Supermarket-friendly proposals incite planning officers' wrath

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Town planning officers have slammed Government proposals to shake up the planning laws in favour of big supermarket chains.

A survey out today shows that 95 per cent of planning officers want the "needs test", which local authorities use to limit development, to stay in place. Their views clash with those of Kate Barker, the economist who last year recommended removing the needs test in a review of the planning system for the Treasury.

Friends of the Earth, the environmental pressure group that commissioned the survey, believes town centres will suffer if the Government adopts the Barker report's proposals. The test requires developers of out-of-town stores to demonstrate that there is a need for the additional floor space proposed - with no test, retailers will be free to open out-of-town developments that could suck trade away from high streets, FOE warns today.

Four-fifths of local authority planning officers surveyed said the absence of a needs test would make it harder to focus new development in town centres, while 99 per cent thought that without the test it would be more difficult to assess the potential damage from a big out-of-town development. Some of the 59 planning officers who responded warned that the move would affect policies to promote sustainable development and reduce car use.

"If the Government goes ahead with this reform, it could lead to a new wave of giant out-of-town supermarkets that kill off high-street shops and result in more out-of-town shopping. The interests of massive retailers must not be put ahead of policies aimed at boosting our town centre," Sandra Bell, supermarkets' campaigner at FOE, said.

Big supermarket chains including Asda, which is owned by the US giant Wal-Mart, have pushed for the needs test to be scrapped.

FOE will unveil the findings of its survey to a group of MPs at lunchtime ahead of a forthcoming White Paper on planning that is due to be published this spring.

A Competition Commission review of the grocery sector is also looking at the UK's planning laws.