HC Deb 21 June 1995 vol 262 cc452-8

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

10.3 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

I wish to raise the subject of planning policy in relation to supermarket retail development in Northern Ireland. I will speak for 15 minutes and my colleague, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), will speak for five minutes, and then we will let the Minister have the rest of the time. We will be gracious to him.

I want to make it crystal clear, at the outset of this Adjournment debate, that I do not oppose inward investment, new development, freedom of choice, private enterprise and healthy competition. It is, however, essential that all those things are operated in a context of fairness, and on an even playing field with no advantage to any section of the community.

As a public representative, I must be worried about fairness. When that concept of fairness is challenged, not by a mere suggestion, but by some secret agreement, or by some private understanding, then it comes into the public domain and I have a responsibility to comment on it.

Yesterday in Belfast, Mr. David Sainsbury announced plans to open seven supermarkets throughout Northern Ireland and said that his company was confident that a further five proposals would follow in due course.

It must be stated that, in the case of at least half those proposed sites, planning policy hitherto has been to refuse all planning permission for retail development on those sites. That planning policy was rigorously implemented in the case of various applications from local stores and developers who had sought to provide for their clients retailing facilities on the very sites now marked down for Sainsbury developments.

In some cases, applications were refused and in other cases, the applicants were discouraged from even daring to pursue their disclosed intention by a statement from the planning authorities that their proposals would not be considered with any favour whatsoever under the existing planning policy. The exception made at Sprucefield for Marks and Spencer was signalled as a "one-off" development, never to be repeated, and was not to be taken as a breach of the existing policy. There was to be no let-up in that policy.

In that very context, and in directing his attention to some of those very sites, Mr. David Sainsbury finds himself able to state with total assurance that he proposes to develop the seven sites with the prospect of five more. To add, as he does, the token formula "subject to planning approval" is simply to pay lip-service to statutory requirements and to suggest, disingenuously, that there is some element of uncertainty in the achievement of his proposals.

Any other person who had dared hitherto to say that they were going to develop those sites was shot down immediately and was not permitted even to suggest that they were going ahead to seek full planning permission on those sites.

In fact the proposals of Mr. Sainsbury go against the present planning policy in the rest of the United Kingdom about "edge of town" and "out of town" developments. The reason for that is the imperative necessity to bring life back to the city and town centres to make them vibrant; hence the discouragement by the planners, because similar developments have already damaged the centre of other urban areas.

Yesterday, on Radio Ulster, Mr. Sainsbury was questioned by one Mr. James Kerr for the BBC. Mr. Kerr said: With 12 stores right across the province, it has been suggested that what you are doing is take the heart out of the town centres in Northern Ireland. Mr. Sainsbury replied: Well, I don't think that's the case at all. In England that has not been the pattern. We only go to sites outside the town centres where that is the only way we can provide the kind of service we want in terms of car parks and size of store. By and large, that doesn't have an effect on town centres if they are healthy, vital centres anyway. But Northern Ireland has had something which has told against the health and vibrancy of its town centres which generally has not applied to the rest of the United Kingdom—a campaign of barbaric IRA terrorist violence aimed at destroying the economic heart of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Sainsbury maintains that his plans will have no adverse effect on a healthy town centre or city centre provided it is already vibrant. But how can our town centres fall into that category after the mauling destruction that they have received? Surely, if there is one undertaking to which everyone should be dedicated it is that of the reinvigoration and re-establishment of the heart of urban Ulster. Anything that tells against that may give a cosmetic and short-term benefit, but it will be dearly paid for by long-term city decline.

I ask the Minister: has a Province-wide study of retail shopping impact been made? Is there a margin within the present retail shopping enterprises that must be met? If there is no margin, it is correct to conclude that existing businesses will go to the wall—ruthlessly crushed by the juggernauts of huge shopping centres set in motion by this breach of existing planning policy. But if, after such a study has been made, margins have been proved, the requirement makes developments such as Sainsbury inevitable. No matter what the finding of such a study or what margins may be discovered, we must establish the principle that a Johnny-come-lately developer must not be given special privileges or advantages—we must have an even playing field.

I have stood. both as a Member of the House and as a Member of the European Parliament, in the destroyed business premises of many of my constituents. Their premises were blasted by the bombs of those who are now in dialogue with the present Government. Today, in the House, I want to salute the moral resolution, the personal bravery and commercial courage of those business people, both men and women, who extinguished the flames, swept up the ashes, erected signs stating "business as usual" and carried on. Not one of those businesses received from the Government full reinstatement payments and, because of that, some of those involved were forced to see their family businesses brought to an end. I invite the Minister to come with me, when he has time, to the centre of Coleraine to talk to some people there. Perhaps that would be a good place to start.

Surely those who have borne the burden and heat of the day must not, by a sudden change in Government policy, be forced out of business now. The sort of development that is being envisaged with the evident lifting of what seemed impregnable planning restrictions will destroy some businesses as surely as did the IRA bombers. Furthermore, there are larger businesses which have sought, by development proposals amidst all the bombings, to give opportunities to the consumer. Those developers should not be discriminated against because a newcomer has arrived on the scene.

The question must be asked: why have others been refused planning permission on some of those sites while Sainsbury is in a position to make the announcement that it made yesterday? What about the constitutional rights of individuals under planning laws? I note that Mr. Sainsbury made no mention of public inquiries into any of his proposals. Does he have information that, even if such inquiries are held, the Minister concerned—who has the final word—will see to it that his objectives will be achieved? Tonight I am asking the Minister to give a solemn undertaking that, wherever there is resistance to any of those sites according to their locality, the people will have the opportunity of a full public inquiry.

I must tell the people of Northern Ireland, using the House as a sounding board, that the present Minister has set aside the findings of at least one public inquiry and that his immediate predecessor set aside the findings of another. Those inquiries have now become no better than a charade, with no credibility at all. To win at a public inquiry is now no guarantee that the battle has been successful. All gain can be taken away by a stroke of the Minister's pen. The very suspicion that the nod and wink has been given before an inquiry puts a question mark over the whole exercise.

I end in the way that I commenced: I fully support inward investment, new development, private choice, healthy competition and free enterprise, but only if the playing field is level. Otherwise it is not freedom, but dictatorship and slavery. Those who compete in the marketplace with Sainsbury require no favours. They are not asking for any advantages; they are simply demanding the inalienable right to justice and fair play. Looking at the record of their endurance, enterprise and investment, they have a right doubly to demand just that.

10.18 pm
Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. I. Paisley) should be congratulated on securing the Adjournment debate on planning. This time next year we shall not be able to raise such matters on the Floor of the House if the Minister goes ahead with his plans to transfer responsibility for planning from his Department to some weird agency.

The hon. Gentleman made it very clear that we are not seeking to promote or to disadvantage any particular company in the debate; we are simply concerned to ensure that Department of the Environment planning authorities adopt an even-handed approach. The hon. Gentleman referred to the need for a level playing field, and I do not criticise him for doing so. Unfortunately, that phrase was used several times earlier today in a short debate about fisheries. It was never made clear whether the fish were rising on the level playing field.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

Fisheries brings me straight to Portavogie in my constituency, where I hope that we have a level playing field.

I represent a constituency which, thankfully, Sainsbury has selected for one of its locations. We welcome the arrival of Sainsbury in Northern Ireland. Not only is it building stores that will bring lower prices for our constituents, but it will purchase something like £80 million worth of goods per year from producers in Northern Ireland.

In respect of planning decisions in my constituency, Supermac already had planning permission for the development of that location. Apparently, it has now been acquired by Sainsbury. The good news is that Sainsbury will incorporate the road reconstruction at Forster Green junction. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as several hundred people will be made redundant in the changeover from Supermac to Sainsbury every effort should be made by Sainsbury to re-employ those who will lose their jobs in the process?

Mr. Molyneaux

I am glad that my right hon. Friend has obtained firm assurances that the vital road scheme for that intersection, for which he battled so long, will be safeguarded. I hope that my right hon. Friend and I can depend on the Minister to ensure that that promise is kept in all respects and that there is no slippage. I know that it is not the Minister's responsibility, but I would ask any successor company on that site to support my right hon. Friend's plea that the 700 employees of the present supermarket will be given some priority—never mind Mr. Bob Cooper—in applying for jobs in which they are well experienced.

In any community, perceptions are everything, and they are often produced by banner headlines that a company is to develop a site in a certain location. I should not say it in the presence of one, but editors have a horror of small print, so they tend to give the impression that a decision has been made and endorsed by the planning authorities. Unfortunately, such banner headlines imply that a dramatic statement of intent will be sufficient to bulldoze the planning authorities into granting the planning application.

I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to dispel any such perceptions or impressions, not just in regard to the applications to which the hon. Member for Antrim, North has referred today, but for all such proposals which may come before his Department in one form or another before he cedes control of all such matters to the agency. I desperately hope that the Minister will change his mind about that, and that despite all their faults he and his Department retain answerability in the House for all planning matters in Northern Ireland.

10.24 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Malcolm Moss)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) on his success in obtaining a debate on this important issue. I recognise that the Ulster town has traditionally been the centre of trade and commerce for its population and its rural hinterland. In towns such as Ballymena and Ballymoney, the commercial town centre provides many important services for both town and country.

I also acknowledge and pay tribute to the many local businesses to which the hon. Member for Antrim, North drew our attention today when he talked about moral resolution. They have maintained their services and provided important facilities for shoppers during the last 25 years, often in very difficult circumstances.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) spoke of transferring my Department to some "weird agency". I offer him every assurance that the agency will not be weird. It will be fully under my control. I shall still be accountable to the House for all planning issues—

Mr. Molyneaux

A quango?

Mr. Moss

Not in the absolute sense of the word. We shall debate that further. Furthermore, the director of the agency will be accountable to the Public Accounts Committee in a way that his predecessor never has been.

While the Government welcome the general growth of interest in economic and commercial investment in Northern Ireland, I appreciate local concern that incoming investment might threaten or destroy long-established local businesses. I can assure the hon. Member for Antrim, North that my Department is committed to protecting the vitality and viability of existing town centres.

I recognise that an attractive and flourishing town centre can enhance the quality of life of its citizens, stimulate economic investment and support and encourage a whole range of cultural, social and commercial activity. It is for this reason that my Department has been encouraging regeneration initiatives where they are needed in many town centres across Northern Ireland. In broad terms the Department's planning policy is to ensure an adequate provision of retailing and related facilities, accessible to the whole community. This includes support for and enhancement of established town centres as well as recognising the need for local food stores and specialist retailing facilities.

Retailing is an important sector in the Northern Ireland economy, providing some 57,000 jobs and around 10 per cent. of total employment. As in the rest of the UK, the retail industry in Northern Ireland is subject to dynamic change, as consumers expect a wide range of choice and competitive pricing and as retailers adapt and change their marketing methods to respond to consumer demand. Indeed, in the past five years Northern Ireland has seen a continuation of the upsurge in retail development witnessed in the late 1980s, with more than 300,000 sq m of retail floor space approved in major schemes since 1988.

In recent years shopping patterns have changed, with trends in consumer behaviour in Northern Ireland following a similar pattern to those in Great Britain. There is a growing tendency towards one-stop food shopping and greater use of the car for shopping trips.

I come now to the planning policies which relate to the recent announcement by Sainsbury. All proposals for new shopping development will be tested against the planning policies for shopping set out in the planning strategy for rural Northern Ireland and in the Belfast urban area plan. The planning strategy emphasises the Department's commitment to protecting the vitality and viability of existing town centres as a whole and contains detailed planning policies for the control of shopping development.

The main thrust of these policies is to favour development which would make a positive contribution to existing centres. My Department also recognises that out-of-town shopping development has a role to play in accommodating types of retailing which are unsuited to a town centre location, and in satisfying local deficiencies in retail provision. It can also contribute towards urban regeneration. However, such developments may seriously prejudice the vitality and viability of existing town, district or neighbourhood shopping centres.

Additional significant retail developments on sites outside existing town centres will therefore be carefully examined against a well established set of planning tests including the following: contribution to deficiencies in the overall shopping provision; impact on existing shopping centres; impact on amenity, traffic movements or road safety; accessibility to both public and private transport.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Does it follow from what the Minister has said that if Stewarts or Wellworths have been refused permission for a site in Northern Ireland, Sainsbury's will be refused permission as well?

Mr. Moss

I can give an assurance to the hon. Gentleman that when we receive the planning applications which, I have to say, we have not as yet received, they will be carefully examined. If there is any objection from any quarter, the applications will go to public inquiry. It has been pointed out by the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) that two of the seven sites that were mentioned already have existing retail land use planning permission, notably the one at Supermac at Forster Green junction in Belfast. I will give the assurance that if objections are raised the normal planning procedures will be followed and the matters will go to public inquiry.

Within the food retailing sector, the trend towards car-borne, one-stop shopping has led to the development of large, food-based superstores. Such developments rely on the close proximity of adequate car parking, and for that reason locations within existing town centres may be inappropriate. The Department will carefully examine each food store proposal received for edge-of-town locations and will grant approval only where they comply with published planning policies.

In the case of retail warehouse developments, I recognise that trading in bulky goods and do-it-yourself products is difficult to accommodate in town centres, given the parking and servicing requirements. The siting of such developments in out-of-town locations can have a beneficial influence on town centres through the provision of an alternative location for the sale of bulky goods, thus reducing traffic congestion, and through the attraction of additional retail custom to the town. It is said, for instance, that the development at Sprucefield has enhanced the viability of the town centre retailing in Lisburn town centre itself. I use that as an example of what historically has occurred in Northern Ireland.

Proposals for retail warehouse development within urban areas will normally be directed to sites in or adjacent to existing town or shopping centres, thereby complementing and reinforcing the role of the centre. Planning permission for retail warehouses may be subject to conditions setting a minimum floor space and restricting the range and type of goods to be sold.

With regard to transportation, I expect all types of proposals for major shopping developments in Northern Ireland to be assessed within the guiding principles for transportation policy that I announced in January of this year—the primary concerns of which are to reduce, where possible, the need for travel, to encourage the use of alternatives to the private car and to provide an efficient, safe and accessible transportation system offering better choice and availability to all its users.

I know that there have been recent announcements by a major United Kingdom retail chain of its interest in developing in Northern Ireland and I am aware of the speculation in the press about other prospective developers. It would not be appropriate for me to make any comment in relation to confirmed intent or speculation, but in answer to the main thrust of the speech of the hon. Member for Antrim, North when he talked about fairness, an even playing field, and no special privileges or advantages to any group or organisation, I am prepared to give him, from the Dispatch Box, a categorical assurance that what he is asking for will be delivered—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.