Cautious response to bid to boost market towns

Kim BriscoePlans to safeguard East Anglia's historic market towns from harm by out-of-town developments have been unveiled by the Government.The changes to planning policy are aimed at giving local councils more power to resist potentially damaging retail parks and large supermarkets.Kim Briscoe

Plans to safeguard East Anglia's historic market towns from harm by out-of-town developments have been unveiled by the Government.

The changes to planning policy are aimed at giving local councils more power to resist potentially damaging retail parks and large supermarkets.

However it has been met with scepticism by communities who say they will need to look at the small print before gauging how effective it will be in the fight to keep town centres and local markets thriving.

Housing and planning minister John Healey has published the new advice for Town Hall planners and said many high streets had been 'hit hard by a double whammy of the downturn and out-of-town retail parks'.

The revised guidelines keep rules to ensure most central town centre sites are developed first for shops, leisure and offices rather than out-of-town sites that lure high street shoppers away.

A tougher 'impact test' is also being introduced, replacing the dysfunctional 'needs test' and which allows councils to assess development that could harm town centres against key factors including climate change, impact on the high street, consumer choice, consumer spending and jobs.

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Local authorities will also have to make markets an integral part of the vision for their town centres, enhancing existing markets and, where appropriate, re-introducing or creating new ones.

Markets minister Rosie Winterton said: 'Norfolk has a great market town heritage and Norwich is one of the biggest and finest markets in the East. Markets like this all over the country have had a tough time recently with competition from out-of-town supermarkets and discount stores but they are a vital part of the local economy creating jobs, attracting more people to town centres and providing good value fresh produce.'

Fakenham mayor Mike Coates gave a cautious welcome to the policy changes, which he hopes will protect the thriving weekly market, while helping to fill some of the vacant business premises in the town centre.

He said: "If it is actually giving towns more say about the development of their town centres then it can only be good. But if it is just words on paper then it is a waste of time. It has got to have some credence to make a difference to a town like ours.'

Barry Coleman, leader of Great Yarmouth Borough Council, said it was a continual battle to look after the town centre to make sure it remains at the heart of the community.

Although he welcomed the proposals, Mr Coleman said: "We have heard this sort of thing before from the government. 'The small print will be have to be looked at.'

The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), which represents more than 33,500 local shops, remains unconvinced the new guidelines will halt supermarkets from undermining the character of town centres.

ACS chief executive James Lowman said: 'Ministers have claimed today that the new planning policy is tougher, will promote town centres and protect small shops, but the detail does not match the rhetoric.

'This new policy will weigh heavily on under-resourced planning departments in local councils, who will have to interpret and implement a policy that is ambitious, contradictory and highly subjective.'

The Sheringham store wars saga has seen Tesco trying to build a store in Cromer Road, on the fringe of the town centre, for more than a decade, in the face of fierce opposition from traders and town councillors and a campaign group who say it would destroy the existing vibrant town centre. Tesco argue it would help by bringing more people in, and they would walk to other shops too.

At a planning meeting next month it will go head-to-head with a rival plan put forward by a local landowner for an eco-friendly store.

Dereham currently has a waiting list of traders wanting to attend on Fridays, thanks to a rent reduction and the town council promoting its Tuesday, Friday and farmers' market.

Traders claim the town did feel the effect of having an out-of-town Tesco superstore, but it has also expanded its town centre with a new shopping area opened nearly five years ago - although a second phase of this development has yet to be built.

Mayor Ann Bowyer said: "I welcome any new initiative which focuses on markets and town centres in this economic climate.'

In Diss residents objected to plans for a large Tesco store in 2005, claiming that it would have a negative impact on local stores in the area.

However, the planning application was granted and the new store opened in 2005, creating more than 200 jobs, and the following year the nearby Morrisons supermarket was also extended, creating an extra 80 jobs.