Research Objectives and Method
The primary purpose of this research project was to discover how local planning authorities are applying the sequential and impact tests of the NPPF in taking decisions on new retail development. Other objectives included discovering what types and sizes of new retail developments are being permitted and refused by local planning authorities under the NPPF, and their locational status.
The research was based on searches of local authorities’ websites for planning applications for major retail developments; was limited to England (excluding Inner London); and covered applications for which the decisions were taken after the NPPF came into force in March 2012. It used a random sample of 50 Case Studies of such applications, estimated as a 50% sample of all those across the country. The data collected for the Case Studies was drawn from the relevant documentation for each application.
Of the 50 applications, 5 were in town centres (10%), 10 were edge-of-centre (20%) and 35 were out-of- centre (70%). The great majority of proposed major retail developments were therefore out-of-centre.
34 applications included a foodstore (68%); comprising 9 superstores, 17 supermarkets and 8 discount supermarkets – in some cases combined with other retail uses such as retail warehouses or small shops. 21 included substantial non-food stores, mainly retail warehouses (combined with foodstores in 6 cases).
43 of the applications were approved (86%). 5 of those approved were in town centres (12%), 7 were edge-of-centre (16%) and 31 were out-of-centre (72%). 29 of the 43 permitted developments included a foodstore.
The out-of-centre developments were larger than the others, so 76% of gross retail floorspace permitted was out-of-centre.
Retail Impact Assessments supporting planning applications are advocacy documents, despite their objective language and use of extensive quantitative analysis. They were universally criticised by independent consultants instructed by the LPAs.
The sequential test lacks teeth, being a mainly qualitative assessment. Developers are now widely applying a format-driven approach to applying it – with some flexibility as to scale but little as to retail format. Development plans are frequently inadequate to provide a clear guide to LPAs in their assessment of whether or not a proposed major retail development complies with the plan.
Decision-taking by LPAs was always on the basis of a balanced judgement of the pros and cons of the proposed development. The sequential and impact tests in the NPPF are not being applied as pass or fail ‘gateway’ tests, but as only two of the factors to be taken into account in arriving at a balanced judgement on the application.
The NPPF has not succeeded in achieving increased retail investment in town centres and less out-of-centre. In fact the opposite has occurred. Since the NPPF was introduced, the ratio of permitted new retail floorspace in major retail developments out-of-centre, to that in town centres and edge-of-centre locations combined, has been in excess of 3 to 1.