Labour may relax ban on out-of-town shop centres

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The Independent Online
Labour is considering a relaxation of the Government's ban on new out-of-town shopping centres.

The move, which could lead to a highly controversial reversal in planning policy, follows a barrage of submissions from big business.

Many motorists, as well as the big food retailers, would welcome a relaxation. But environmental groups and small businesses would be enraged. John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, announced restrictions in 1993 in response to fears that out-of-town shopping centres encouraged car use, added to urban sprawl and contributed to the decline of the High Street.

Fiona Reynolds, director of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, said yesterday that the Government had taken limited action to stop supermarkets spreading and "to go back on that would be very serious indeed".

A senior retail executive said the Opposition is now much more sympathetic to their case than the Government. He added: "Labour is seeking to accommodate us and taking note of the need for meeting demand from customers with cars. They are trying to make sure that they do not go down the road travelled by previous Labour leaderships when industry and the city was against them. They seem to appreciate the importance of wealth creation". In February Tony Blair, the Labour leader, delighted members of the British Retail Consortium at a dinner when asked about out of town shopping. He said it was impossible to turn the clock back. Now, a Labour committee on planning law, due to meet a week on Thursday, has received more than 160 submissions, of which a clear majority favour relaxing Mr Gummer's regulations.

Yesterday Keith Vaz, Labour planning spokesman, said: "Labour remains a party which is in favour of retail development in town and city centres. The purpose of the review was to gauge the feelings of those involved in this area of policy and we will certainly consider the strong representations we have received, especially from the food retailers."

The review team includes the external relations manager of Safeway, Peter Sitch, Dr Ian Roxburgh of Wimpey Homes Europe and Tony Burton, senior planner for the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

One source said that exemptions to Mr Gummer's planning guidance were increasingly likely for supermarkets. Supermarkets have been at pains to stress the difference between their superstores, and bigger out-of- town centres modelled on American-style malls.

They argue that their outlets do not directly compete with high street shops and that, given that the average supermarket shopper takes home 77lbs-worth of produce, consumers with cars always use them for shopping expeditions. Hence out-of-town stores free town centres from congestion, they argue.

But environmentalists argue that they stimulate traffic growth. Ms Reynolds said: "The modest constraints they are experiencing are very much in the public interest."