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Bias fears over new planning laws

Planning experts have suggested that incoming laws will benefit the so called ‘friendly supermarkets’ as the coalition government’s localism agenda hands more power to councils.

Senior planners said imminent changes in planning policy would make it harder for stores with a relatively poor public image to gain planning permission for new developments.

They said stores with good images, such as M&S and Waitrose, would be more likely to get plans past local authorities. Helen Cuthbert, director at retail consultancy Planning Potential, said: “This kind of localism means there is much more power in the local authorities’ hands.

“They are talking about reducing the ability for the retailers, or for any applicant for that matter, to be able to appeal, so it really gives them ultimate power. They will have their own prejudices.

“If you ask local residents if they’d rather see a Tesco or a Waitrose built nearby, they’ll always vote for the Waitrose.”

She said Tesco had also had some negative publicity, “probably because it is such a strong, dominant retailer - it is a victim of its own success”.

Katherine Else, principal planner at consultancy RPS, said: “Supermarket bias is going to have a huge part to play when the coalition planning policy changes are introduced.

“Tesco has always ploughed through planning permissions with the offering of new jobs, but this won’t hold as much weight under the proposed changes. It will now be more related to the public perception of the particular
supermarket’s brand.”

Tesco has expanded aggressively over the past decade, meeting some opposition along the way.

In February 1997 it was operating 568 stores. By 2007 it had almost 2,000 stores with just over 285,000 staff. By May last year, the number of stores had jumped to 2,282, with a UK capital expenditure of £1.5 billion.

The retailer plans to open almost 800,000 sq m of selling space this year. In contrast, rival Morrisons is expanding at a much slower rate, having opened 57 stores since 2007, not including the 34 stores it acquired from the Co-op in 2009.

Morrison plans to acquire a further 140,000 sq m of floor space by 2013.

Sainsburys opened 38 stores last year and plans to expand by 15 per cent by March 2011; while Asda opened 15 stores last year and plans to open a further 11 in 2010.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles is expected to make an announcement on the green paper containing the proposed planning policy changes later this month.

The open source planning green paper No 14 states that: “If more than a small minority of residential neighbours in the immediate vicinity of a new development raise any objection, then the conformity of the planning application with the local plan must be formally assessed by the local planning authority.”

There are fears this could cause substantial delays. The paper goes on to state: “We anticipate that in many
cases developers will choose to avoid the need for formal assessment of the application, and hence speed up the planning process, by reaching voluntary agreements to compensate nearby householders.”

One source at a contractor working with several major retailers said: “If I were you I’d buy up as many houses as I could afford around potential supermarket sites.

“When the retailers come knocking you can just cash in. You’ll be set for life.”

Kier chief executive Paul Sheffield said: “The real impact will be that the spatial strategies that were to be set out by regional development agencies will no longer exist, leaving local decision-making in all cases.”