Yes, it’s election season and the Tories are going for the populist planning vote with their new Open Source Planning green paper.
“We will undo Labour’s changes to planning rules which have weakened councils’ ability to stop unwanted out-of town development. We will ensure that a needs test is readopted, and will enable local councils to take competition issues into account when formulating their local plans.”
Words to put a chill into every large retailer’s heart. Yes, it’s election season and the Tories are going for the populist planning vote with their new Open Source Planning green paper, published last week.
Does a town ever need another supermarket or DIY shed? Unless the population is starving or their houses are falling down due to lack of handyman materials, it’s hard to argue that anybody needs more such out-of-town retail.
So how should need be assessed? How should you weigh quantitative need (eg, market demand divided by retail floor space already available) against qualitative need (eg, urban regeneration or protecting town centres)?
With the rapid rise of online shopping and home delivery, does the concept of retail need have any value at all now? How long before a local authority decides that, with Tesco.com and Ocado available, there’s no need for another bricks and mortar supermarket?
The paper wants local authorities to take competition issues into account. Haven’t we heard that somewhere before? Oh yes - two years ago, the Competition Commission suggested that the Office of Fair Trading become a “statutory consultee” to local planning authorities on grocers’ planning applications, applying competition rules to advise local authorities on specific sites.
But this paper seems to suggest that local planners could apply their own, potentially idiosyncratic, views on market competition in their local plans. And they have not restricted these sweeping powers just to the grocers, so all the other large retailers better watch out too.
And what did happen, by the way, to the Competition Commission’s proposals to interfere in the planning regime? The present government seems to have placed it carefully at the back of their filing cabinet.
Funnily enough, the two parts of this policy contradict each other. If you are going to apply a needs test, then you will be restricting competition. After all, you only need one provider of a good or service. You might prefer more than one, because it gives you greater choice, or because you would benefit from several competing for your custom.
So if a local authority is going to consider competition issues, I would assume they mean that they would be encouraging more retailers to give more competition. Presumably, this might mean providing for more retail zoning in a local plan to provide these extra stores? I guess that’s not what they meant.
Perhaps they just haven’t thought it through? But don’t we need something a little more considered for one of Britain’s most successful business sectors, not to mention its 3 million employees… and, of course, its voters?
Simon Laffin is an independent retail adviser and non-executive director.