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Full Transcript of John Penrose's debate on Planning and High Street Regeneration.

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Planning and Regeneration - [Jim Dobbin in the Chair]


John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair looking after us this afternoon, Mr Dobbin, particularly because the topic of preserving urban views and regenerating high streets is tremendously important to towns and cities up and down the country.

I hope we can all agree that there are two fairly severe challenges facing our built environment, no matter which part of the country we may be talking about. On the one hand, a housing crisis is looming. The Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Housing, has been making the tours of the TV studios and radio airwaves to make the point that we have an incipient housing crisis, caused by years and years of under-building, and that if we are not careful and if we do not do something about the situation relatively quickly we face the prospect of owner-occupation being something that will fairly rapidly become just the preserve of the rich. That will happen unless we start to build significantly more houses. The figure bandied around is that more than 100,000 homes—in fact, several hundred thousand homes—will have to be built every year for several years, in order to catch up with the backlog.

Given the levels of building needed to match current and expected demand, the pressure on finding sites and space will be intense. Even if we use all the brownfield sites that are available, it is true that if we do not find other spaces to build on, the pressure on our green fields will inevitably grow. I suspect many people view that prospect with alarm; it is an extremely unpleasant and inconvenient fact. If we can find alternatives, clearly we should use them.

In addition to the threat, or challenge, of the housing crisis, our high streets also face two very serious challenges: one of long standing, the other relatively recent. The long-standing challenge is that, for several decades, out-of-town shopping centres have been threatening to suck the life out of our high streets by pulling shoppers away from town centres to out-of-town locations, and in some cases they have actually done so. That has been going on for many years. Back in the 1980s or 1990s, John Gummer, a distant predecessor of the Minister, started to introduce restrictions on planning permissions for out-of-town shopping centres. That process has continued; in fact, as recently as last year the latest set of planning guidelines further sought to restrict permissions.

That is a well-established threat; it has existed for some time. More recently, of course, the advent of online shopping means that many more people are now shopping from home over the web, and as a result a great many retail store chains have concluded that they need fewer shops to cover the entire country. Inevitably, that has reduced demand for shopping locations on Britain’s high streets.

Those two challenges mean that change is inevitably coming to our towns and cities. That should not surprise us. Change is fine; it is okay and it is something that Britain’s built environment has had to face up to over decades, indeed over centuries. In fact, if we look at townscapes and cityscapes—the way that towns and cities look—we see that all of them are the product of successive waves of development, in some cases going back very many years. We are in London. London has been occupied for at least a couple of millennia and the signs of successive waves of development during human occupation of this site are around for us to see, even now.

It is the case in most cities, with—I suspect—the possible exception of one or two places, such as the one that the Minister represents, the city of Bath, which of course is—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Don Foster): Extremely beautiful.

John Penrose: Bath is indeed extremely beautiful; it is also a very rare example of a single, fairly homogenous and relatively planned style of building. With very few exceptions such as Bath, or more modern examples such as Milton Keynes, most of the rest of Britain’s towns and cities are not planned. The way they look is the result of a set of rather accidental phases and stages of development. As a result, some of those phases and stages of development, which have inevitably happened because towns and cities have had to react to society’s changing needs over decades and centuries, have created a look that in some cases may be beautiful and in some cases may be very, very average indeed. In fact, I suspect that many of us can think of some parts of some towns and cities that everybody would cheerfully see being redeveloped quite rapidly. And there is everything in between.

In some cases, we have lucky accidents of beautiful parts of our towns and cities, and in other cases the unlucky accidents of rather ugly places. We need to face up to the fact not only that change has always been a facet of the development of our built environment but that it will always be so. Our towns and cities need to carry on changing if they are to cope with the changing demands of society. They always have and they always will. Given the twin challenges I have just set out, it is extremely likely that we are due for another bout of change—another rapid stage of evolution in what our towns and cities need to do. Nowhere is that more true than on the high street, as it tries to face up to the challenges that I described.

The question is not whether change is coming—clearly it is—but rather how we react to it; how our built environment reacts to it and how local residents are able to use the buildings that we have inherited from our predecessors and those that we are building and developing to bequeath to our successors in whichever urban environment we live and work.

Consequently, it is crucial to ensure that we keep the best bits of what we have already. As I said, there are plenty of examples of beautiful townscapes and wonderful locations, from London’s Mall through to city-centre locations from Edinburgh right the way down to Cornwall, and back again. We need to ensure that as we allow our towns and cities to change, to develop and to react to the pressures on them, we keep the best pieces and do not casually or accidentally allow them to be destroyed in the process of development.

We already have some mechanisms to do that. For example, we have listed buildings. A very small proportion of this country’s buildings—roughly 4%—are subject to listing orders. That means that if they are of particular historic or architectural importance, they are legally protected from being damaged by future development. Equally, we have conservation areas, which is where I think the Minister and the rest of his Department come in. Those areas are protected by planning laws. Local councils can designate a conservation area, and that allows a measure of protection to ensure that it is properly looked after and a homogenous look is maintained.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate him both on securing the debate and on the passion for tourism that he has shown on both the Front and Back Benches. Does he agree that although listing and conservation areas are very welcome, there is a bit of a failing, because in neither case is sufficient weight put on actually keeping a building for what it was actually designed to be, even though in many cases that is perfectly possible?

John Penrose: I agree with my hon. Friend that, wherever possible, it is often more historically authentic to try to maintain a particular building for its original purpose. However, it may no longer be possible to maintain a building for its original purpose; a good example would be Martello towers, which, for those who have temporarily forgotten, were part of Britain’s defences during the Napoleonic wars, guarding our coastline from invasion. Clearly, whatever we may think about the likelihood of a French invasion in the future, Martello towers are no longer part of this country’s sea defences, so it would not be sensible to have them as a military installation any more. Many of them have now been very successfully converted, and most conservationists would argue is that if it is not possible, either for economic or other reasons, to maintain a building for its initial use, it is far better to make sure that it has a modern use than to have it sit empty, because if a building sits empty it very rapidly decays. Although I instinctively sympathise with my hon. Friend’s comment, if it is not feasible we need to be flexible and accept the case for change.

Moving on from listed buildings and conservation areas, I recently called for an addition to the available tools for protecting the best of what we currently have, to ensure that as the process of change moves forward in our towns and cities, what is good is not accidentally destroyed. In addition to individual listed buildings and conservation areas, we also need to give consideration to listed views—some way of protecting the skyline or particular avenues of views in towns and cities. There is already a small measure of protection. For example, here in London a number of view corridors are protected, so that people can see the dome of St Paul’s from various points in the city, including a hill on Hampstead heath. But those corridors are narrowly defined and do not provide a ready way of protecting the incidental, day-to-day or small-scale beauty that most of us can think of in towns and villages in our constituencies.

Most people, as they take the dog for a walk or go for a walk on a Sunday with their family, for example, will know local spots where the view is perfect and they love it. They will pause when looking at such a view to appreciate it, whether it is a towpath on a canal, a bandstand in the park or the local high street; it does not matter exactly what it is. It is hard for existing legislation to protect that aspect of what is good-looking and therefore worth preserving in our urban environment. It would help if we moved towards rounding out and completing the suite of protection measures that we have.

Deciding what protections we need, and designating the bits that are worth saving, would allow us to move faster and more vigorously towards the kind of change and updating in urban environments that we have already mentioned, particularly high streets, given the housing requirements that we know about. If we know about the bits that are worth keeping, inevitably and logically it follows that everything else is at least fair game for being updated, redeveloped and regenerated more rapidly, so that it can be altered to reflect what society needs from it with less fuss than before.

We can move faster in reacting to the forces of housing requirements and the hollowing out of high streets, but only if we know what is worth keeping—because we will have designated it, as I have described—and what is not so special, which, if it is changed, we should not be so worried about. Having designated the stuff that is worth keeping, we should be more relaxed about everything else, allowing more rapid development and not being so precious about what regulatory and planning constraints we place on some things.

If people look around while walking on most high streets in Britain, in most places they will usually see a ground floor with retail and sometimes leisure—restaurants, or whatever—and above that, except in the centre of the biggest cities, they will see one or two storeys of lightly used residual construction in buildings that have been standing for 100 years. The upper floors tend not to have been designed to be used above retail and, in many cases, they are hard to access and use for anything terribly productive. In many otherwise thriving high streets, above those one or two extra storeys above the ground floor there is just fresh air.

Those spaces ought to be some of the most valuable, productive and useful in our towns and cities, yet they are lightly used or unbuilt, by and large because such buildings were constructed in the 19th century or earlier and, if they are not historically important, the chances are that they are not terribly useful either. We should allow the ones that are not designated as important and historically, visually or architecturally significant to be redeveloped more easily. To do that, we need to be a bit more relaxed about the regulations that we apply.

My gentle suggestion—my starter for 10—is that if we want to free up the opportunity for our high streets to be redesigned and redeveloped more easily, and make space for more housing in town centres, reducing the inevitable pressure on the fringes of towns, on the green belt and green fields, we should consider allowing developers to build up rather than just out. I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Minister that to do that we should allow buildings to be redeveloped, particularly on high streets, knocked down if necessary and built up. It should be economic to rebuild them. A building that is four or five storeys high, when it is currently only one or two, makes the economics of redevelopment work much more effectively.

We could extend the permitted development rules, which currently allow small-scale extensions and additions to buildings, to allow additional height to be added to some town centre buildings. We could set a maximum height, for example, up to the maximum height of other buildings in the same block, or to that of a local church tower or the tree canopy—something that is not absurdly tall. I am not talking about building the Shard in towns around the country. I am talking about a small addition that would make more of our towns and cities look more like a Parisian boulevard, for example, with shops, restaurants, cafés and other commercial premises on the ground floor and a mixture of either offices or apartments a few floors above. Those are great places to live and work; they are elegant and in some cases beautiful. Doing that would make sure that we were hanging on to the important parts that are already beautiful in our developed and built environment.

That small change could be transformational and could save our high streets, or allow them to develop and mutate as they must if they are to survive, and could, I hope, reduce pressure on our green fields by providing alternative places to build much needed houses. This is a small suggestion—a modest proposal—and I hope that the Minister takes it in the spirit in which it is made. I look forward to his reply after listening to the thoughts of other colleagues.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing this important debate, which covers a range of subjects, all of which are keenly considered important by those whom we represent.

The full title of the debate is “Role of planning in preserving urban views and regenerating high streets”. Our high streets are coming to terms with the change in shopping habits. Can the planning system do anything to help speed and assist that regeneration? The key question is, is the planning system a help or a hindrance in that process at the moment? Clearly, it has a part to play. I served for five years as a cabinet member on a local authority, in charge of planning policy. Thankfully, I was not in charge of implementing individual decisions, which of course is the most contentious part of it. The part that I found most difficult was the speed at which the planning system works. Whether people are on the side of a developer or a shopkeeper wanting to make a minor change, or objecting to an application that they feel will blight their part of town, they want a speedy resolution of the issue.

We can all relate to the listed views that my hon. Friend mentioned. As he represents a different seaside resort, I am sure he has a different view, but he should come to witness the sunrise over Cleethorpes. All of those things add to the quality of life, so they are important.

The Government have made some important changes to the planning system since the coalition agreement, including the new planning framework, all of which has been very good. One aspect about which I have reservations is that more decision making is being passed to unelected officials, be it the Planning Inspectorate or whatever, whether on appeal or because a local authority is seen to be failing in its duty. A vital part of the local democratic process is that local councillors should be in charge of making planning decisions. Those of us who have served on a local authority appreciate that people expect us to be involved in and to influence planning decisions, whether small or large. That goes right to the heart of our local democratic process.

Cleethorpes High street has a good mix, and it is surviving despite the onslaught from out-of-town developments and neighbouring Grimsby, where the main shopping centres are located. I appreciate that shoppers do not take note of political boundaries. In fact, Grimsby and Cleethorpes are one area. Thirty years ago, Freeman street in Grimsby was the hub of the local retail community, which served a vast housing area where many who worked on the fish docks lived. Freeman street has declined into a street of boarded-up properties with the occasional charity shop, a few takeaways and little else because the local authority, on which I served for a period, did its level best to maintain the high street as it was without recognising that the main shopping centre had moved elsewhere. We tried to preserve the high street, and it was like continually putting plasters on to a wound.

We must recognise that the high street is changing. Out-of-town retail parks have, to a considerable extent, become a replacement high street. People can go to the local out-of-town supermarket, which is surrounded by half a dozen outlets of a similar nature. People can get everything in that one place, which we must recognise. I want to preserve high streets where they are commercially viable and, in effect, wanted by the local community.

I am not a particular fan of the recommendations of the Mary Portas review, although not because I do not support its aims and objectives—I served on a town team for a great many years. Across the country, there are councils, chambers of commerce, traders associations and the like that have tried virtually everything contained in the Portas review, including adjusting planning controls and doing their best to keep parking charges at a reasonable level.

We must recognise that parking charges are an important part of a local authority’s income. When I was a councillor, parking charges represented just over £1 million of income. Yes, people can say that doing away with or restricting parking charges would boost the local economy and might attract more business, thereby boosting business rates, but it is a long-term process. In the meantime, the local authority is stuck with having to provide services on hard-pressed budgets. That income simply cannot be replaced. Yes, there are schemes. North Lincolnshire council, which forms part of my constituency, has had a very successful scheme in recent months that has proven a godsend to many of the smaller towns and has helped things along considerably.

Promenades are an important part of seaside resorts such as Cleethorpes and Weston-super-Mare, and they are equally part of the retail mix. Yes, promenades have their amusement arcades, but if we want a vibrant seaside resort, there has to be a mix of arcades, retail, cafés, restaurants, and so on. We urgently need to do all we can. My own party produced a document on seaside resorts prior to the election called, as I recall, “Not the end of the line.” The document considered many of those issues, and perhaps it is worth the Minister digging the document out of the files so that we can see whether we can proceed with some of its suggestions.

My hon. Friend mentioned the need for change of use so that people are able to bring many of the now surplus retail units back into use—every town has parades of shops that are now redundant as retail units. Yet more help is needed, perhaps including a programme of support, so that owners can change those units into residential use. We all know of the chronic housing difficulties in many parts of the country, and many of the surplus retail properties are owned by small-time developers or redundant family businesses that have now closed down with people moving on. It would be helpful if the Minister were to consider those things.

Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing this important debate, in which I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak.

As a former Minister with responsibility for heritage, I want to say that the hon. Gentleman is right when he remarked on the important balance of preserving what we have come to understand across communities as beauty in relation to our heritage. I remember the delicate discussions when I was a Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on balancing the interests of heritage against new building.

In London we have broadly got that right. We can point to exemplary new architecture that contributes to the London skyline, such as the Gherkin, the Shard and the London Eye. Those buildings are controversial—some people like them, and some people dislike them—but they contribute to the sense that London is a modern, forward-looking city. None of us would want to see the important centre that is Westminster, and the important heritage that lies here, destroyed. The London Eye, across the way by County hall, adds to that and provides the right balance. Equally, there were delicate discussion on how the Shard might affect the views from the Tower of London and the important line of sight that goes right down to Richmond park, and we arrived at the right balance. Those discussions will continue as new developments are proposed.

When we consider what has been achieved in parts of London that have been run down and are in need of regeneration, such as the royal docks and the huge work by the London borough of Newham under the leadership of its mayor, Sir Robin Wales, particularly around the Olympic site and the Westfield development, there has been a huge contribution of modernity, and the right balance has been struck for the vibrant multicultural community, which has experienced tremendous poverty over the years.

I thought it was important to contribute to this debate because at the same time, a story has been unfolding on our London high streets—a quiet disaster in need of serious regulation. I am slightly concerned by the presumption made by the hon. Gentleman, unless I misunderstood him, that protection should apply to heritage, beauty, what we need to preserve and where we need development, but that we more or less do not need regulation for the rest. I want to introduce to this debate a growing depth of concern, across London and now in some of our other major towns and cities, about the look and shape of our high streets and how individual people can affect that. What people see here in London, from Ealing to Tottenham to Hackney to Peckham, is a proliferation of betting shops, payday loan shops and fast food restaurants, usually in the shape of chicken shops. They are not Kentucky Fried Chicken but Tennessee, Kansas or any other state. They are rife in boroughs such as Waltham Forest and Haringey. Pawn shops also proliferate.

That is disastrous to the high street. No one says that it is a problem to have one or two bookmakers, but it is a problem to have, as Haringey Green Lanes does, nine in a stretch of no more than 800 metres. Do we need 22 bookmakers from Seven Sisters tube station up Tottenham High road and Fore street and into Enfield? What kind of regulatory environment has led to that? The hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport with some responsibilities in that area. It is time for his colleagues in DCMS and the Department for Communities and Local Government to come together to establish the right planning and licensing environment to preserve what we understand as a high street. If we just allow mini Las Vegases to develop across London, we will be thumbing our noses at a licensing regime that worked well. All developed countries take the planning and licensing of gambling seriously.

Greg Mulholland: I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman would agree with me and the all-party parliamentary Save the Pub group. We point out that it is not the rigidity of the planning system but its weaknesses that are causing problems. He and I have both highlighted the ludicrous situation that a viable pub can be turned into a betting shop without the need to go through the planning process, which undermines the whole topic that we are discussing.

Mr Lammy: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I was moving in that direction, but I saw him in his seat and knew that he would elucidate very well the situation faced by our pubs, particularly on the high street, so I navigated my remarks into his terrain. However, I will leave him to give the peroration that I know he is about to give. He will know that the reason for the proliferation and saturation of bookmakers on our high streets is relaxed planning laws that have allowed them to move into former pubs, banks and estate agents’—frankly, to move anywhere—when they should be in a sui generis class of their own. Any civilised democracy would seek to regulate that area of activity carefully. I am not suggesting that it should be the same as how we might choose to regulate lap dancing clubs, for example, but I think we have wisdom as human beings in taking gambling seriously and requiring a certain kind of regulation for it.

I see that later this week, an Adjournment debate will be held in the House on fixed-odds terminals in betting shops. These new machines, which allow people to lose up to £100 in 20 seconds, are driving the proliferation of betting shops. I am deeply concerned that the Government seem not to want to do anything about them on either the licensing or the planning side. Where will we be in five years’ time? What misery will be wrought on communities? Can it be right for the borough of Haringey to have more bookmakers than bookshops? Is that really the message that we want to send to our young people?

Ministers have said that they want local authorities to use article 4 powers to designate an area to exclude a particular category of activity, such as betting shops. The problem with article 4 is that it does not prevent betting shops from opening in banks or estate agents, and it certainly costs local authorities a hell of a lot of money that they do not have at this time to use the powers. The Government must act, and they must get serious about licensing. A fear is developing across the community that the Government will not act because their receipts from taxation on these activities are such that the Treasury is prepared to turn a blind eye.

We will pick up the tab in disastrous lives if we allow such activities to continue. If we allow chicken shops and takeaways to open up next to schools across the country, the NHS will pick up the tab for the resulting obesity. If we allow betting shops to prey on poor people—the latest evidence suggests that the proliferation is occurring in poor and deprived areas—we will pick up the tab for broken marriages. Wives and daughters in particular feel the pain. We will pick up the tab for the consequences. Because my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) does it so successfully, I need not articulate how much damage payday loan shops cause, with the huge interest rates—up to 1,000%—that they are now charging in this deeply recessionary period. If we allow that to continue, I am afraid that the sorts of scene that one can see in parts of downtown America will be visited on this country.

That is why, when we talk about urban planning, it is important that we talk about what is real to people in their lives today and on their high streets. They want a place where they can go have a drink, which is why I absolutely support the activity of the hon. Gentleman and the work of the Campaign for Real Ale to highlight the loss of pubs throughout this country. People want somewhere to shop. They want independent shops as well as major retailers. Yes, they want to bet on the grand national, but they do not want to be overrun with bookmakers. They certainly do not want to be overrun with fast food shops, given that we know that too many are particularly dangerous for young people.

I hope that the Minister will say something in his response about those issues. It is not the first time that they have been raised in the House; they have been raised time and time again. Co-ordination and consideration is needed between two Departments in order to get a grip on the regulatory environment for planning on our high streets.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am delighted to take part in this important debate. I do so wearing two hats: I am a proud member of the all-party group for small shops, which clearly have a huge interest in this topic, and I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary Save the Pub group. I will focus my comments on those interests.

I want to start, however, by telling the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), the former Tourism Minister, that I very much welcome the fact that the Government have rightly put a lot of emphasis on the importance of our high streets and town centres as hubs of not only commerce, which they clearly are, but social interaction and cohesion.

My hon. Friend talked about some of the issues that high streets and town centres face with out-of-town shopping centres and online, mobile retailing. I warmly welcome the Government’s work on the Portas review and the town team partners scheme, and I am delighted that Otley, in my constituency, has received a share of the multi-million-pound fund to take forward elements of the scheme’s plans. That is encouraging local people to get on and promote town centres, and those people are often best placed to do that.

I have four town centre high streets in my constituency —in Headingley, Otley, Yeadon and Meanwood. Those areas are all different, but they all rely on a mix of retail, food and entertainment, including pubs. It is important to acknowledge that, although the way people are shopping is changing, retailers are taking up and working with those changes; indeed, they are using them to benefit themselves, their business and therefore their town centre and their community.

It is important that we do not make the mistake of talking about the death of the great British high street. Although some high streets might be changing, some businesses on them are doing extremely well and succeeding. A good example that is some businesses in Otley are providing wonderful local goods, some of which are foodstuffs and some of which are other things. Those goods are made locally and transported short distances. That is the kind of thing people want to buy from an independent retailer and cannot buy in the same way from larger retailers.

At the same time, other businesses are using innovation and coming up with different products, ideas and ways of retailing. Many small independent retailers, unlike some of the large chains that have collapsed, have shown that they can embrace the internet era. They can have a shop front physically showing people their products or services, while having an attractive online offering that allows them to sell to a far greater area.

We must accept that there are challenges, however, and the Government are right to do so. The message that I want to get across to the Minister is that we must not fall into the trap of thinking that the way to deal with some of those challenges is simply to deregulate the planning system and say, “If we allow developers to get on and do whatever they want, that will regenerate the economy.” That is a mistaken view, and I am glad that it is not taken by my hon. Friend, but it is taken by some people. Simply relaxing planning could be disastrous for many town centres. It would be entirely wrong simply to say that people can do what they want, without any interface with local teams, whether town or parish councils or chambers of trade.

I want to put on the record my concern at the suggestion that there should be no need to go through the planning process for change of use from office to retail. If an office is genuinely no longer wanted as an office, and no one wants to take it on as an office, that suggestion would be reasonable, but let us allow local communities to have a say. That is what the Government say that they believe in promoting through the big society, so it simply does not make sense to give blanket powers that could have a detrimental effect on many high streets.

John Penrose: I understand the case that my hon. Friend is eloquently making. Does he agree, however, that if local communities have a say, it is important that that say is genuinely representative of what local people think? He, I and many others here could point to local campaigns against this or that development—usually whipped up by people who have something commercial to lose if the new development is installed—that do not represent the views of local people once the development has gone through. In some cases, a vehement campaign is fought against Tesco or whomever it may be, but not one year later, once the local Tesco or whatever it may be has been built, everyone who signed up to the campaign ends up shopping there. It is therefore important to make sure that the democratic voice genuinely represents the actual behaviour of local people, rather than the views of just a few vehement protestors.

Greg Mulholland: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but the simple point is that people should have a say, and they cannot have a say if it is denied to them by allowing further relaxation of the general permitted development rights. That is why I strongly urge the Minister to make representations that such a suggestion could be very unhelpful. With town centre developments, as opposed to other kinds of development, we have the opportunity to get the view of local retailers, town councils, chambers of commerce and chambers of trade that is not simply about opposing development, but about building a vision for the local area. Those people know best, and we must not deny them the right to express their views.

I want now to turn to pubs. I said that the British high street is changing. For many years, the mainstay of our high street might have been the old-fashioned post office or the butcher. Many of those things are important, and they are surviving and, indeed, thriving, which is to be welcomed. I pay tribute to the work the Government have done with the Post Office network to ensure that the local post office remains a mainstay. However, the mainstay of many high streets can and should be the British pub. The pub has served a purpose in high streets and marketplaces for hundreds of years. As many retail businesses necessarily change around them, many pubs do not need to change; they are still surviving and still thriving. Many of the issues that they face are not about the amount of trade they do. It is important to recognise that other issues affect them, but the problem with the planning system is that it does not do that adequately.

As the Minister knows, I commended the work on the national planning policy framework, which is a huge improvement on what we had before. For the first time, it mentions valuable local services, including pubs, and gives them a value in planning law, which is hugely welcome. However, that does not sit alongside the reality of the use class orders and the general permitted development rights, which remain in place.

I have mentioned the nonsense that a viable, wanted pub can be turned into a betting shop against the wishes of the local community, the town council, the chamber of trade and all the retailers and residents of an area. That can also be the case with a supermarket. That is simply not acceptable. In many areas up and down the country, people find that a local pub that is wanted, used, viable and making money can be sold. Indeed, pubs are being sold in their hundreds behind the backs of local communities by indebted lease pub companies, whose model is now facing the end. Pubs are sold direct to supermarkets, but the community has no say whatever. That simply cannot be acceptable.

The Save the Pub group warmly welcomed the call by the Department for Communities and Local Government for councils to adopt supplementary planning guidance for pubs and other local services. Of course, some councils have done that, and the Minister has taken a keen and direct interest in some of those cases. Cambridge city council is an excellent example of a proactive council that considers pubs to be important. It has introduced supplementary planning guidance to deal with some of the problems that pubs face. I am extremely disappointed that the British Beer and Pub Association, which unfortunately represents Britain’s large pub companies and brewers rather than fighting for the future of many British pubs, is seeking to overturn that decision by judicial review. Not only is that disgraceful, but it shows the organisation for what it is. I hope that through the work of the Save the Pub group and the Department for Communities and Local Government we can encourage more councils to introduce such guidance.

The work that the Department for Communities and Local Government is doing does not excuse the fact that it operates a planning system that does not adequately and commonsensically prevent unreasonable moves from one use class order to another. It is still possible to demolish a free-standing pub overnight, even if the pub is wanted and a small business man or woman wants to carry on running it. That is a permitted development right, which is nonsensical. Likewise, a pub can be turned into a supermarket, a betting shop or a solicitors’ office, which are very different uses of the premises. Communities may lose a valuable and wanted pub and have a supermarket imposed on them and on local retailers.

To return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare, when communities are genuinely opposed to such a change, they do not even have the opportunity to comment on whether they want a local Tesco to be imposed on them. Such a development might damage the small retailers in a town centre and affect the mix of shops in the area, which is the reason why people come and shop there in the first place. The wrong kind of development can be extremely damaging.

The simple message is that much of what the Government have said and done has been welcome and positive, particularly the work on the Portas pilots. The national planning policy framework was a great piece of work, which has hugely improved the planning framework. Will the Minister tell us why officials and Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government still refuse to amend use class orders or look again at the general permitted development rights to clear up the absurd loopholes that are damaging communities and town centres across the country? It would be possible to make simple changes under secondary legislation to give communities a say by requiring any change of use of a valued community facility, such as a local pub, to go through the planning process. Overnight, that would stop such assets being sold behind the backs of communities; it would stop there being 22 betting shops on the street in Tottenham that the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) mentioned; it would stop Tesco and Sainsbury’s stores being imposed on communities without their having any say whatsoever; and it would stop the nonsense of viable, profitable businesses being closed. The damage that such changes of use do to the local economy is borne out by the fact that twice as much of the money spent in a pub is recycled into the local community as of the money spent in a supermarket.

I finish with a word of warning to the Minister, who is a big friend of pubs, and who is passionate about them and about other small shops, business and services. The Government have announced that they will introduce a statutory code of conduct for the giant leased pub companies to stop them overcharging their lessees year after year—a scandal that has closed and is closing many otherwise viable, wanted businesses. That is good news, but already some of the leased pub companies have threatened to start mass disposals of their pubs. Around the country, pubs are being bought up by small breweries, micro-breweries and local entrepreneurs and by communities, some of whom are using the community right to buy. Unless the DCLG takes responsibility and changes use class orders and general permitted development rights, the leased pub companies will be able to dispose of such pubs for other use, as they have threatened to do, without giving the community a say in the matter. Joined-up thinking is required, and my right hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues must take that responsibility seriously and deal with the problem. It is a simple matter for them to ensure that, where such pubs are viable and wanted and where a realistic offer is made for them, they are sold as pubs, so that they can continue to be an important part—indeed, the mainstay—of our high streets and our communities up and down the country.

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Dobbin. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing the debate. It is an extremely important debate, and because the Minister and I serve beautiful city constituencies—in his case Bath and in my case Durham—it is relevant to both of us. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare made two important points that I agreed with and want to emphasise. First, change is coming to the high street and we need to think better how to prepare for and manage it to ensure that the cityscapes that we treasure are not damaged. Secondly, we must recognise that planning is important in shaping places and that it can be positively used for the benefit of our communities. We do not hear that very often; we usually hear that planning is a brake on growth and that it is damaging. I was glad that the hon. Gentleman used Milton Keynes as an example of what positive planning can achieve. We might not see the outcome of planning decisions for several years, but 30 years on we can see that Milton Keynes has benefited from careful planning.

Several hon. Members made important points about their communities and protecting their high streets. I will, rather cheekily, pick up a point that the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) made strongly. He said that localism was important, and he was worried that some of the changes that the Government are making might damage localism and take decisions away from local planning authorities. The Opposition objected to the changes contained in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, which will transfer many decisions to the Planning Inspectorate. It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues did not join us when we opposed the Government’s plans.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) made powerful speeches about use class orders, which picked up on the point made by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare. They made important points about the need for local people and local authorities to have more control over use class orders, which I will discuss in more detail later. The Government have just produced a school food review report that suggests that fast food outlets should not be available near schools. It will be interesting to know whether the Minister has had any conversations with his colleagues in the Department for Education about how that could be implemented.

More generally, we heard a plea for more flexibility to be given to local authorities on how use class orders are used, which I have been advocating for a long time. I see no reason why use class orders cannot simply be given to local authorities to use as they want. Local authorities represent their communities and know about what use classes should be available, how they should be used and how to rescind one and to put another in its place. If the Minister wants to extend his localism credentials, this is something I could give him on a plate: take use class orders away, look at them and give them to local authorities. That would be a much more sensible way forward.

To return to the comments made by the hon. Gentleman, he referred to how local councils can already protect views through conservation areas, under the Civic Amenities Act 1967, which established the right of local authorities to designate a conservation area. The policy has been fairly successful, because we now have 8,000 conservation areas throughout England. Under the Act, conservation areas are defined as “areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance”.

That can and often does in practice include views, so although I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely, I am not exactly sure what additional protection he thinks is needed for particular views.

John Penrose: I was thinking either of the much larger example of an entire skyline, which would be hard to preserve, protect or allow to alter in a particular way through the conservation area designation, or of the very narrow, specific example of a particular line of sight, perhaps on a small scale, down a particular street with something that happens to be framed at the end of it, which would be a criminal waste to allow to be got rid of but which is too small and too specific for the conservation area legislation to work.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful clarification. Local authorities can already designate and protect views through their local plans, however, which leads me to wonder whether we need additional regulations.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham talked about what is already happening in London; the Greater London authority plan includes some good examples of whole views being protected, in particular urban landscapes that are thought to define London. The plan not only protects the views but gives more detailed guidance about what should happen to protect them. That facility is available to all local authorities through their local plans, but I suspect that they are not all using it as well as they might be. Perhaps this afternoon we should be putting a big plea out to local authorities to ask them, when they are putting their local plans together, really to think about views—outside a particular street or part of it—that might be important to the local community or area and that need to be protected. They should outline what the views are and put additional guidance in place. They could all learn easily from the London experience, where that seems to have been done rather well.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare mentioned that UNESCO also protects views, to and from world heritage sites, one of which I have in my constituency. He made a strong point and a lot more could be done by local authorities to ensure that such views are protected. From time to time councils have to be reminded, when a development application appears before them, that they have to think about the world heritage site. Those three elements already in existence go a long way to giving the protection that the hon. Gentleman was discussing.

I want to pick up on one other point made by the hon. Gentleman, which was about using additional regulations to pre-empt where developers might want to develop. That is an extremely difficult thing to do: always being one stage ahead of developers is probably impossible. Each case is best dealt with on its merits, bearing in mind the protections that can already be drawn down by local authorities. I am absolutely not convinced that more regulation is needed in this instance.

A lot of hon. Members this afternoon have raised issues about the high street, and it is worth picking up on a few points. Some of the figures about use of the high street are interesting: high streets with strong conservation areas are doing better. For example, Cambridge is doing well in protecting its high street and the volume of commerce taking place in retail there. That tells us something about how communities are starting to think about their own high streets and how tourists are thinking about them, because a high street is a lot more than simply a retail experience. The hon. Gentleman brought out this point well: we sometimes get bogged down in thinking about our high streets only in terms of retail. It is tempting to do that because we get regular figures about what is happening to the retail sector, which is important because it is an indicator of the health of our high streets, so we need to take the figures seriously. But what they tell us is that we need to diversify the high street and to think a lot more about community and housing use. This strays on to the point made by the hon. Member for Leeds North West about the importance of pubs. They are part of the leisure offer that is important on our high streets, but which we are very much in danger of losing.

Again, use class orders are important, because we need councils to have the flexibility to decide whether the retail space that might not be fully occupied can instead be office, leisure or housing use, and to be able to change it back. One of the problems with use class orders is that it is sometimes difficult constantly to change use, but we need that degree of flexibility. I will be interested to hear what the Minister says.

No one mentioned how complicated it is at the moment for local authorities to draw down money to support regeneration of the high street, outside of Portas. On that Portas money, even if local authorities got £100,000, we know that only about 12% of the money has been drawn down so far. There are lots of different tiny funding pots, and we perhaps need to bring them together into a more coherent regeneration framework, so that local authorities can find a straightforward way to develop their high streets in line with the local community opinion of what should be provided. I am probably telling the Minister that Portas is good as far as it goes, but it is not the whole answer.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare has done us a great service in bringing forward this subject for debate this afternoon. We need to think about how to protect what we value in the high streets, how to encourage them to develop and, in the current climate and from now on, to diversify. We need additional tools to do that, but I am not sure that they include additional planning regulation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Don Foster): It is a pleasure, Mr Dobbin, to serve under your chairmanship and to participate in this debate, which has been led by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). I join the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) in praising my hon. Friend for his work when he was Minister for Tourism and Heritage. He was also the gambling Minister and, as the right hon. Gentleman said, some issues remain outstanding from my hon. Friend’s era. Before responding to my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods)—I will echo many of her comments—I will refer briefly to some of the other excellent and helpful contributions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) asked whether planning was a help or a hindrance, and reminded us that he had five years’ experience of being in charge of planning. He worried about the speed of operation on some occasions and then chided the Government for putting pressure on local planning authorities if they did not act quickly. There was a slight inconsistency in his comments, but he clearly cares as passionately as I do about the importance of local decision making, and I suspect that he will be pleased to see the amendments that have been tabled to the Growth and Infrastructure Bill in another place to deal with the concern that he expressed. We are looking for ways of speeding up some matters, not least, for example, current consultation on the planning application procedure, and I think that will be welcomed by him and other hon. Members here today.

On issues relating to change of use from commercial to residential and some other permitted development rights, one of the consultations has now finished and the Government are considering their reaction to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) referred to some other aspects of permitted development and I draw his attention to the fact that consultation is still open—

Suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—


Mr Foster: Before we had our short break, I was referring to the excellent contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes. I look forward to his dusting off that old policy document from the Conservative party and making it available to my Department. We will look at the various proposals for seaside resorts with great interest.

The right hon. Member for Tottenham rightly praised my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare for his work as a former Minister. I pointed out that my hon. Friend also had a remit in response to gambling. One of the things that he was able to do towards the end of his period of office as the Minister with responsibility for gambling was to help ensure that the Government could announce a review of the concerns that the right hon. Member for Tottenham raised in respect of what he called bookmakers. That increasingly seems to be a misnomer as more and more of them seem to do their business from fixed-odds betting terminals, about which the right hon. Gentleman joined with me and hon. Members of all parties in expressing concern. I am delighted that the review that he rightly said is needed is now under way.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West on his excellent work as a member and chairman of the Save the Pub group. I am delighted that he was full of praise for the work that the Government have done in response to the concerns expressed about tied pubs and so on. I am grateful to him for praising the Government on the national planning policy framework and—notwithstanding the comments made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes—the work that we are doing on the Portas pilots and the town team partners, of which Otley, as he reminded us, is one and is benefiting from that scheme. He also rightly pointed out that not all regulation is bad. I have made that point on several occasions. Those who seek to deregulate merely for the sake of deregulation have missed the point. Although the Government are seeking to remove unnecessary red tape, we are also mindful that some regulations are critically important.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West in praising areas such as Cambridge that have introduced supplementary planning guidance, among other things, to protect pubs in their immediate neighbourhood. I repeat what I said to him earlier: consultation on some of the matters that he raised closes on 7 March, so any right hon. and hon. Members who wish to contribute to the discussions are welcome to do so.

The hon. Member for City of Durham saved me a lot of effort. For once, even though we are on opposite sides of the Chamber, I have great sympathy with much of what she said in response to the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare in this excellent debate.

My hon. Friend began by reminding us that we face various challenges. He said that on the one hand we need to get more houses built, but on the other hand there are pressures in achieving that without encroaching on the green belt. He also pointed out what happens in our high streets and the dangers that have existed, particularly in relation to out-of-town supermarkets and developments. He rightly praised a former Member of the House, Mr Gummer, for his work. I remind my hon. Friend that we have gone further in the national planning policy framework, which has now established a clear sequential test. Before out-of-town developments can take place, all the various stages of that testing procedure must be gone through.

My hon. Friend said, with great perspicacity, that change is always necessary to meet changing demand. He was not putting his head in the sand. He accepted that change has to take place. It has to take place in the high street in response to, for example, online shopping. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes gave the example of a street in Grimsby where the challenge of changing circumstances has not been picked up and has had pretty disastrous consequences.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare clearly accepts that we have to get a balance between conservation, design and urban development. He pressed me in much the same way as he did in his excellent article in The Daily Telegraph on 2 January, when he wrote that “individual buildings are preserved by listing, but we need a similar set of rules to ensure the best city and townscapes are saved too.”

Like the hon. Member for City of Durham, I must say to my hon. Friend that we already have in place measures that will deliver what he seeks to achieve. Many local councils are already taking innovative planning approaches to safeguarding urban views and are developing strategies to support their high streets. There are many different ways in which that is being done, but it is predominantly through local plans and the supporting evidence that goes alongside them.

Others have adopted sensitive approaches to heritage conservation—I know my hon. Friend cares passionately about that—urban design, designated conservation areas and so on. For example, South Kesteven council has undertaken a townscape character assessment of Grantham, which considers the town’s evolution and character to guide decisions on new development, achieving what I think he seeks. The document assesses the design of the buildings and the relationship between them as a contribution to the distinctiveness of the town. It details key views to landmark buildings and heritage assets, which are issues of material consideration in various development proposals.

The right hon. Member for Tottenham referred to examples in London, where he thinks we have got it about right. The supplementary planning guidance in the London plan sets out protected panoramas, linear views, river prospects and townscape views that contribute to the character of the city. Other parts of the country have adopted a similar approach. The right hon. Gentleman praised my constituency of Bath. Bath and North East Somerset council has already done something along the lines that he seeks. Burnley, Hampshire, Preston and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead are other examples.

The hon. Member for City of Durham made a very important point. Powers exist, but perhaps not enough councils are aware of the opportunities to achieve the sort of thing that my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare wants. I will certainly talk to my ministerial colleagues about her suggestion that we should do more to promote the powers that already exist, and perhaps share with councils examples of good practice that could achieve much of what my hon. Friend wants. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that suggestion. We will do what we can to take it forward. My hon. Friend raised issues to do with high streets. He suggested that we look at the parapet above the shop with its often rather garish colouring, where, very often, we see empty spaces. He will be delighted to know that I recently announced a challenge to the Portas pilot and to the town teams to make proposals for the large sum of money that I have earmarked to bring back into use, for residential purposes, the spaces above shops. I entirely accept that there are difficulties, which he alluded to, including access to the space above shops and security, which is why we have asked the many teams to consider innovative solutions. We are on to the issue; we are providing some money and help from the Department, and we have many people looking for bright ideas. I know that he wants me to go even taller, which I will come to.

John Penrose: I may be pre-empting the Minister’s next remark, but I urge him to think a little more radically. I welcome the measures and steps that he describes as having already been taken. In some cases, because buildings were designed for a different purpose 100 or 150 years ago, it is not possible to retrofit them in a way that delivers the additional potential uses as accommodation, offices or whatever. Therefore, the only way to get them to work, even without public money, is to allow enough commercial headroom for entire buildings to be redeveloped.

Mr Foster: As my hon. Friend said, he has forestalled me. In the few minutes I have left, I have headroom to refer to that issue. He made it clear that he does not seek new regulation. He talked about the possibilities for townscapes and views. They already exist but they could be promoted further. He suggested that having done that, we might also increase the density of all sorts of developments and go higher above shops, if necessary with demolition.

I assure my hon. Friend that I will discuss his various proposals with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who is the Minister with responsibility for planning. However, may I say to my hon. Friend that what he seeks is already possible within existing legislation and the current planning rules? It is up to a local authority that wants the type of development he proposes to ensure that such a possibility exists within its local plan, and individual planning proposals can then be introduced. However although it is possible to do that within current planning rules, I will discuss the issue further with the planning Minister, and we will contact my hon. Friend to arrange more discussions with him.

John Penrose: The Minister is being very generous in giving way. I welcome his remarks, but is he indeed correct that such powers exist? We think that some powers to protect urban views may already exist, but are not being properly used, so will he undertake to disseminate that information more widely? Clearly, although the powers exist, they are not being widely used and might benefit from being more thoroughly understood.

Mr Foster: I am more than happy to assure my hon. Friend that we will look at the exact legislation with respect to his specific points, and if it is necessary to disseminate that information more widely, we certainly will, just as we will for legislation on streetscapes.

I know that hon. Members wish to get the next debate under way, but may I comment on the Portas pilots? I am grateful for the widespread support for the work done, notwithstanding the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes. Some very exciting proposals are emerging from the Portas pilots and town teams considering various issues. We intend to disseminate examples of good practice as widely as possible to help develop those who are not one of the 300-odd schemes with which we are directly engaged. I am delighted that high streets and town centres can benefit from those very exciting proposals.

I want to comment on my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West, who is now back in the Chamber. In his absence, I praised him for his work on the all-party Save the Pub group. I absolutely assure him that we are very alert to his concerns. As he knows—he referred to this—the right to bid gives a community the opportunity to register a facility, such as a community pub, as a community asset, which is one way to provide some protection. In my constituency, as he knows from tweets I sent out only the other day, I recently got a pub to look at being listed as a community pub. That is one option, but I entirely accept the issues he raised about whether we need changes to planning use class orders. I assure him that the Government are considering that.

Finally, I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare. I know that he feels strongly and passionately about this issue, on which he has even put pen to paper in national newspapers. I think I can assure him that in most areas where he wants developments, opportunities already exist, and that in most places where he wants protections, they already exist. I assure him that we will look at the issues raised in the debate. We will at least help to disseminate the information available more widely, and if changes are needed, we will consider them.

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A video recording was made of the entire debate and is available here

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