Wal-Mart to exploit planning loophole

WAL-MART, THE US supermarket giant that last week snapped up Asda, is set to exploit a loophole in the planning system that will allow it to expand on to sites left vacant by out-of-town retailers who have gone bust.

The move comes as pressure grows on the Government to relax planning rules to enable Wal-Mart to bypass the regulations that govern changing use of land. Wal-Mart is already able to expand on to sites with "open- ended retail use" but is expected to push for greater flexibility for sites previously occupied by DIY and furniture retailers hit by the recent downturn in demand.

A source close to the Competition Commission, which is investigating whether a monopoly exists among the big four food retailers, said: "If those sites have open-ended use they can do that - they're seen as much softer targets than greenfield sites."

But a director with a leading consultancy said: "Changing use will have the same effect as more development - it will damage town centres. They will be trying to get anything they can."

The Competition Commission is also considering forcing supermarkets to sell stores and is likely to recommend changes to planning law if it finds they have local monopolies, Estates Gazette reported.

The commission has appointed Drivers Jonas, a leading surveying firm, to advise on planning issues. The source said: "Everyone knows it is very difficult for new entrants to the market as you cannot buy stores and you cannot get planning permission for new ones. You have to buy the whole shooting match, like Wal-Mart did." A DTI spokesperson said: "If the commission makes recommendations to the Government, people will listen and there may be a debate about it."

Outlook, page 21

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