A council’s recent planning decision calls into question the government’s stated desire to protect town centres. Robin Mannering reports.

The government talks a lot about protecting town centres. In commissioning a high-profile retail expert to investigate the declining high street, it ensured the issue was rarely out of the limelight. And since Mary Portas’ high street review was published last year, ministers have implemented a number of her recommendations, including ‘Portas Pilot’ funding to revive town centres and a £10m high street innovation fund.

It has also introduced a town centre-first national planning policy, which discriminates against out-of-town retail developments. In the words of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), local planning authorities should “recognise town centres as the heart of their communities and pursue policies to support their viability and vitality”.

Yet despite the rhetoric and high street-friendly initiatives, out-of-town retail applications are still being granted all over the country. Last month’s approval of a 3,800sq m supermarket application in an out-of-town location near Soham, Cambridgeshire, should have been rejected outright. It was approved by East Cambridge District Council contrary to the NPPF, the council’s own core strategy and its emerging local development framework. Furthermore, the council’s planning officer recommended refusal for similar reasons, concluding that it was likely to significantly harm the “vitality and viability” of the town centre. All this, and the identity of the supermarket remains unknown.

Short-sighted views

So why is the planning regime letting down town centres? Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) chairman Jonathan James, who owns a 9,000sq ft Budgens store in Soham town centre, recently spoke to MPs on the BIS select committee, which is currently investigating the UK retail sector. One of the problems is a failure by local councillors to recognise the ramifications of their decisions, according to Jonathan. “They [councils] are lured by investment, but the investment is out of town, which is going to suck investment from the town centre. The problem we have nationally is that because members of planning committees in particular use shops, they all think they are experts on it,” he said.

Another hurdle is that the government is failing to take responsibility for the policies it enacts. ACS public affairs director Shane Brennan told the committee: “Government has to lead it. In reality you do not have local empowerment if the local council is overwhelmed by the power of those that are coming against it.

“The fact is we do not see call-ins. Unless [the NPPF] is backed up by interventions on the right examples, it is not going to stick in terms of changing the direction on the ground.”

Crucially, Mary Portas’ recommendation for all out-of-town retail applications to be called in for ministerial sign off was ignored by the government. The importance of this was underlined by recent C-Store research which found that the secretary of state had called in the decision of just one out-of-town application since the NPPF was introduced in March 2012.

Hollow promises

Leading town planning consultant Julian Sutton told C-Store the decision in Soham raised questions over the NPPF’s effectiveness and the government’s stated desire to protect town centres. “There seems little point in having an NPPF if it can simply be dismissed without proper justification,” he said. “The government needs to ensure its rhetoric on town centres is reaching locally-elected members and decision-makers to ensure they understand national planning objectives and attach weight to the NPPF policies.”

If this doesn’t happen, all the Portas-inspired high street initiatives will be in vain, and the government’s talk will fall on deaf ears. •

High street probe

The Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) select committee recently announced an inquiry into the UK retail sector.

Last month the Association of Convenience Stores - represented by Jonathan and Shane - was among the first witnesses to give evidence to the MPs, focusing on high street issues including planning, business rates and parking.