Campaigners say the move goes completely against the spirit of new, greener government planning policies.
The DoE is acting as a superstore developer because its property holdings arm is disposing of surplus crop-trialling farmland owned by the Ministry of Agriculture on the edge of Trumpington, Cambridge. A superstore is the most lucrative potential use of the site. The DoE is on the verge of being granted planning permission by a reluctant Cambridge City Council, the planning authority.
John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, could still decide to ``call in'' the development and order a public inquiry. But if, as seems almost certain, planning permission goes ahead, the land will be sold to a supermarket chain and the 3,906 square metre structure built. He has repeatedly condemned such ``sheds on the bypasses'' on the grounds that they can damage the vitality of town centres and lead to extra and longer car journeys.
The superstore site lies less than half a mile from Cambridge's green belt, immediately next to parkland surrounding Anstey Hall, a Grade 1 listed Queen Anne mansion.
Roger Higman, Friends of the Earth's transport campaigner, said the development contradicted the spirit of Department of Transport and DoE planning guidance issued less than a year ago and hailed as a radical change in direction at the time.
This guidance, known as PPG 13, calls on developers and councils to discourage new buildings which increase reliance on the private car and traffic, and plan in a way which encourages people to walk, bicycle or use public transport.
Mr Higman said: ``If the Government is trying to be serious about this guidance then it can't be seen to bending the rules like any property developer.
``I can't believe that huge numbers of shoppers are going to arrive by bicycle, even in Cambridge. If you must build on this land then there should be houses, or industry which can't be in the city centre because it requires lots of lorry movements.''
The DoE said there would be more than 100 bicycle parking spaces and that, being just off a main road, the site would almost certainly have a bus service.
It argues that the development is a supermarket. Superstores start at 4,000 square metres - what the DoE plans for Trumpington is less. It also says this is not an out-of-town development. Although it will go on open land on the outskirts of Trumpington, a Cambridge suburb, in planning terms it is within the urban fabric.
Cambridge City Council initially refused the planning application, but the DoE's advisers then altered the superstore's proposed road connections, positioning and landscaping to meet the council's objections.
The council has now decided it has no choice but to pass the application. Its own planning blueprint for the area does not exclude development. If it had refused, DoE Property Holdings would almost certainly have appealed to Mr Gummer, who could order a public inquiry and appoint an independent planning inspector.
The city council judged not only that it would lose, but that the inspector might find Cambridge's refusal to grant permission unjustifiable and order it to pay the DoE's heavy legal costs.
``It was an incredibly difficult decision to make,'' said Beth Morgan, the Labour chair of Cambridge's environment committee.
"The vast majority of shoppers will go to the site by car, but if it wasn't there they might well drive even further to more distant superstores. At the moment the south side of Cambridge is not well served by them.''