The present ′town centres first′ policy has been with us for over a decade. Initially designed to halt the regional out of centre shopping behemoths of the 1980s ′PPG6’ has, over time been through several Governmental statements of clarification, has changed moniker (to ′PPS6’) and in the latest twist in its evolution has had 2 rounds of consultation in the last 12 months.
The revisions promise no fundamental change from the mantra of ′town centres first’ and this approach is right – town centres are usually those areas most accessible. Pairing retail and other services where the greatest population has the widest access promotes social inclusion and the juxtaposition of retailer against retailer creates competition.
However past policy has not been without its ′unintended consequences’ – there has been much criticism that the move into towns, driven by the increased expectations of retailers and their ability to serve greater populations from fewer stores has benefited only the ′apex predator’ towns and cities at the cost of smaller town and district centres. The ′need’ test, in particular, was criticised in the Barker review of the Planning system as a ′blunt instrument’ which it was concluded may inadvertently protect out of centre retail destinations at the expense of town centre regeneration.
In its latest incarnation, the Government proposes changes which subsume the strategic guidance for town centres within a wider statement of ′economic development’ under PPS4 ′Planning for Prosperous Economies’. The guidance proposes the removal of the needs test in the weighing of planning applications and its replacement with a ′more sophisticated’ impact test which considers the effect of proposals across economic, environmental and social criteria. However the test, designed to be flexible, is complicated and where such opportunity for interpretation arises, the consultant and legal profession benefit and the planning system potentially slips further into red tape.
The latest twist is that the House of Commons Select Committee, set up to examine the role of existing retail policy and in particular the role of the need test, reported (just at the point of closing for representations on the consultation draft PPS4) that it remained unconvinced that the ′needs’ test had the unintended consequences predicted by Barker et al. Its recommendation is now to keep the tougher impact test set out in consultation draft PPS4, but also maintain the ′need’ test.
Where this leaves an already embattled retail industry in a ′simplified planning system’ debate is anyone’s guess – another round of consultation perhaps?
Head of Retail and Leisure Planning
CB Richard Ellis
This topic will be presented fully at the conference in York on 24 September