ACS: planning rules have failed town centres new retail development applications show

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An independent review of the planning system has revealed that the Government’s Town Centre First policies are failing, as councils across the country approve millions of square feet of new out of town retail development.  

The report analysed a national sample of 50 case studies of planning applications for new retail developments to discover how local planning authorities are applying specific rules laid down in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) designed to promote investment in town centres. Findings from the report include:

  • 76% of the new retail floor space given planning approved since the new national planning laws came into force is located outside of town centres
  • Only seven out of the 50 applications (14%) were refused planning permission – of which three were refused because there was a competing similar proposal in the same town which was preferred
  • Of the 43 developments permitted, five were in town centres (12%), seven were edge of centre (16%) and 31 were out of town (72%).

The report concludes that the sequential and impact tests are not being applied effectively, that development plans are either out-of-date or lack sufficient details to give a clear indication of what the decision indicated by the Plan should be, and that supposed evidence based retail assessments are nothing more than advocacy documents promoting the case of the developers.

On the launch of the report, a coalition of organisations including the Association of Convenience Stores, Federation of Small Businesses, Campaign to Protect Rural England, British Independent Retail Association, Rural Shops Alliance, Association of Town and City Management, Action for Market Towns and the Town and Country Planning Association has written to Eric Pickles MP, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government calling for intervention to ensure that applications are blocked when they fail planning tests and a requirement for the Secretary of State to step in and review decisions that put town centres at risk.

Association of Convenience Stores chief executive James Lowman said: “This report paints a disturbing picture about planning decisions being driven by developers rather than local people, and destroying high streets up and down the country. The NPPF is simply not being applied properly, as under-resourced councils fail to get to grips with making coherent local plans and out of town developers fill their boots.

“The failure to apply the town centre first policy is thwarting investment in town centres. Retailers who want to invest have lost confidence in councils to protect high streets from out of town development, so they are targeting cheaper, easier out of town developments.  This is a vicious circle that only central Government can break by monitoring planning decisions and strengthening the town centre first policy.”

Mary Portas whose report advising Government on how to support high streets was published two years ago this week, said: “We are still building out of town retail space at an alarming rate whilst many high streets have perfectly viable space available for new retail and other uses. If people hear about loggers ripping up the rain forest or developers building on green field sites, they get it. This is just as silly a use of space and we can do better. If we say Town Centre First, let’s mean it.

“For the future of our communities, we have to get serious about this issue and use land and space appropriately.  This was in my report two years ago and action is now well overdue.”

John Allan, national chairman, Federation of Small Businesses said: “The NPPF was meant to secure the future of our town centres yet this damning report shows how it is business as usual and planners are prioritising out of town developments. It’s a real contradiction that Councils up and down the country have been celebrating small firms through Small Business Saturday this past weekend, yet planners are approving the very developments that suck the life out of town centres. We call on the Secretary of State to get Councils to adhere to his own planning guidance.”

The survey covered a representative sample of half of the local planning authorities in England (excluding inner London). The applications considered account for more than 2 million square feet of new retail floor space granted planning approval since the National Planning Policy Framework came into force.

Planning Minister Nick Boles told Parliament in December 2012: “Town Centre First means something to this Government, unlike the last one.”