The government published the online planning practice guidance in draft form for consultation at the end of August. In their responses, the British Property Federation (BPF) and the British Council of Shopping Centres (BCSC) expressed worries about the guidance on town centres.
Both organisations say the guidance appears to resurrect a policy known as "disaggregation", which relates to the town centre sequential test. The test requires planning authorities to prioritise centrally located retail and leisure developments ahead of those outside or on the edge of towns.
Disaggregation, a policy in the now-defunct Planning Policy Statement 4, allowed councils faced with out-of-town retail applications to force the developer to consider providing the same scheme in town centres, but split up on more than one site, before making a decision on the out-of-town alternative.
The BPF and BCSC point out that though the National Planning Policy Framework says applicants and councils should "demonstrate flexibility on issues such as format and scale", it does not include a requirement to consider disaggregation.
But the online guidance states: "It is not necessary to demonstrate that a potential town centre or edge-of-centre site can accommodate precisely the scale and form of development being proposed, but rather to consider what contribution more central sites are able to make to meeting the same requirements."
On flexibility, it says that "authorities should thoroughly consider all options as to whether the format and/or scale of a proposal in a less preferable site could be altered in a way that would enable it to be located in a suitable town centre location".
The BPF states that "any requirement to consider disaggregation is likely to stifle development and goes against the principles of the National Planning Policy Framework".
The BCSC response maintains that disaggregation is more relevant to multiple unit schemes, such as retail parks, and "should not be applied to individual retailers".