Senior officials privately confess that it is too late to save the towns, which for centuries have formed the backbone of the nation's rural life, from being strangled by the development of new supermarkets - despite repeated promises by John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, to curb them.
Two of Mr Gummer's most senior civil servants independently said last week that he was "trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted". A third said: "It is now far too late in the day." Planners, environmentalists and the British Chamber of Commerce gave the same bleak assessment.
As reported in the Independent on Sunday last week, a study carried out for the Department of the Environment concluded that only 3 per cent of the country's market towns were thriving, while nearly three-quarters were stagnant or in decline. It placed the blame squarely on the Government's planning, economic and transport policies.
Mr Gummer says that the crisis of the market towns will be urgently considered in the Countryside White Paper that he is preparing with the Agriculture Minister, William Waldegrave. He will this month respond to a report by the Commons Environment Committee which calls for further changes of policy to stop town centres being turned into "shopping deserts".
But his officials point out that the number of superstores will double over the next three years - greatly increasing the damage - because planning permission has already been granted for another 400 of them. The Government cannot afford the vast sums in compensation that it would have to pay developers if it were to revoke their permits.
Even now the official planning policy guidance note - issued by Mr Gummer himself less than two years ago - forbids councils to refuse permission for out-of-town stores unless there is "clear evidence" that they would "undermine the vitality and viability of town centres". Planners say that this is very hard to prove.
His officials accept that the Environment Secretary - who has several market towns in his constituency - is deeply concerned. They blame laissez- faire planning policies in the 1980s. Between 1980 and 1990 the proportion of food and convenience goods bought in superstores rose from under 9 per cent to more than 50 per cent.
Tony Burton, senior planner at the Council for the Protection of Rural England, said yesterday: "The legacy of the policies of the 1980s will last for decades, almost regardless of what the Government and councils try to do about it."
One of Mr Gummer's senior advisers said, with a hint of desperation: "If anyone has got any bright ideas of what the Secretary of State can do to solve the problem without paying buckets and buckets in compensation, I am sure he would be very glad to hear of them."
`Town to let', page 4Reuse content