Outlook: Wal-Mart's hare runs a little faster

WAL-MART'S takeover of Asda has set a lot of hares running. The one which is bounding across the hedgerows with the greatest speed is the suggestion that planning controls on out-of-town superstores are about to be relaxed.

According to the conspiracy theorists, Tony Blair has entered a Faustian pact with Wal-Mart whereby it will deliver lower prices for shoppers provided he allows the company to concrete over large swathes of rural England with more ghastly hypermarkets and their obligatory car parks. It was sealed, don't you know, over a glass of sherry in Downing Street in March.

This is news to John Prescott's Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, which is telling anyone who will listen that planning policy towards such developments has not changed one jot. If you do not believe Mr Prescott, then just ask the Prime Minister's official spokesman.

This policy, introduced originally by the Conservative environment minister, John Gummer, is quite explicit. It obliges local authorities to adopt a "sequential approach" towards new superstores. This means they can only be built in the countryside when there are no suitable sites in the centre or the outskirts of towns and then only if the livelihood of city- centre shops will not be threatened.

In a country where one in three people do not own a car, this seems an eminently sensible way of keeping town centres alive at the same time as protecting the environment from all those car fumes and encroaching developers. It has also produced a commercial response from the supermarket giants, as the growth of the Tesco Metro chain demonstrates.

The only snag is that Mr Blair is also very keen on another policy which has considerably more popular appeal than saving the countryside, and that is the Government's campaign for lower prices.

Even though supermarket price wars generally turn out to be more illusory than real, the big chains would have us believe that prices would come tumbling down if only they were allowed to compete more effectively.

Asda says solemnly that its store development plans will continue to comply with the intention and spirit of current planning regulations. Moreover, it gets quite indignant at the suggestion that it has an understanding with the Government, formal or informal, that the rules will be relaxed.

But there can be no doubt that if its new owner were allowed to, Wal- Mart would roll out its pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap format like a shot, especially across southern England where Tesco and Sainsbury's are the dominant players.

There are, however, other ways that Wal-Mart and Co could achieve their objectives. One is to push for greater flexibility in the planning rules so that existing out-of-town sites are allowed to stock a wider range of goods. If Wal-Mart is indeed interested in adding MFI to its stable, it may have its eye on more than just flat-packed furniture.

Another option is to allow others to pile on the pressure for change. McKinsey has already advised the Treasury that planning restrictions are one of the reasons why UK retailers are less efficient and therefore more expensive than their Continental rivals.

The early smoke-signals from the Competition Commission suggest that its 12-month inquiry into supermarket prices may arrive at a similar conclusion. If so, the Department of Trade and Industry would presumably attach some weight to the recommendations.

It is hard to believe that Mr Blair would execute a complete U-turn in DETR policy and risk a potentially fatal rift with Mr Prescott. But as old Sam Walton himself might have said, there's more than one way to snare a hare.


Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Guru Careers: Management Accountant

£27 - 35k + Bonus + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Management Accountant is needed ...

Guru Careers: Project Manager / Business Analyst

£40-50k + Benefits.: Guru Careers: A Project Manager / Business Analyst is nee...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'