HC Deb 23 June 1981 vol 7 cc223-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Mather.]

10 pm

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

I should like to bring to the attention of the House a problem which is becoming increasingly difficult in our country, the opening of sex shops.

Presently there is no method of controlling the opening of sex shops. An established retail outlet can be converted into a sex shop without the permission of the local authority or of the local residents. That is causing increasing concern. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are receiving letters from constituents who are complaining about the opening of such premises and of the inability of the local community to influence their opening. Today, a number of right hon. and hon. Members have expressed support for this Adjournment debate.

I shall quote two examples. The first is in my constituency, where a sex shop was recently opened in premises formerly occupied by a ladies' dress shop. The proprietor was told that it was proposed to open a secondhand bookshop. When the contracts were exchanged, it turned out to be a sex shop. That shop was not subject to any local scrutiny either by the authority or by local residents. It is situated beside some schools. As a consequence of its establishment, houses in the area have lost value and people cannot sell them. This week I have received a third petition including thousands of names of people who are protesting. The inevitable consequence is that violence has occurred, not only in the daubing of the shop with slogans, but bricks have been thrown through the windows. No one condones such activity, yet it seems to be a consequence of the opening of such an establishment without any local say.

I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) here, because the second shop I want to mention is in his constituency. It opened four weeks ago. A petition of 10,000 names has already been made because of local unhappiness. I understand that it is not individuals' unhappiness alone, but the unhappiness of local authorities which is increasingly becoming clear. I believe that it is proposed that Liverpool council should pass a resolution asking the Secretary of State to do precisely what I am asking my hon. Friend to do this evening, namely, to move an order to put sex shops in a separate planning category.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)

I am leading a campaign in the Waverley constituency against a sex shop which has opened in a residential area surrounded by schools. We have organised a lawful picket for the last five weeks which is aimed at persuading the local authority to urge the Secretary of State to change the planning laws so that under the statutory instrument sex shops must have the same planning approval as fish and chip shops.

Dr. Mawhinney

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The question now is, what can be done about this problem? There are two ways of tackling it: by licensing, or by planning legislation.

According to The Guardian of 2 May 1981, the Minister of State, Home Office has said about sex shops: The Home Secretary is aware that there are those who wish to see a licensing system on a wider scale, and he does not dismiss this. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who will be replying to the debate, said in an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain) that Betting offices are subject to separate but complementary licensing and planning controls, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has expressed his support in principle for a proposal by the GLC to introduce a licensing system for sex shops in Greater London. Further developments will depend upon experience."—[Official Report, 6 May 1981; Vol. 4, c. 98.] If we are to go along the licensing route, we have to wait for the passage of a GLC Bill, and we have to wait for experience to evolve from that passage. We shall then have to wait for possible legislation. That is too long and it is not acceptable.

The alternative is to look at the planning aspect. I was very encouraged to see in The Guardian of 2 May that the Secretary of State for the Environment is understood to support an idea which could help local authorities to control the spread of porn shops by changing the planning regulations. Sex shop owners would then have to apply to councils for planning permission before opening new shops". I accept that The Guardian is not the official mouthpiece for the Secretary of State; nevertheless, that was an encouraging start.

As I understand the position, the general principle in planning legislation is that if a particular operation or change of use involves development as defined in the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, it will require planning permission under section 22(1). There is no development unless the change of use is material, and the definition of this is helped by the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1972. That order sets out 18 different classes, each of which groups together a number of similar uses. So in asking my hon. Friend this evening to create a special planning category for sex shops, we are not setting a precedent. We are simply asking him to increase the number from 18 to 19, and it is hard to see that that by itself would present an insurmountable problem.

I understand that my hon. Friend's Department is arguing against the introduction of planning regulations. In a letter from an official in his Department last week to Mr. O. R. Johnston, the official said: An amendment to the Order would not ensure that planning permission was always needed to change the use of a shop to use as a sex shop. Planning permission would only be needed when material change of use was involved. It seems likely that there would be many cases where no material change of use was involved. Even where planning permission was required, a local planning authority would not be entitled to refuse permission simply because they disliked the business being transacted at the shop or had moral objections to it. These considerations tie outside the scope of the planning system. It seems likely that, for these reasons, a change to the Use Classes Order by itself would not achieve the desired objective. It would merely provide the semblance of control without the reality". In the next paragraph, the official went on to argue that the Development Control Policy Note No. 1, which is the Department's official guidcance by way of explanation of these facts, substantiated his point. I should like to read to my hon. Friend some quotations from that policy note. It says: Other material considerations in this context cover a wide field. Nor in general is it desirable that planning control should be used to secure objects for which provision is made in other legislation". We would all accept that, but I have to point out to my hon. Friend that in this case there is no other legislation. The use of the betting shop as an example in that letter to Mr. Johnston is wholly without foundation because there is other legislation in that case, but not in this case.

My hon. Friend will also be aware that the policy note talks about third party interest. It says that: it should also be remembered that the purpose of planning is to regulate the development and use of land in the public interest. … For example, the effect of a proposed development on its neighbours"— people who live in the houses around the betting shop in Arundel Road, Peterborough, would certainly support that aspect of planning regulations— including its effect on the value of neighbouring property is a consideration which can properly be taken into account in deciding a planning application… The material question is whether the proposal would affect the locality generally and lead to a change in its character which would be contrary to the public interest. My hon. Friend must accept that many of us feel that a sex shop situated in a residential area and close to schools changes the character of that area in a way that is contary to the public interest.

Finally, the document states: Representations by third parties about a particular proposal may be relevant, and indeed valuable, as an expression of public opinion, and may properly be taken into account. That is precisely what we want, because at the moment that expression of opinion by third parties—the local authorities and the local residents—is prohibited.

Mr. Dan Jones (Burnley)

I am rather surprised at the hon. Gentleman, as it cannot be much more than a month ago that the Sainsbury Bill dealing with that precise issue was discussed. I am sure that when that Bill comes back from the House of Lords, as it will by next week, there will be an opportunity to raise this matter again.

Dr. Mawhinney

As the instigator of the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill last session, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that he is not correct in his assumption. My hon. Friend's Bill does not relate to this at all.

It would therefore appear that a planning order is an appropriate method of dealing with the problem. My hon. Friend the Minister will no doubt tell me that there will be a difficulty of definition. I accept that. But I must tell him that to define a sex shop under a licensing Bill will be no easier or more difficult than under planning legislation. It is my brief experience in the House that, if there is a will there is a way.

Is it reasonable, therefore, to differentiate between different retail outlets? I refer my hon. Friend back to the Act. Class 1 refers to use as a shop for any purpose except those listed. He and I know why some of those exceptions are listed. He could not have bought the ladies' haberdashery shop in Peterborough and turned it into a tripe shop without planning permission. He could not have sold cat meat food from it without planning permission. It is difficult for the constituents whom I have the honour to represent and many others to understand why the House regards it as important to control the selling of tripe and cat meat food, but is unwilling to do anything about the effect of sex shops on the environment.

Finally, I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the urgency of this matter. An acquaintance of mine recently received a signed, but undated, letter from the retail director of Conegate Ltd., which is just one of the firms which involve themselves in adult bookshops. The letter states: The company is the U.K.'s market leader in the retailing of adult magazines, marital aids, films, videos and is at present engaged in a multi-million pound expansion programme in opening a chain of 100 shops throughout the U.K. That is one company that is involved in this rip-off business. The letter mentions 100 shops in a multi-million pound expansion.

What line will the Government adopt towards the facts that I have tried, as best I can, to present and the urgency of the situation? There is a demand for control. Indeed, there is an urgent need for control. Under planning law, we already control retail outlets that are much less objectionable in theory and in fact. How many sex shops must we have before the Government move? How long will we have to wait, how many petitions must we present, how many hon. Members will have to receive letters, how many children will have to be exposed to such shops because they are opened next to their schools, how many houses will lose their values and how many neighbourhoods will be blighted before the House assumes the responsibility that lies upon it to act?

I am not one of those who believe that we should enact a comprehensive piece of moral legislation. However, when society brings a pressing problem to the notice of its representatives, and when that problem has virtually no socially redeeming feature, it is our responsibility to act. By tabling an order, the Minister can right a wrong and can allow this element of local control. We are not asking for censorship. We are not asking that no more such places should be opened. Indeed, there is a sex shop in the centre of Peterborough that does not cause anyone any concern. We are simply asking that the rights of those who do not want to be exposed to such shops should also be protected. They should have the right to say "No" as well as "Yes".

We ask the Minister to right a wrong by allowing that element of local control and accountability. If he does so, he will stem a feeling of outrage and will help to fulfil an election manifesto commitment. In addition, he will satisfy a pressing desire on the part of right hon. and hon. Members.

10.17 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Giles Shaw)

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) has raised a matter of great concern, which is rightly exemplified by the number of hon. Members in the Chamber. I note that the hon. Members for Mid-Ulster (Mr. Dunlop) and for Burnley (Mr. Jones), my right hon. Friend the Minister, my hon. Friends the Members for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler), for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain), for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen), and for Dudley, West (Mr. Blackburn) are in the Chamber. That demonstrates the feeling that this problem has reached such a proportion that action should be taken.

Let us agree that our starting point is that the Government shared the views so eloquently and forcefully expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough, to the effect that there is a problem in the uncontrolled growth of such trading. Many people are worried that the proliferation of such shops into areas where the ordinary public, and particularly children, go as part of their everyday business represents a threat to the moral well-being of our society—a threat that should be contained.

It is bad enough when those establishments are set up in areas such as city centres. Indeed, my hon. Friends the Members for Paddington and for City of London and Westminster, South will know that there is a substantial concentration of such businesses in London. At least, by and large, such shops are located in areas where those who wish to use them will seek them out and find them. When they start appearing in ordinary High Streets or residential areas, the distaste that they generate is far greater.

Having expressed the view that this problem must be dealt with, two things flow from that. One is that we must select a method of dealing with the problem that actually deals with it. Secondly, we must select a method to deal with it that is consistent with the other aspects of environmental legislation and planning law.

A number of suggestions were made by my hon. Friend. His main suggestion, which the House will recognise, was that of the change to the Use Classes Order under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. It is argued that that change could be made quickly. It would introduce a measure of control, imperfect though it may be, which would give local councillors and residents an opportunity to express views and which would enable local authorities to control, at least, the location of the shops.

Those are objectives that the Government endorse wholeheartedly. It is my considered view that a change to the Use Classes Order would not be sufficient to achieve them, for reasons that I shall explain to the satisfaction of my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough. There is a popular misconception about the function of the order. Planning control would not be obtained by a change to the order itself.

The Use Classes Order is made by the Secretary of State under the 1971 Act. Section 22, which my hon. Friend quoted, defines the term "development" for the purposes of that Act. Planning permission is needed when development takes place. The effect of Section 22(2)(f) is that no development is involved in changing the use of a building, if the uses before and after the change are in the same class in the Use Classes Order. That means that changes of use can be taken out of planning control by putting them in the same use class. Class 1 of the order covers shops and ensures that no planning permission is needed to change from one type of shop to another, apart from the listed exceptions.

My hon. Friend quoted from the list of exceptions, which sound archaic. They include shops for the sale of cats' meat, tripe, pets and the retailing of motor cars, to name but some of them. They relate to material planning considerations, such as the problems of noise and nuisance. The offal shops give rise to problems of that sort and therefore they are found in that exemption order. The question of traffic and hot food shops, where the congregation of people on pavements will cause pedestrian problems, and the smell from hot food, the take-away and its litter problems, provide a material factor.

When my hon. Friend considers a shop changing hands—it was a dress shop in his constituency, and initially changed its use to the sale of secondhand books, and now is apparently a sex shop—there is a change of use that does not have a marked effect upon the neighbourhood shopping. He claims that it has an effect on the neighbourhood in terms of the quality of the location in which the shop is set.

I remind my hon. Friend of the quotation from section 14 of the development control policy note from which he quoted. The effect of a proposed development on its neighbours, including the effect on the value of property, could be a material consideration. The note says: The material question is not whether the owners and occupiers of neighbouring properties would suffer financial or other loss, but whether the proposal would affect the locality generally and lead to a change in its character which would be contrary to the public interest. Planning law, as my hon. Friend concedes, deals with larger problems—the utilisation of land, the determination whether there should be shopping areas, amenity areas or recreational areas. Because of that the simple change of the Use Classes Order, to say that that category of shop—assuming that we could define that appropriately—may not provide a sufficient consideration for the problem to be dealt with.

We have to determine whether we can define that adequately. I was delighted that my hon. Friend concluded his remarks by saying that it was no part of his suggestion that we should become involved in moral judgments or should be on the verge of censorship of this sort of problem. The House must agree—I trust that it will—that planning law should not be confused with moral judgments and certainly not with censorship.

That is one of the reasons why I am sure the whole House welcomes the progress made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) in regard to the Indecent Displays (Control) Bill, which will at least go some way towards dealing with the problem of display within certain shops.

Mr. Dan Jones

When all is said and done, which hon. Member has the right to conclude what the noble Lords will decide in relation to that very point? I am in complete sympathy with the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), but at the same time I am aware that at the present time the Lords must still deliberate on this point. Does not the Minister think that we should await their report, which I believe will make a contribution in the direction envisaged by the hon. Member for Peterborough?

Mr. Shaw

I take note of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I ask his forgiveness if I attempted to suggest that the matter was cut and dried. Obviously, there will be further discussions on this question.

Let me hasten to proceed to the other aspect of the problem—the licensing aspect. My hon. Friends the Members for City of London and Westminster, South and Paddington will be aware that we have had discussions about the problem in London. That has led my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to the view that the licensing route may well be a more appropriate way of tackling this problem.

Let me make two points. First, the problem of definition will remain. I remind my hon. Friends of the fact that apparently a bookshop can easily change to selling books of a kind to which the local community may take exception. That is an extremely difficult matter to pin down either in relation to the change of Use Classes Order, which deals with widely separate material factors, or the absolute definition, which would have to be argued in a court of law.

Nevertheless, assuming that definition can be obtained, the general powers Bill sponsored by the GLC will seek to provide at least a form of licensing—probably under the guidance of the local authority—which will endeavour to control at least numbers and locations, insofar as the local authority will be empowered to determine such matters when considering applications from potential licence holders.

My hon. Friend went further and suggested that it would take too long to await the experience that this Bill could provide. The experience of definition, which is a considerable matter, must be awaited to see whether it will produce the kind of background to legislation that we need. Equally, if the GLC general powers Bill is found to be effective, I see no reason why it could not of itself form the basis of further action.

I should like to have further discussions with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, who is extremely concerned about these developments, to see whether there are any ways in which speedier progress might be made in the light of what the GLC proposes to do. It would be wise to wait until the first steps have been taken within the City of Westminster by using the GLC Bill, to see whether therefrom a template for national action can be defined.

Mr. Steen

Five sex shops have spread into Liverpool in the past three months, and five more are likely to be opened. It is not good enough for my hon. Friend to say that we should wait to see what happens in London. This is a problem in the provincial towns, and some action must be taken by the Government.

Mr. Shaw

I am not prepared to take action, even at the behest of my hon. Friend, if it turns out to be unsustainable in the courts and fails to prevent the problem that he seeks to remedy. My hon. Friend must be patient and recognise that we are dealing not only with the difficult problem of definition but also with a matter in respect of which much planning law could be at risk if, time and again, we found on appeal that we had to concede that the actions taken by local authority in good faith had no binding power in law.

The House must recognise that we are seeking to move forward to solve a very difficult problem. I pledge that we shall do so with determination and urgency, and I am grateful for the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough introduced the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past ten o' clock.