Portas backs centre-first test

The government needs a stronger, more precise wording of its "town centre first" policy in its proposed planning reforms, retail expert Mary Portas has warned in her government-commissioned review of high streets.

Portas urged the government to get tougher on out-of-town schemes as part of 28 recommendations to reverse the decline of high streets.

She called for an explicit presumption in favour of town centre development in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), saying she fears the guidance has been weakened and will lead to too much out-of-town development.

New research published by the government alongside Portas' review shows that out-of-town retail floorspace has risen by 30 per cent over the last decade, while in towns it has shrunk by 14 per cent.

The draft NPPF document says: "Local planning authorities should prefer applications for retail and leisure uses to be located in town centres where practical, then in edge of centre locations and only if suitable sites are not available should out of centre sites be considered."

But Portas said the wording needs to be as precise as possible, "so it's really clear that people and place come first and the policy is less vulnerable to legal disputes".

"I believe that the NPPF needs to be as protective of the effect of development on people's lives, and the places where they live, as the existing policy," she said.

Portas said she had met planning minister Greg Clark and gone through the draft framework "line by line" before submitting her response to the consultation in October.

Her retail review also urges communities secretary Eric Pickles to more frequently use his call-in powers to assess the impact of out-of-town developments on town centres by introducing an "exceptional sign off" for all new out-of-town schemes.

Since 2008, only one of the 146 out-of-town developments referred to the government has been called in, the report notes.

Michael Bach, who was principal planner at the Department of the Environment (DoE) from 1990 to 2005 and led the DoE team that devised the town centre first policy, said: "If the government is going to have any credibility with regards to its town centre first policy then it needs to use its call-in powers."

Other key recommendations from Portas' review include creating "town teams" that involve all stakeholders to give visionary and strategic management to town centres and requiring all large new developments to have a quota of "affordable shops" with reduced rents designated for local independent retailers.

Portas also wants it made easier to change the use of high street properties and for betting shops to be put into their own use class to stop a proliferation of such outlets.

The review says local authorities should make more proactive use of compulsory purchase orders to encourage redevelopment of key high street retail space and proposes a campaign to get people involved in neighbourhood plans.

The review also suggests running a number of high street pilots to test the recommendations. The government said it will publish a response in the spring.

The Portas Review is available via PlanningResource.co.uk/go/referencesection

Retail Spending
Out of Town
2000 2011 2014*
28.1% 31.5% 32.3%

2000 2011 2014*
49.4% 42.5% 39.8%
Town Centre
Source: BIS.

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