HC Deb 15 March 1995 vol 256 cc955-99

[Relevant documents: The Fourth Report from the Environment Committee of Session 1993-94, on Shopping Centres and their Future (House of Commons Paper No. 359); the Government's Response to the Fourth Report from the Environment Committee: Shopping Centres and their Future (Cm 2767); and the Department of the Environment Annual Report 1995; The Government's Expenditure Plans 1995-96 to 1997-98 (Cm 2807).]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That a further supplementary sum not exceeding £1,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray the charges that will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1995 for expenditure by the Department of the Environment and its agencies on administration, including research, royal commissioners, committees, etc., and by the Planning Inspectorate Executive Agency on appeals, and by the Building Research Establishment Executive Agency on buildings research and surveys.—[Sir Paul Beresford.]

6.47 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I welcome the opportunity under the supplementary estimates to introduce to the House the report of the Select Committee on shopping centres and their future. I begin by paying tribute to the former Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), who chaired all the sessions in which we took evidence and started to prepare the Chairman's report, which was finished by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field). I certainly pay tribute to the work they both put in, as did the other members of the Committee, in producing what I believe was a useful report.

I would also like to pay tribute to the Clerks to the Committee, to the Committee's research staff and to our advisers, Ross Davies and Rory Joyce, all of whom helped to make the inquiry interesting. I believe that we all learned a great deal about it.

I had a view about shopping before I started the inquiry. I felt that it was all pretty boring, and something I was quite keen to avoid. Once we get into these inquiries, we suddenly discover a whole series of jargon, but there is also much interesting information. I certainly learned a lot.

I discovered the meaning of so-called comparison shopping, activity shopping and factory outlets, which are quite different from the ones I was used to the north of England, where the factory had a shop at the back of the works. It was originally a device to stop pilfering, by means of which the people who worked at the factory were able to buy goods on the cheap, in order to encourage them not to take them for free. Eventually, the factory shops spread, and people in the neighbourhood used them. I gather that factory outlets now constitute an industry.

Probably the most important political message that I gained from the inquiry related to the turn of the political tide. In the 1980s, there was a strong belief—epitomised, perhaps, by Nicholas Ridley's time at the Department of the Environment—that we could leave everything to the market, while minimising planning. Since then, we have realised that we made many mistakes during that period, and that better planning is needed. As the Committee began to recognise, planning is all about what people want; but a sub-theme must be what is good for people. We perceived that we must be careful in identifying what people wanted from the shopping of the future.

The Committee's task was made particularly difficult by the fact that people have an ambiguous view of shopping. They want to preserve town centres, for which they feel considerable affection, but they want shopping to be as convenient as possible. The difficulty lies in marrying the two requirements—preserving town centres, while making them convenient.

I am pleased not only with the report, but with the Government's response. I welcome their agreement with the thrust of the report, but I want to know how quickly they will implement their response to it. I agree with the Government that planning policy guidance note 6 needs revision, and I gather—if I understood correctly what was said during Question Time this afternoon—that the Government will try to complete that revision by the summer; I was not entirely certain whether they intended to complete the revision by the summer, or complete the consultation by that time.

Let me emphasise to the Government that the delay between their announcement that they want to revise the planning guidance and the actual revision of that guidance makes life very difficult for planning inspectors involved in inquiries, and those who present evidence at such inquiries. Should they present the evidence using the old guidance? Should they use the Minister's utterances, our report or the Minister's response to it? The process will be much tidier if the Government put the new planning guidance in place as soon as possible.

The Government did not accept the existence of problems relating to PPG 13 and transport issues, although they conceded that the guidance had been misinterpreted. They now say that they want to give further guidance. I welcome that, but again I urge the Minister to act quickly. It is particularly important to make car-parking requirements clear to planners.

Most out-of-town shopping areas have free car parking, while most in the town centres charge. That is ridiculous. Not every member of the Select Committee agreed with me, but I am very concerned about the charges levied by many local authorities. It is easy to raise such charges, because Governments make it virtually impossible for local authorities to raise money in other ways.

Stockport pushed up car-parking charges, introducing "park and display"; five years ago, I hardly noticed the handing of tickets from one car to another, but that practice now seems to be on the increase, which suggests that consumers think the system unfair. Let me tell local authorities that are rightly trying to defend their town centres that, if they allow parking charges to rise too much, they will undermine the feature that they seek to defend—although I do not blame them, because they cannot raise money in any other way.

Information is another issue that the Government should consider. Everyone goes to planning inquiries armed with all the "impact studies"—studies of what will happen if a new shop is built in a certain area. What seems to be lacking is the follow-up study two or three years after the completion of developments, to prove the correctness or otherwise of all the predictions. Another problem is the fact that much of the available information about shopping is commercially confidential. It is easy enough for stores such as Marks and Spencer to ask the computer where their customers come from in order to assess the impact, but they are reluctant to pass on such information. The Government should find ways of providing more information about people's actual shopping habits, rather than mere predictions.

The Committee received strong evidence that good town centre management is essential to combating the decline of the town centre, as opposed to out-of-town developments. The question is, who pays? Opposition Members certainly would like local authorities to be able to set the business rate again, enabling the business community to contribute directly to those authorities.

The Committee could not agree on an appropriate mechanism, but was united on the need for arrangements to deal with town centre management. It was clear that those who were prepared to pay a voluntary levy resented the freeloaders. Although I would not say that the Committee was able to offer the Government a clear recommendation, it highlighted the problem.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

The hon. Gentleman has made some interesting points about car-parking charges. As my local authority, Taunton Deane, has learnt from experience, pedestrianisation schemes may drive people away from the centre of town. I was also interested in his point about business rates and freeloaders. I hope that those in charge of the planning system will note the increasing number of charity shops, which do not pay rates, occupying vacant premises: that has led to much bitterness among shops that are trying to trade commercially.

Mr. Bennett

I shall deal shortly with the question of not just charity shops, but empty shops.

Many authorities have shown great enthusiasm for closed-circuit television surveillance, which plays an important role in making people feel safe in town centres. The desire to preserve historic centres sometimes makes parking difficult, but it is important to make people feel safe. One factor that encourages people to go to out-of-town centres is the feeling of safety that results from parking facilities that are, on the whole, obvious.

My only reservation is that, if CCTV is to be used, there will be implications for civil liberties. I therefore strongly urge the Government to come up with a code of practice. It should ensure that people know which areas are covered by the cameras and that the cameras are monitored, preferably by the police. If they monitor the cameras, the system can be effective—but that means that the cameras must be subject to regular supervision.

The temptation is just to put in the cameras, but without regular monitoring to show people that they are effective, they will become discredited, and a great deal of money will have been spent for nothing.

As part of town centre management, it is important that people try to reduce the number of empty shops. I am not sure whether I disapprove of charity shops, because it is far better that shops should be occupied—by charities, if necessary—than that they should be left empty. A row of empty shops gives a town centre a depressing feeling.

One of the problems facing business people with empty shops is that they are often reluctant to accept that they are never going to be filled, and that some alternative use should be found for them. In Greater Manchester, there are one or two chains of betting companies that own betting shops that have closed down. As long as they are closed, no one has to admit that they are a failure: they can remain on the books with a certain value. But if people attempt to convert them to houses, or for other uses, almost certainly someone will have to write them off as a loss. It is therefore important to encourage people who have no realistic prospect of bringing their shops back into shopping use to look for alternative uses for them.

I welcome the fact that the Government have been encouraging the idea of bringing back accommodation above shops; but there is a strong argument, for some town centres, in favour of bringing the whole shop back into residential use instead of leaving it empty for a long time to create a depressing feeling in the area.

Local authorities should not just defend shopping in town centres, but should do what they can to ensure that there are as many shoppers close to the centres as possible. It is not just a question of discouraging out of town shopping areas; it is also important to discourage out of town offices. The more we can ensure that people work and enjoy their leisure in town centres, the more they will be present there to use the shops. Much of Stockport's strength as a shopping area depends on the number of people working in the offices in the town centre who can do their shopping locally at lunch time.

Another point that was put to the Committee very strongly, in the context of reinforcing town centres, concerned putting land back together. It was pointed out to us that local authorities suffer from certain restrictions on their capital acquisitions and on their ways of handling capital projects. That in turn makes it difficult for them to put packets of land back together.

Many local authorities did this in the 1960s, although they did not always produce particularly imaginative schemes for putting packets of land back together. We need more imaginative schemes for this practice, so as to defend our town centres. Local authorities need the powers to do it. There is a striking contrast between the ease with which one can put a development on a big piece of land away from the town centre and the difficulty of bringing land back to the town centre.

My next point concerns the number of planning permissions in the pipeline. Representing as I do a Greater Manchester seat, I am worried about the proposals for Dumplington, from the point of view of Tameside and Stockport. I understand that the issue has now gone to the High Court, which has discussed it, and a decision is awaited in two months' time. I do not expect the Minister to be able to say much about it because it is sub judice, but this development would cause major problems for shopping centres throughout the Greater Manchester area.

All over the country, large numbers of planning permissions granted under the old rules have never come to fruition—the projects have never been built. If the Government are serious about defending our town centres and regenerating them, they must in some way attempt to time-limit planning permissions and ensure that they do not spark off a large number of other applications.

The Government must look favourably on some of the older systems of trading. One of the strengths of the town centres of Greater Manchester has been the old markets. Ashton, in Tameside, has one of the best markets in the north of England. It is important that local councils learn to cherish such markets. I am a little worried about Denton market, which is only barely surviving. I hope that local and central Government will do what they can to nurture the marketplace. Market traders provide small but important items to consumers—items considered too insignificant to be sold in out of town shopping areas.

I have a plea to make about Stockport. I greatly regret the fact that the 1960s-built shopping precinct has not had glass put over it. I am disappointed that the centre developers have not felt able to go that far.

I come next to a pet hate of mine: activity shopping. At the risk of boring members of the Committee, I should point out that many of my acquaintances in Manchester often tell me that they are going up to the lake district for a day out. They proceed to drive up the motorway, thereby increasing the congestion, to places such as Ambleside or Keswick. There they take five or 10 minutes in the fresh air by the lakeside. Then they go around the shops and end up buying an item of walking equipment—which they do not really use. They then have a pleasant lunch and drive back to Manchester.

I can understand that that is a nice thing to do, but it is environmentally destructive. It has meant that all the walking and climbing shops have disappeared from the centre of Manchester; meanwhile, the motorways are clogged with traffic. That is environmentally unattractive. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may not agree, but they ought to think about these issues—

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that people in Manchester be issued with passports so that they cannot get out?

Mr. Bennett

I am certainly not suggesting that. I do suggest that people think carefully about the environmental implications of what they are doing. I feel somewhat cynical when I see such people carrying stickers in the backs of their cars claiming that they want to protect the environment.

The same applies to trips to garden centres. I do not blame people for wanting to visit them, but when they go out to buy a compost kit, as people increasingly do from our urban centres, they create far more environmental damage in the course of their journeys than the environmental good achieved with the kit.

People need to ask themselves questions about shopping. I well understand that people in the lake district and in other environmentally sensitive areas have to earn a living, so it is attractive to them to build up their trade—but I insist that we need to think about the whole subject again.

Another of my pet hates is the McDonald's drive-in fast food outlet in Stockport, which causes major traffic congestion. I can of course see the attractions for youngsters of going to McDonald's when they have been out shopping, but it is certainly not environmentally attractive to lure people to such establishments in town centres simply so that they can drive through and take away food.

I hope that I have been able to show that ours was an interesting inquiry, which produced a useful report. We are pleased that the Government have taken so many of our recommendations to heart. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us how soon he intends to get the new planning guidance in place, and to what extent the Government will encourage more closed circuit television surveillance of town centres, which will make people feel safer.

If the public want to preserve and protect town centres, as I believe they do, they must nurture them by patronising town centre shops.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

I heartily endorse most of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Does he agree that the Government have an important role in nurturing town centres, particularly in undertaking a much-needed review of the valuation system? I would like a tilting in favour of small town centre shops and a bigger burden on large supermarkets. Rates are a considerable burden on small shops having low turnovers by comparison with supermarkets having huge turnovers, to which the rating system does not matter too much.

Mr. Bennett

That should be taken into account.

I conclude by leaving in the minds of hon. Members my strong view that, if people want to protect their town centres, they must use them.

7.10 pm
Mr. Harold Elletson (Blackpool, North)

I congratulate the Government on arranging this debate on the Select Committee's report, and the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) on his contribution. Debates in response to Select Committee reports are good for the House and for the Committee system. I hope that there will be opportunities for debating other reports, particularly that on the environmental impact of leisure activities, which has generated much public concern. I may add that the Select Committee was served by two Chairmen and it would be remiss not to pay tribute to their roles in producing the report.

I thank the Government for their response to the report, which was unusually positive and generous, but perhaps the Government have not gone far enough in respect of one or two recommendations, where further clarification is needed.

The report tapped a rich vein in the extent of public concern about retail planning. It is a question not just of pressures on the countryside, because that is everywhere to be seen and is something of which the public have been aware since the Acts of Enclosure. Pressure has continued, and has become more relentless and overwhelming in the past 15 or 20 years.

It is a question also of the damage done by the change to a car-driven society and a growing car culture. It is a question of the wider environmental impact of energy consumption and pollution and of new patterns of movement. It is above all—as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish suggested—a question of the impact of retail planning policies on town centres and of the quality of life in towns and cities. As I and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) represent entirely urban constituencies, that aspect is of considerable concern to our constituents.

There is a widespread perception in this country and abroad that many British towns and cities are dirty, dark, inaccessible, unfriendly, unsafe, often extremely ugly and, by and large, to be avoided by all sensible, right-thinking people. It is small wonder that many leading retailers have chosen to avoid them. More than a quarter of the nation's shopping space is out of town, and its proportion of sales has risen 200 per cent. since 1982. Out-of-town superstores account for one in three retail sales. Those phenomenal statistics suggest the scale of the problem confronting the Government.

That change has occurred because the planning system has allowed and encouraged it, and because of widespread ignorance of and apathy to the environmental consequences. Such a change has not occurred everywhere, as members of the Committee found on their visits. In some places, local authorities pursued sensible policies and strategies over a number of years. Most of my colleagues on the Committee would particularly commend Norwich. Even though it has a Labour-controlled council, it has implemented a coherent strategic plan over time, to ensure that Norwich—one of our historic cities—is preserved and that there is harmony between it and the surrounding countryside. Norwich has got right many of the important considerations to which the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish referred, such as parking.

Members of the Committee also visited Fribourg. It was virtually flattened in the second world war, yet it has been transformed into one of the most attractive and pleasant cities in Germany. Again, the authorities got the balance right between the city and the surrounding countryside. Fribourg is a thoroughly pleasant place in which to live, work, eat and shop. We learned a great deal from it.

I am delighted that the Government have fully taken up many of the Committee's key recommendations, including that planning guidance should be reviewed to introduce a presumption in favour of town centres, and that there should be a clear sequential test for new retail developments. The developer should be required to show that no suitable site is available in a town centre or on the edge of the town. Only then would an out-of-town centre be considered. The Government should go slightly further. It is not enough to accept the presumption in favour of town centres and the sequential test. The Government must make clear how they intend to review PPG 6, and to make a statement introducing the presumption in favour of town centres and the sequential test, which could be used by planning authorities in response to planning applications.

The Government should perhaps consider withdrawing the guidance in paragraph 37 of PPG 6, that planning authorities should not refuse permission for developments on the ground of the effect on a town centre, unless there is clear evidence to suggest that the result would undermine the centre's viability and vitality, which otherwise would continue to serve the community well. We should state quite clearly that the onus of proof should be on the out-of-town developer. I hope that, as a start, the Minister will give a clear assurance about that in his reply.

I agree with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish that we must be much clearer on the dichotomy between PPG 6 and PPG 13, especially on the issue of parking. I hope that the Minister will address that as well.

The fundamental concern for my constituents was addressed by the Committee and was the substance of the remarks by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish: the issue of town centre management, the importance of which we cannot underestimate because it can make a great difference to the quality of people's lives. The Government should get firmly behind town management schemes and use the report and their response as starting blocks to move in that direction. As I have said, these schemes are making a great difference to people's lives.

As I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South will agree, the private sector is responding. I am convinced from my own experience that it will continue to respond if it is given a little extra help by the public sector, the Government and local authorities. Our experience in Blackpool, which has appointed an excellent town centre manager, Mr. Nigel Hanson, is that the private sector is waiting to respond but needs a little bit of extra Government help.

Perhaps during the party conference the Minister and the Secretary of State will look at the work that Nigel Hanson is doing and will seriously consider the beneficial impact that a closed-circuit television system could have on the quality of life and people's feeling of security in Blackpool. I hope that the Minister will add his support to the campaign by me and my hon. Friends to ensure that Blackpool gets a closed-circuit television system as soon as possible as part of the closed-circuit television competition, which I hope the Government will be able to extend.

I endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) about charity shops, which are a terrible problem in my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South. They are a direct result of bad planning and the reluctance of the local authority to become involved in dealing with the matter.

Mr. David Nicholson

I should like to set the record straight. I am not against charity shops, which, of course, are better than empty shops, but they cause resentment among commercial shopkeepers who have to pay rates. Perhaps I could draw my hon. Friend into examining the whole issue of business rates valuation. If a shop has not been able to force down its rent during the recession, as far as I can see it will not benefit from the rates revaluation. Some of us, certainly those of us with constituencies in the south-west and the south, are hearing from constituents who face substantial rate hoists despite five or six years of recession. That applies especially to town centre shops.

Mr. Elletson

I entirely endorse my hon. Friend's point, which was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris). We in Blackpool face a similar problem over rate valuations, and I hope that the Minister will take seriously the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives about the need to look again at the rating valuation system, particularly for small businesses in town centres.

Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley)

The number of charity shops is becoming excessive. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) spoke about turning shops into houses and said that in the past local authorities have tried to put such schemes together. With all his influence, would my hon. Friend consider pressing the Minister on this gathering together of empty shops and their conversion to houses? That is done with older shop premises. Such conversions could have a theme, and should be properly constructed. Local authorities could provide pump priming to the private sector, which could take over the shops and turn them into reasonable accommodation. By their very nature, because they have people in them, such buildings could revitalise town centres.

Mr. Elletson

My hon. Friend asks me to use my influence with the Minister, but I am sure that my influence is nowhere near as considerable as his. No doubt the Minister has heard my hon. Friend and will take note.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish did not mention an area of great concern to the 6 million disabled people in the country and the 40,000 on the Fylde coast—the issue of access for disabled people in town centres and especially shop mobility schemes. I hope that the Minister will take a serious look at that and examine ways in which assistance could be given to local authorities and the private sector to extend shop mobility schemes. That would make a great difference to the quality of people's lives.

Will the Minister look carefully at a planning application which is coming his way from a German group, LIDL Developments, which wants to build a large superstore on the outskirts of my constituency in Anchorsholme? Such a development would be highly damaging. If the application comes his way, I hope that he will ensure that it is treated with the care and consideration it deserves, and is then rejected.

As the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish said, the key issue in town centre management is funding—so who pays? We may say that town centre management is making a real difference and that we need to extend it, but ultimately we return to the question of who pays. I was delighted to see that in their response to the Select Committee report the Government are considering ways to fund an extension to the town centre management scheme.

First, I hope that the Government will look at the question of properly funding the Association of Town Centre Management. Secondly, I hope that they will look imaginatively at ways of levering in private sector finance, perhaps through the single regeneration budget. I trust that they will also look at tax relief for private sector investors for approved projects in town centres.

Thirdly, and perhaps more controversially for some of my hon. Friends, I hope that the Government will take seriously what the Committee said about the uniform business rate. I do not ask that they return it entirely to local authorities, but I hope that they will consider some of the recommendations by the Association of Town Centre Management about a limited and exclusive return for specifically town centre-related projects. That would be an important way to address the issue and would perhaps give local authorities the ability to be realistic about town centre management programmes.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the big problems with the uniform business rate, which I know affects his part of Blackpool as it does mine, is that banks say to small businesses, "We are revaluing your business downwards," thereby making it even more difficult for such businesses to get credit? However, the commercial valuations of the district valuer for the uniform business rate are now determined by out-of-town shopping centres and uniform business rates are going up. That means that small businesses in our area and those in other areas are being hit both ways—revalued downwards by the bank and upwards for UBR purposes.

Mr. Elletson

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. As he says, it is a particular problem in our area.

I do not wish to take up any more time. These are important issues. Britain's towns and cities have undergone a fundamental qualitative change, and in many cases it has not been a change for the better.

We have to make our towns and cities places where people will again want to shop, live, eat and breathe. We have to stop the relentless destructive assault on the countryside and on our rural heritage. We have to create a climate in which, once again, town and country co-exist in harmony and with a clear mutual interest.

I know that we all recognise the problem—no one, perhaps, more clearly than my hon. Friend the Minister and our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I hope that the Select Committee's report will mark the beginning of a new effort to deal with the problem. We cannot ignore it, because if we do we will condemn the richest part of our national heritage—the countryside—to gradual desolation and create a wasteland in our towns and cities.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is determined that that will not happen and that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is determined to move forward with new initiatives to ensure that our towns and cities are vital, vibrant and vigorous and places that we will be able to leave as our inheritance to our grandchildren.

7.30 pm
Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen)

I welcome this debate, as I did the investigation into and report of the Environment Select Committee on shopping centres and their future. The retail sector is one of the largest employers in the United Kingdom with 2.2 million full and part-time employees. The industry is both flexible and innovative and has shown itself able to compete with the best in the world.

However, recession and the continuing stagnation of consumer demand casts a shadow over recent performance. The whole debate on the future of town centres has been occasioned by the widely held view that the balance between the high street and out-of-town developments has tilted far too far in favour of the latter. I should like to be able to say that the debate and the Select Committee report are timely, but I fear that that may not be the case, because in at least one essential aspect we have all quite literally missed the boat.

A recent study has tentatively shown that 12 million sq ft of planning permission has already been granted for out-of-town developments, which I am told is enough for more than 400 new superstores. I say that tentatively because no accurate statistics are collected nationally on planning permissions or other essential research and information in the retail industry—a subject to which I shall return later.

I am a keen supporter of the concept of a plan-led system, as that is undoubtedly the best way to ensure certainty for the retail industry, local authorities and local communities. To achieve that, the planning system needs to operate efficiently and effectively, which means that the planning guidance offered by the Government must, in the words of the Select Committee report, be "clear and consistent".

The Secretary of State has put his name to and, indeed, possibly staked his reputation on the new approach outlined in the revised PPG 6 and PPG 13, which seeks to sustain and enhance the vitality and viability of town centres. However, he and Conservative Members must recognise that the Government cannot easily escape the consequences of their approach to retail developments, which they pursued with relish during the 1980s when superstore openings increased, in a headlong rush, from 212 to 580—an increase of three per month during that period, most of them in out-of-town locations.

If the Minister is looking for some confirmation that there is widespread cynicism about the planning system and the changes that he has introduced, he need look no further than a poll conducted by "Property Week" and Gallup in June 1994 of a sample of investors-developers, which showed that 45 per cent. of those surveyed believed that the changes would have no effect on their investment in out-of-town developments. In fact, 31 per cent. believed that PPG 6 and PPG 13 would result in them stepping up their out-of-town investment. Only 13 per cent. said that they would invest less in out-of-town developments. It appears that the investment-development community is yet to be convinced that the Government really have had a change of heart.

I have a particular interest in shopping centres, which I should declare at this point. As well as being a member of the all-party retail group, I am sponsored as a Member of Parliament by the Co-operative movement. My official title in the House is a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament. However, I must make the point that I receive no personal remuneration for that.

The Co-operative movement is still one of Britain's largest retailers, with a turnover of £7.3 billion. It employs 74,000 staff and has membership in excess of 8 million. There are very few things that the movement does not sell through its 92 superstores and 4,500 shopping cutlets. However, the movement consists of more than 50 independent retailing organisations with a tremendous diversity both in size and shopping profile. That varies from region to region and, in the case of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, from country to country. It varies from large national societies with turnovers measured in billions of pounds to small localised co-operatives with just a few village stores.

As one would expect, the response of societies depends, as with other retailers, on their individual circumstances. Therefore, it is not possible—or, in some ways, desirable—to attempt to reconcile them, and that have not tried to do. In fact, the views that I express today are my own, but they also reflect my long involvement with the retail Co-operative movement and with the all-party retail group. I believe that in the retail world in general, but in the co-operative societies in particular, what I have to say will be of some interest.

If we are to overcome the problems highlighted in the Select Committee report and in much of the public debate on the issue, we have to overcome, in the words of the Confederation of British Industry planning task force report of 1992, the absence of a national consensus between central and local government, business and the public about the key priorities for shaping the nation for the 21st century. The report concluded that, in the absence of a national lead, many significant planning applications are in danger of leading to local debates which should be encompassed by explicit national policy. Before turning to the Select Committee report and the Department's response, I wish briefly to comment on the clear inconsistencies that continue to exist between the various policy guidance papers and ministerial statements, some of which have been highlighted in the report. I predict that the Minister will reject a charge of inconsistency. However, if he will not accept the concerns expressed in the Select Committee report, I refer him to the repeated correspondence and comment in both the trade and quality press pointing out those inconsistencies—not in an attempt to belittle the changes that have been introduced over the past two years, but to urge the Minister to address the genuine concern in the industry for a clarification of the issues.

To be fair, some of those concerns have been addressed, at least in part, by the Government. I refer to the decisions to refuse planning permission for a shopping centre at Duxford and to stop the edge-of-town supermarket at Ludlow. Many would say, "So far, so good." My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) referred to Dumplington near Greater Manchester. No sooner did the Government refuse the applications at Duxford and Ludlow than they referred the application for planning permission at Dumplington to the House of Lords, with their support. It is a quite controversial legal case, concerning the balance between town centre and out-of-town development, and it should be a test case for the Government's new policy.

The Government have also ignored the widespread opposition in the north-west to that development. It includes almost all of the local planning authorities in the area. We can imagine, therefore, the mixture of shock and incredulity when people read in the Government's response to the Select Committee report the statement that following research carried out under the Merry Hill impact study, the Government could see little case for further new regional shopping development. Many folk would have said, "Like Dumplington." With confusion like that at the highest level, is it any wonder that planning authorities find it difficult, if not impossible, to tell rhetoric from reality?

There will be dismay at the Government's response to the Select Committee's request for clear and consistent planning guidance. Clarification in the guidance that superstores are best located in or on the edge of town centres, and a clear statement that the Department supports the sequential test—that planning permission outside the town centre will not be given if a suitable site within or close by is available—must be the minimum requirements if the Government's stated intentions are to be taken at face value.

I believe in towns centres, both as retailing areas and as a focus, as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish mentioned, for communities and community activities. I am not overstating the case in saying that it is generally agreed that the most practical response to promoting town centres—making them safe, cleaner, more attractive and more relevant to local people's needs—is to develop town centre management. Surely it is common ground to suggest that that must be based on partnership between all the relevant parties to ensure that it is effective. Great strides have already been made. Only a few years ago, there was only one full-time town centre manager; now there are more than 80. Major constraint exists on that development because of finance. The Government response does not get to grips with the issue.

Dumping the problem on hard-pressed local authorities, especially in the context of a series of restrictive, Government-imposed revenue support grant settlements, will not lead to a solution. Many local authorities are too small to be able to respond effectively to the demands of their town centres. Retailers naturally feel aggrieved that they are having to fork out in the form of the uniform business rate to local communities without any return in terms of dealing with their problems. That causes complaint.

The Government should not only co-ordinate the development of town centre managements or, as suggested in the report, town centre authorities, but should take the lead in providing the finance that will allow them to respond to the needs of local communities. That will not only enhance their shopping facilities, but put the heart back into town centres.

I mentioned earlier the lack of adequate research on planning and retail development. The report has made a number of welcome suggestions. Again, the Government have not gone far enough in recognising the urgent need for credible information; otherwise, how can local plans be developed or decisions on major retail development determined with any certainty? This and any future Government have a duty to collect and make available accurate information.

Effective decision-making must be clear, consistent and, most important, above reproach. It must based on relevant and up-to-date information. Only Government can provide that. The planning system will achieve the objectives set by Government and local planning authorities only if both have available data that are collected, analysed and freely available, so that public can be confident of the decisions taken on their behalf.

I turn now to the recommendations and planning obligations, the consequences of which are usually summed up in the term "planning gain". The Select Committee describes current guidance as "muddled". Recent court decisions have added considerable confusion to that muddle. To the layman, or at least to this layman, the courts appear to contradict themselves over the issue of whether a planning gain is a material consideration when determining a planning application. The latest of those cases awaits a decision in the other place. I accept that the Department must await their Lordships' deliberations, but it must come as a surprise, not to say a disappointment, that they have agreed only to consider further the recommendation to issue new guidance on planning obligations.

That response is breathtaking in its failure to recognise the concerns being expressed by all parties in all regions. There are many examples of that in Plymouth and Leicester, where planning gains have been mentioned, and where confusion and uncertainty exists about local authorities' response to them. I hope that the Government will strengthen considerably their endorsement of the principle that unacceptable development should never be permitted, and that planning gain should not be allowed to render it acceptable.

Finally, I have an admission. I recognise, as, I think, most fair-minded people do, that—as in so many other areas of planning—finding the proper balance between shopping centres and out-of-town developments is a difficult and thankless task. Retailing is a dynamic industry and must remain flexible and innovative if it is to be as successful in the future as it has been in the past. However, we must recognise that what is best for the individual as a consumer is sometimes not seen by that individual to be in his or her best interests as a local resident.

Government policies must reflect consumer needs, but I hope that no one will support the free-for-all that has taken place in the United States of America, to the detriment of everyone. The Government must take a longer-term view and seek to balance the needs of the retail industry with the demand to create vital and viable town centres. Clarity and consistency in the planning regime, while not a sufficient condition, will assist in ensuring that the proper balance is maintained and, at the same time, will deliver real choice to the individual, both as consumer and as defender of his or her community. That responsibility is incumbent on Government.

7.47 pm
Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove)

People who believe that the only interest in politics is confrontation will be a little bored by this evening's debate, as it is clear that there is substantial agreement across the Chamber about the report and its recommendations. I welcome the Government's acceptance of much of what has been said. Of course, there will be some arguments around the periphery. I would not want to disappoint hon. Members who enjoy confrontation, but the substance is agreed.

In the spirit of that agreement, I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), in congratulating the work of the two previous Chairmen of the Select Committee, to whom we owe a great deal. It is interesting that, in his ministerial duties, one of them has managed to avoid having to respond to the debate, but they both contributed substantially to the Committee's work and, in particular, to this report.

I must ask myself why we all want to support town centres. What is it about them that is attractive to us and that leads us to rush to their defence in the face of clearly changing patterns, change that is continuing? It is a little like the people who drive on motorways and complain about the cars in front of them that are causing obstructions and emitting fumes. "How disgraceful," they say. "These people should be taken off the motorways so that we can make our journey more speedily." Almost the same pattern of thought applies to shopping. People wish to preserve town centres and they want their facilities to be available, but they are often reluctant to spend their money there. They potter off to the nearest out-of-town centre rather than to their local shop.

We want town centre shopping to be preserved and sustained because the town centre is the historic core of the community. People relate to it; they have a sense of belonging. For people in villages, towns and cities, the town centre represents an element of continuity, which people want to preserve. All of us need to belong somewhere. When we have a focal point in our town centres, that belonging is personified. The sense of community among all of us, and the need to avoid rootlessness and the lack of responsibility that follows from that, are perhaps the most important factors.

I am not, of course, suggesting that the preservation of town centres is of the essence in fighting crime or in maintaining a proper and reasonable way of life in this country—I should not wish to exaggerate the point. But it is necessarily a part of community life, of belonging and of the feeling of responsibility and of sharing that goes with those factors.

There are other reasons why we should want to preserve town centres. The existence of local shops means that people do not have to travel, which reduces their mileage. We need to preserve town centres for those who do not have ready access to vehicles. We need town centres to provide variety and choice. Too often, as we go from one supermarket to another or from one warehouse to another, we see the same products presented in the same way. If retailing in this country is to rejuvenate and renew itself, remain attractive and offer new opportunities, there must be variety and choice, which town centres in particular can provide.

Above all, we need to ensure that town centres stay alive and do not fall into decay and become simply another example of inner-city failure and economic problems. We need to prevent buildings from falling into disuse and to avoid the disrepair that goes with it.

Many of us perhaps approach the planning system with some trepidation because we like market forces to prevail and want the spirit of market forces to allow people to choose where to shop and how to operate. However, I believe that the whole concept of the planning system is that market forces are channelled and shaped according to other criteria. Unless we dispense altogether with the paraphernalia of planning procedures, we need to ensure that planning is directed in what we consider to be the best interests of the country as a whole.

I start from the premise that planning must be directed towards the rejuvenation of inner-city areas, but what are the great advantages of out-of-town shopping centres, which encourage people to go there rather than elsewhere? Out-of-town shopping is clearly convenient, being under one roof or a series of connected roofs. Access is by car, making the removal of heavy purchases easy. There is security, tidiness and cleanliness. In addition, people can expect a certain quality of goods and service. Out-of-town shopping centres are cost-effective and provide a leisure activity. People find it fun to shop—my wife tells me that regularly, but I have yet to understand the "fun" involved.

Having considered the advantages of out-of-town shopping centres, we must consider how town centres can compete. Hon. Members have referred to car parking policies. There is a need to ensure that car parking spaces are available and at a price that encourages people to use them. Unlike the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, I do not accept that we should impose on local authorities a duty to provide free car parking. That must be a local decision made by local government taking into account local considerations, not least its own financial position. However, we should wherever possible ensure that parking is cheap in order to encourage the short-term use of car parking.

There is a need to readdress the issues dealt with in PPG 13 relating to the differentiation between the commuter and the customer. Commuter parking should be treated differently from customer parking and encouragement given for the latter. We must ensure that local authority car parking provision is of a high standard. In other words, it must be not only cheap and convenient but secure, clean and tidy.

The Automobile Association recently produced some information relating to why people choose not to use multi-storey car parks. Over 35 per cent. of those asked said that they did not wish to use them because they did not feel safe doing so. Just under 10 per cent. found them too dark or creepy, whatever that means. I suspect that those feelings relate to security, cleanliness and tidiness. If town centres are to compete, it is essential that they provide the right sort of car parking. Traffic management schemes are necessary to avoid congestion, and convenient car parking is of the essence.

We have to examine ways in which controls should be imposed on out-of-town centres. We shall not change the habit whereby most people do their weekly food shopping at a supermarket or similar establishment. People's shopping aspirations and requirements in that respect will not lead them back into the town centre in large numbers, but we need to examine what town centres are best at providing. They can offer convenience shopping and quality goods such as clothes and accessories, in which they can compete better than out-of-town centres.

We need to look critically at the number of building societies, banks, estate agents and—I must declare an interest—solicitors' offices that sap the retail core of the town centre and reduce the number of people passing the shop door, which goes to the heart of an individual outlet's economy. We need to limit the activity of factory outlets and introduce coherent retail policies as part of the regional planning guidance through to the local planning system. There needs to be an overall view of the impact that out-of-town shopping, or even major edge-of-town shopping, may have on trading patterns in an individual structure plan area, not a local plan area but a regional and sometimes even an inter-regional area, because the largest centres have a widely felt impact.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Where has the hon. Gentleman been recently? It is the Government who have been destroying the concept of regional planning or the planning of town centres. Out-of-town shopping has grown at the expense of towns such as Huddersfield, where the only diversity is offered by the different charity shops, not even by solicitors' offices or shops offering the interesting goods that he described. The Government have consistently sought to destroy our town centres.

Mr. Thomason

What has happened to town centres is that local authorities have granted planning consents for out-of-town and edge-of-town shopping. There has been no rejuvenation of town centres. Such rejuvenation is not only a component of the operation of central Government but, to a much greater extent, a matter for local government and individual shopkeepers, landowners and others. I shall deal more fully with that issue in a moment.

We need to examine the production of impact studies on an agreed basis. We must ensure that planning appeals can be fought with an understanding of exactly what an impact study is, what the criteria for it may be and how we assess regional shopping patterns that might develop as a result of the granting of a planning application.

Design needs to be improved. I do not think that the Government should draw up criteria for design—that must be for individual developers and their architects—but there is a need for better design that is seen to be friendly. Architectural expression is moving in that direction. The quality of building today is far better than it was 30 or 40 years ago—one has only to look at the Department of the Environment's office to realise that—but there is still more to be done. We need to make town centre developments friendly.

I did not agree with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish when he referred to local authorities assembling quantities of land and being seen as the landowners, if that is what he meant. There is, however, a role for local authorities to be the leaders in partnerships with the private sector that assemble land and create development opportunities in town centres for retail use. I entirely agree with those who have argued that town centres require co-ordinated management; I return to the point that I made a moment ago. Not only is town centre management, to which hon. Members have rightly referred, required. A proper partnership must be created between local authorities and shopkeepers, the lessees, and the landowners, the lessors.

If landowners simply seek to extract the highest possible rents from their premises, they will in the end sap vitality from the trading units. It is necessary to encourage landowners to look at the longer term, to the advantages of a buoyant shopping centre with longer-term rent growth and improvement in the value of their investments. They must consider it in a holistic sense, rather than on the basis of individual units, as has been done in the past. There is no encouragement for a landowner to look long term if the shop owners next door are pursuing a short-term policy. We must bring everybody together—the diverse landowners as well as the diverse lessees, the local authorities, the chambers of commerce and all other interested bodies—to seek to create a unified approach to the sustenance of the town centre.

In bringing more people into town centres, we need to allow shopkeepers to provide a better price structure because of the greater throughput of goods. The introduction of security cameras in the high streets is an important development. It has certainly been extremely important in my area of Bromsgrove. Above all, the shop owners, the lessees, must ensure that they provide a good service. It is quite useless us talking about the way in which we want to see town centres develop if the shopkeepers themselves do not work to produce a friendly service for their customers, quality goods and the right approach to retailing.

Street cleaning must be examined carefully because dirty streets put people off. It may be appropriate to encourage public transport in certain places and to appoint a town centre manager to co-ordinate the shopping centre as a whole. The Select Committee felt that progress could be made in all those areas.

There is clear evidence that people want town centres to survive and that market forces can, through the planning system, be channelled to meet the challenge of decaying centres. We must avoid urban decay by ensuring that our town centres fight back. We have the opportunity to achieve that. If we leave it much longer, that chance will have been lost for all time.

8.2 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

I shall begin by referring to the shop mobility scheme, which was mentioned earlier, and give the House the very good news that, while just one district council in Berkshire is at present run by the Liberal Democrats with an overall majority, that same council, Newbury district council, has introduced a shop mobility scheme. I welcome the support for shop mobility schemes expressed by Conservative Members.

I also welcome the Government's change in attitude to megastores, which have sprung up so often outside our town centres. As other hon. Members have said, that change of attitude has come somewhat too late. There is no doubt that most people believe that the existing number of megastores, except in one or two rare instances, is sufficient to meet the demand from the public and that those still in the pipeline are excessive and well beyond the public's needs.

For far too long, the Government have been siding with the major shopping centre developers in moving retailing into the green-field sites out of our town centres. In reply to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason), that move cannot be blamed on the local authorities, which have been hampered by the Government's planning guidance and the Government's bias towards out-of-town centres, which was prevalent before the past few weeks and months.

Three areas of our national life have suffered as a result of the growth of out-of-town shopping centres. First, the town centres and especially the small retailers in them have suffered a loss of business as a result of the vast increase in the number of megastores. Secondly, those who do not have their own cars have suffered, especially the poorest members of our community—the elderly and often the unemployed. Such people have in some cases been deprived of adequate shopping facilities. What is more, because they are on the whole the poorest members of the community, they are most in need of the cheapest prices in the very shops to which they are unable to travel—the megastores in the old green-field sites. Thirdly, the environment and the general quality of life have suffered.

Two aspects of the environment have been hit particularly hard. The role of town centres as hubs of social life has been diminished, creating many problems as a result of an increase in the crime rate. There are now greater opportunities for crime in our town centres as they become deserted in the evening and fewer people are there during the day to watch out for what is going on. Our intensified car culture, supported by the Thatcher era, has meant much more air pollution, not least due to the use of cars for getting to out-of-town centres. Shopping out of town has increased congestion and traffic pollution, at great cost to the environment.

The shift in policy announced in the Government's response to the report of the Environment Select Committee is generally encouraging. I appreciate in particular the Secretary of State's contribution in helping to bring about that change of heart. I must make, however, one or two qualifications while welcoming the change in the Government's latest position.

I am concerned that the Government are not going far enough with their changes to PPG 6, as other hon. Members have said. Indeed, there is considerable cross-party agreement on what continues to be wrong with the Government's policies. The onus has been placed on local authorities to prove that an out-of-town centre would be damaging and that the retail facilities can be offered in the town. I believe that the onus should be on the developers to prove that there is a real need for an out-of-town shopping centre, not only that such a shopping centre cannot be provided in the town. The Government have softened their line on that matter, but concerns remain that the burden of proof has not been and must be properly shifted on to the developers.

I also question the basic assumption that, just because a large new shopping centre may be profitable, it is automatically desirable simply because the large chain stores and developers wish to see it go ahead. The smaller retailers hold a very important place in this nation of shopkeepers and they, too, deserve fair consideration.

I stress once again the importance that the Government should be placing on the flats-over-shops scheme. I was promoting that scheme before the Government took it up, which I welcomed. I am only sorry that it did not prove as successful as it might have been had the Government been prepared to provide greater grants to enable the scheme to work properly.

Town centres need local residents as well as shoppers if they are to be centres of vitality and viability, as the Government have suggested. Transforming offices over shops into flats has several advantages. There would be added security in town centres as people return to live there and walk around the streets in the evening after the shoppers have gone home. It would also be advantageous to the town centre retail trade, because customers would be close at hand, and therefore more likely to want to shop in town centre shops. There is an advantage in that the need for transport is reduced. That is of particular interest to people who do not have their own transport. Town centres are often the best places to live for the elderly or for those who, for one reason or another, cannot afford or do not wish to have their own transport.

Finally, and just as important, those areas produce a ready supply of cheap rented accommodation. We are all aware of the importance of that. A more vigorous promotion of the flats-over-shops scheme would benefit town centre retail businesses and it would make a great contribution to the homelessness problem. In essence, it would improve the overall quality of life in our town centres.

Car parking is also an important part of the problem. We must improve the quality of car parking and not just the quantity of spaces available in our town centres. Simply building more car parks will not solve the problem. I am sure that we are all aware of how reluctant people are to use multi-storey car parks rather than road-level car parks. By the very nature of things, it is very often impossible in our town centres to provide more road-level car parking. Because of pedestrianisation schemes, which may be of great benefit to retailers, road-level car parking has often been reduced.

Where multi-storey car parks are the only option, they must be properly lit. They must be covered by closed circuit television. We may even need security guards to remove not just crime, but the fear of crime. That is the only way to encourage the proper use of multi-storey car parks.

We must also encourage the use of car parking spaces at ground level in our town centres for short-term shopping visits rather than for commuter use whereby commuters park their cars at 8.30 am, leave them in one space throughout the day, and then take them out as the shops close.

The Government have an opportunity to consider schemes to encourage businesses to, in turn, encourage their employees to consider car sharing, to make more use of cycles or public transport and to make use of park-and-ride schemes wherever they are available. Such schemes would free up spaces that are currently being used by commuters, to allow them to be used by shoppers for short-term parking.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the Government's change of heart. We are only sorry that it is so guarded and has come so late.

8.12 pm
Dr. Ian Twinn (Edmonton)

I am grateful to the Environment Select Committee and to the Government for the opportunity to discuss out-of-town and inner-city-centre shopping. By its very nature, that is a subject on which we all consider ourselves to be experts because we all shop—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)

indicated dissent.

Dr. Twinn

Obviously, my hon. Friend the Minister tries to avoid doing the shopping as much as possible. However, as a result of the Jopling reforms, Back Benchers find themselves with slightly more time and our wives have probably exploited the situation, so we are perhaps experiencing more shopping than used to be the case.

The subject is not so easy as some of our constituents may believe. Whenever a new superstore is proposed, my postbag is full of letters saying that the proposal is ridiculous and that we have far too many such stores. The letters ask why on earth we need another superstore in the area. I am often asked why people cannot be content to use the existing shops in Enfield town or Edmonton Green in my constituency, but the truth is that they abandon such places: people who have cars—two thirds of households now have cars—drive out and park in the flat car parks beside the big superstores because those places are very convenient.

I suspect that much of the unease about the subject arises not from the fact that the new retail parks are being developed, but because people feel slightly guilty about the decline of the existing town centres which, as hon. Members have rightly said, people feel great affection for and affinity with and in which they enjoy shopping.

There is also considerable concern about the loss of green-field sites. As an outer London suburban Member, I am aware of the great concern if there is a threat to the green-field sites surrounding London. However, I am also greatly concerned when we lose brown-field sites in my constituency where once manufacturing thrived and where it would thrive again, if large supermarkets were not built on those sites, because the area now has assisted area status once again and those areas would be attracting inward development.

There is a great problem. As I am a planner, the House will not be surprised if I support the concept that there should be planning of retail provision. However, if there is to be planning, people must make up their minds about what is required. That involves councillors and my former colleagues, planning officers. Some of my former students must make up their minds about exactly what they want for their areas.

From my observations of planning over the years, I believe that councils have been rather loth to make up their minds categorically about what they want for their areas. There are several problem areas. Local authorities have had mixed feelings, because they did not want to lose retailers from their local authority areas. If a large retailer threatens to go somewhere else, the temptation is to agree to a planning permission within a local authority area although, at heart, some of those councillors and planning officers would rather the retailer stayed in the centre. Although that is not actually a form of blackmail, it is a difficult decision for local authorities to make. It does not matter which party is in control of the authority; the decision is very difficult. I sympathise with the councillors, but that position has led to the confusion that surrounds the subject.

There has been a great feeling among councillors and planning officers that even if they were to have a firm policy—a straight no to out-of-town shopping—the planning appeals system would deliver a firm yes as soon as the appeal went through. That has not always been put to the test because the fear of that happening has meant that authorities have agreed to something with which they perhaps would rather not have agreed. I welcome the Government's shift in emphasis to return more power to local councillors so that they can make up their own minds about exactly what they want in respect of retailing in their areas.

The biggest problem in terms of planning for retailing has been the lack of long-term strategic planning, although not in a regional context. Although the regional problem is important, the structure plan, development plan and local plan system is fairly cumbersome and it takes a considerable time. In that regard, we may be talking about development plans which were developed eight, nine or even 10 years ago and in respect of which decisions are now being made.

As we are now to have unitary authorities, those authorities may be too small physically to have responsibility to decide where out-of-town shopping should be located because out of town may be beyond a unitary authority's boundaries. We may need a regional system to provide a proper strategic approach to planning.

That problem is easily overcome with good will. The real problem is that councillors have not taken a long-term strategic view about what they want for retailing in their areas. Norwich, a Labour-controlled authority, has been cited as a good example. In the post-war years, it has stood out like a beacon as a town with a fairly clear view of what it wants. It has not made many mistakes, and in planning circles Norwich is lauded as a fine example of what can be achieved.

However, Norwich is a stand-alone city in a rural area. That makes it a little easier to plan than a London borough which is cheek by jowl with another London borough or perhaps cheek by jowl with another county as my constituency is with regard to Essex and Middlesex. Those historical rivalries continue even when it comes to planning. One cannot look over the border very clearly.

Some of the problems with the decline of city centres have to do with the failure of local authorities to decide what should happen in their areas. It is an unpopular subject today, but part of the problem is that road plans were not implemented. As a result, towns were not attractive locations for retailing or as places for people to drive into to do the shopping. The stark fact facing all of us, all local authorities and all retailers, is that people choose to do their major bulk shopping by car.

I remember the days, under a Labour Government, when I was a town planning lecturer. I had a mortgage, and when my car broke down I had to decide whether to pay the mortgage or to repair my car. Of course, I kept the house, which was a reasonable decision. I used to cycle to work and to Sainsburys. I probably broke the highway code on many occasions by balancing four carrier bags on my handlebars coming back—I was pushing the bicycle, of course. These days, with two children and a lot more packaging, I am not sure that we could get our carload of shopping on to two, three, or even four bicycles. Nor do I particularly want to do so in a busy life.

Like my constituents, I am schizophrenic when it comes to shopping. I like the town centre, but when it comes to going to Tesco, Sainsbury's, Safeway or Waitrose, I choose to go to a convenient location with free parking in good, well-lit car parks, hand my card over, take all my shopping back in boxes and bags to the car and drive away again. If I went to Enfield town, I would have to queue for a parking place. If I went to Edmonton Green, I would not have to queue, but I would have to pay. The car parks are a long way from the shops and involve the use of lifts—when they are working—and possibly even the deposit of a coin to take my trolley away. There is a mental barrier to all of those.

Local councils have to think more clearly about what they want for their towns. That may well mean making some politically incorrect decisions, which might include better roads and free parking schemes. We cannot avoid public demand in deciding any of that and it is no good any of us feeling that we can fool the market, which is the demand for the kind of shopping that people want. I do not think that councillors, Members of Parliament or planning officers are the best judges of what is demanded.

We should be concentrating on finding ways to boost existing centres. It is not for us to rule out the possibility of out-of-town or out-of-city sites, but we need to make existing centres more competitive because, although one third of households do not have cars, in constituencies such as mine the figure would be much higher as there are many elderly people and, I regret to say, quite a number of unemployed even after the remarkable improvement in the unemployment figures announced today. Those people need shops close by.

I want Edmonton Green to thrive and I want new shops to come into my area, but I also want choice. For me, one of the great advantages of town-centre sites over the retail parks is the variety of shops. It is convenient to go to a single-store site, or to one of the multiple parks, where all the chain stores and shoe shops are lined up together, but it has a limited appeal. I like to go to a city centre, where there is a variety of different types of shop. With different rents in different streets, we can have shops which would find it impossible to compete in the new out-of-town centres.

There is something very lively and-for someone who believes in the market system—vibrant in a town centre where a variety of different landlords are prepared to accept different rents and lease conditions, which means a greater range of shops. Some of the failures of existing town centres are caused when ownership is concentrated in too few hands. Edmonton Green is a classic example. It is wholly owned and run by the council, and is good proof that local authorities are not good organisations to run commercial centres.

I have a strong affinity with wanting town centres to survive, but local authorities have a responsibility when it comes to car parking. As hon. Members have pointed out, parking is one of the key factors affecting our perception of where to shop. City and town centres have to compete, and for my money that means that parking must be free. If local authorities expect to get income from car parks, they are fooling themselves, and so are the retailers. They must get together and sort out the problem.

At the same time, car parks must be well lit and secure. As joint chairman of the all-party lighting group, hon. Members will hardly be surprised to hear that I am delighted that there is all-party support for better lighting. Our very strong group in the House will be writing to every Member who has spoken out today in favour of better lighting, inviting them to join our group.

In the end, it is not down to local authorities, but to retailers to sort themselves out. They have to help themselves. They can get involved with car parking and can talk to local authorities to ensure that it is easily accessible, free and of a much higher standard than hitherto. They can get together to appoint town centre managers—a development that I welcome. The Select Committee on the Environment highlighted how experienced and useful managers can be, especially if they come from the retail sector rather than from local authorities. They bring acute commercial awareness to running town centres, are trusted by shopkeepers and shop owners and are able to work together with the local authority. I would certainly support that.

Shopkeepers and owners can also help to invest in refurbishment and not merely in their own buildings. That is terribly important, as no one will want to go shopping in a run-down centre or one where shops have lost their enthusiasm to trade, the window displays are not changed properly, they are not well lit and shop assistants are unfriendly. To a major retailer, all those factors are very important and a basic part of any retailer's training.

Shopkeepers and owners can also get together with the local authority and help to refurbish streets in town centres. They can invest some of their own money. Many local authorities are already approaching retailers to do just that. Retailers rightly say, "But we already pay rates." The trouble is that the rates no longer go to the local authority. Whereas before there was a contract between the local authority and the retailer and some pressure could be brought to bear on the authority, the uniform business rate means that that has gone. That was one of the big disadvantages that Conservative Members clearly recognised when it was introduced. I understand that retailers may be loth to invest their own money, but if they are genuinely committed to remaining in town centres they must consider contributing to refurbishment.

The Government must consider ways to encourage retailers to do that. This point is more for the Treasury than for Environment Ministers. Capital allowances could form a useful way of encouraging retailers to invest, not in their premises, but in the streets outside. Some items of spending already attract a capital allowance of a third over eight years, but that is not a lot when one is looking at the bottom line every year.

For example, street lighting attracts a capital allowance, as does street furniture, signs, bus shelters, traffic lights—and even parking meters, although the Treasury could knock those off the list and gain great popular applause. Widening pavements, putting in pedestrian crossings and taxi ranks, and investing in car parks do not attract capital allowances, even under the present arrangement of one third over eight years. The Treasury and the Government could well afford to look again at how capital allowances work, as a positive way of encouraging partnership in our town centres. If support for the capital allowance system is all that comes out of the Select Committee report, it will be a great step forward.

I will stop at this point to allow other hon. Members to contribute, but I must repeat how important this subject is and how important it is for us not to jump on to the bandwagon of being anti-car. Although the public write to tell us that there should not be any out-of-town centres, the very next moment they get in their cars and go and do their shopping there.

8.28 pm
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen)

My first involvement in the issue of out-of-town shopping was in 1976, when I was the transport campaigner for Friends of the Earth, and I appeared as a witness at a public inquiry in Nottingham. It is quite striking that the arguments which I put on behalf of Friends of the Earth at that inquiry were, in essence, the same as the arguments expressed in the report of the Select Committee, and those arguments have been accepted in much of the Government's response. It is an encouraging and enjoyable experience to move from the fringe of political argument to the centre ground, and it is even more encouraging to have done so without having to change one's views in the process.

There has been a transformation of attitude about the issue, and about the underlying transport and environmental questions which it has raised. I welcome the profound change of heart which seems to have taken place within the Government during the past year to 18 months. The Government are in what might be described as the denial stage of bereavement, as they lay their previous and much-loved policies to rest. To hear the speeches of Conservative Members, it would seem that the planning decisions and disasters of the past 15 years had nothing to do with the policy of the Government, or with the people who have held ministerial rank during that period.

I do not want to destroy the cosy consensus which existed in the Committee and has coloured much of the debate, but it would be appropriate if the Government were at some point to say sorry for the damage their policies did during the 1980s and the early 1990s to so many town and city centres. That damage was done by what was in essence unplanned development.

It was not, by the way, just the Government who participated in what happened. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) outline the Liberal Democrats' position on the issue. Those of us in the Southampton area might have less reason to complain about ou-of-town shopping if the Liberal Democrats had not approved the Hedge End shopping centre in the mid-1980s when they controlled Eastleigh council. They then spent the next ten years campaigning against it, and saying how bad out-of-town shopping was for the existing town centres. Some consistency in planning policies is necessary.

Mr. Rendel

The hon. Gentleman may not have heard me make the point that, in practice, local authorities were very much constrained by Government regulation and by Government guidance. There was very little that local authorities could do about the huge proliferation of out-of-town shopping centres, which occurred, sometimes, much to their dismay.

Mr. Denham

I believe that local authorities retain the right to oppose developments which are damaging, and to test that within the Government system. The Hedge End development was not the only example of which the Committee was made aware where local authorities had taken decisions within their boundaries, which, as the hon. Member for Edmonton (Dr. Twinn) said, sometimes had an impact on somebody else's shopping centre.

I am not convinced that the Government's response to the Select Committee report has really taken on board the Committee's recommendations on regional guidance for shopping centres. The Government seem to have interpreted our report as simply talking about huge regional shopping centres.

My view of our discussions in Committee was that we thought that a large number of out-of-town shopping centres had implications across district and county council boundaries, and if any such projects came forward in the future, we would need clear regional planning guidance on shopping. I hope that the Minister can answer that point, as the response that we have had so far from the Government has fallen well short of the commitment that the Committee was looking for on that issue.

Out-of-town shopping developments in the Southampton area, and incremental developments along the M27, have caused damage in a number of different ways. First, trade has been diverted away from the existing shopping centres. Secondly—this is often not remarked upon—there is the sheer cost in time and resources to local authorities, which have faced constant battles to resist unwanted out-of-town shopping developments. Some of those inquiries have been lost, although Southampton was successful in defeating the Adanac park development, which was planned to have nearly 1 million sq ft of shopping area, and would have done enormous damage to the city.

Such a planning inquiry consumes enormous resources, as councils must pay QCs to represent them. Many of those costs would have been unnecessary had there been stronger Government planning guidance during the 1980s and early 1990s.

The third example of the damage done by planning policies is one which, on reading the report after a few months, I do not think the Committee emphasised sufficiently. The uncertainties of town centre retailers and property owners caused by the threat of out-of-town shopping was a major effect on undermining the confidence of the companies and investors in the existing town centres. Even where a retailer or a property company was committed to remaining in a town or city centre, the fear that another out-of-town development would get approval this year or next year was a major disincentive to investment.

Looking again at the report, I wish now that we had stressed clearly that we need to produce a consistent and reliable framework for retail planning which can give investors from the private sector long-term confidence in their investment decisions. They would then know that, if they choose to invest in an existing town or city centre, they will have 10, 15 or 20 years of security, which will enable their investment to be well rewarded.

Resisting further out-of-town shopping development is only half the answer to the problem, and revitalising town and city centres is the other key point. Investment will be central to that revitalisation, the vast bulk of which will come from the private sector. I do not believe that money will materialise unless the private sector can plan with confidence.

The second element which the private sector is clearly looking for is long-term confidence in partnerships which can be established between private investors and the public sector, and particularly the local authorities. Private sector investors will need to know—not just for six months or a year—that there will be stability in planning policies, and that there is a clear vision of how each town and city will develop. They will want to know that there will be an effective and well-resourced structure for town centre management in the long term.

The private sector will also want to have confidence in the ability of the public sector to deliver the essential elements of a town or city centre revival which the private sector, retailers and property owners cannot provide. Those include improved public transport, upgraded car parking, an improved street environment and the effective co-ordination of crime prevention.

In those areas, contributions can be secured from the private sector, but it will be the responsibility of the public sector—the local council in particular—to organise and provide those elements. The private sector must know in the long term that local authorities will have the resources, which is very much a matter for the Government, and the commitment, which is very much a matter for the local authorities, to play that role effectively over a long time.

It is also important that we find the means of taking the public with us as the town and city centre revivals take place. My experience in Southampton showed that it was difficult to persuade many members of the public that new investment and new retail centres in Southampton were necessary, when, in the middle of a recession, there were clearly a large number of empty shop units being unused. It was not uncommon to open a local newspaper and read a letter asking why we needed more shops, when there were empty shops already.

It is important that we find ways of explaining to the public that, if we want town and city centres to revive, we must allow them to grow and develop. With the possible exception of the very historic town centres, they will change, as they have always changed throughout history. Each part of the process will change the shape, activity and nature of the town or city centre.

It is important to find ways of involving local residents, shoppers, potential shoppers and users of leisure and cultural activities in the planning of local town centres so that they have the confidence in the vision that the public and private sector partnership is putting forward.

A proven example of that in my constituency was the decision to work with the local institute of higher education to transform a not first-rate department store into a major educational building in the city centre for use by an institution of higher education. Because of its location, it brings together a cultural and educational quarter involving theatres, arts centres, art galleries and now a major educational building. It brings into the city centre many young people—a new group of the population that had not previously been actively involved in the life of the city centre.

Such changes will be essential in many towns and cities. It is not simply a matter of better shops and improved access to them, although that is part of the solution. Our vision for city centres must embrace the whole life of the city centre and the various reasons why people want to go there. After all, it is that type of attraction which out-of-town centres cannot provide. They may provide shops a car park next to them, but developers will not build new theatres, art galleries and educational institutions by motorways. Those city centre activities should be closely linked to the development of retailing and city and town centre development.

Having mentioned some of the pressures that Southampton has been under, may I make a few points about the future? I am fortunate in that my city is uniquely placed to resist the pressures of out-of-town development, because it has such a large development area next to the city centre. Through that, we can compete on more direct terms than many towns and cities with the attractions of out-of-town shopping.

One phase of development is already committed, providing large, open shopping areas that will sell the type of goods often only available in out-of-town venues, at an investment of some £30 million. I hope that, in the near future, there will be further announcements of significant investment in retail development in the centre of Southampton. It shows that, with some confidence on the part of local authorities and the willingness to plan clearly, it is possible to attract substantial investment back into city centres and secure their long-term future.

I hope that the Minister will say more about the need to consolidate the town centre management process. Southampton is one of many local authorities that have appointed a town centre manager, but, as yet, the system for town centre management goes nowhere near providing the sound basis for the partnership between town centre retailers, property owners and local authorities which will be necessary to make it truly effective.

As our Committee found in its inquiry, and as we find in Southampton, even on the current basis, town centre managers can achieve a great deal, but we shall need more reliable sources of funding that tie in all the retailers within a centre and avoid the problems of free riders, if the potential of town centre management is to be realised.

Although the Government said that they are looking into that question, we must push them to respond more positively. The single regeneration budget is not an adequate response to the problem, because its application is patchy. In the summer, the Committee will look again in detail at the single regeneration budget and its application to town centre revitalisation. We cannot have a lottery in which some local authorities receive money to develop their town centres while others do not, which is what the single regeneration budget implies. We need a consistent mechanism that is available to all towns and cities that need funds for town centre management.

Finally, I renew the plea made by the Chairman of the Committee. A swift response from the Government on the matters which they say they are considering is absolutely essential. I return to the fundamental point: that we must have an environment that encourages confidence in the long-term future of towns and cities, and encourages investors to believe that they can afford to invest long-term, knowing that they are making a sensible decision. The new planning guidance and decisions on the funding of town centre management need to be in place at the earliest possible opportunity if that investment confidence is to be achieved in all the towns and cities that need investment.

8.44 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

The Environment Select Committee's inquiry, "Shopping Centres and their Future", generated by far the greatest interest of any inquiry in this Parliament. I pay tribute to one of its former Chairmen, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), who was instrumental in bringing us all together and whose input into the report was significant. I also pay tribute to his successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) and to the current Chairman, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), whose speech we heard this evening.

I am one of the few chartered surveyors in the House, so the inquiry had particular relevance to me. I represent an area that is 80 per cent. designated in planning terms in one way or another, so my planning problems are particularly acute, not least with the new wave of out-of-town applications which the smaller market towns are beginning to experience now that the recession is coming to an end. The inquiry was therefore of particular interest to me.

In Victorian and Edwardian times, altruistic landowners invested significant sums in our towns and cities and, together with some conscientiously minded citizens, produced what used to be called "civic pride". Towns and cities used to compete with each other as to which had the best architecture and recreational facilities and which was the tidiest. Unfortunately, the two world wars came along, and many of those magnificent towns and cities took an awful battering.

The business rate was introduced after the second world war, and many of our towns and cities were caned by local authorities, who could use the business sector as an easy source of finance. It was not until this Government came along and introduced the universal business rate that we began to get some sanity back and encourage businesses to consider investing in town centres.

As many hon. Members have said, investment is the key to encouraging the vitality and viability of our town and city centres. That investment must be channelled in a way that does not benefit just the individual shop owner.

One of the key recommendations of the inquiry was to form town centre management schemes. By those schemes, all the partners can be brought together. Those include the local authority, which must play a leading role, but also the retailers, landlords, consumers, the highway authority and many others.

In order to be brought together by a town centre manager, that requires funding. Much mention has been made this evening of how a mechanism might be adopted for that. I favour the top slicing of the universal business rate to fund that mechanism, because that would be fair and would relate to the size, viability and turnover of the business in a particular town. It would also stop those who do not currently wish to take part in such schemes—so-called backsliders.

I am not in favour of the scheme advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Dr. Twinn) of capital allowances, as they bring about the wrong results. People do things that they would not otherwise do, purely for tax reasons.

As a number of hon. Members have said, town centre viability and vitality can be brought about in a number of ways, not least of which is the willingness of businesses to provide service. I recently went to the United States, where I found that every shopkeeper wants to provide a service. It is no trouble for them to lift heavy goods out into somebody's car. Nothing is too much trouble. In restaurants, one is offered more water and so on before one has to ask for it.

I often find that kind of service lacking in the smaller shops in our smaller towns. Sometimes when I enter a shop, I get the impression that the shopkeeper does not want me to be there; he or she does not want to serve me. We must overcome that sort of attitude. Shops which are part of large retail chains have solved that problem by running employee management schemes to train their employees to look after the customers. It is the small shops which must adopt a better attitude to customer service.

Town centre managers could improve town centres in other ways. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton said, it is largely a matter of self-help. Managers could improve the safety of shopping centres by introducing closed-circuit television. They could provide better facilities, so that disabled people can shop more easily. They could examine whether the local public transport network is near the shops and enables disabled people to reach them easily. Perhaps there is a granny tripper just inside the entrance to a shop which shoppers have to lift prams or buggies over in order to access that shop. Managers can do many simple things to make the shops in their town centres more attractive to the consumer.

Unless we seize every available opportunity to improve our town centres, people will take the easy option: they will travel by car to out-of-town shopping centres. I do not think that planning guidance note 13, which tries to restrict the number of car parking spaces artificially, is the right way of ensuring the vitality and viability of our town centres. Easy and convenient car parking spaces should be provided near town centres, so that people will choose to shop in the town centre rather than go out of town.

It is totally wrong for central Government to give prescriptive guidance to local authorities about charging for car parking. Individual local authorities or towns should be allowed to charge nothing for car parking if they believe that that will help them to compete with out-of-town shopping centres.

I wholeheartedly welcome the Government's response to the Committee's inquiry. I hope that local authorities will look carefully at all applications for out-of-town shopping centres. There is no doubt that out-of-town shopping developments have put stress and strain on our existing city and regional town centres. I think that the sequential test that was mentioned by many hon. Members this evening is the right way to go. If there is an available site within the town centre, it should be the first priority. If no such site exists, developers could then look at edge-of-town sites. Edge-of-town sites are those to which people can easily walk from the town centre; there should be no confusion between edge-of-town and out-of-town sites. The least preferred option would be an out-of-town development which could be reached by car.

I believe that developers are beginning to target smaller market towns for significant out-of-town development applications. The local authority in Stow-on-the-Wold is considering an application for a development which will cover 10.25 acres, which is more than one quarter the size of that market town.

Stow-on-the-Wold is a beautiful town in the middle of the Cotswolds; it is a real gem. There is no question but that, if that development goes ahead, it will radically change the entire character of that town forever. I do not think that we want to denude little market towns of their traditional retailers. The butchers, the bakers and the other little shops provide excellent services in small towns. Even if they do the things I have recommended, they would be put under great pressure by a massive supermarket development.

Let us have no illusions; the proposed development is an out-of-town development. The average person could not walk to the development site. Therefore, it should be considered according to out-of-town criteria.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who is currently not in his place, mentioned the problem of regional planning. If he looks carefully at the Government's response to the inquiry, he will see that the Government have made it clear that the existing regional planning guidance notes can deal with difficult situations. However, we must encourage local authorities to work together. I hope that they will consult with each other about large out-of-town development proposals. As one drives around the country, one often sees a controversial or bad development which is situated on the edge of a local planning authority's area.

We must also encourage the formulation of better statistics and better methodology for framing impact studies for edge-of-town and out-of-town developments. That methodology is still being developed, and even the top professionals in the field do not agree on how impact studies should be carried out. I was dismayed when my local authority, Cotswold district council, decided to challenge a major edge-of-town development. Its case was upheld by the Planning Inspectorate, but costs were awarded against the council because its impact study was criticised. As the study had been conducted by a major firm in the City, that ruling seems a little harsh. Decisions such as that will weaken the council's resolve to challenge other unsuitable out-of-town developments—of which another three have been proposed as a result of the Inspectorate's decision.

I hope that the Minister will consider the question of awarding costs against local authorities very carefully. They are the local democratically elected bodies, and if they choose to fight particular planning applications—provided they do not have a wholly spurious case—I think that there is an argument for not readily awarding costs against them.

The Committee inquiry dealt at some length with the problem of planning gain. The fundamental principle that no development should be granted planning permission merely because of planning gain is entirely correct. The Government supported that principle in their response to our inquiry.

We must be very careful about planning gain. There is nothing wrong with it and, provided it is associated with a good development, I can see no reason why local authorities should not be entitled to ask for a reasonable level of gain in order to support the local community which will maintain that development. However, I think that we must ensure that the planning gain relates directly to the development and not to some other spurious cause that the local authority may inflict on the developer.

I urge my hon. Friend to look at section 106 agreements. A large development in my constituency is currently under appeal with the planning inspectorate. I do not intend to argue whether the decision should be in favour of or against that development for a retail park on the edge of the market town of Tewkesbury. I was keen to ensure that the local authority applied the section 106 agreement meticulously. That agreement refers to the range of merchandise which can be sold from a factory outlet.

In the past, huge supermarkets or regional shopping centres have been allowed to sell a range of goods—perhaps they are food-related—but then the developers have applied a year or two later to open a chemist's shop or a post office. That immediately jeopardises the future of the local chemists and post offices. Supermarkets often apply at a later date to build petrol stations in their complexes. One can see that the development in Stow-on-the-Wold intends to do that. Its plans include an access road, and I bet that, in two or three years, the developers will apply to instal a petrol retail unit.

The section 106 agreements must be made to work. They must be rigorously upheld in the planning system, so that we do not get the so-called planning creep, whereby an application is made for one type of development, but gradually, over a period, it ends up as a totally different development.

I have highlighted a few points in the Select Committee report. It is an extremely important report. Every town and every city will be different, so it is impossible—as the Government made clear in their response to our inquiry—to be totally prescriptive in the planning system.

I am delighted that, at long last, the necessity to ensure the vitality and viability of our town centres has been recognised. We do not want to end up with ghost towns and cities. We want living towns, with people living above shops. We want recreational facilities, and, above all, we want people shopping and using those towns so that they are alive and dynamic, and will progress into the 21st century and expand, as they have throughout history.

9 pm

Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South)

This is a valuable and worthwhile report which is a credit to the Committee, its previous Chairman, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), the current Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, under whose deputy chairmanship I served on the Committee many years ago, and its current Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). I trust that the Government will take early and significant action on its recommendations.

I am bound to say, however, that I take issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish on two of his particular concerns. They are first and foremost his attack—it was no less than that—on activity shoppers, as he described them. I take issue with his denigration of activity shoppers, because I must confess to being one, as are my family. He presented the horror scenario of the nightmare family driving up the motorway to the Lake District getting some fresh air and scenery and then descending on the local high street and buying things for which they might not have much use, ultimately. Although that might be a horror for my hon. Friend, to me it is nothing short of a domestic idyll. It is an ideal way to spend a day with one's family, and I do not think it ought to be knocked.

Similarly, I take issue with him on his attack on fast food joints on the high street. Many of us who, seeking refuge for ourselves from our children, succumb to their blandishments and take them into such places with a great deal of mutual benefit to all concerned. The two in Wembley high street rely on the likes of me and others precisely for their living, and the shops around them similarly benefit. Wembley high street has suffered particularly in recent years from the recession and the absence of adequate planning controls, and there are times when the presence of such fast-food places is a major magnet to the high street, so I take issue with my hon. Friend on those points.

The Committee and its report in its entirety are a valuable contribution to the debate. It is a timely contribution too, because in all too many of our constituencies we are living with the consequence of a market that has not been regulated effectively over the past 15 years. It is good to hear so many Conservative Members converted to the benefits of regulating and seeking to control and channel the dynamism of the market. I notice that a number of Conservative Members are now seeking to go back on their belated conversions; nevertheless that is how it will appear to those innocent readers of the record of this debate or any who happen to drop in on the proceedings tonight.

Time and again, Conservative Members recognise the force of the argument that market forces alone, in determining where retail parks and megastores spring up, are not an adequate way of preserving the public good. We need to make sure that our planning regulations and directives ensure social and economic responsibility. Corporate responsibility also has a role to play.

It is important also that there have been contributions to the debate from a number of hon. Members who do not represent rural constituencies. The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) in particular, who sits on the Committee, referred to "my market towns". A number of us who represent urban constituencies feel somewhat excluded from this rather proprietorial attitude towards one's constituency and its geographical territory.

I do not have any market towns in my constituency. I do, however, have a number of urban and suburban shopping arcades. Those urban and suburban arcades are equally important to those of us who have such places in our constituencies. They have been damaged of late, as have our high streets, by the profusion of superstores, megastores and retail parks.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I rise merely to invite the hon. Gentleman to any of my market towns. I care passionately for them and the hon. Gentleman is more than welcome to visit them because he will give the tourism effort an enormous boost.

Mr. Boateng

I shall take the hon. Gentleman up on that in the course of my activity shopping. The Boateng family will descend in great numbers on one of your market towns, and we look forward to you being there to greet us.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he should be addressing me.

Mr. Boateng

The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury is similarly very welcome to one of my suburban arcades. We will be there to meet him, and when he visits such a suburban arcade, particularly the ones in Wembley park off Forty avenue, Preston road and East lane, he will find that there is considerable concern about the proliferation of megastores and retail parks on the North Circular road.

It is almost surreal that in successive weeks, major retail developments are opening along the North Circular road in vast numbers, no doubt at great expense to the shareholders concerned and no doubt also in the expectation of great profit, but it is difficult to see how there will be enough shoppers to fill those megastores. They are already draining from the surrounding areas of north-west London the lifeblood of the high streets, in Wembley and Harlesden in particular, and indeed, in the suburban shopping arcades that I have mentioned.

Hon. Members have drawn attention to the proliferation of charity shops. There are also boarded-up shops, and shops that are virtually derelict. The hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) spoke of the importance of the high street as an historic centre for community life, and he is right; but in many areas the post office and the gas and electricity showrooms were once part of that history, and now they have gone. Their departure from the high street—as a result of policies supported by Conservative Members—has made a major contribution to the crisis that now affects many of our high streets, and the death of some of them.

I speak with some passion about local post offices. My area is by no means unique in this respect, but the Wembley post office on the high road has been closed. It has been transferred to one of the few remaining retail outlets on the high road, and another has sprung up in one of the megastores down the road. The Government should respond to such developments, and to others with which the report deals.

The single regeneration budget has been mentioned. I hope that it will be able to give much-needed assistance to the schemes and projects of local authorities that seek to revive our high streets. Such areas need a magnet for investment, and an infrastructure that is currently lacking in all too many instances.

I do not for a moment denigrate or ignore the contribution to regeneration made by city challenge in Harlesden, for example. As a public-private partnership works to build up the area, however, just down the road—off Scrubs lane—there are plans for another giant superstore to open. In the past two weeks, another superstore has opened at Brent Cross, within weeks of the opening of yet another 250 yards down the North Circular road.

We now have a mega-Safeway and a mega-Tesco, in addition to the mega-Safeways and mega-Tescos that have opened in Queensbury and further along the North Circular towards Edmonton, the mega-Tesco at Brent park and the mega-Sainsbury in Alperton. Superstore after superstore is being constructed. At some stage, a halt must be called, and we look to Government to do just that.

It is not enough to urge common sense on the Government—the kind of common sense that is contained in the report—in the expectation of possible action at some future date. We need an assurance now that action will be taken at an early stage, and we hope to receive it from the Minister.

The Chalk Hill estate in Brent provides a typical example of the time bomb contained in permissions already granted and in the pipeline. It is proposed to tear down some homes on the estate and to substitute a new megastore, in addition to those in the surrounding area that I have already mentioned. The planning game for the council is the financing of the estate's refurbishment and redevelopment. I understand the attraction of that to a council that is strapped for cash, but the result will be a further undermining of local shopping facilities. For those who live on the estate, the development will also raise the spectre of being decanted they know not where.

Taking away homes to build another megastore defies common sense. I therefore urge the Minister to look into the Chalk Hill development and to do all in his power to prevent it. By doing so, he will halt the decline of the local economy in that part of Wembley Park. By calling the attention of the council to the crisis of concern among the residents and shopkeepers of the area, the Minister will at least show such people that the Government are prepared to listen. I urge him to do just that. I also urge him to deny the council the permissions that it requires to develop the Book Centre site in Wembley. Failure to do that will only assist the council in its intention to redevelop the Chalk Hill estate.

This has been an important debate; we await the Minister's reply with interest—and trust that it will be a constructive and speedy one.

9.15 pm
Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I shall try to speak at high speed and in abbreviated form.

This is an interesting subject and report. Entitled "Shopping Centres and their Future", the report covers shopping policy, transport policy and—most important of all—urban policy. Because it combines those three policy areas it is a highly worthwhile investigation of the responsibilities covered by the Department of the Environment. It is thus important that the Secretary of State deal with the recommendations in the report.

It is clear from the report's comments on shopping policy that shopping is not a homogeneous activity. It all depends on who is shopping, when, and what for. There is bulk food shopping, there is buying one's Sunday paper in the local shop, there is DIY shopping and there is fresh food shopping—they are all different.

The importance that we attach to the traditional markets in our small towns and urban areas—not to mention larger centres such as Sheffield—is not to be denied. Markets sell fresh produce at reasonable prices, and they bring a certain vibrancy to the shopping experience. Recently, Chapeltown in my constituency urged the planning authority to allow the opening of a Saturday market, which is proving extremely popular.

In the other meaning of the word, the "market", however, does not necessarily offer the customer the widest possible choice. Increasingly the public are shopping in these huge out-of-town centres. In Sheffield, we know very well how fast this change is taking place. The development of the Meadowhall centre has transformed shopping habits in the area. We cannot assume that it offers more choice to the shopper. It does not. The shops there are all similar, selling similar goods. It is difficult to find specialist items in such places, or to obtain clothing in extremes of sizes. Shops often presume that one is between size 12 and 16, and if one is at either end of that scale, one has to go elsewhere for clothing. The Committee was strongly of the view that, in contrast, town and city centres offer flexibility, variety and—because they embrace cultural and leisure activities—interest.

The pressure to shift from car usage to public transport or non-car journeys will increase, driven by environmental policies, problems of air quality, congestion and the sheer unpleasantness of sitting in a car in a traffic jam on a hot sunny day. The public transport aspect of the Meadowhall development was well planned on an integrated basis, with British Rail opening a new station and the light rail Supertram being routed through Meadowhall. There is also car parking. Meadowhall may not like this, but car parks there are increasingly used for park-and-ride commuters who work in the city centre.

Finally, the Government must acknowledge serious flaws in some of their urban policies. I agree with encouraging more people to live in town centres, but the Government must recognise the role of local authorities in developing the sort of partnership proposals outlined in the report. Town centre management schemes need people, resources and planners. Many planning authorities have an acute shortage of the key people who are the driving force in getting private and public sector partnership schemes up and running.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) rightly pointed out the problem of relying on traditional urban development schemes and the single regeneration budget. The element of competition within them is extremely damaging when a town centre already faces an out-of-town threat. If the town or city centre proposal fails, that can add to declining morale among the people involved. I will be listening carefully to what the Minister has to say about these key urban policy issues.

9.23 pm
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

This has been a good debate—almost a love-in, with hon. Members on both sides of the House pouring praise on the Select Committee's report and expressing their good wishes strongly in favour of the town and city centre.

I congratulate all the hon. Members involved in that excellent report on producing so much food for thought and debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) should be congratulated on his chairmanship of the Committee and on the way in which he introduced the debate. We heard excellent speeches from hon. Members who represent rural and urban areas.

The hon. Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) reminded us about the heritage of our towns and cities and the need to preserve the heritage of the countryside. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy), who is a member of the Co-op movement, spoke about the importance of the retail sector. I congratulate him on his work in the all-party retail group.

The hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) said that people want town centres to survive and that market forces need to be channelled through the planning process. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Dr. Twinn), who is not in his place, told us about his bicycling habits. I am sure that he is not the first Member to admit to being schizophrenic. He likes town centres, but prefers to shop in out-of-town developments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) told us that his views had not changed, despite being an adviser to Friends of the Earth in previous employment. He said that the city centre needs to be supported and developed. The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) told us about proposals to ruin his market town of Stow-on-the-Wold. We wish him success in opposing the application. I am sure that, if he has a word with his hon. Friend the Minister, the application could be called in at some future date.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), who is almost my Member of Parliament because I live in the constituency of Brent, East and sometimes have to shop in the arcades that he invited the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury to visit, took us on a tour of the north circular road and made a strong plea for homes rather than superstores.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson), who is a member of the Select Committee, reminded us of the importance of town and city centres. She spoke about developments in Sheffield and said that the only in which we would get strong city and town centres was by the Government being prepared to put in a great deal of investment to support excellent councils such as the one in Sheffield. In the House on 26 May 1994, the Minister's predecessor, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), set out the Government's policy, which has changed rapidly over the past 15 years. It was that town centres were to be the preferred location for most of our new shopping developments. He said that previous policies had had a dramatic effect on retail policy and especially on the development of town and city centres.

Every hon. Member who regularly attends Environment Question Time, which we had earlier today, is aware of hon. Members' concern about the changing nature of Government policy and about the fact that there is no clear guidance about precisely what should happen. The Government's present policy is as clear as mud. In the context of planning issues, the Secretary of State has turned the U-turn into an art. He has pirouetted 360 deg from his initial stance that out-of-town developments were the way forward for retail planning. To echo the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Itchen, I hope that in his reply the Minister will apologise on behalf of himself and the Government for the way in which they have developed planning policy until recently.

Removing local authority power in these matters and granting a great number of applications on appeal has meant that developments have decimated our town and city centres. The Secretary of State and Ministers realised that it was time to reverse his discredited policy because that was the only way to limit the damage to that which has already occurred. The Opposition and local authority associations told the Government for some time that their policy was wrong.

The Secretary of State has said that he is now committed to using my planning powers to support local efforts to safeguard the vitality of towns and the economic viability of their retail centres in particular. I welcome the assurances that local authorities are to be given the power to handle, without interference, applications for out-of-town developments, but good words are not enough. What the House and every hon. Member wishes to see is action by the Department of the Environment to ensure that, once passed, the guidance is carried into action.

The Independent of Monday 20 February reported that despite initiating a policy of there being no more superstore developments in out-of-town areas, the Department of the Environment plans to develop an edge-of-town superstore with parking for more than 300 cars in Cambridgeshire. It is no wonder that that has outraged not only local environmentalists but local residents. Campaigners pointed out that the move goes completely against the spirit of a new, greener Government planning policy.

Cambridge city council felt very strongly about the proposal and decided to turn down the application. The DOE's response to the superstore development was that it would provide more than 100 bicycle parking places—no doubt suitable for the hon. Member for Edmonton, when bicycling up the A10 to do his shopping.

How can we take seriously Ministers who, on the one hand, say that, through PPG 6 and PPG 13, they support town and city centres and want to curtail the development of superstores, while on the other are prepared to allow such developments to go ahead? A commitment to revise the PPGs was first made in 1990. That was designed to ensure that the guidance that the Government provided reflected the Government's environmental agenda. In the case of PPG 6 that meant a commitment to reduce the need to go shopping by car. The objectives of PPG 6 were to sustain and enhance the vitality and viability of town centres which serve the whole community and which provide a focus for retail development, where proximity of competing businesses facilities competition from which the consumers can benefit. We welcome the announcement, made in response to the Select Committee's recommendations, that the Government will review PPG 6 and will also look at PPG 13. At the moment, it is only the lawyers who seem to be making most of the money out of the lack of clarity of PPG 6. I recently had lunch with the chairman of a very big retail company—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I do not know whether I should declare that in the Register of Members' Interests. It was not a very big lunch, but the company is a very big contributor to the Conservative party. It is as fed up with the Government as are some Conservative Members because of the Government's failure to be clear about planning policy.

Mr. Thomason

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that no out-of-town development took place and there were no substantial shopping centres built in the period from 1974 to 1979?

Mr. Vaz

I shall come in a moment to a report that I published only last year, but it is clear from all the statistics that the major growth in out-of-town shopping centres has occurred under this Government—promoted and supported by the Government until the U-turn that the Secretary of State initiated only two years ago.

The Select Committee laid down two very firm criteria, which the Labour party believes are fundamental cornerstones of any policy. First, retail proposals should not be given permission for developments outside a town or city if there is a suitable site available close to the centre. Secondly, the data from retail impact studies will be required to assess any threat of harmful damage to such town and city centres that the projects may cause. I agree with the hon. Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) that the onus should be placed firmly on the developers to show that the impact of their policies will not in any way have an effect on town and city centres.

In congratulating the Select Committee on its report, I have to say that I believe that it was very important that it made so many extensive visits to so many different parts of the country. In particular, I was delighted that the Committee visited Leicestershire to study the effects of the Fosse park and Shires developments. I know that the Minister will visit Leicester shortly. I hope that he will take the opportunity of looking at the city council's excellent work in the Shires centre. It is trying to promote the viability and vitality of the city centre.

I accept that it is no use having an intellectual discussion about out-of-town developments and about the fact that we are against them unless we are prepared to initiate policies that will mean that developers will invest in city and town centres. I was attracted to some of the proposals of hon. Members, especially that of the hon. Member for Edmonton, who talked about the need for the Treasury to consider capital allowances. The local authority has a duty to work in partnership with the private sector to ensure that all the possibilities are explored. One should consider what may be provided outside a town or city centre only when those possibilities have been exhausted.

Last year, I published a report on the impact of out-of-town developments. I decided to undertake a survey to find out what was happening at local level. The results showed that 1,473 out-of-town developments were built between 1989 and 1994. On 307 occasions, the Department of the Environment overturned decisions even where local authorities felt that applications did not warrant planning permissions.

The results were taken from a total of 322 responses from district, metropolitan and county councils, which represented 73 per cent. of the councils that were sent questionnaires. The effect of Government planning guidance and Department of the Environment policy meant that a retailer's application for an out-of-town development had a 62.7 per cent. chance of being passed. The general feeling among town planners is that, although PPG 6 and PPG 13 are tighter than previous guidance, they are clearly not strong enough.

A report by Essex county council states: the government's test of vitality and viability of existing town centres is ill defined and the move to out of town developments… has inevitably reduced the choice and range of shopping in town centres". A metropolitan district council reported: The town centre needs to regain its role as the focus of community activity in shopping, employment, cultural, educational, housing, leisure, and commercial terms". The Labour party is firmly against out-of-town developments. They undermine our local businesses and the credibility of our high streets. There are too many empty shops, factories and residential developments in city areas. Labour Members and I applaud councils such as Leeds, which have adopted 24-hour cities, and firms such as Asda, which are prepared to develop the concept of 24-hour shopping in city centres. One of the great issues of our age is that the public supports the high street, but increasingly shops out of town.

In preparation for this debate, I went shopping in Sainsbury's in Leicester on Sunday. I have to report that I really enjoyed the experience. I was impressed by the way in which retail developers have made shopping into a family event. My family is very young—my son is only 11 days old—so it is not as active as the family of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South, but I too hope to visit Cirencester and Tewkesbury one day. Innovative schemes have been developed—for example, Sainsbury's new proposal, in association with Cox and Kings, a well-respected travel agency, to establish travel agencies inside its supermarkets. Those are new, consumer-friendly ideas. Consumers—the shoppers—welcome those developments.

I urge the private sector and big developers to develop those excellent ideas in the town centre context. One does not have to create great monstrosities outside town centres. One can develop centres in the context of urban life.

If our aim is to regenerate our town centres through our retail planning policies, we have to support local authorities by giving them a clear vision and adequate resources which enable them to adopt a clear strategy. A transport policy involving investment in public transport can deal with the inconsistencies of deregulated buses and massive road-building schemes. By giving people a viable alternative to car journeys, reliance on car travel can diminish the associated problems of congestion and air pollution.

The Labour party believes that it is essential to protect our towns and cities so that they can flourish and provide an effective basis for community life.

9.39 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)

The debate has not quite been a love-in but certainly an occasion for considerable agreement or, perhaps, variations on a theme. There was a little bit of Christmas tree utilisation—my hon. Friends the Members for Edmonton (Dr. Twinn) and for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) covered the debate with a few coloured lights and attacks on the Treasury, among other things. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) said, there was a huge measure of agreement.

I was, surprisingly, able to agree with some of what the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) said. I understand what she said as I have experienced great difficulty in finding clothes, but especially shoes, in the right size. The hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) might be interested to know that my youngest son wholly understands the importance of activity shopping, filling his pockets with as much pocket money as he can bludge off his parents and buying fast food. His third word was "McDonald's". Perhaps we should warn the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) to watch his son—his third word might be "Sainsbury".

I was intrigued to hear the reasoning advanced by the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). He blamed the Government but then immediately turned on the then Liberal council and said that it was to blame, too. Of course, the temptation was to agree with him. We have come to expect the type of speech made by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel). It appears that the Liberal party invented everything from bicycles to viable solutions, even if someone else thought of them first.

Like other hon. Members, I am grateful to have this opportunity to acknowledge the work of the Environment Select Committee and congratulate it on its excellent report. I say that not only because it provided strong support for our policy but because, in its spirit of inquiry, it accurately pinpointed matters where the policy needs clarification and where further development is needed.

The Committee, initially under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), then under that of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field), who launched the report, and subsequently under that of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who initiated this debate, has produced a clear and thorough report. It presented the Department with a considerable challenge. As has been said, we agreed with most of the Committee's recommendations. By responding positively, we have set ourselves a major work programme. As people will recognise, we shall not be able to do it all at once. Some things will be done as a matter of priority; others will follow on a longer time scale.

I recognise the concern for us to move quickly in forming a response to PPG 6 and its variations. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said at Question Time today, we intend to have the consultation draft issued by the summer. In the meantime, PPG 6 as it stands, plus ministerial speeches and the inferences in them, will apply, which is why it is appropriate to try to get through some of the points raised this evening as quickly as I can.

We accept that this is not a one-off opportunity to tune our policy. We must monitor the policy continuously to ensure that it is effective in meeting our objectives, which are to maintain and enhance existing town centres and ensure that everyone has access to a wide variety of shopping. As has been said, the benefits of competition should be accessible to all, not only those who have access to a car.

The Select Committee provided a major opportunity to scrutinise not only Government policy but the most recent developments in this fast-moving industry. It provided us with a lot of useful material and proposals for action, which we very much appreciate. My Department, on behalf of the Government, has now responded to those proposals fully and positively and we are proposing to revise our PPG note on town centres and retail developments, to commission good practice guidance, to promote town centre management, to commission research and to improve the quality of statistics on the retail industry that may be used for retail planning.

In our response, we propose to revise PPG 6. I should make it clear that we are proposing particularly to clarify a number of issues in response to the Committee's comments. We do not propose a dramatic and radical extension of our policy because, after all, the Committee broadly endorses the policy as it is.

The Committee highlighted the need to clarify our approach to the location of retail development. We propose to do that in two ways. First, the PPG will emphasise the need for a plan-led approach. That means that we shall expect local planning authorities to set out clearly in their development plans the strategy for retail development. That will need to be based on a good understanding of existing centres—city, town, district, local centres and even the particular historic preserves, I suppose we could call them, of my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown). We shall also need to reflect on the need and demand for further retail development in those areas. Local plans will need to be clear and unambiguous about where development is expected to take place and which sites are earmarked for retail development.

Secondly, the revised PPG will clarify our approach to the location of retail developments. PPG 6 and subsequent speeches by Ministers describe a "sequential approach". That advised planning authorities and developers to look first for town centre sites. When suitable sites are not available, those concerns should look for edge-of-centre sites. That means that the shoppers coming by car are able to walk into the town centre for shopping and other business and it also enables those coming to the centre by bus or on foot to walk out to the new shops. The PPG suggests that the limits be defined in terms of "reasonable walking distance".

We may need to be more specific. There is a limit to how far people can walk with several heavy bags of shopping and how far car drivers will walk. That has been explained in no uncertain and clear terms by my wife, who utilises the sort of Sainsbury's store enjoyed by the hon. Member for Leicester, East at the weekend.

Mr. Timms

I welcome what the Minister is saying about the changing policy framework, but what advice would he give to a local authority that is having to look again at earlier planning permission? My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said in opening the debate that many planning applications have been given permission, but have not yet been implemented. When the time limit expires, local authorities have to look again at the permission granted, or sometimes the applicant wants to vary the conditions that were imposed first time round. Would he advise local authorities to look at the application afresh in the light of the new policy, or should they feel constrained by the policy when the initial application was made? Indeed, what guidelines will Ministers follow in reconsidering old applications?

Sir Paul Beresford

At this stage, my advice would be that the new conditions would apply if the application fell out of time.

There will be some cases where there could be justification for not locating in the town centre, such as large showrooms or where people want to take goods away that they could not reasonably carry from the centre of the town. In those cases, we shall still expect retail developments to take into account the current tests: the impact on the vitality and viability of existing centres, accessibility by a choice of means of transport and the impact of overall car use.

Put simply, we shall still expect local planning authorities and developers to look for locations that will also be easily accessible to those without a car. Our advice is to look at the town centre first and then at the edge-of-centre sites, before considering looking out of the centre: a sequential approach to look for suitable sites. It should apply equally to food shopping and comparison shopping.

To revitalise our town centres, we need to encourage diversification, which hon. Members have touched on. Town centres are not only about shopping. We want to encourage a wide variety of activities in town centres, even if it is the eating of fast food by the son of the hon. Member for Brent, South.

We want to encourage offices, entertainment, culture, higher education, hospitals and, most of all, housing. We must bring our town centres back to life. To do that, we want to promote a greater mixture of uses, not only side by side, but on top of one another. We want to remove some the barriers to achieving that and will be working closely with the financial institutions and developers to that end.

Mr. Vaz

Will the Minister confirm the report in The Independent of 20 February that the Department of the Environment is proposing to develop a superstore outside Cambridge?

Sir Paul Beresford

At this stage, we are considering the proposal with considerable care. It might be helpful if the hon. Gentleman would await developments.

One of the main areas on which the Environment Select Committee focused was the perceived inconsistency between two different guidance notes—PPG 6 and PPG 13. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already indicated that the Government are concerned about how town centre car parking is currently used. Although circumstances may vary from place to place, it may be more a question of making better use of existing parking spaces—through management and pricing policies—than providing a lot more car parking.

The key issue is to make short-term public parking available to town centre users, rather than insisting that generous parking be provided in new developments. That is part of the pressure that drives business out of town. The revised PPG will remove any misunderstanding.

The key to creating vital and viable town centres and meeting the challenge of existing out-of-town developments is to take positive action to improve them. Existing guidance already promotes town centres. Our report, "Vital and Viable Town Centres: Meeting the Challenge", which was published last May, makes the case for assessing the health of a centre, establishing a partnership body and drawing up a strategy and action plan for the centre. It recognises that each centre will need to establish the way ahead for its own future.

To take that initiative further, we agree with the Select Committee that more guidance to all those concerned is needed. We will work closely with the Association of Town Centre Management to produce good practice guidance and to promote training in that field.

Town centre improvements and town centre management will involve extra money. We are actively considering how that will be funded. Much of it will come from targeting existing resources more effectively, such as through the Department of Transport package approach, which encourages local authorities to adopt a genuinely strategic approach to dealing with their transport problems, particularly in urban areas. Likewise, local resources can also be targeted more effectively, such as on street cleaning, lighting and measures to build out crime, which includes closed circuit television.

We recognise, however, that additional funds will be needed. My Department has already targeted town centres through various urban programmes, the latest being city challenge, to which reference was made, and the single regeneration budget. Some 40 schemes within that budget, accounting for 20 per cent. of the funding, are partnerships aimed at town centre revitalisation.

Funding will also need to come from other partners. Up to now, that has been in the form of generous support from a few major retailers, such as Boots and Marks and Spencer. In future, we will need ways of giving everyone an opportunity to contribute and of encouraging them to do so. We are still looking at ways of achieving that.

To help developers and retailers invest in town centres, we need to help them in other ways. In particular, we are looking for ways to assist them in site assembly. The plan-led approach, which I referred to earlier, will both help that and be helped by it. The plan, with the participation of retailers, should identify appropriate sites for further retail development. Once in the plan, that will assist land assembly, especially if there is a need to acquire sites compulsorily.

We need to provide a more favourable climate to encourage private investment in town centres. We will be looking at ways to involve the private sector in town centre revitalisation, both through direct investment in property and through investment in the town centre infrastructure.

A key issue raised by the Select Committee, which my Department recognises, is the need for more research on retail issues to assist the planning system. In particular, there is general agreement on the need for better information about the impact of out-of-centre and out-of-town developments. Research is being commissioned at the moment on the impact of out-of-town shopping, and we are hoping to sponsor research on attitudes to, and preferences for, the various different types of shopping.

The first concern is the impact of out-of-centre superstores, especially on market towns, which rely heavily on a town centre supermarket as the anchor store. The second is the impact, including the cumulative effects, of some of the newer out-of-centre retail formats—retail warehouse parks, warehouse clubs and factory outlet centres and so forth—on existing centres.

If the issue of impact and its relative significance is better understood, the assessment of out-of-centre developments should be made much easier. One of the main concerns, however, is that existing information about retailing is not as good as it could be and we are committed to improving the availability of existing data, including information on floor space and employment. Provided that a way to obtain information on retail turnover can be found, that does not create an undue burden on business, and it will ensure confidentiality and guarantee co-operation by retailers. The Government will consider favourably proposals for securing data on retail turnover. It is hoped that all that data can eventually be available for defined town centres, at regular intervals, which will help towns and cities monitor the health of their centres.

In conclusion, may I again congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment on his excellent report? I hope he considers that we have responded fully and constructively. As he will no doubt point out, our next task is to deliver. The Select Committee will be calling us to account in a year's time and I hope that we will be able to show considerable progress. On this subject, it would appear that we are all agreed on the correct way forward. We all seem to have the same objective: to make the planning system work in delivering what we all want—vital and viable town centres that are attractive, accessible and desirable to everyone to shop in.


Mr. Bennett

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I thank the Minister for his response and take him up on the point that he made in conclusion?

The tradition established by my predecessor, who is now the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, was that the Select Committee had a duty to return to its reports to find out what progress had been made. The Minister seemed to think that we might let him off for 12 months, but I think that some members of the Committee would probably rather come back to it a little sooner. May I suggest that we might look into it in October?

We are concerned that we get the new planning guidance as quickly as possible, and I think that the Government recognise that. We are also concerned about the planning applications that are in the pipeline but where construction has not taken place. We want to hear quickly how the Government will finance city centre management and it would be wrong for us to wait another 12 months for a progress report. I suspect, therefore, that the Select Committee will want to come back to the matter much sooner. I hope that the Government will have taken action by then.

Question deferred, pursuant to paragraph (3) of Standing Order No 52 (Consideration of Estimates).

9.57 pm

Sitting suspended.

10 pm

On resuming:

It being Ten o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded to put forthwith the deferred Questions which he was directed by paragraph (5) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of estimates) to put at that hour.