The Government's latest consultation on planning for town centres could make new out-of-town development even more complex as it strives to futher protect town and city centres.
The most notable proposed change to the existing policy guidance is the scrapping of the “needs test” and the introduction of an “impact test”. At present, local authorities are only required to bear in mind how much demand or “need” there is for a new development within or outside a town. The revised policy will mean that they will have to take into account the effects that putting up a new centre or supermarket will have on the existing retailers and the town as a whole.
Councils will be expected to assess what implications a new development will have on a town centre based on a more extensive, qualitative range of factors than the old “need test” allowed for. This will include job prospects, regeneration, effects on transport, the spending habits of individual towns and, most importantly - range of consumer choice.
In a foreword to the policy revision Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Hazel Blears said: "The need test is a blunt tool that is not achieving the ends it was designed for. Too often, it causes planners to get caught up in debate about technical definitions and overlook the vital question of what the proposed development actually means for the town centre and the people who rely on it."
In real terms, the new test could be a double-edged sword for out-of-town retailers. The key theme of the revised statement is the continuation of the Government's drive to improve town centres and promote smaller, independent retailers.
On the face of it PPS6 furnishes local authorities with more reasons to restrict out-of-town builds but there are some who argue that changes could work to the benefit of big out-of-town retailers.
Perhaps the most affected sector will be supermarkets. In this market, the impact test is being tentatively welcomed as a positive change, but the way that the Government oversees its introduction will be closely watched since thye may well actually favour supermarkets. The added depths of the revised requirements will allow developers and retailers to present a more comprehensive case for new builds, rather than having to satisfy criteria that many felt were far too simplistic.
Nonetheless, developers will inevitably find more and more obstacles to out-of-town development in their way. The emphasis is still firmly on the town centre build, but at the same time, town centres are finite in terms of the amount of space available and catchment size. For the market to continue to grow, development needs a relatively free rein and, for this to happen, town planners need to be flexible and allow towns to expand. As a result, developments on the edges of towns are likely to become more commonplace and will be easier to push through the planning procedure.
In a free-market economy, need is dictated by demand. While the desire to protect high streets and town centres' individuality is widely applauded, allowing local authorities to veto a new scheme purely based on its impact on a town could become a bar to economic growth.
Out-of-town locations have become popular with retailers, developers and shoppers for a number of reasons. For retailers, rents are lower, as are overheads on the day-to-day running of a store. Transport is also less of an issue out-of-town than in urban centres, because the sites are invariably well-connected by road (if not sustainable tranpsort modes) and easy to access and allow retailers to draw from a wider catchment area.
But, above all, retailers and developers have often favoured out-of-town development to tap into the huge demand from shoppers. Their convenience, ease of access and free parking have proved a winner in the past decade, particularly in the larger regional centres such as Bluewater.
The Government has painted some broad strokes in the consultation document for PPS6, but the industry will have to wait a little longer to see the finer details, which will come in the form of the Practice Guidance, which will be published later.
Click below for a copy of the BHEP response to PPS6
Click here to download BHEP response to PPS6
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