High-street revival plans at risk in legal battle

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The Independent Online

Plans by Mary Portas, the retail expert and television presenter, to revitalise the high street could be fatally undermined by a case in the High Court that has just been set for early October.

The dispute, which is between one of the most prolific property developers in recent decades and a borough council in Lancashire, has drawn the ire of the former foreign secretary Jack Straw, who is also the local MP.

He argues that should the developer, The Peel Group, win its argument to change the planning status of an out-of-town retail park near Blackburn, then the Government would not be able to implement the reforms recommended by Ms Portas.

As the high street has suffered during the crisis, with big names like Woolworths seeing their shops boarded up after financial collapse, so Ms Portas wants to see regulations, such as restrictions on night-time deliveries, axed to support a revival.

Peel, which developed the Trafford Centre shopping mall in Manchester and is run by the billionaire entrepreneur John Whittaker, wants to reclassify land at the Whitebirk retail park from "bulky goods" to "open A1". This means that all kinds of retailers would be allowed to trade at the site, not just furniture or DIY shops – potentially drawing customers and major chains away from local high streets and further impoverishing town centres.

Hyndburn Borough Council refused permission for the change, but Peel has got a 3 October date in court to challenge that decision.

Mr Straw argues that this is a classic case of developers exploiting planning loopholes and, if Peel is victorious, will set a precedent in cases where developers want to attract more general retailers to their out-of-town estates.

In Ashford, Kent, the property giant British Land has submitted an application for open A1 consent at a retail park. Retail parks in recent years have been trying to tempt fashion and homeware retailers to compensate for the lack of demand from electrical, DIY and furniture retailers that traditionally filled out their large shopping units.

A spokeswoman for Peel said: "Peel is wholeheartedly committed to investing £16m into Whitebirk Retail Park, which is in desperate need of modernisation and a wider retail offer – a view that is also shared by local people who overwhelmingly support the plans."