The shops come back to town

The giant shopping mall on the ring road has had its day, writes Mark Rowe
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The Independent Online
IT LOOKS like an obscure food additive number, but PPG6, the Government's planning policy guide for where shopping centres should be built, is quietly altering the countryside and cities in which we live.

PPG6 instructs town halls in England to favour plans to build shopping centres in city centres and only as a last resort approve proposals for out-of-town shopping centres. In effect, it has put a moratorium on shopping malls similar to Gateshead's MetroCentre, Sheffield's Meadowhall and the Lakeside near Grays, Essex being built.

Instead, the developers, thwarted by PPG6, are looking to build again within town centres. Last week, chartered surveyors Hillier Parker announced there were 17 town centres shopping schemes scheduled to be built by the end of the year, as opposed to four out-of-town complexes.

The move into town is in marked contrast to the latter part of the 1980s, when conservationists and countryside campaigners warned that a glut of out-of-town shopping centres would ruin rural Britain. The slowdown in shopping mall development was boosted by the PPG6 guideline which was introduced by John Gummer when he was Environment Secretary in June 1996.

But throughout this decade, permission for out-of-town shopping complexes has become increasingly difficult and expensive to obtain. No major out- of-town shopping centres have been proposed this decade; all such schemes under construction were proposed during the 1980s. A source at the Department of the Environment said: "Out-of-town centres require the use of cars, they blight the landscape and hit local traders. "

Another reason for the drift back to town centres is the end of the recession, according to David Houghton, who this week is chairing a conference of the British Council of Shopping Centres.

Town councils have played a major role in getting big developers back into towns. "It is in their interests. They have created the conditions for developers by making town centres more attractive, introducing street lighting and making the areas safer," said Mr Houghton.

"Leeds has been subject to a renaissance. Fifteen years ago the city centre was all cars. Now they have a ring road and there are pavement cafes."

Some of the schemes will create cities within cities: the proposed Bull Ring development in Birmingham will stretch to a mighty 1.2 million sq ft though typically they range from 50,000sq ft to 750,000sq ft.

"This shift is exactly what town planners have been looking for," said Dr Brian Raggett of the Royal Town Planning Institute. "It gives people the opportunity to use their city and it will generally increase the use of public transport as opposed to car use."

Merryhill, six miles north of Wolverhampton, has been cited by town planners as a graphic example of the pernicious effect out-of-town complexes can have on local shops. According to Dr Raggett, Merryhill diverted more than one third of trade from the surrounding towns of Dudley, Stourbridge, Wolverhampton and Halesowen.

So far, the Department of Environment has shown little sign of any policy change. Indeed, in line with Mr Gummer's policy, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, recently refused planning permission for an extension to Merryhill.

In contrast, the amount of floor space proposed for town centre shopping developments is at its highest level since 1991. The image of town centre shopping malls as ghettos of lumpen architecture that become ghost towns at night is in the past, according to Mr Houghton. "There have been some unfortunate designs but now everyone is design conscious."

But building shopping malls in town centres requires a co-ordinated approach he said. "The towns must have the infrastructure to support the development. You can't cram too much in. There must also be a consideration of historic buildings; you don't have a multi-storey car park built next to a cathedral."

The European Commission has also joined the effort to revive town centres hit by out-of- town development. It has provided some pounds 600,000 for a two-year initiative in north London aimed at helping traders to meet change and to improve competitiveness.

The Borough of Barnet in north London has seen local traders' profits hit with the development of Brent Cross on the nearby North Circular ring- road and Lakeside, a 30-minute drive away. The scheme has a budget of pounds 1.45m and targets 11 shopping centres in Barnet and four in Enfield.

In Barnet the council has given the scheme support with a separate pounds 1m scheme to improve shopping centres. Another beneficiary is neighbouring Haringey, where the council has been granted pounds 225,000 for the revival of Wood Green shopping centre.