Christmas is a strange period for policy and news making, when departments and news desks are on go slow and most interest groups shut up shop. In my experience, however, there is always something of major significance for local shops to digest with their Christmas turkey. This year it was the long-awaited new planning policy statement relating to town centres and retail.
Communities Minister John Healey’s announcement landed with minimum media interest and I am disappointed that government chose this time to make such a major announcement, when many of the important voices in the debate (apart from ourselves) were unable to comment. I hope it wasn’t deliberate.
What was announced is a major milestone in an often heated debate on how planning will cope with the future of retail development. The Minister was at pains to stress how this policy is tough in its protection of town centres and small shops. I can’t share his optimism; decisions to remove safeguards such as the need test are going to be well received by developers who have seen it as a barrier to getting their way.
The Minister also stressed the new policy’s ability to promote diversity and consumer choice, but we have grave concerns that without strong leadership, promoting retail diversity will be hijacked by those who want an excuse to build more supermarkets in areas that do not have the capacity to sustain them.
At best we have to say that the jury is out and there is a lot to do to deliver the necessary change on the ground. Most of all we need to be on guard against anything that adjusts the delicate balance of planning decisions against town centres and small shops.
Without significant work from government to embed the new policy in the right way, it could well present more threat than opportunity.