James calls for a mature debate about encouraging town centre growth in the economic downturn

The Scottish government made sure that they were off the supermarket retailers' Christmas Card list last week when they announced plans to impose a new higher business rate for out-of-town supermarkets. The Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) led a chorus of disapproval; the mere suggestion was discrimination, threatening jobs and economic recovery.

Now I don't think that policies are a good idea just because they are 'anti-supermarket', but I do think we should take a close look at what the Scottish government has in mind, because our town centres and shopping parades are under threat. The recession hit these areas hardest, with declining footfall and rising costs combining to tip many high street retailers over the edge. In-town development schemes across our country were shelved, or radically scaled back, and the number of empty units grew.

The SRC's special pleading about the recession and its impact on retailers stands in contradiction to the sales growth and expansion of its supermarket members. The figures on planning approval are starkest of all: 87% of all the approvals for new retail space in 2010 were granted to either Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrison or Asda; and most of the new retail space added by the four is in out-of-town locations. These sites enjoy crucial advantages, whether it be the reduced cost of land, lower business rates, or free parking spaces.

We are constantly reminded by the supermarkets that retail growth and employment will be a key driver of economic recovery. This doesn't mean politicians should sanction a development free-for-all. Politicians must continue to discriminate in favour of town and neighbourhood centres and it is right for them to consider strengthening policy to drive more development into town.

Read more
How to fight a supermarket planning application (15 November 2010)
‘Perfect storm’ threatens future of high streets (12 November 2010)