Does the Government Really Care About its 'Town Centre First' Planning Policy?

This week I gave evidence to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee. You can see for yourself what I said here, but in summary, I explained our research into the application of the town centre first planning policy, which has actually allowed three-quarters of new retail investment to take place out of town.

I won’t repeat all the details here, but I want to focus on one key question: does the Government really care about its ‘Town Centre First’ planning policy? My evidence suggested that perhaps they don’t, and here’s why.

Firstly, there is no monitoring framework in place to see what is being built where, and how the system is being implemented.

Secondly, the whole basis of the planning system introduced by this Government has been to allow local authorities to develop plans for what should get built where. That’s why we produced our Planning For Diverse Local Centres guidance a few years ago – to help retailers and local authorities to put effective local plans together. Yet as of March 2014 (the most recent data we have, as a result of research by Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners) only 13% of local authorities had up to date plans that were compliant with the national policy. That means that when new planning applications are made, there is no local plan against which to judge them. The Government has been silent on this huge problem.

Thirdly, the Government has been passive in using call-in powers, or reviewing planning decisions that appear to be against their national policy. In her high streets Review, Mary Portas urged the Government to call in every out of town planning approval. While we would support this, we understand that a Government committed to localism is unlikely to go this far. It does seem reasonable, however, in the light of the problems outlined above, that at very least the Department of Communities and Local Government might want to kick the tyres of the planning system, and examine some decisions in more detail. Yet they remain inactive.

Time is running out for this Government to re-assess its approach to planning policy, and whoever takes the reins at DCLG after the next election will have to decide whether it actually believes in putting the town centre first.

But … something else that I noticed this week was a press release from Brandon Lewis, MP for Great Yarmouth and the Minister who chairs the Future High Streets Forum. He was bemoaning the loss of a Marks & Spencer store in Great Yarmouth town centre, which had relocated to an out of town park. Yes, that’s right, a major retailer investing out of town rather than in a town centre – exactly the trend that we have been pointing out and that came through very strongly in the Select Committee hearing on Monday.

Brandon Lewis cares about high streets. He has also just received a well-earned promotion to become Minister of State at DCLG. We await confirmation of exactly what responsibilities he will take on. I for one, hope he gets more say on planning policy, and that his experience looking at high streets and in his own constituency will inform a more engaged and pro-active approach to planning from his department.

* NOTE: between writing this blog yesterday (16/07/2014) and it being posted today(17/07/2014), we have become aware that Brandon Lewis MP will no longer be the Minister responsible for High Streets, this comes as a result of reshuffle of Ministerial responsibilities. The new Minister responsible will be Penny Mordaunt MP and I look forward to discussing these issues with her in the Future High Streets’ Forum.

This entry was posted by Victoria on Thu, 17/07/2014 - 09:00