The three government departments with responsibility for retailing - Environment, Transport and Trade and Industry - yesterday conceded that despite a recent switch in government thinking aimed at helping town centres retain their shops and supermarkets, powerful new trends were still pushing shops to edge-of-town and out-of-town sites.
These include the arrival of discount warehouses, such as Cargo Club at Croydon, south London, and Costco at Thurrock in Essex, the move of retail warehousing into products such as toys, shoes and computers, and the shift of traditional high street shops such as Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Next and Dorothy Perkins to out-of-town centres.
Curbs on out-of-town car parking might be necessary to help town centres, officials told a hearing of the House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment, which yesterday began an inquiry into shopping centres. Developers could also be asked to pay for public transport linking a new centre to homes and places of work.
According to a joint memorandum from the three departments, the number of superstores built by groups such as Sainsbury, Tesco and Safeway appeared to have reached saturation point in many urban areas. But the stores have turned their attention to market towns with rural hinterlands, such as Godalming in Surrey, Cirencester in Gloucestershire and Sevenoaks in Kent.
Research commissioned by the Department of the Environment said such places risked losing the town-centre supermarkets which anchored their economy because of out- of-town competition.
It concluded: 'If competition eventually led to closure of the 'anchor' supermarkets, the result might be a decline of traditional town centres, with their variety of smaller retailers, and a loss of accessible facilities for those without the use of a car.'
Since the mid-1970s, there has been a 27 per cent increase in the number of shopping trips, but a 90 per cent increase in the number of shopping trips involving a journey of more than 10 miles.
Apart from the effect on town-centre economies, this has resulted in a large rise in car-based emissions of carbon dioxide - the gas mainly responsible for global warming.
Jim Coates, a senior official at the Department of Transport, told the committee: 'We need to persuade car-owning families to make more of their journeys by public transport.'
Officials agreed, however, that the car would probably be needed for the once-a-week, 'nine or ten plastic bags' shop.
Leading article, page 19