HC Deb 05 February 1987 vol 109 cc1217-22

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

8.12 pm
Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

At this unusually early hour, I am delighted to speak on the Adjournment of the House and to have the opportunity to raise the work of the Savile Row tailors, as represented by the Federation of Merchant Tailors. I am delighted to see that my hon. Friend the Member for the City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) is in his place tonight for, as his constituents know, he is a most diligent and hard-working constituency Member of Parliament who takes the greatest possible interest in the well-being of the Savile Row tailors. However, by virtue of the high office that he holds under the Crown he is unable personally to represent their interests in this debate. In effect, I am speaking for him as well as for those of my constituents who are also employed in this trade.

It would not be appropriate for me to go further, Mr. Speaker, without making reference to your special interests in the tailors for, as the whole House knows, you have proud links with this most honourable of trades. It is a particular privilege that you should be present tonight to hear the debate.

I am particularly glad to be speaking tonight about the Savile Row tailors because the centenary of the Master Tailors' Benevolent Association was celebrated last night. I know, Mr. Speaker, that you were one of the guests of honour. The Federation of Merchant Tailors will itself celebrate its centenary in 1988.

What concerns the Savile Row tailors at present and has a direct bearing on a viable future for the trade is the proposal to amend the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order.

To put this issue into context, I shall describe the history of the bespoke tailoring industry in this country, particularly in the city of Westminster. Given the nature of our hostile climate, tailoring has been a feature of our country for some time. We all like to wear clothes. A craft trade was organised to represent the tailors' interests in the middle ages when guilds were formed, as was the custom several centuries ago. Effectively, it was the French Revolution that gave the British tailor the opportunity to lead men's fashion, and it was then that wool was introduced into quality clothing.

Early in the 19th century, bespoke tailors were to be found in the eastern part of Mayfair, which lies in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for the City of London and Westminster, South. By the middle of the 19th century many of them were occupying premises in Savile Row. With the rise of the British empire, English tailoring and its influences were spread throughout the world—perhaps, one might say, with great advantage. One of the most lasting influences of the British empire is perhaps the gift of formal men's wear to cultures that previously were used to a type of clothing that is quite foreign to us.

Throughout this century, the United Kingdom has continued to lead in the development of formal men's wear. We have gradually seen the lounge suit become accepted business attire throughout the world. As a result. many overseas tailors have sought to perfect their craft among the tailors of Savile Row, but perhaps the most pleasing aspect has been the development of markets throughout the world for high-class British tailoring. This has developed in a most encouraging way so that today, of the approximately £27 million that the tailoring craft earns, over £15 million of it relates to exports. That is particularly relevant to this debate.

The Savile Row area became the world's centre for high-class men's tailoring. It is also the centre for design skills of good quality men's wear. That is well understood, not only in the United Kingdom but throughout the world. The Federation of Merchant Tailors has represented its concerns to me. and it is those concerns that I am attempting to present to the House tonight.

However, there is more to say about the tailoring trade before I look at the order. The trade has developed in such a way that it now takes a leading role in training for the industry. It is centred particularly on Savile Row. A member of the federation chairs the training and research committee of the Clothing and Allied Products Industry Training Board, which serves and influences the London Institute and the London College of Fashion. It was the Federation of Merchant Tailors that led the campaign to retain the Clothing and Allied Products Industry training board when its future was in doubt, along with many other industrial training boards. It has saved that board, whose record is unrivalled in placing in full-time employment 95 per cent. of all the young people who have completed their training on the YTS course.

Throughout the years the federation has worked closely with the leading woollen merchants in the United Kingdom, aiding and advising them on the development of ranges of their world wide markets. Indeed, they would be the first to admit that the role of the tailors in this regard has made a major contribution to their own success.

Tonight's debate is essentially about the proposal to abolish the class 3 light industrial category and to combine it with offices in a new business class. This was foreshadowed in the Government document entitled "Lifting the Burden". It is a radical development. The Department of the Environment's proposal to modernise the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1972 and to make these changes is significant, inasmuch as it would change the prospect of the rental values for properties in the Mayfair area, particularly in Savile Row. On 26 November the Minister for Environment, Countryside and Planning wrote to my noble Friend Lord Hanson, a successful capitalist who believes in the market of skills and enterprise. The Minister said: However I must emphasise that one of the Federation's chief concerns—the possible increase in rental levels for tailoring premises—is a factor which we cannot take into account. In our view, we must concentrate on the public interest in amenity and the use of land.

Public interest in amenity and the use of land is the kernal of this issue. The position that the tailors occupy in London and their craft provide employment for some 3,000 people who live and work in London and who contribute to the £27 million which the trade produces in the value of its products, but also to that vital £15 million a year which goes to exports.

If the majority of the light industrial and commercial property in Savile Row is to become one business class the tailors believe that it would rapidly turn into offices and hi-tech studios and be used for other activities. If the tailoring profession is to continue to serve the interests of Britain and contribute to world tailoring—Savile Row tailors are at the centre of that activity—a change in the use classes order will be quite devastating.

In the City of Westminster we have a mosaic of commercial activities which each relate to the other. Thus, people will stay in the hotels, visit the Oxford street retail sector, the fine art galleries, the auction houses, consult a doctor in Harley street or a consultant, consult distinguished lawyers and see a variety of commercial and professional people. The role of the bespoke tailor in Savile Row is integrated into these activities.

If, by changing the use-class order, The Savile Row tailoring community is forced away from the centre of London, that departure will damage the centre of London and the commercial activity of the City of Westminster. The City of Westminster chamber of commerce and industry, which is currently looking at this issue, is deeply concerned about this prospect. We cannot look upon these planning orders purely as matters to do with planning and the environment. We have to take into account the knock-on effect of change, and the effect of that change on the character of the commercial community, and in turn on those who work in it.

When my hon. Friend comes to reply to the debate, I would ask him to consider that particular aspect of the proposal. I am aware that his Department is still considering what should be done about "Lifting the Burden". I would like him to carry from the debate the keen message that many aspects of the change are affecting a large number of people. The tailoring trade has a long and honourable history, which is bound into the heart of London. Any change which affects their future is not necessarily a change for the best interests of the community, nor the best interests of the country. Whether the orders should be changed, and whether there should be a separate category to take account of the special needs of the occupants of premises that are used both as shops and for light industrial purposes, is an issue that I would strongly commend to my hon. Friend and his departmental colleagues as they decide about the future of the proposal.

8.36 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Richard Tracey)

I am sure that all of us here, and you, Mr. Speaker, in particular, will agree that the tailors of Savile Row are fortunate to have had their interests so admirably put by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler). He has been supported by the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for the City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), who because of his high office could not put the case personally. It is good to have him here on the Treasury Bench.

May I first congratulate the Master Tailors Benevolent Association on its centenary and extend my best wishes to the Federation of Merchant Tailors when it reaches this landmark next year. The profession has rightly earned its reputation as being amongst the most highly regarded craft skills. Its image and prestige are justifiably recognised in every continent. The skill represented by the federation has been described as a special blend of art and science.

Before going any further, I think that it would be helpful if I briefly outlined the scope and purpose of the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1972. The planning Acts provide that "development"—for which planning permission is normally required—includes the making of any material change in the use of buildings or other land. But it has never been the aim of the planning system to control every small development or change of use. The general development order and use classes order together provide a wide range of freedoms which relieve the planning system of a great deal of minor administrative clutter, and ensure that there is a reasonable flexibility in the way that property is used or adopted. The use classes order does this by removing the need for a planning application if both the existing and proposed uses fall within the same use class. It is, therefore, an instrument of simplification that is as old as the planning Acts themselves. The classes have always been quite broad.

The order has not been substantially changed since 1948, and it now seems distinctly dated. The Department of the Environment therefore asked the property advisory group to look at it. We published the group's recommendations in December 1985 and at that time invited comments. In considering the use of buildings and land for commercial purposes the group took as its starting point the possibility of creating a single "employment" class. However, since that would have allowed the freedom to turn, for example, a corner shop into a shot blasting workshop or a glue factory, without prior approval, the group concluded that general arid industrial uses should be excluded. It concluded that shops should be excluded too, because of the special character of the vehicular and pedestrian traffic that they generate, and the importance of maintaining the functional character of shopping streets.

The group regarded the possibility of merging other commercial uses into a single class as posing a more challenging question. The fundamental issue which needs to be examined is the extent to which owners and users of commercial buildings should be free to decide for themselves what activities, or a combination of activities with much the same impact on the environment. could most profitably be carried on in their property from time to time, and to enable quick adaptation to the changing demands of commerce, without prior approval. We must also consider the extent to which local authorities should be able to influence the type of commercial activity carried out in their area.

A related problem is the development of new commercial uses which do not fit neatly into any use class. These are frequently referred to as "high technology" uses and embrace the manufacture of computer hardware arid software, research and development connected with computers, and the provision of consultancy and after-sales services, as well as various micro-engineering, biotechnology and pharmaceutical research, development and manufacture. These uses often involve the shifting of balance of activity between office, light industrial arid storage use which can cause confusion and difficulty when seen against the present structure of the order. There are many other uses in the same position: laboratories in general, studios, including film, television and sound recording studios, communications centres, some libraries and staff, educational and training establishments.

The property advisory group concluded that in the 1980s there was very little difference between the impact on the environment of most offices and light industry. Bat it also noted what it regarded as an unnecessary uncertainty for certain commercial firms in the need to apply for planning permission depending on whether the primary purpose was manufacture of some kind, or primarily clerical in nature. The group therefore recommended the creation of a new business class, embracing office and light industrial uses. In the light of our consultation, we agreed with the group's conclusion that there would be wide-ranging benefit to commerce and industry if this proposal were implemented. We therefore endorsed the concept of a single business use class in our consultation paper published last June.

We are still considering the final form of the new order and in doing so we are, of course, taking very careful account of the many comments that we received in response to the consultation paper. Copies of the responses to our consultation exercise have now been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already met a deputation from the Federation of Merchant Tailors. My hon. Friend has lobbied equally persuasively on its behalf tonight. The Federation's main fear appears to be of the increased rents that it believes would result from the changes that we propose. But, in considering changes to planning legislation, we really must concentrate on issues which are relevant to the environment and amenity. It was never the purpose of the planning system to influence economic factors, such as rental levels, or to suppress the market by protecting the interests of one business from the activities of another.

The property advisory group considered the relationship between development control and property values. It took the view that the planning system is not and should not be concerned with fluctuation in the value of individual property. In its report, the group quite rightly stated that planning permission can neither be granted nor withheld on the ground that the decision in question will adversely or beneficially affect the value of any land, whether it is the land which is the subject of the application for permission, or other adjoining land, the value of which will be affected by the decision.

Of course, the way in which planning powers are exercised has sometimes had that effect of influencing economic factors such as rental levels. One example is the effect of the policies contained in the city of Westminster district plan. That plan aims to stem the loss of existing industrial floor space, in particular by maintaining certain specialised trade activities where these have links with central London. The protection of specific uses—by adopting policies which incorporate a presumption against allowing office development displacing specialised trades—has clearly benefited the west end tailoring industry. It has served to divert pressure for other forms of commercial development away from Savile Row and, as a result, rental values have remained relatively low. The federation suggests that rents paid on industrial premises in central London are a quarter of those paid for offices.

As I have said, we concluded that the effects on amenity and environment of a change of use from light industry to offices and vice versa are generally not so significant as to warrant local authority approval in each case. We therefore included in our consultation paper a proposal to amalgamate the light industrial and office classes. Will this lead to the quadrupling of rents which the federation fears? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I think not. For a start, many of the individual leases held by the tailors limit the use of the premises to manufacturing purposes. It may be anything up to 25 years before the terms of such leases come up for renegotiation. Only then will free market rents mean office rents. Even then, will the premises be of the sort which command the premium office rents that have been quoted? Again we think not. Rental levels for office uses in Savile Row currently range from £12 to £20 a square foot, not very much above workroom and showroom rentals. There is evidence of tailors coming into Savile Row being prepared to pay these prices today.

The tailors have been in Savile Row for much longer than the planning system. I have no doubt that this specialised industry based itself there in response to market forces. Responding to market forces requires flexibility and an ability to move with the times. There is a long tradition of this in Savile Row, or the tailoring industry would not continue to be so well represented in that area.

These are some of the relevant considerations. But I stress that we have not yet reached any final decision on the shape of the revised order. We shall certainly consider extremely carefully the points that my hon. Friend made tonight. But we are not prepared to shy away from our responsibility to keep the overall planning system up to date.

If we decide to press ahead with the proposed new business class, I am confident that the tailoring industry will take this in its stride. The industry may have to review the way its operations are organised. But in our view it has the talent and foresight to be able to continue to provide the levels of excellence in both its products and its service which have so long been synonymous with Savile Row.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Nine o'clock.