British Retail — [Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 6th March 2013.

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Photo of Richard Harrington Richard Harrington Conservative, Watford 2:30 pm, 6th March 2013

I more than welcome the inquiry. It shows that retailing is being treated seriously as an industry in its own right, rather than as just a mechanical part of the distribution chain. It contributes as much as manufacturing and other sectors. I warmly endorse what my hon. Friend says.

The ultimate answer to the question of choice in retail is whether the public are given a better service today. I argue that they certainly are. When I worked at Trewins, which was John Lewis in 1980, we shut on Saturday at lunch time, on Sunday and on Monday. Now the equivalent—the Intu shopping centre, formerly known as the Harlequin, in Watford—is, for better or for worse, open every day. People have the choice to shop all the hours they want. Similarly, from the small independent point of view, although I agree that the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker are not there, the internet gives the public a huge amount of choice and very good service. Although the developments in the retail trade are muted in people’s minds by the shops, chains and household names that have closed down, the public are given a much better service.

We need only look at the effect on the economy. Again, to be parochial, the main shopping centre in Watford replaced a sprawling mix of businesses, including the smallest abattoir left in England, an old Sainsbury’s branch and lots of different warehouses. For the past 20 years, the main shopping centre has had 147 stores, but the important thing is that it directly employs more than 4,000 people, plus the distribution chain and all the businesses in it. The shopping centre contributes about £14.5 million in business rates, which is a tremendous amount. It has about 750,000 square feet of infrastructure, and has upgraded that whole part of town.

I am not saying that there have not been consequences. It would be wrong of me to say that things are all one-way and all about prosperity; I am aware of the effect that shopping centres have on other things, but they are economic powerhouses in their own right. By any standards, the shopping centre is a big business, employs a lot of people and contributes a lot to the economy.

Similarly, nationally, companies such as Westfield have come from abroad to invest significant amounts of money in what it sounds trendier to call “urban regeneration” than “retail”. The east end, White City and other places throughout the country are major, long-term investment projects. Westfield has invested about £3.5 billion since it came to the UK in 2000, and created 25,000 jobs. If it were another kind of business and that sort of growth were announced over 10 years, there would be headlines all over the place.

Although I accept that retail is not the total answer to our economic problems, we must accept what it does for employment, infrastructure and areas where the rest of the private sector and the public sector have failed completely. It is a significant and serious business, and its problems must be considered by Government. I am delighted to see the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my right hon. Friend Michael Fallon in the Chamber; I know that he is experienced in this subject. Government must turn their mind to retail, because it is such a significant employer and a significant contributor to the national economy.