Planning laws need to be strengthened to offer town centres greater protection, MPs have recommended in a critical report on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

The report by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee criticised the application of the NPPF by local authorities and highlighted shortcomings in the way planning decisions are reached.

It made a number of recommendations relating to town centres and retail planning, including:

  • A large number of local plans, through which councils should identify what development should take place and where, have not been written or are insufficient or out of date. The process for forming local plans should be streamlined, and whole plans should not be delayed by difficulties resolving single issues.
  • Planning policy should be changed to require developers to show flexibility in breaking up large developments to try to fit into available town centre sites.
  • The government should gather more data on planning decisions.
  • New research on changing shopping habits should be commissioned, and the results fed into a review of planning policy.

Welcoming the report, Association of Convenience Stores chief executive James Lowman said: “The committee have identified the key problems with how the National Planning Policy Framework is being interpreted by local authorities. Developers can exploit the absence of good local plans, and the sequential test that promotes town centre development is not always clearly understood. 

”Without strong local plans, flexibility and change of use for property will hollow out town centres rather than helping high streets to evolve. We stand by our research into the problems with the planning system, and this report vindicates our view that we need more government action to make the system work better.  We support the National Planning Policy Framework, and we are committed to working with government to make it more effective.”

Clive Betts MP, chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, said:“The internet has revolutionised the way we shop and yet too often the way we plan for our town centres seems preserved in aspic. Planning needs to develop greater flexibility to adapt to changing trends and be sharp enough to offer our town centres greater protection.

“The government should scale back ’permitted development’ which allows shops and banks to become homes without planning permission. It is too random and is hollowing out the commercial heart of our town centres. Councils have to be able to plan strategically for the future of their communities.”