Stuart Hampson, chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, said viable and vital towns and cities depended on the ability of shoppers to arrive as comfortably and reliably as they did now by driving their cars to out- of-town locations.
Mr Hampson told the annual conference of the British Property Federation that retailers did not have sufficient confidence that current planning guidelines were sustainable to plan the large-scale return to towns that consumers and government ministers claimed they wanted. He said the Government expected retailers to return to town centres but was not prepared to provide the transport infrastructure and parking facilities that would make this a realistic possibility.
It would be wrong to underestimate the damage to towns that had been inflicted over the past 15 years by the growth of large out-of-town centres.
"Getting the genie back in the bottle will be difficult and complex," he said.
According to Mr Hampson, more than 200 million square feet of out-of- town retail space had been built in the past 15 years. This is the equivalent of 270 Brent Cross shopping centres.
After the glut of development in recent years it is estimated that three- quarters of Britain's population live within 30 miles of a big out-of- town shopping development, putting the future of market towns especially at risk.
One estimate suggests that by 1998 a third of all retail sales will be made away from traditional town centres.
Mr Hampson said that the rising power of the multiple chains had accelerated the drift outwards, but he also criticised existing lease and business rate systems for exacerbating the problem.
Out-of-town shops have a huge cost advantage over small independent retailers on the high street, including exemption from business rates for their large car parks.
Many in-town shops are also saddled with high rents set during the boom conditions of the late 1980s, but which cannot now fall because of Britain's system of upward-only rent reviews.
Mr Hampson's speech was the latest contribution to the debate over the future of British shopping that has gone on since John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, issued two planning guidance notes in 1993 emphasising the Government's commitment to restoring town centres and reducing the use of cars for shopping.
Mr Hampson also attacked the Government's plans for privatising the railways, which he said confused the issue.
It was pointless to regulate the planning process while at the same time deregulating transport, he said, adding: "If the current planning system had been in place in 1979 we would not now be talking about regenerating inner cities."