HC Deb 02 March 1987 vol 111 cc704-10

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

11.43 pm
Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

I am delighted to have the opportunity of speaking in the Adjournment debate this evening. I am aware of the privilege that is accorded to hon. Members in being able to raise a matter in the Adjournment debate. I am particularly grateful to be able to raise the matter of Leeds market. Although, in Adjournment debates. hon. Members quite properly and legitimately raise small matters that are important to many people within a constituency, Leeds market — hon. Members who are not from the north might not realise this — is of considerable importance to the region. It is fair to say that, in my 19 years or so as a representative in various guises in the city of Leeds — the city council, the county council, and now as a Member for one of its constituencies — nothing in recent years has distressed me quite as much as the prospect of the city council being able to do what it proposes to do to the site and to the market. Its proposals will destroy the character and atmosphere of the city. They impose upon Leeds yet another superstore of the kind that dots about our cities. Such superstores are perfectly proper and acceptable in many places, but they will not be proper or of benefit to us in place of the Leeds market. I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Southampton, lichen (Mr. Chope), is to reply. He has not had the easiest of times as a Minister and he has today a chance to redeem himself by demonstrating his sensitivity to local government matters by responding positively and sensitively.

The site covers virtually 15 acres. It contains a listed building of 1904 which houses a substantial informal market. One of its great beauties is its higgledy-piggledy nature, the bustle and the way in which traders shout their wares. It is proposed to demolish the entire inside, to leave only the facade and to have a five-storey development including two of modern shops and one for car parking. Market traders would find themselves in a very different market.

This is a classical example of Labour and Conservative paternalism. They maintain that, as the elected representatives, they know best what the people of Leeds and the region want, and they say that they will sort out everything from the planning to the finance. I do not believe that the history of our country or of our great cities such as Leeds since the war leads us to believe that planning has been a great triumph, that prestige projects have always been beneficial or that we should approve this deal.

The Minister will know that the site is tied in with a nearby but not contiguous site called Quarry hill, which was once the home of a remarkable housing development. The 1938 development, now alas gone, housed people in substantial flats which, contrary to today's antipathy to flats, were popular. The site has now been cleared. My party in the area stands alone in believing that the site should have housing on it and that there should he some means of bringing housing back to the city centre.

I should like to consider what makes a market and what gives it character. The first factor is its evolution. It is not possible to create a market such as this by design, planning or development by the diktat of public authorities. The second factor is location. Being in the centre of the city, it provides a focal point. Many people appreciate that and believe that that is part of its attraction. Perhaps, most important, however, is the relationship that it develops and fosters. There is a balance between the formal and the informal market, and between the open and the covered market. Such matters are very important.

As with all old markets, buildings and developments, it is possible to make a case for sensitive improvement. There could be a case for spending some money on it, but there is none for destroying the whole interior. We require the rapier, not the bludgeon.

It might be valuable to provide a short history of the market to demonstrate its importance to the city of Leeds and the region. As far back as the 17th century, the people of Leeds bought the market rights, which were not conveyed in the charter of 1626. They realised that the prosperity of a city such as ours is not to be built artificially but as a market centre. Marketing and the ability to sell wares and goods is the way to achieve prosperity.

In those days the market was held in Briggate, and that lasted until 1822, when the present site was purchased in Vicar lane. A central market was built in 1824. Under the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, the market came under council control but not ownership. Under the Leeds Act 1842, a committee took over the management of the market. In 1853, there was a significant incident. The proprietors of the covered market applied to Parliament for an Act to incorporate the company and to permit them to enlarge the market. The council successfully opposed the Bill, and when it was reported back to the House in 1853 it was said that the case on behalf of the company had not been made. The Bill, therefore, failed. As a consequence, the council developed a new covered market in 1855 in a rather Crystal Palace style. There was a large glass palace and an open square behind that. In 1875, 90 shops and a fish market were added.

Shortly after that we saw the birth of Marks and Spencer at the market, when Mr. Michael Marks opened his penny bazaar on the very site that I am talking about. In other words, it has a treasured history with which many will have great sympathy.

In 1893, the building was damaged by fire, which led eventually to its demolition in 1902. The present structure, which was opened in 1904, was almost entirely a covered structure, which has survived until the present day, despite being severely damaged by fire in 1975.

It is worth saying that, although the demands and the legitimate needs of the people of any city and region are paramount, regard must be paid to the traders, who have suffered many blows at the Leeds market, including the fire of 1975. However, they have managed to transcend them and to continue trading profitably. It is interesting to note that in opposition to the proposals there has been a substantial petition, which bears about 250,000 names. Despite the fact that I have the privilege of an Adjournment debate on this issue, it should be said that no other Member for Leeds is in his place this evening. I thought that other Leeds Members would wish to participate in it given the deep interest in the subject. It is possible to discount petitions by saying that the public will sign anything, but it is not possible to discount a petition bearing 250,000 signatures. Those who have signed are not confined to Leeds or Yorkshire. There are signatures from throughout the northern region. These include those who come regularly from Newcastle and Nottingham, for example, because they like the character of the market.

Having set out the importance of the market to the city, the county and the region, I turn to the responsibilities of the Minister and the Secretary of State. I think that the Secretary of State should have excercised his powers to call in the original planning application. I wrote inviting him to do so on 1 July 1986, and, unfortunately, he declined so to do. If the permission already granted were to remain unscathed and unamended by any of the many constraints currently being pressed upon him, it would be difficult for the Secretary of State to rectify his original error of omission.

I do not believe that the developers will be able to sustain their original plans and I think that there will be a further opportunity for the Secretary of State to act. Two matters may well impinge upon him. There is the possibility that those who oppose the project will be able to obtain judicial review of the procedures. Whether or not they will succeed in that I know not, but that is a possibility. Secondly, there is the issue of the development company's finances. It is not an especially large company with particularly large resources. I would not wish to dwell on the fact that it is located in Holland.

Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen)

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that there is some worry among the local people in the market that the tenure of the market will change and that the Dutch company, which is peripheral to his argument, is a little suspect when we come to consider the way in which it might proceed?

Mr. Meadowcroft

The hon. Lady has rightly said that the resources of the company are peripheral to the argument, in the sense that if it were not that company, another might raise the funds. We are talking about £90 million, which is a substantial sum. The entire staff of MAB in November 1986 stood at eight office clerks, two managers and two directors. Its total authorised capital is 5 million Dutch guilders, with only 1 million—£300,000 — paid up. There is some doubt about the company, and in January, the city council gave it three months to come up with the resources. That period has yet to finish, and we wait with interet to see whether the company can raise that sum.

As far as I am aware, there has not yet been a response from the Minister or the Secretary of State about the application for listed building consent. The proposals have earned the united opposition of the Leeds Civic Trust, the Victorian Society and the organisation Save Britain's Heritage. It would be in full accord with Leeds' affection for the market if the Secretary of State said that simply to keep the facade of the building would be unacceptable, and would involve official vandalism of a high order. To do so would leave us in a position akin to that of Bradford, which suffered similar destruction and demolition some years ago, leaving that part of Yorkshire with only half a market and the equivalent of a small superstore, which has nothing like the same atmosphere.

In its central business area development plan, the city council had some excellent words. It said : new building should take place within the street framework and the closure of the streets, alleys and arcades in the city centre will generally not be acceptable. Such a principle cannot be contained in a plan that destroys the intimate relationship between trade and the city centre environment in Leeds.

It is interesting that the city council's failure to listen to, or consult local people has led to a unique instance. The student union, at a general meeting, has passed a motion in favour of the alliance in Leeds. This makes the point that, in common with other people who are in need, the students find the market a source of cheap food, and a shopping area that is different from an expensive development. The council has sought to minimise the opposition, but of the 1,276 representations from traders, 1,206 have been opposed to the scheme, and at an exhibition about the development, those opposed outnumbered those in favour by two to one.

If the plan were to go ahead in the form proposed, it would do considerable damage to a whole host of other developments that serve the region. For instance, it would mean a 25 per cent. increase in shop units, when the St. John's centre in Leeds is only half full. The Schofields site is being developed, and there are objections to the project from Lewis's and from Burton's, which occupies an important site on the corner of Briggate. Other shopping centres around the city are likely to suffer, and we are likely to have a polarisation within the regional centre between the developed and undeveloped parts of the city.

We should look at the finances of the market. The profits on the city's market operation, of which the central market is 80 per cent., have been as follows: in 1985–86, just under £2 million, in 1986–87, over £2 million, and the estimated profit for 1987–88 is again around £2 million. Despite the council's claim that the market needs redeveloping, it is making money year by year for the city. Surely, no sensible person would put £2 million in jeopardy without an absolute assurance that more money will come without risk, and there is no possibility of that. The prospect is that we shall reach saturation point, and those who are saying that they will move into the centre with the modern shopping that is being proposed are giving no assurance that they will maintain other outlets in the city. Therefore, it is likely that they will move into this and leave others empty, so there will be no gain whatever for the city.

If we are to go ahead with such a development, it will not only have an effect within the confines of Leeds but will go way beyond it. It is counter to all the trends that we are trying to see now by looking towards a sensitive and smaller development than that which is proposed here. I do not believe that we would want to maintain this proposal in the light of all the evidence against it. I hope that the Minister can offer some words of comfort to us in the city and in the region and suggest that there is some way in which he can act and consider the listed building consent and the prospects of a future planning application and what might happen to it to see whether there is some way of preventing this from going ahead in its present form. I believe that the proposal will have serious effects and that the people of Leeds and the region will be the ones to suffer, not the likes of the Minister or me.

12.1 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope)

I have listened carefully to the views expressed by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) about the proposals for the redevelopment of the Kirkgate market in Leeds. I understand that the market traders association is applying for a judicial review of Leeds city council's handling of the proposals. I am sure that the House will bear with me, therefore, if I exercise caution in commenting on the details of the case.

However, I should like to take this opportunity of making absolutely clear a general point about such cases. Decisions on local planning matters are the responsibility of local planning authorities. That is not a new concept : it is only right that local authorities are left to get on with the job which has been given to them by Parliament, and which they were elected to do. That responsibility should be taken away only very exceptionally, when there are issues involved which are clearly of more than local significance.

Mr. Meadowcroft

I am glad that the Minister has made this important point, that although the application was made by the Dutch development company, it has nevertheless put together the project with the full agreement of the city council. Therefore, in a very real sense the city council is asking itself for planning permission in this case. I wonder whether the Minister has appreciated the point that the whole case is within a closed circle, which hardly helps anybody to believe that it is a fair process.

Mr. Chope

I know that the city council took exception to a comment that the hon. Gentleman made, in which he suggested that it was giving planning permission to itself. In fact, this is a joint venture scheme and I do not think that it is unique, in shopping centre development in this country. What is interesting is that the hon. Gentleman has so often criticised my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other members of the Government for wanting to interfere in the way in which local authorities manage their affairs. However, as soon as he finds himself confronted by a decision by his own local council with which he passionately disagrees, he is the first person to come along and say that my right hon. Friend should intervene on his behalf.

There are, of course, some circumstances in which particular proposals may have a wider impact, regionally or indeed nationally. In those instances, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be prepared to consider whether he should call in the application and decide it himself. That does not presuppose, of course, that all such cases will be called in. Against the general background that I have described, it is desirable that he should intervene only when it is really necessary that he should do so.

Circular 2 of 1981 and an associated direction requires the local planning authority to inform the Secretary of State of proposals which would, in the authority's opinion materially conflict with or prejudice the implementation of the policies and general proposals of a development plan which he has approved. I condense a little for the sake of simplicity and brevity. The purpose, is of course, to give the Secretary of State a chance to decide the matter himself if he wishes, since he approved the proposals in the plan.

Call in by the Secretary of State is relatively rare—normally fewer than 100 times a year. In 1984 there were, in fact, only 42 cases out of a total of 427,000 applications; of those 42, only three related to superstore proposals.

That brings me to the present arrangements for shopping. The Department's Circular 21/86 of December 1986 "Policy on Major Retail Developments", informed local authorities of a new direction to the effect that, before granting planning permission, the local authority should consult the Secretary of State regarding any retail proposals with gross shopping floor space of not less than 250,000 sq. ft.

The direction reflects our concern that we should have the opportunity to consider calling such cases in. It does not mean that we shall necessarily call in all the cases referred to us. Nor does it mean that a shopping proposal has to exceed 250,000 sq. ft. before we will call it in. We shall continue to consider each case—as we have always done—in the light of its individual merits.

In this context, it may be helpful if I say a little about our general policy on retail development, which is sometimes misunderstood. Annex A to Circular 21/86, which reproduces a parliamentary answer given in July 1986 when my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) was Secretary of State, sets out our approach. It makes it clear that the planning system is not concerned with matters of commercial competition between retailers or methods of retailing; it must take into account the benefits to the public that flow from new developments in the distributive and retailing trades. But our policy also recognises that in exceptional circumstances it is necessary to take account of the cumulative effects of other recent and proposed large-scale retail developments in the locality, and to consider whether they are of such a scale and of a type that they could seriously affect the vitality and viability of a nearby town centre as a whole. Here, we are concerned with the second order effects of trade diversion, not with the mere fact that trade may be diverted—for example, in the possibility of a significant increase in vacant properties, or a marked reduction in the range of services that a town centre provides, which might lead to its general physical deterioration and to the detriment of its future place in the economic and social life of the community. Town centres need to maintain their diversity and activity if they are to retain their vitality, but that does not mean that the range and variety of shops and services should not be allowed to change in response to changing circumstances. Nor does it imply that it is always necessary to call cases in to ensure that the policy that I have outlined is applied properly. It is for local authorities to consider factors themselves in any case in which they are relevant.

In the case that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, there have been requests that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should exercise his discretion in favour of calling in the application for the redevelopment of the market by the Dutch development company MAB. The main issues raised in those requests were : the effect on shopping provision in the city centre; the character of the market itself; and conformity with the central business area district plan. The market traders association expressed its view that the proposal would result in an insensitive over development of the few remaining traditional markets. Individual market traders have written to the Department about their fears that they will be located in less advantageous positions and that their livelihood will thereby be threatened. I believe it to be significant, however, that very few local people have written to the Department to voice any objection to the scheme. In fact, only five letters have been received from members of the general public.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a petition comprising some 250,000 signatures, but I am told that that petition was started in September 1985, some nine months before the first application by MAB. It was then referred to in the press and in a letter to the Secretary of State from Last Suddards, agents for the market traders association, in July 1986, when the petition was said to contain over 200,000 signatures, but it was not presented to the planning department of Leeds city council apparently until 20 October 1986, one week before the application for the redevelopment of the market went to committee. That is some of the background to the petition. I am told that many of the signatures on it are not of people from the locality of Leeds, but from far outside.

Mr. Meadowcroft

That is an important point. The Minister is making the case for me when he says that many of the people who signed the petition are not from the locality of Leeds. The market is a regional facility, and I have tried to emphasise that. Does the Minister accept that there have been many letters to me and to members of the council from people round about, and few issues have excited as much interest from the public? Whether they believed that by writing to their representatives or by signing a petition they were taking sufficient action to register their objection, I know not, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that there has been widespread opposition from people in the city.

Mr. Chope

It is for the local authority to assess the views of the local people. If the local authority gets it wrong, I am sure that the people will react accordingly. Conservative Members trust the people. The hon. Member for Leeds, West is in an odd position of arguing against local democracy and in favour of intervention from the centre.

This particular proposal does not fall within the categories of development outlined in the circular that I have just mentioned. It is not an out-of-town proposal. Furthermore, the scheme cannot be regarded as a departure from the provisions of the development plan. The site is in the area covered by the Leeds central business area district plan, which was approved by the council as recently as 1982. In that plan, Kirkgate market is in a prime shopping centre, and redevelopment of the market area is envisaged, albeit on a smaller scale than that now to be undertaken.

An application for listed building consent was made by MAB to Leeds. The council consulted various amenity bodies, including the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission and the application was revised in the light of their comments. An application for the demolition of unlisted buildings in a conservation area was withdrawn after the buildings were spot listed. The HBMC was content for the listed building application to be left for the local authority to decide.

All these aspects were carefully considered by my right hon. Friend in reaching his conclusion that the application should not be called in for his own decision. It would be wrong for me to comment further pending the outcome of the application for judicial review.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Twelve o'clock.