The government’s planning policy for out-of-town supermarket developments has been criticised by a Liberal Democrat MP.

Speaking during a Westminister Hall debate on the issue, John Pugh, MP for Southport said the government was far from achieving its goal of thriving and vibrant high streets.

Citing evidence from the Association of Convenience Stores’ (ACS) ‘Retail Planning Decisions under the NPPF’ document, Pugh said the effect of the government’s ‘town centre first’ policy was “weakening” with “supermarkets becoming ever better at getting their own way”.

“We are keen to see independent retail thrive, because there is a danger, even if retail were at its most vibrant, that every town centre will end up looking similar, with the same shops and offers but without any of the interesting and intriguing break-through companies that one can see when visiting a new place,” he said. “If that is our ambition, the reality seems to indicate that we are far from achieving it.”

Pugh said that supermarkets are telling planning committees that their plans will have a limited effect on the town centre and are exaggerating jobs benefits. Likening supermarkets to the mafia, he said they are “pretty good at getting their own way and are pretty single-minded but the outcomes they want are connected purely to their bottom lines”.

He also called on local authorities to do more to help their town centres thrive. “The onus is on local town planners and councils to have a positive view of where their town is going, which aligns with what is commercially possible,” added Pugh.

Responding to the comments, Communities and Local Government Minister Nick Boles attributed the increase in out-of-town development to local councils being ‘swayed’ by supermarket job creation claims. “In the teeth of a deep and long recession, planning authorities may well have been more swayed by arguments highlighting the number of jobs created by new supermarket developments than they might have been inclined to be during the boom times towards the middle and end of the last decade or, indeed, before.”

Boles added he was not aware of out-of-town developments that are being approved but not built, leaving town centres in ‘limbo’ and discouraging development’. 

According to ACS research, 76% of all planning applications given approval since the new national planning policy framework came into place in March 2012 have been located out-of-town.

ACS chief executive James Lowman said: “New out-of-town developments are clearly detrimental to town centres, but from the moment they are approved, they dissuade other retailers from investing in town centres close by. The minister’s comments are worrying, because they reveal central government to be oblivious to the planning decisions being taken around the country, and their impact on town centres and the economy. This is despite the evidence that has been presented to them by ACS and other organisations.”