Four hundred new retail parks and giant shopping centres look set to be built in the next two years as the developers hurry to build before their existing planning permissions run out. Britain currently has about 300 malls and retail parks and construction is already under way on 50 more.
According to one estate agent who advises developers: "There is panic among developers to get things built while they still can." Planning consents are valid for three years.
This year Mr Gummer abandoned the Government's previous laissez-faire attitude to retail parks, instead advising local authorities to issue no more planning permissions. "The town centre has always been the very hub of civilised life and I intend to keepit that way," he said.
Last month the House of Commons Environment Select Committee expressed a similar view, warning that town centres were becoming "shopping deserts" and Britain was at risk of turning into "a nation of redundant shopkeepers''.
But instead of halting new building, Mr Gummer has inadvertently prompted the developers into a frenzy of activity. They fear that unless schemes with existing planning permission are built quickly, the chance may not occur again. Many projects being brought out of mothballs are in what the industry regards as second-rate locations and but for the new rush might never have been built.
Figures compiled by the surveyors Hillier Parker show that 30 million square feet of out-of-town shopping centre space is now in the pipeline - the equivalent of another 30 huge Gateshead MetroCentres.
According to Mark Teale of Hillier Parker: "Mr Gummer has stampeded people into building. Developers are building schemes which they would have previously put to one side.'' Chris Mackannes, a surveyor who has advised several developers, said: "There is panic. Developers are revisiting situations they would not have otherwise considered."
Yesterday Labour's environment spokesman, Frank Dobson, said Mr Gummer's change of heart on shopping malls had come too late. "The planning shelves are stacked high with existing permissions for out-of-town centres. Even if local authorities opposed these plans in the past, they would be overruled by Government inspectors. There are now hundreds of these centres still going to be built, and the situation for town centres is just going to get worse and worse."
The impact of the new malls is shown in figures to be published this week by the estate agents DTZ, which show that of the top five locations in Britain, just one, Eastgate Street in Chester, is a high street. The other five - MetroCentre, Gateshead; Meadowhall, Sheffield; Lakeside, Thurrock; and Merry Hill, Dudley - are all out-of-town or edge-of-town locations. All of them trounce even London's Oxford Street for profit and turnover.
In many towns retailers and local organisations have tried to stop out-of-town complexes being built. In Bristol thre are fears that a giant shopping centre off the M5 at Cribbs Causeway could destroy the city centre. Leading high street names, includingJohn Lewis, have decided to relocate to the new site from the city centre.
In south London local conservation organisations have formed Save Us From Sainsbury's (SUS) to fight proposals by the supermarket chain to open an out-of-town SavaCentre as the first stage of a new retail park to be built on the site of an old British Gas works. Lewisham Council, which has given Sainsbury the go-ahead to build the store, complete with 1,000 car parking spaces, says it does not believe it will kill off local shops. But Margaret Leslie, of SUS, said: "It will destroy local high streets, and the extra traffic in local roads will make life impossible for the people who live near this site.''
However, many developers argue that town centres were already in trouble before the advent of the malls.
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