HL Deb 18 December 1997 vol 584 cc721-3

11.10 a.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood asked Her Majesty's Government:

What their policy now is on planning guidance with respect to out-of-town shopping centres.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, the Government's policy is set out in Planning Policy Guidance Note 6, Town Centres and Retail Developments (PPG6), which aims to focus new retail developments in existing centres. Our response to the fourth report of the House of Commons Environment Select Committee on Shopping Centres, published in July 1997, reaffirmed our support for PPG6. We have no current plans to revise the policy.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer: it is reassuring in the light of some of the unwise comments made on this subject in various places, not excluding the press. May I press the noble Baroness a little further and ask what progress is being made with what might be called the other side of the problem? I refer to the stimulation of economic health within town centres. Have the Government considered the research done on town improvement zones? Also, have they considered the suggestion made by the Select Committee in the report to which the noble Baroness referred that there would be a great deal of benefit in giving tax exemption or relief for money given by individual companies to improve town centres?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, we are studying the various options that are available for improving and stimulating the vitality and viability of town centre development. That means that we have to look at a range of services that are available within town centres, not only retail developments but also leisure developments, and make sure that housing is available so that those centres become alive not just during the day but also at night. That has the added advantage of being able to use brownfield rather than greenfield sites for the housing that is needed, particularly for single person households. We are looking at ways of working together with local authorities and business interests within town centres to stimulate that sort of co-operative approach to planning for town centre vitality.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that out-of-town shopping centres not only take up a lot of rural land but also have an adverse effect on village shops. When those shops are forced to close down, great hardship is caused to villagers who do not own cars. Is not that a paramount factor that the Government should bear in mind?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Renton. In looking at how new retail developments should be assessed, PPG6 sets down tests for assessing applications. That involves the need for development and the sequential test as to whether there is a town centre site available; and puts on them a responsibility to consider the impact of the proposal on existing centres, including village shops and high streets.

Lord Elton

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of the relief that some of us felt on hearing her enthusiasm for brownfield sites for developing housing, given the current alarming statements from the Government and in the press about the need to develop housing in rural areas? If we are to have any country left at all, let alone be allowed to do what we like in it, it is essential that we use urban areas for development.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, after the exchanges we had in your Lordships' House on the policy of green belts, I am in no doubt about the strength of feeling in relation to the need to preserve the countryside. The Government share that concern and the concerns about revitalising city centres. The two go together. As the House will know, we are currently considering how to meet the predicted increases in household growth and what the proper proportion should be of brownfield site development for that purpose.

Lord Evans of Parkside

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that one of the difficulties involved in city and town centre development is the almost impossible task of parking the car and the cost? Also in some instances women feel a danger in parking in multi-storey car parks. Surely the Government should be seeking to encourage local authorities to brighten up multi-storey, city centre car parks.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. In looking at this issue one of the areas that we are asking local authorities to consider is accessibility to shopping centres within towns by a variety of modes of transport. That involves looking at the parking provision—not just the number of spaces but the security of the parking provision. There is of course the other side of the coin in that the House of Commons Environment Select Committee recommended that the Government should tax car parking at out-of-town shopping centres. The question of the taxation of non-residential parking is one of the issues that many people raised in relation to the White Paper on integrated transport policy.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that while the Government's policy of siting shopping centres in town centres is satisfactory, the design of those centres frequently is not? Many of the cases coming before the Royal Fine Art Commission are of shopping centres which injure the urban environment, turn their backs on towns and cities in which they are placed and constitute urban shopping ghettos which are harmful to the civic life of those places.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am sure that local authorities and others involved in considering planning applications would be well advised to look at the aesthetics of what is being proposed. That will in turn contribute to the viability of what is being proposed.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, since the Minister was able to accept the desirability of shopping centres and housing on brownfield sites, can she now give the House a commitment that the Government will review their objective for the number of houses they want built on brownfield sites, because that target has caused great concern? Can she now say that the Government will review that?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the target that caused great concern was the previous government's target, which we have not yet changed. As I said the other day, we are looking at what the target should be for the future. We shall be announcing the results of the review when it is concluded.