Gummer moves against out-of-town retail 'sheds'

The Government yesterday issued its strongest edict yet against the growth in out-of- town shopping centres, when John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, issued new planning guidance to local councils.

Campaigners who have fought the rapid spread of warehouse malls and superstores across Britain welcomed the new document.

But they pointed out that it did not amount to a ban on out-of-town development, nor did it deal with the hundreds of proposals already granted planning permission by councils but not yet built.

The new guidance on town centres and shopping development has to be heeded by councils when they draw up overall development plans and decide whether to approve development proposals.

It replaces and strengthens a text published just two years ago, soon after Mr Gummer became Secretary of State. ''It is a great advance on the last one, more categorical and detailed,'' said James Shorten, planning officer with the Council for the Protection of Rural England, after reading the guidance.

It says that the first option for new shopping development should always be in the town centre.

If that is deemed impossible, then the next priority should be developing on the edge of town centres.

New out-of-town centres are at the bottom of the list of priorities, and they should not get planning permission if they harm the vitality and viability of nearby town centres.

If the proposed development cannot be reached by public transport, this will further reduce the chance of getting planning permission.

The same priority scheme will apply to other developments which attract large numbers of people, such as offices, colleges and leisure facilities, including cinemas and sports centres.

The guidance also calls for mixed-use buildings and areas, in which homes, workplaces and shops are intermingled.

But Mr Gummer is also telling councils that they must provide plenty of attractive and reasonably priced car parking in town centres to encourage shoppers to drive in.

Parking tariffs should be structured so that commuters bringing their cars into town centres to park face high bills and shoppers visiting for a couple of hours much lower ones, he believes.

Town centres must have safe, abundant and affordable car parking for shoppers in order to compete with the out-of-town malls, or ''sheds on the bypass'' as he calls them.

Environmental campaigners are far less happy with this part of the advice, fearing that it discourages the switch from private car to public transport that they advocate. Pressure groups, businesses and councils now have 10 weeks in which to comment on the draft guidance.

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