still outstanding and ready to be developed at the expense of town and city centres throughout the land?

The real problem is something very different. Labour councils in our big cities have destroyed those cities, first by driving business out of them; secondly by stopping private development within them; thirdly by insisting on dividing where people live from where they work; fourthly by insisting that people want to live in tower blocks rather than in small houses side by side; and fifthly by pulling down instead of renovating. There is no history in Britain worse than that of Labour local government and the town centres. The hon. Gentleman has hit exactly the wrong target. It is only because what he refers to as "Thatcherite dogma" recreated the economy that we can do what we are doing now.

Why does the Secretary of State propose to clog up the centres of towns with car parks and cars, rather than pursuing a policy of regular, cheap, if not free, public transport—the very policy that the Government destroyed in South Yorkshire?

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has ever gone shopping with small children and large numbers of bags. He ought to live in the real world of real people. If we want people, especially women, to shop in city centres, we must provide safe, clear places nearby where they can park their cars, so that they can do their shopping with their children and then get back into their cars and drive. If the hon. Gentleman thinks differently, he has not gone shopping himself. I wonder who in his house does the shopping.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Merry Hill centre is located in my constituency. I appreciate that he cannot comment on the current planning inquiry, but can he tell the House whether, and if so how, the revised guidance will affect consideration of proposals to extend existing out-of-town developments?

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to acknowledge that I cannot refer to the particular case, but in general the position is as follows. I have already said that, if there are to be extensions of out-of-town shopping for one reason or another, it is best if that happens where there is already such a development, and that it should be associated with good public transport and the like. I have made it clear that there is no question of a moratorium on out-of-town shopping, as has taken place in France. We have much to learn from the rest of the continent. If only we had followed more closely some of the good ideas from the rest of Europe, instead of some of the American attitudes, we would have done better.

We accept that there will be some approvals, and I shall examine each case as carefully as I can. But that sometimes takes rather longer than the hon. Member for Leicester, East, with his "quick, tick, tick, tick and out" approach, would want. We want to get the right answer, not simply a quick answer.

I find it hard to recognise the picture that the Secretary of State paints of the responsibility for some of the disasters that have been inflicted on us in the past. In the north-east, our town centres have been seriously damaged by the dreaded Metro centre which, as the Secretary of State knows, was built by Sir John Hall, who is not a Labour voter. May I ask about another point that has been referred to but not answered? How many planning applications have been granted for further out-of-town centres? Can anything be done about them, or is it too late?

The Metro centre was so successful because Newcastle city council pushed up the rates in the centre of Newcastle until nobody could make money there. That was one of the good examples of how Labour local government works, and how a Labour Government would work, if there were one. Labour taxes people until they cannot make money, and then complains because somebody else tries to allow them to make money "offshore"—in this case, just over the boundary in the Metro centre. The hon. Gentleman clearly does not know the history of the area that he has represented for some time. As for the second part of his question, I shall give him an up-to-date figure. What I said to the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, applies to the hon. Gentleman's question, too.

Has not this policy U-turn come years too late? It is not only the inner cities that have suffered, but towns such as Tewkesbury, and Barnoldswick in my constituency. Barnoldswick—a town of some 10,000 people—has lost its jobcentre and its gas and electricity showrooms, and the centre of that small town is a wasteland. Business rates have gone sky-high and traders do not know where to turn. Has not the Secretary of State been criminally negligent in the way in which he has allowed our small towns to deteriorate?

First, the rates in the north of England have been significantly and proportionately reduced following the introduction of the uniform business rate. At the time of its introduction, some £800 million moved from the south to the north as a result of Conservative changes after the high rates placed on businesses by Labour local authorities. Such authorities used to take money from businesses—because those businesses did not have enough votes to vote the council down—and spend it on silly schemes that helped no one and were paid for by local people. The hon. Gentleman wants to know why that has happened in the north of England—it is because of Labour councils and Labour rating.

As for the hon. Gentleman's comments on town centres, planning permission arrangements will not make people open shops if they will not be profitable. Town centres will be given as big a chance as possible to compete, but the public want proper competition and decent prices. If they are provided in city centres, the people will go there. If they are not—Labour councils have stopped them in many cities—people will go elsewhere.

Mr. Booth, it is my impression that you came in after the statement had started. Is that correct?

That is correct, Madam Speaker, and I apologise. As I have a special interest, I was watching my monitor and heard every word from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz). Had I come away, I would not have done so.

That is a story which I have heard many times before. The entire House knows my attitude— Members must be in the Chamber to hear the statement if they wish to question the Minister.