An out-of-town supermarket application near Soham is a test case for new planning rules. Robin Mannering looks at its implications for the future.

The town of Soham in Cambridgeshire has become a test case for the new planning regime. An application for an unknown superstore in an out-of-town location has been submitted but, in theory, it should be rejected under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). A declaration of the government’s intent to protect the high street, the NPPF prioritises town centres over out-of-town development.

Local Budgens retailer Jonathan James says retailers there have been living under a cloud of uncertainty since the application was lodged last March. “Some 62 businesses in Soham town centre rely on the high street for a living. It’s like the Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. It’s put investment in the high street on hold. I wanted to invest in a £1.4m extension at my store, but I postponed it when I found out about the application.”

Town centres first

Under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) councils have to consider the long-term impact of out-of-town retail developments on town centres.

ACS public affairs director Shane Brennan said the NPPF for retail was a “pretty strong” statement in favour of towns. “If carried through by local authorities and supported by ministers through call-ins, it can help to drive investment into the high streets and towns that need it.”

He says Soham’s high street is in a better state than many, with the vacancy rate at about 3%, partly due to an absence of out-of-town retail developments.

Jonathan is convinced the application should fail at the first legislative hurdle. “It goes against everything: the NPPF; the council’s core strategy; the local plan; and the ‘Soham Vision’ document, which cost £60,000 of taxpayers’ money to find out what locals wanted developed.
“If the application gets through it would make a mockery of the NPPF, which says applications should fail if a development prevents town centre investment, or if there’s a more sequentially preferable site in the centre, which is us.”

Questioned by Convenience Store, a government spokeswoman echoed Jonathan’s interpretation. “The framework sets out a strong town centre first policy in line with our commitment to protect small shops and local firms in the high street,” she said. “Councils have to consider the long-term impact of out-of-town retail developments on the town centre. This change is intended to be clear that local planning authorities should recognise their town centres as the heart of their communities and pursue policies to support their viability and vitality.”

Despite the reassurance, apprehensive Soham retailers are considering contacting Mary Portas, who had recommended in her high street review that out-of-town developments be signed off by the secretary of state - a proposal which the government rejected. However, her public opposition to a Margate supermarket application recently resulted in communities secretary Eric Pickles performing a U-turn and calling it in for ministerial sign off.

East Cambridgeshire District Council has carried out a retail impact assessment of the Soham proposal, and promised to reveal the results shortly. A spokesman for East Cambridgeshire said the council couldn’t comment on the case as it would be deemed prejudicial, but insisted it was going through planning procedural rules. He added that the case would go to planning committee in March or April.

Says Jonathan: “The developer also did a retail impact assessment, which found the proposed site would only have a 7% impact on sales, which is nonsense - they’re never going to find it detrimental.”

But ultimately the application “shouldn’t see the light of day,” he adds. “If the government and council are as keen to protect the high street as they say they are, it should be dead and buried.