As colleagues have said, it is a tremendous pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. This is one of those rare occasions when Chesterfield is under Mansfield. That has not happened in the football leagues for many years. None the less, it is a tremendous pleasure.
I congratulate Richard Harrington not only on securing the debate, but on the contribution that he made to it. It was very important that we got this debate, as the contributions that we have heard and the interest that we have seen from so many colleagues have shown.
I would like to reflect particularly on the point that the hon. Member for Watford made about the importance of the retail sector as an employer of apprentices. He reflected on his own background as a graduate trainee at John Lewis and how that may have given him skills that he subsequently took forward in order to set up his own business. That is one of the things that can happen and it is vital for the UK economy. He also argued that consumer choice is wide, albeit different from how it looked previously. That is a question to which I shall return.
My hon. Friend Ann Coffey reflected on the significance of retail’s contribution to UK GDP and employment, and on the measures taken in Stockport to make alternative use of retail units. That was a very important point.
Mr Jones tantalised us by suggesting that he might be able to come up with a freeze on business rates, which he and many other hon. Members were calling for in different ways, on a cost-neutral basis. I am sure that if there is a way in which that can be done, he will have huge support on both sides of the
House. He also reflected on the potential for Government to incentivise councils, which we all know are incredibly hard-pressed at the moment, to reduce the level of parking costs. We all recognise that parking is a barrier in town centres. Again, it sounded slightly like a spending commitment, but perhaps it was not. If something could be done in that respect, that would be very important.
Gavin Barwell reflected on great news for Croydon—the big development that is happening there—and on the success of business improvement districts. Peter Aldous was critical of the disproportionate level of business rates and called for reform of the whole system.
Martin Vickers reflected on how, after 15 years on the straight and narrow in retail, he wasted the next 15 years of his life in the service of the Conservative party, but he did hold out a glimmer of hope that Conservative offices are now being closed down and turned into tattoo parlours. As a growth policy, that is not the worst I have heard.