It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Jack Brereton on securing this debate and particularly on bringing into the open the examples of town centre heritage action zones that he has mentioned. Of course, he concentrated on heritage-led regeneration and it was right for him to do so. However, he also concentrated on the need to use buildings to their greatest effect, stressing the importance of bringing buildings back into use as we go through the process of improving town centres.
The starting point for me on this issue is how all of this activity can help to show, first, that we can breathe new life into the high streets of our towns and, secondly, how we can help to regenerate people’s shopping experience, eating experience and just the experience of enjoying a good environment in which to take a stroll, enjoy sport or whatever.
I look at this issue wearing two hats. First of all, I look at it wearing the hat of an archaeologist, which I was until a little while before I came into this House, and I also look at it wearing the hat of a planning expert. I use the term “expert” loosely; it is a term that is applied to me, rather than one that I apply myself.
I will consider the archaeological perspective first. We need to stress that people are genuinely interested in the archaeology and the history of the place in which they live. If I ask someone in one of the two towns in my constituency what their impression of the town is, they will always refer to some moment of history in describing how the town has grown.
Neither of the two towns in my constituency has become a town centre heritage action zone: the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that neither Henley nor Thame fall into that category. I know that he does not wish for us all to use this debate as an opportunity to lobby him to include our own towns within a HAZ, but let me not disappoint my colleagues by staying away from that subject. I do not actually mind which one of the two towns the Minister chooses—he could even choose both—but it would be nice to have one in a HAZ.
I will stay on the subject of archaeology for a little longer. We have a development in the centre of Henley, just off the market square, that has had to have archaeological excavation before the planned buildings can be put up. That excavation has revealed a fascinating pattern from the 12th and 13th centuries, which shows how the town developed. It did not develop in an ad hoc way; instead, it developed on a medieval plan in a very focused way. The medieval planners were obviously very good at setting out the town. It would be really nice to believe that, in encouraging people to use Henley town centre and to enjoy the heritage there, some way could be found to include that find within the developments that will go up on that site, rather than just referring to it in the name of the street or by changing the name of that particular part of the town. That is an important element to bear in mind.
Since invitations are being given out to the Minister, I urge him to come to Henley and see that site for himself, so that he can hopefully put Henley forward as one of the next towns on the HAZ list.
I said that I approached this wearing two hats. The other hat is that of a planner, and somebody who was very much involved with the Government in producing the national planning policy framework in its original form and commenting on its second form. I wonder whether the Minister would take my advice that this issue needs to be looked at again. We do not judge planning applications in this House; that is the function of the local district council. However, when I go around the country in my role as Government champion for neighbourhood planning, I am astonished at the appalling glass, concrete and steel buildings that have gone up in our town centres. I do not want our town centres simply to become pastiches of what they were at a set point, but it is important to stress that there is good design from the 18th, 19th, and indeed 20th centuries that helped to shape town centres and give credibility to their status as heritage locations. When the Minister looks at heritage action zones, he ought to include buildings that were built in those times.
None of these proposals, on their own, will overcome the issues that have been raised by the internet. None of them will overcome the habitual appearance of nothing but charity shops on our high streets, except in Henley where they are matched by the number of coffee shops —it is always possible to get a decent cup of coffee in Henley. However, they will go a long way towards helping overcome some of those issues and talking about the pride of the place, making that town’s heritage part of its future. For that reason, I urge the Minister to look carefully at those issues when he comes to the next list of heritage zone areas that he will bring into force, or rather that English Heritage—sorry, Heritage England; I am falling back into old money—will bring into force when it next thinks about this.