Long-standing planning policies tightly control out-of-town retail developments with a view to protecting the viability and vitality of town centre shopping areas. However, as a High Court case illustrated, how such policies are applied on the ground very much depends on local conditions.
The case concerned a council’s decision to grant planning consent for a homewares store with 2,323 square metres of trading space on the outskirts of a market town. Conditions attached to the consent barred the proposed store from selling fresh or frozen goods and limited the space to be used for the sale of convenience, non-perishable, packaged goods to 314 square metres.
In challenging the decision, a company which owned an existing retail store nearby pointed to a local policy which required that planning applications in respect of edge of or outside town retail developments which measure more than 250 square metres be accompanied by a retail impact assessment. The would-be developer of the proposed new store provided such a document in its application, but the council did not insist on a specific impact assessment in respect of the convenience goods element of the development.
The planning officer to whom the decision was delegated found that the amount of floor space to be dedicated to the sale of convenience goods was so small as to be effectively irrelevant. He noted that the site was located near to an established out-of-town shopping centre but was of the view that the new store would have only a limited impact on the larger retailers located there rather than causing a loss of trade to smaller shops in the town centre.
In rejecting the company’s arguments, the Court found that its challenge was really to the officer’s exercise of his planning judgment, rather than to his interpretation of the relevant policy. The officer was well aware of the 250 square metre threshold, above which retail impact assessments would generally be required, but had applied that policy in a proportionate and locally appropriate manner.
The relatively small convenience goods part of the proposal was plainly secondary or ancillary to the store’s primary use for the sale of bulky goods and, where there were competing out-of-town stores in close proximity, there was nothing irrational about the officer’s conclusion that a specific retail impact assessment was not required.
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