Ministers have been urged to consider imposing severe restrictions on new out-of-town retail developments to save town centres against a backdrop of mass closures of high street shops.
The radical suggestion was first put forward nearly a year ago by Mary Portas, the government’s retail tsar, in a review into how to stem the decline of Britain’s small shops.
The government has accepted many of the report’s 28 recommendations, including setting up a Distressed Retail Property Taskforce that will be unveiled on Monday to combat growing numbers of boarded-up shops.
Yet ministers shied away from her idea that all out-of-town applications should automatically be called in by ministers.
Chris Wade, chief executive of the charity Action for Market Towns, urged ministers to revisit the idea. “That was quite a bold recommendation, but it was never accepted,” he said. “We would want to see that happen.”
For now, the government has reaffirmed its previous “town centre first” policy in its recently condensed national planning policy framework – namely that retailers should only be able to consider edge-of-town or out-of-town locations if town centre options are not possible.
Mr Wade said the government should start “policing” applications for large out-of-town supermarkets and retail parks.
“We would like to see applications in the next six months being very closely monitored,” he said. “If it is not policed over this winter, then it becomes meaningless as a policy.”
The shopping centre industry has also voiced its scepticism about whether the “town centre first” guidance is being carried out to the letter.
“There is a big difference between national policy and what is happening locally,” said Ed Cook, director of policy for the British Council of Shopping Centres. “There have been some decisions recently that fly in the face of town centres, in my opinion.”
Ms Portas was commissioned by David Cameron to report on the decline of the high street after a chance meeting with Steve Hilton, the prime minister’s former “blue skies” policy chief. Some of her ideas are being realised; for example, a new £10m high street innovation fund granting cash to scores of councils across Britain.
The urgency of the task has been demonstrated by figures this month from the Local Data Company showing that retail chains shut an average of 20 stores a day in the first half of this year. Last week, high street stalwart Argos announced that it would close at least 75 stores over the next five years, capping a year that has seen retailers Clinton Cards, Blacks Leisure and Game Group call in the administrators, resulting in the closure of hundreds of stores. Last month’s collapse of JJB Sports saw only a handful of its stores rescued by rival Sports Direct.
Ministers are now being urged to take more radical action amid concerns about the effectiveness of some of the Portas proposals.
There have been disputes in some of the 27 towns selected in a competition this summer to receive £100,000 each to set up pilot “town teams”. In Margate, for example, the entire “town team” resigned amid concerns about being filmed for a TV documentary.
Since then the government has handed out a further £10,000 grant to some 300 of those councils which lost out in the contest – although not all of these believe the sum will be transformational.
“We’re grateful for the £10,000, but it isn’t going to radically change anything in Chesterfield,” said Toby Perkins, shadow business minister and Labour MP for the Derbyshire town.