FOE: New Planning Guidance will not stop decline of town centres

office at office at
Wed Dec 17 12:09:15 GMT 2003

Friends of the Earth wrote:
Press  Release: Monday 15th December

New Planning Guidance will not stop decline of town centres

Friends of the Earth has criticised today's revised draft planning guidance on town centres [1] for not being strong enough to halt their decline.  The group welcomes the key principles of the guidance - to put town centres first, tackle social exclusion, and reduce reliance on the car - but said that the devil is in the detail of the paper, which is full of contradictions and suggests the influence of major retailers in its drafting.  Friends of the Earth wants the Government to make a much clearer statement of support for local shops by introducing a cap on retail floorspace.

The draft guidance comes out on the same day that the New Economics Foundation releases a report showing the continued decline of town centres and local shops over the last five years [2] and highlighting the need for strengthened planning policies.  The draft guidance re-states the Government's objective of promoting vital and viable town centres and says that local planning authorities should assess the quantitative need for new retail development, a welcome inclusion which should restrict large supermarket developments in areas already well served with grocery stores.  The guidance also re-states the sequential test. This means that town centre locations must be given priority over edge-of-town or out-of-town development.  Also welcome is the recognition of the value of a diversity of retail and the value of local food initiatives such as farmers markets.

However the draft is full of exceptions and contradictions and falls short of stating a clear presumption against the sort of large out-of-town superstores that have been the cause of decline in town centres.  In fact the draft accepts the continuing death of some town centres as inevitable, encouraging local planning authorities to "actively manage" the decline of centres "where appropriate".  The draft guidance also fails to acknowledge the serious damage caused by large supermarkets or other retailers in edge of town locations, and  even concludes that the new policies will "encourage the allocation and assembly of edge-of-centre sites for large-format operators". Friends of the Earth warns that unless the detail of the guidance is strengthened to match the objectives, the Government will effectively be giving the go-ahead for major multiples to increase their domination of retailing.

Friends of the Earth Planning Adviser Hugh Ellis said "Many of our town and villages are in serious decline as result of massive edge and out of town retail expansion. The Government must go much further in controlling this kind of development to protect diverse, localised economies.  For 20 years the big retail multiples have dominated the direction our town centres. This has been disaster for inclusion, diversity, choice and sustainable transport. Communities must be given the power to shape the future of their own communities.

Friends of the Earth is urging the Government to make a much firmer commitment to town centres and diversity of retailing by introducing a cap on retail floorspace.  There is already precedent for this in other European countries, for example in Ireland there is a cap on retail developments over 3,000 square  metres and a similar cap exists in Denmark for shops selling daily consumer goods.  A retail cap would give a much clearer signal to small businesses that the Government is serious about promoting diversity rather than playing into the hands of the retail giants.

Friends of the Earth has also criticised the new guidance for failing to grasp the threat to town centres posed by uncontrolled internal floorspace expansions such as mezzanine floors.  Several retailers including Asda-Walmart, Marks and Spencer and Homebase are exploiting a loophole in planning law to massively expand their strores without planning permission.  Today's paper suggests that this issue can be addressed simply by the addition of restrictive conditions to new planning permissions missing the point that such floors are being inserted into existing stores with no such conditions.

[1] ODPM Consultation Paper on Draft Planning Policy Statement 6: Planning for Town Centres,
[2] NEF Ghost Town Britain II Death on the High Street

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