The government’s Town Centre First policies are failing as councils across the country permit out of town retail development at will, according to a new independent review of the planning system.

The report by planning consultant Jonathan Baldock analysed a sample of 50 case studies of new retail planning applications to analyse how local authorities are applying Town Centre First rules in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

The report found that 76% of the new retail floor space given planning approval since the NPPF came into force is located outside of town centres.

Only seven out of the 50 applications were refused planning permission, of which three were because a competing similar proposal in the same town was preferred. Of the 43 developments permitted, five were in town centres (12%), seven were edge of centre (16%) and 31 were out of town (72%).

On the launch of the report, a coalition of organisations has written to Communities Secretary Eric Pickles calling for intervention to ensure that applications are blocked when they fail planning tests and for the Secretary of State to review decisions that threaten town centres. The organisations include the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), Federation of Small Businesses, Campaign to Protect Rural England, British Independent Retail Association, Rural Shops Alliance, Association of Town and City Management and the Town and Country Planning Association.

ACS Chief Executive James Lowman said: “This report paints a disturbing picture about planning decisions being driven by developers rather than local people, and destroying high streets up and down the country.  The NPPF is simply not being applied properly, as under-resourced councils fail to get to grips with making coherent local plans and out of town developers fill their boots.”

Mary Portas, whose high street report was published two years ago this week, said: “We are still building out of town retail space at an alarming rate whilst many high streets have perfectly viable space available for new retail and other uses.  

“If people hear about loggers ripping up the rain forest or developers building on green field sites, they get it. This is just as silly a use of space and we can do better. If we say Town Centre First, let’s mean it.”

The survey covered a representative sample of half of the local planning authorities in England (excluding inner London). Jonathan Baldock specialises in advising local authorities and other public sector clients on planning and development.