Communitites and local government

Betting Shops – in the House of Commons at 4:35 pm on 19 July 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge 4:35, 19 July 2011

It is a great pleasure to be able to speak in this debate. I have chosen to speak about an issue that, although it is of great importance in my constituency, is not just a local, parochial issue. Rather, it should concern all of us, because if we do nothing about it, we risk losing a large part of what makes the places we represent unique.

The health and diversity of our town centres and high streets are at risk. They are increasingly dominated by chain stores and businesses that have a national profile. This is now so much the case that it is often difficult to tell different places apart when we go shopping. The phenomenon has been dubbed the “clone town” by the New Economics Foundation.

We are fortunate in Cambridge to have several streets that buck the trend of the “clone town”. One road in particular, Mill road, has been renowned for decades for its vibrant mix of independent shops and restaurants from all around the world, yet not even Mill road is immune to the danger of slowly becoming another “clone street”. A couple of years ago there was a major campaign to prevent Tesco from having one of its express stores there which, sadly, failed. It became Tesco’s 14th store in Cambridge—there are now 15 in Cambridge—and now Sainsbury’s wants to open one of its express stores further down the road.

I do not want to criticise these businesses. They are successful British companies that employ a large number of people, and they did not get where they are by missing opportunities to expand. It is entirely reasonable for them to want to acquire new locations, sell more products and make more profit, but they do cause harm. They drive other shops out of business, employing a range of tactics.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. May I help the hon. Gentleman? The clock is not ticking down. When he resumes his speech, he will have two more minutes, which will mean he has had his four, without my intervention being counted, of course.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall do my best to comply.

Such chain stores drive other shops out of business, and we need to have some tools available to limit their growth. Local people should be able to find an appropriate balance between the convenience of the familiar and the excitement of the eclectic.

This has been a live issue for a number of years, and Cambridge city council has worked with the Local Government Association and Lord Greaves to table an amendment to the Localism Bill in the other place. This amendment—153AKC, according to the other place’s rather opaque numbering and lettering system—has become known in some circles as “the Cambridge amendment” because of the key work done by Sian Reid, leader of Cambridge city council. It sets out in simple steps how we can give local communities the tools they need. Put simply, the amendment adds to the duties of a local planning authority the requirement to assess the vitality and diversity of local shopping areas.

It does not bar specific companies; it does not set targets for the number of independent retailers; it would not, in itself, have any bearing on the current make-up of our high streets; but it would give local communities such as Cambridge the freedom to decide whether a planning application will add to, or detract from, the vitality and diversity of the area. In some areas of the country a Tesco store may increase the viability of the high street, whereas in others, such as Cambridge, it would decrease it. Communities will get the decision they want.

It was clear in the debate on the amendment in the other place that many people shared the concerns I have set out. The question is: what can, or should, be done about it? This does, of course, require people to vote with their feet as well, but I hope that Members on both sides of the House will agree that giving local authorities the right tools to strike the right balance is desirable, and I also hope that the Government will support the Cambridge amendment and allow communities around the country to have more say on their high streets, such as Mill road.

Photo of Andrew Stephenson Andrew Stephenson Conservative, Pendle 4:38, 19 July 2011

On 14 June I led a Westminster Hall debate on the effect of property regulations on holiday lettings. In that debate, I urged the Department for Communities and Local Government to look again at the effect that changes to property regulations would have on holiday lettings and domestic tourism. The key regulation I talked about relates to the fact that as of 30 June new rules, introduced by DCLG, came into force requiring the owners of holiday lettings to obtain an energy performance certificate or EPC. That is being defended as a European Union requirement when it is not being adopted by any other European country. This will force an unnecessary, costly, pointless and, I believe, legally questionable burden on holiday lettings, doing damage to British tourism in my constituency and many others.

In my Westminster Hall debate, I examined a range of possible reasons for this change and discounted each in turn, concluding that the only possible justification could be that this is being demanded by Europe. However, as I pointed out, it is not being implemented by any other European Union country. In response to my concerns, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Andrew Stunell, made a number of points. In reply to my assertion that England and Wales would be the only countries enforcing this, I was told that it was already a requirement in Scotland. However, I would like to make him aware that the regulations in Scotland are somewhat different from those being imposed by his Department in England and Wales.

An answer from the Directorate for The Built Environment in Scotland states that EPCs are not required for holiday lettings unless the property is let to the same person for more than 12 weeks. The advice is clarified by the Building Standards Agency in Scotland, which also says:

“An EPC is not required for a property sold for the purpose of a holiday”, so the regulations in Scotland are very different from those in England and Wales. Very few people rent a holiday property for 12 weeks of the year and if this rule was applied to England and Wales, the number of holiday lets requiring an EPC would fall dramatically.

On the way in which other European countries are implementing the directive, the Minister went on to say:

“My hon. Friend produced some information about what France had done, and referred to the fact that a provider of holiday lets in his constituency had evidence from a much wider field around Europe. I hope that he will accept, as a glimmer of light, that the very first thing I shall do after the debate is seek whatever validation we can for those two pieces of evidence. We do not want providers in England to be at a disadvantage to other European countries simply because we have taken too robust a view of how the directive should be interpreted.”—[Hansard, 14 June 2011; Vol. 529, c. 236WH.]

I welcomed that commitment from my hon. Friend. I know that he is not due to give the response today, but I wonder whether the Minister who is present has received validation on the two points. I ask because in addition to the much more sensible interpretation in Scotland, my research still indicates that EPCs are not required for holiday lets in France, Denmark, Sweden or Germany. Given that, it seems likely that they are not required in other European countries.

That brings me on to the question of who we class as a “tenant”. During the debate on 14 June, the Under-Secretary made the point that the way in which the DCLG was interpreting the European directive was that people renting the cottages in this country were “tenants”. That view has been robustly rejected by the English Association of Self Catering Operators, which has obtained a 16-page Queen’s counsel’s opinion on this matter.

In conclusion, my intention all along has been to help Ministers to reduce the burden of red tape on small business. I feel that they have done a good job so far, but with these new regulations they are going in the wrong direction. I ask the Minister to reconsider them.

Photo of Duncan Hames Duncan Hames Liberal Democrat, Chippenham 4:42, 19 July 2011

I am most fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the country and to represent my neighbours, as they are my constituents. They enjoy communities with access to the countryside, from which so many of them benefit. Although I am sure that there is much to commend in other places such as Swindon—I am sure that other Members have commended them in this debate—the fact is that my constituents chose not to live in Swindon but to live in the market towns, villages and countryside of Wiltshire and they wish to keep them that way. It is therefore with some alarm that they hear of the Government’s determination to assume a presumption in favour of sustainable development. That is not because my constituents do not believe in sustainable development—far from it; it is because they do not have confidence that the Government will be sufficiently rigorous in imposing the test of sustainability in respect of development which may be permitted.

It was thus with some relief that I read in the natural environment White Paper of the Government’s enthusiasm for a new designation of “green areas” in the planning system. In addition, the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend Greg Clark, gave me a commitment on 20 June that they would seize on that definition in the planning system through the use of neighbourhood plans, and I wish to focus my remarks on them this afternoon.

It seems to me that the way that neighbourhood plans work in the planning process is essential to their effectiveness. In Wiltshire, we are watching our council embark on consultation for a 15-year core strategy on a local development framework. In many cases, it is consulting on proposals that my constituents do not consider to be sustainable development. Ultimately, the decision about that plan will be made by just under 100 councillors from across the county—yet the Government believe in empowering communities through neighbourhood plans, adopted with the support of local referendums, to set the direction for the future of where they live.

I want the Department to address some important questions and I hope that Bill Wiggin, the Whip answering the debate, will be able to speak about them this afternoon. The requirement is that a neighbourhood plan should be in general conformity with the local development framework and it is important that we understand exactly what the Government mean by that. In the old planning policy statement 12, the definition of general conformity began:

“The test is of general conformity and not conformity.”

The key to that definition is that it should be possible for a neighbourhood plan to conflict in some way with land allocations that have already been set aside in a core strategy or local plan, so long as the general thrust of development can be achieved, perhaps by bringing other land into use.

Who is to judge whether a neighbourhood plan is in “general conformity” with the local plan? I hope it is not the local authority, because if such bodies are the ones to judge they will effectively exercise a veto over neighbourhood plans. I hope that the Department will issue some guidance on this point. Once land is allocated in a core strategy, is it then unassailable for development?

In conclusion, giving local people a meaningful say in the development of their communities is, I believe, an excellent idea. I am keen to ensure that the details are thought through so that not only are their voices, including those of “Save Lacock” and of Chippenham’s community, heard but they are truly empowered.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester 4:46, 19 July 2011

I am delighted to participate in today’s debate. I want to talk about the recent National Audit Office report on fire control centres and the lessons learned. The FiReControl project was introduced to replace 46 local control rooms around the country with a network of nine purpose-built regional control centres using a national computer system. In many ways, on the face of it, Members might have thought that that was a good idea, but the NAO’s report describes the plan as “flawed from the outset”, with “unrealistic estimates of costs”, an under-appreciation of the complexity of IT involved, hurriedly implemented and “poorly managed”, and concluded that at least £469 million will have been wasted.

As many Members will know, the project was doomed to failure but was sadly continued with for a very long time. It is of particular sadness to the people of Gloucester, my constituency, that the tri-service centre—a centre combining police, fire and rescue and ambulance services, which was a model of its kind when it was created only a few years ago and which performed strikingly well during the 2007 floods—was to be replaced by a regionalised fire control centre at Taunton. Despite that sadness and the irony of the then Minister with responsibility for fire services having been my predecessor, I want to discuss the lessons that can be learned from that botched project. There are four particular aspects that I would like the Minister to consider.

The first lesson concerns the plan for regionalisation. Over the past 13 years, we have seen a series of attempts to regionalise our country. That was particularly the case in my constituency with the attempt to regionalise the Gloucestershire constabulary and then the fire control centres. I hope this Government will never again try to regionalise services that are best delivered locally through the long-established shires, cities and districts of our nation.

The second lesson concerns large IT projects, a lesson that has surely been learned time and again by Governments, at least over the past quarter of a century. When IT projects are large and complex, they tend to be beyond the hopes and expectations of Ministers, Departments and the companies implementing them. I hope that our Government will look closely at the issue as we take forward important new projects, such as the single universal benefit.

The third lesson that the Government will want to study concerns project management, which bedevilled the previous Government in relation to Building Schools for the Future, the rising costs of architects’ and consultants’ fees, and the unnecessarily complex procurement mechanisms and processes. In the case of the regional fire control centres, project management was a skill sadly lacking at the top of Government. Again, as this Government look at reducing costs, taking out waste and making government more efficient, I hope we will focus on the most effective project management skills available.

The final lesson in this unhappy saga comes from the role of the Select Committees. It is still not clear to me whether the Communities and Local Government Committee of that time, over the 10 years of the project, firmly identified to Government the error of their ways by pointing out the likely problems at the beginning, where—

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Assistant Whip (HM Treasury) 4:51, 19 July 2011

I was privileged to be here earlier, and I congratulate Mr McKenzie on his maiden speech.

I am sorry that Pat Glass who was due to speak has not managed to get here, which is a great shame.

I shall deal with the speeches in the order in which they appear on the Order Paper

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I should inform the hon. Gentleman that Pat Glass withdrew and is not required to explain why.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Assistant Whip (HM Treasury)

It is a great shame none the less, but thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

My hon. Friend Richard Graham spoke about the National Audit Office report on FiReControl and the lessons learned from that disastrous project. I can assure him that the Government will not repeat the mistakes of the previous Administration—mistakes that led, as he rightly pointed out, to £469 million of taxpayers’ money being wasted on an over-complex, centrally imposed solution that was not proportionate to the risks faced and failed to engage with the fire and rescue services. When it was clear that the main contractor, Cassidian, could not deliver the IT system within an acceptable time frame, we had no option but to close the project down last December. We were not going to commit any more resources with no certainty of delivery.

Following the closure we made it clear immediately that we would not impose a central solution. There would be no large-scale national IT systems with such a long lead-in time that the pace of change overtook the promised advantages. Last week the Department for Communities and Local Government launched a new £83 million scheme that builds on locally determined solutions and encourages collaboration and innovation. Every fire and rescue authority can apply—for up to £1.8 million, as a guide—to improve the efficiency of its fire and rescue control services. This will cover the installation of Firelink interfaces to give enhanced voice and data services, which is the priority for most in the sector, according to the Department’s recent consultation.

Through sharing these interfaces, fire and rescue authorities can use the funding for further enhancements that improve the service that they provide for their communities and for firefighters. In addition, we have put aside a further £1.8 million for sector-led initiatives that will deliver benefits to all fire and rescue services. For example, in the recent consultation many responses from the sector emphasised the need for common standards. These would underpin collaboration and interoperability between fire and rescue services, facilitating improved overload and fall-back arrangements. The Chief Fire Officers Association has already indicated its intention to apply.

That brings me to another lesson learned. We have taken careful account of the consultation responses and we are working closely on both the political and the operational sides of the fire and rescue sector. The Department is grateful to the Chief Fire Officers Association and the Local Government Group for their help in developing the new scheme and agreeing to be part of the oversight measures.

My hon. Friend Andrew Stephenson spoke about the effect of property regulation on holiday lettings. This Government are committed to being the greenest Government ever and improving energy performance by encouraging energy performance certificates, like those that one sees on white goods, showing an A to G range, depending on how energy-efficient they are. We want that process to take place for every building; in this case an EPC is required for the construction, sale or rent of a building. The EPC shows how energy-efficient the property is and includes recommendations about how to improve energy efficiency.

The Government recognise that this issue is important to holiday home owners and creates a problem for that industry. We do not want to impose unnecessary burdens on the industry or to gold-plate this directive, and we are seeking to establish why it has been interpreted in the way it has. We are also prepared to seek further legal advice to ensure that we are not going beyond the minimum requirements imposed by the directive. I have investigated this and it seems to be a classic case of gold-plating. We have made inquiries to establish the position in other European Union countries and it seems that, as my hon. Friend said, EPCs are not required for holiday lets in a number of other member states, including Germany, Sweden and Denmark—he also mentioned France and Scotland. It gives me great pleasure to tell the House that we should have a clearly defined position on this within the next few weeks.

On the issue raised by Dr Huppert, I think we all agree that there is tremendous value in having a prosperous and diverse high street for all the community. Mill road is undoubtedly an area of local importance and value, and reads extremely well on the internet. Town centres are key to sustainable growth and local prosperity and are at the heart of our neighbourhoods, giving communities easier access to shops and services. The Government gave a clear commitment in the debates on the Localism Bill, most recently on 12 July, and as part of the Budget, that we will put town centres first for new retail development. We will set out planning policies on retail to support competitive town centres through the new national planning policy framework and we are determined to give local communities greater power to shape their areas and to be clear about the balance of uses they want in town centres. We are legislating to introduce new local-level neighbourhood plans to give local people greater control over the future of places that are important to them.

Neighbourhood plans are a positive planning tool that will have real weight in the planning process, but we must be clear about what planning can and cannot do. Planning policy on town centres is not pro or anti-supermarkets and it cannot seek to restrict lawful competition between retailers. It is and always has been blind to the issue of who the operator of a retail proposal would be—whether a supermarket or an independent. We want the right scale and type of development in the right location to meet people’s shopping needs. That is what planning policy can support local councils in achieving in a more practical manner than legislation. Local neighbourhood plans and low rates for small businesses should help in encouraging new shops and businesses so that we do not lack variety—the hon. Member for Cambridge referred to clone towns—in our high streets.

Duncan Hames also raised this issue. The Government believe that planning is most effective when local residents, businesses and civic leaders are in the driving seat of planning for their areas and when they can deliver the development they want to see. Neighbourhood planning is a radical new right being introduced by the Localism Bill. It enables communities to shape their local areas in a manner that can respond to local needs and ambitions and is part of our reforms to ensure that the planning system delivers sustainable economic growth and should be used to shape, rather than prevent, development.

Neighbourhood plans and orders are prepared by the local community and can be used in a flexible manner to suit local circumstances. They will result in better, more effective and more locally responsive decisions that will deliver an overall increase in sustainable growth and will change people’s attitudes to development. They will become an important part of the planning toolbox, while existing planning tools will remain entirely open to communities and local authorities working in partnership. The hon. Member for Chippenham asked who will decide. Local councils will have an important role in helping communities to produce plans or orders through a duty to support, and an independent qualified person and the local planning authority will check plans and orders to make sure that they are legally compliant and take account of wider policy considerations.

I shall touch briefly on the national planning policy framework, which will consolidate more than 1,000 pages of planning policy documents into a single, streamlined document. The framework will be strong where it needs to be, and it will include policies that support the Government’s priorities for economic growth and infrastructure. It will also set out the Government’s priorities for environmentally and socially sustainable development. The policies will provide local communities with the tools that they need to protect the environmental and cultural landscapes that people value so much. It will make a presumption in favour of sustainable development, and a working draft was released in June. We have made a commitment to publishing the framework for full public consideration and consultation in July. It is a privilege to answer hon. Members’ questions, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in wanting to wish Daphne Neill a speedy recovery.