Small retailers given more protection

PLANS to give councils more power to curb “clone Britain” and protect the vitality of struggling high streets have been welcomed by business chiefs in Suffolk and Essex.

Will Clarke

PLANS to give councils more power to curb “clone Britain” and protect the vitality of struggling high streets have been welcomed by business chiefs in Suffolk and Essex.

Under the new Government guidelines local authorities will be required to consider the impact on the vibrancy of town centres before giving the go-ahead to any new out-of-town commercial development.

The “impact test” will replace the existing “need test”, which simply required supermarkets to show that there was sufficient consumer spending capacity in the area to support a new out-of-town store.

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Communities Secretary Hazel Blears unveiled consultation for the proposals saying the needs test had “unintentionally stifled diversity and consumer choice” and the new approach would give councils a better tool to prevent big developments which put small shops at risk.

Speaking at the Royal Town Planning Institute Annual Convention, Mrs Blears said: “We need a policy which provides the right degree of protection for smaller retailers who are facing very challenging trading conditions and increased levels of competition.”

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Suffolk campaigner Lady Caroline Cranbrook, who has long battled for rural businesses and is a keen supporter of the EADT's successful Shop Local initiative, said the proposals were excellent news and would help strike a better balance between the supermarkets and independent stores.

“We have to have the right balance of supermarkets,” she said. “They need to be in balance with the size of a town. We need to protect small shops because they are essential in areas where there are no shops and important in allowing new food products into the market.”

Steve Peters, Bury St Edmunds town centre manager, said the announcement was “not before time”.

“We now need to see the results and turn these words into action,” he said. “We need to do everything possible to encourage sustainability, vibrancy and assist independent enterprise to maintain and enhance the retail appeal that we have within the town.”

But Paul Smith, cabinet member for resources and business at Colchester Borough Council, said the main issue was not necessarily planning but developers wanting retailers to sign long leases.

“If a new shopping centre is set up, developers sometimes want as much as 25 year leases, guaranteed by banks etc,” he said. “For small businesses that is very difficult, compared to larger ones like WHSmith or Burtons - but if they can't get into central areas, independent retailers are at a disadvantage.”

Mr Smith said that proposals for the town's new cultural quarter, at the top of Queen Street, attempted to cater for small businesses in particular.

“What is interesting with that is that one third of the units will have to go to small retailers,” he said. “I would have liked to see Government support for ideas like that.

“What appears to be being proposed here on the planning side is trying to deal with shopping centres such as Bluewater and Lakeside, but as far as I know there are no more of these planned for East Anglia.”

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