Planning policy confusion could increase derelict high streets and no-go areas

Confusion over new planning guidelines has led to fears that Britain's high streets could become no-go areas with a massive increase in derelict buildings and unemployment.

The fears are based on a loophole in Planning Policy Statement 6: Planning for Town Centres, released by the ODPM last month. Although this has a focus on a "town centre first" approach to developments, it also requires authorities to provide sites for 'large format' stores - such as supermarkets and big chain retailers - in towns.

It is feared these stores will close down traditional local retailers, leaving only the large format behind.

"The PPS6 basically says to local councils, "Come on guys, get your Tesco on the high street", Hugh Ellis, planning spokesman for Friends of the Earth told edie. "This does offer a lot to big new developments but there is very little in it for diverse retailing."

"Whereas, in the past, there was pressure to fight these kinds of developments, it now seems that the government is almost saying: "Look, those old kind of shopping areas have no future so you just have to let it happen". That seems to be what they mean when they talk about 'managed decline'".

The Forum of Private Business (FPB) has also expressed misgivings. It claims that the planning document provides supermarkets and developers with the ammunition to override planning objections and build or expand their sites on the basis of "enhancing consumer choice", "supporting efficient, competitive retail", "improving accessibility", and "improving productivity".

Yet, these reasons are challenged by the evidence of what actually happens when supermarkets open. Rather than there being more choice or competition, research from The New Economics Foundation shows that more than 13,000 specialist stores, including butchers, bakers, fishmongers and newsagents closed between 1997 and 2002, leaving many communities without accessible shops and services.

The argument on productivity has also been challenged, with claims that there is a huge link between large-format retailers and net rise in local unemployment. In addition, when local retailers close down, the buildings they occupied can often stand empty or their use changed to the service or residential sector changing the character of entire areas.

Ironically, says Ellis, the government now relies on supermarkets for help in its 'regeneration' projects. Increasingly, local authorities are insisting that supermarkets build affordable housing, often on top of the development, in exchange for planning permission for their site.

This may bring some benefit to the community through low-cost housing provision, but also means, for the people living in them, the supermarket is, in effect, their local shop, increasing revenue for the retailer.

Ellis sees the answer to this problem in examples from Europe: "If you look at Germany and Italy, you'll find highly diverse retail areas with lots of local shops and local supplpiers. Why? Because they maintain some fairly draconian rules limiting the power of the big supermarkets."

By David Hopkins



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