Sainsbury's boss claims red tape is harming the high street

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The Independent Online

Justin King, chief executive of grocer Sainsbury's, has given a damning assessment of what has gone wrong with the UK's high streets when the Government is engaged in a major consultation exercise that could ease rules on out-of-town development.

He said high street operators face a wide range of problems, including a lack of affordable car parking, one-way streets and red tape. Mr King said: "Our high streets are suffering because they have been made environments where it is less and less amenable for shoppers to shop there. They are harder to get to than they have ever been."

He added: "Many of our town centres now have transport, planning and parking restrictions, and one-way systems and red-tape. Parking is less accessible and casual car parking is punished, such as people not being able to park outside a store to pop in for something for 10 minutes."

The Local Data Company last week said 14.5 per cent of UK town centre shops are empty, but in large centres like Blackpool, Grimsby and Stockport, this figure is more than a quarter.

Mr King's comments are significant as they come ahead of a major consultation on the planning system that ends next month, and Mary Portas – self-styled "Queen of Shops," who has been appointed to lead the Government's review of the high street – delivering her report in November. Ms Portas said last week she was considering writing to David Cameron to raise opposition to the expectation the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) could recommend relaxing the "town centre first policy", which means developers can build out-of-town schemes only if no town centre options are available.

Mr King declined to reveal what he discussed with Ms Portas at a meeting recently. But, he wants a major focus for her and the NPPF to be on eliminating the causes of problems faced by high street operators. For instance, Mr King attacked regulations that hinder businesses operating in local areas - such noise abatement rules originally intended to address residential disputes between neighbours – which now restrict Sainsbury's from unloading its lorries at certain times in the morning.

He also cited restrictions on retailers and manufacturers using A-roads, which means that Sainsbury's has to make a 40-mile round trip from its depot to a store in Loughton, east London, instead of an 11-mile journey.

Concerning the NPPF, Mr King said that any proposals to remove the tax relief for businesses to restore buildings on contaminated or long-term derelict land could make them rethink developing brown-field sites.

On last month's riots, Mr King said that in recent years there has been a "subtle but progressive decriminalisation of shoplifting", which is likely to have influenced some people with no previous convictions to steal in August.

He cited the influence on public opinion of proposals floated by the Government's Sentencing Advisory Panel in 2006 that considered replacing prison sentences with on-the-spot fines and community orders for even the most persistent offenders.

Sainsbury's, which has 563 supermarkets and 407 convenience stores, did not claim under the Riot (Damages) Act for around £1m of damages done to 105 of its shops in disturbances last month.

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