A battle is brewing outside town: Property developers are furious at a threat to halt the shopping centre revolution. Tom Stevenson reports

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WHEN Capital Shopping Centres is floated off from TransAtlantic, the insurance and property group, in April, the stock market will gain its first pure retail property investment.

Shareholders will be taking a stake in the fortunes of seven shopping centres, four of them built in the past five years. It is a unique investment opportunity but if John Gummer has his way it could be the last of its kind.

Recent comments from the Secretary of State for the Environment, suggesting that the days of laissez- faire out-of-town developments may be over, have enraged the property industry, where the boom in retail development has kept many companies' heads above water.

The Government, it says, is muddled, confused and inconsistent. It has been driven into another U-turn by voters' squeals in comfortable Tory towns such as Stroud, Shoreham and Yeovil. The latest row has been provoked recently by Mr Gummer, who said he would look more closely at proposals for out-of-town schemes if he considered they would adversely affect the life and vitality of nearby town centres.

Last month he demonstrated his determination by blocking two applications for planning consent for out-of-town centres near Ludlow in Shropshire and Cambridge.

Speaking to the Town Planning Institute, Mr Gummer said: 'At the heart of the sustainable development strategy is the question of urban quality.

'Improving urban quality means the re-use of land in our cities. It means adapting buildings that form part of the familiar townscape for the uses people expect to find in their towns and cities.'

He did not specifically mention Dudley in the West Midlands, but the Black Country town has become a symbol of the devastation an out- of-town shopping centre can wreak on traditional shopping areas.

After the developers, the Richardson brothers, opened the Merry Hill centre in 1989 a couple of miles outside Dudley, 70 per cent of the shops in the town centre disappeared.

Rents fell by a quarter and almost the only retailers prepared to do business in the formerly popular Market Place were what Sean Nethercott of the borough's planning department described as 'low- value, second-hand junk shops'.

In a matter of months the heart of the town was ripped out by Merry Hill, which goes from strength to strength.

As Lesley Marsh, its marketing director, makes clear: 'No one could have predicted what has happened here. Twenty-two million people come to shop here every year. We must be doing something right.'

The centre employs 3,370 people and turned over pounds 350m last year, when the rest of the retail industry was stagnant.

The success of Merry Hill is not unique. Recent figures from Verdict, the market research organisation, suggest that 25 per cent of retail sales are now from out-of-town locations, compared with 5 per cent in 1980.

Mr Gummer's hard-line approach to the encroachment of shopping centres and warehouse 'sheds' on the countryside will come as a breath of fresh air to anyone who views with dismay the decline of American city centres into crime-ridden ghost towns.

The alarmed reaction has not been limited to the UK. In France there has in effect been a ban on further out-of-town developments until the government has assessed their impact on 'the social fabric of rural communities'.

But Mr Gummer's views have been condemned by leading voices from the property industry, which has criticised the inconsistency and hypocrisy of government planning and transport policy.

Stuart Robinson, head of planning at the property consultant Hillier Parker, said: 'It is quite unbelievable that the Department of the Environment should put the brakes on so violently after years of supporting out-of-town proposals and car-based development schemes.

'The Government has to decide what it wants: Gummer appears to be saying that he is clamping down as a way of enhancing urban life. At the same time the Department of Transport is investing heavily in the road system. No provision is being made to improve public transport.'

He says the lack of consultation between the environment and transport departments is a classic case of the right hand not knowing what the left is up to.

The reaction of the industry is not surprising in the context of the retail bonanza of the past decade and a half. During that time, more than 28 million square feet of retail warehouse space has been built in almost 240 different sites.

Despite the recession, tenant demand remains high, which has kept rents buoyant, in sharp contrast to the slump in the office sector. As a result the annual average return on retail properties has easily outpaced that for the property sector generally since 1980.

Clive Lewis, president of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, took up the theme recently at the Labour Party's planning and environment group conference.

While welcoming the Government's concern for the health of town centres, he pointed out that the rapid changes in retailing over the past decade had been driven by consumers and warned that the Government's ability to control developments in retailing were limited.

'They have happened because consumers either demanded them or, if offered them, embraced them with open arms. Government would be foolish to try to resist overwhelming market forces.'

Mr Lewis said out-of-town shopping and town centre shopping could live happily side by side if town centres reacted to the threat positively. He pointed to the success of Newcastle and Wolverhampton in responding to competitive pressures by upgrading and investing in facilities.

'Politicians and planners will do town centres no favours in the long run if they merely seek to insulate them from competition and the real world.'

He did admit that the high-water mark of the out-of-town surge might have been reached. The recent approval for a regional scheme at Dumplington near Manchester would mean that most regions except the South-west were within reach of a large centre.

Ironically, government disapproval of its product may in the long run be good news for Capital Shopping Centres if it limits competition. Donny Gordon, chairman of TransAtlantic, has always maintained that the surveying profession undervalues shopping centres.

He claims that valuations based on rents do not reflect the intrinsic worth of what are relatively immature businesses. New centres may take up to 10 years to build up to their full potential in terms of profits and rents.

If there are to be no more Metro Centres or Thurrock Lakesides, then the undervaluation argument will be bolstered by scarcity as well, and Capital Shopping Centres will become an even more interesting play.

(Photograph omitted)