Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from the Association of Convenience Stores

ACS (the Association of Convenience Stores) represents over 33,500 local shops across the United Kingdom. ACS is a strong supporter of high streets and local shopping.

ACS main concern is to ensure that the town centre first provisions on the National Planning Policy Framework for England continues to provide the clarity and consistency that will make investment and regeneration possible in our cities, towns and neighbourhoods.

We are concerned that the draft NPPF constitutes lacks the clarity and force required to ensure that stated Government and cross-Party objectives of supporting town centres are met. Unless strengthened, the NPPF will weaken “town centre first” provisions of national planning rules. Therefore we urge the Committee to recommend substantial strengthening of the policy to prevent a significant step backwards that would undermine investment in our towns and neighbourhoods.

ACS asks the Committee to dedicate specific time to hearing views on the implications of NPPF reforms on the vitally important issue of town centre first policy We believe that the Committee would learn a significant amount about the broader impact of NPPF by focusing on the way the new policy framework will change the dynamics of planning for town centres.

We ask the committee to make the following recommendations for changes to the NPPF:

1.The NPPF statement on high streets must not be undermined by the overriding presumption in favour of sustainable development.

2.The “town centre first” rule applied through development control must not be weakened.

3.The NPPF policy on what must be covered in impact assessments must ensure councils have the information they need to make good decisions.

Relevance to the Committees Inquiry

ACS (the Association of Convenience Stores) is the trade association representing over 33,500 shops trading in communities across the UK. ACS members include some national chains such as The Co-operative Group and Martin McColl, a number of symbol groups such as SPAR, Costcutter and Londis and thousands of independent small businesses.

For any further information on the issues raised in this submission please contact:

Shane Brenan, Public Affiars Director (01252 515001, shane.brennan@acs.org.uk).

Edward Woodall, Public Affairs Executive (01252 515001, Edward.woodall@acs.org.uk).

ACS believes that the issue of how national policy supports our town centres is vitally important to the Committee’s inquiry and warrants specific focus as part of the Committees evidence gathering. A short focus on these issues will provide wider insight into the necessary improvements to NPPF, in particular:

the risks of not setting out more explicitly the limits of the “presumption in favour of sustainable development”;

the role of NPPF in ensuring that local people are furnished with objective and consistent evidence that is a sound basis for making decisions; and

the continuing importance of guidance on how to undertake assessments on long established national planning issues, such as in this case managing town centre, and out of town development.

A Watershed Moment for the High Street

Our high streets face a “watershed moment” – years of pressure caused by changing consumer trends (internet and supermarket growth) and poor development control (allowing too much out of centre retail floorspace) have caused an alarming acceleration of decline in the economic downturn.

Recent figures on retail development show the pressing nature of the problem we face. During the recession the rate of out of town retail development has accelerated.

In 2011 over 4 million square feet of out of town floor space is under construction Less than 1 million square feet in under construction in town and if Westfield, Stratford is excluded, this figure is near zero.

The pipeline of proposed development shows more than 30m square feet of new out of town space, compared to just over 7m in town. A ratio of almost 4 to 1.

This trend is driven in very large part by supermarket developers. In 2007 supermarket represented only 37% of major retail development. So far in 2011 supermarkets account for over 68%.

Figure 1

Figure 2

The recession has weakened the commitment of many Councils to their long planned town centre regeneration schemes and led to some feeling compelled to accept the only development that appears to be available. Where this happens it is short sighted for two reasons:

1.Badly planned out of centre retail development will end the prospect of retail led regeneration of the town for the indefinite future, leaving the Council a much bigger problem for how to regenerate the high street without retail development.

2.Even if a developer secures approval for a new store now it is common practice to wait until the economy starts to recover before building the store and so the effects of new development will impact not during the downturn but in the recovery when other more sustainable schemes in existing centres are more likely to be achievable.

Unfortunately those Councils that are seeking to protect their long term development plans from short term alternatives are facing challenges in the appeal court. More than 60% of developments brought forward to appeal by developers since 2009 have found against the Council in favour of the developer.

A significant recent factor has been the communication from Ministers concerning the need for Councils to favour growth (23rd March 2011). Also, Ministers have chosen not to intervene to steer the direction of policy in the past two years there have been 146 cases of developments that could have been called in by the secretary of state on grounds of not being consistent with national policy and only one was.

Cross party support for the Localism Bill exists in the broader principles of empowering local communities and allowing them to shape and build their neighbourhood. It is integral that these principals are not over shadowed by the Government commitment to deliver growth. The current trend in the call in procedure is to ignore the decision of local communities and say “yes” to developers.

In order to confront what is a substantial economic and social threat to our communities Government must act in three ways.

1.Ensure that NPPF is a robust statement in favour of town centres that ensures that Councils and not developers are in charge of local decision making.

2.Make more use of call-in powers and act now to ensure that short term decision making does not undermine long term growth and regeneration projects.

3.Produce additional guidance for local authorities and neighbourhood groups to aid to them in developing sustainable high streets.

Changes Needed to NPPF

ACS supports simplification of NPPF where it brings clarity and greater consistency. In the case of town centre first this is much needed. In response to the questions set out by the Committee ACS has highlighted three priorities:

1.The NPPF statement on high streets must not be undermined by the overriding presumption in favour of sustainable development.

   Recent experience shows that Ministerial communications concerning the need for Councils to prioritise growth (as issued on 23rd March 2011) have led to Councils explicitly losing appeals against decisions that are consistent with existing town centre first policy. For example the decision by the Planning Inspectorate overturned the decision of East Hampshire District Council to refuse an out of town Tesco supermarket proposal even though the Council refused it on the grounds of substantial economic impact on Alton town centre.

   In the same way the presumption in favour of development as expressed in paragraph 14 is likely to override much of what the rest of the policy is likely to achieve. In particular the policy statement that Councils should “grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date” will prove a licence for planning barristers to undermine much of what Councils wish to achieve through the plan making and development control decisions.

   It is therefore necessary for NPPF to be far more explicit about the development issues where the presumption should not override other objectives. Town Centre First is a prime example of this. Failure to get this right from the outset will irreversibly alter the investment and development strategies of retailers and could mark the end of town centre retailing in all but the biggest and most recently invested in city centres.

2.The “town centre first” rule applied through development control must not be weakened.

   The vast majority of retail development brought forward for consideration is not resultant from the local plan process. It is therefore a policy that relies first and foremost on robust and consistent development control. Therefore the sequential assessment is the centrepiece of town centre first policy.

   It stipulates that developers must prove, and councils must be satisfied that retail development of the type proposed cannot be accommodated within the town centre. If they prove this they must then prove it cannot be allowed on the edge of the centre, only once they have proved that there is no sequentially preferable site can a developer be allowed to locate a new retail development out of town.

   NPPF removes significant amounts of detail from this vital rule, thereby increasing the prospect of inconsistency of interpretation between authorities and the opportunity for developers to circumvent it. NPPF also shifts the policy away from being an objective requirement of the developer to prove that there is no sequentially preferable site for their development, to a policy that merely requires the Council to “prefer” town centre locations.

   The change is likely to have been made with the intention of giving Councils more flexibility, in reality however it is likely to have the opposite effect. The lack of policy certainty will serve only to make Councils more exposed to legal challenge if they decide against the developer and they will as a result feel less able to resist unplanned for out of town development that ill undermine their more ambitious regeneration schemes for existing centres.

   We urge the Committee to recommend that the sequential assessment as expressed in the relevant paragraphs of PPS4 is retained in its entirety.

3.The NPPF policy on what must be covered in impact assessments must ensure councils have the information they need to make good decisions.

   A close second to the sequential assessment in underpinning effective town centre first policy is the impact assessment. National policy stipulates what are the relevant factors to consider in making a judgement about the positive and negative implications of new development. NPPF significantly curtails the extent of what is prescribed for this policy.

   The effect of removing the explicit criteria from the expression of the policy is to remove certainty from Councils and developers. The result will be that there will be more inconsistency in how developments are considered from one area to the next, and even from one decision in the same area to the next. This will in practice less transparency and more confusion. The main effect will be the greater exclusion of local people from the decision making process.

   We urge the Committee to recommend that the impact assessment as expressed in the relevant paragraphs of PPS4 is retained in its entirety.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011