THE Government’s proposed changes to planning rules could prove to be a major threat to Solihull town centre, according to Caroline Spelman MP.
New national planning rules on retail development driven by Gordon Brown could lead to more out-of-town development, leaving high street shops vacant. Currently local councils can reject proposals for new supermarkets and retail development outside town if they fail a so-called “need test”, i.e. if the developments are not deemed to fulfill a common need. Introduced in 1996, the idea behind this rule was to prevent town centre decline.
This test however is now to be abolished, possibly leading to more out-of-town superstores leaving the centre of town empty. A nationwide survey by the British Retail Consortium has found that 1 in 10 of all town centre shops are already vacant. Other than that, additional out-of-town development could have environmental implications as well.
The abolition of the “need test” is based on the argument that it has “the unintended effect of restricting competition and limiting consumer choice”, according to a publication by Communities & Local Government Select Committee. In another paper, published in February, they admit that the “removal [of the need test] could potentially undermine regeneration schemes by allowing development outside town centres, reducing control over extensions to retail development and reducing certainty for town centre investors.”
Caroline said: “Councils need the discretion and power to halt reckless out-of-town expansion and promote town centre regeneration.
“ At a time when we have a record number of empty shops on our high streets, I am concerned that Gordon Brown’s plans will hit small retailers and worsen the problem of ghost town Britain.”
Shortly after the introduction of the plan in 2007, Kate Barker, Gordon Brown’s planning adviser who originally proposed the abolition of the needs test, confessed: “I and the people who advised me didn’t realise the extent to which planners seem to rely on it.
“I must say it wasn’t a point I felt particularly strongly about and the argument is very much up for grabs.”