Fyson on ... an area of retail criticism that fails to stack up

The gathering criticism of the big supermarkets is not limited to their failure to effectively source local produce.

Their inclination to fly apples round the world in pursuit of their own uniform version of quality is clearly an aberration. But the obloquy they suffer for muscling in on the town centre convenience shopping market is harder to justify.

It is, after all, the response that the town centres first retail development policy seems to require of them.

Some planners are rebelling against suggestions that policy should intervene to skew development in favour of the small independent shopkeeper. Objections to clone town Britain are all very well, runs the argument, but since when were planners better judges of high street demand than the big store chains? This non-interventionist urge is exacerbated by a lack of interest in retail policy among councillors. It is not a priority for any go-ahead council looking to up-skill the local workforce rather than nurse a sector of the economy notorious for low pay and low skill.

Such a view is, however, seriously shortsighted as far as townscape conservation is concerned. The attractive, fine-grained town is not best served by introducing miniature versions of supermarkets and the closure of many of the varied corner shops and late-night stores that are a valued feature of most urban areas. Neither can the social dimension to this movement be dismissed out of hand, either on a personal or community level. The hardship facing small shopkeepers whose business is squeezed by the retail giants is real and the disappearance of their social role is a genuine public loss.

However, public policy looks foolish when it tries to tell retail interests that a proposed development is not needed. The genuine planning grounds for such a discriminatory judgement are always thin and often non-existent.

Neither is the assertion that town centre shopping is automatically more sustainable than out-of-town stores necessarily always true.

There is reportedly evidence that a retail surge back into town is swamping old urban centres with traffic and cramped buildings. The blithe assumption that public transport can tempt people out of their cars is looking unconvincing.

Any major regular food shopping expedition is likely to involve personal transport of some kind. More off-centre stores could cope with this without necessarily increasing the journey distances driven.

The old retail hierarchy ideas take insufficient account of local variations in shopping preferences and do not allow for innovation such as developing communities around old out-of-town retail centres. There should also be better designed, more individual units in towns. Revolutionary thinking cannot come too soon.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Sign up now
Already registered?
Sign in

Join the conversation with PlanningResource on social media

Follow Us:
Planning Jobs