Town Centre First; Out-of-Town development, and dangers of Business Rates Retention

Further to my earlier Blog about The Government’s Town Centre First policy for development, set out in NPPF, not working I have come across an example of how the policy is being used in practice.

Maidstone Council has recently granted planning consent to Next for a large out-of-town superstore near M20 Junction 7 despite recommendations by Planning Officers that it should be rejected as it would harm Maidstone Town Centre. Alternative sites in the town centre were identified by Planning Officers but Next claimed these were not viable.

The out-of-town site, Eclipse Park, was designated for business and office use and many town centre businesses fear that Next’s success could encourage other retailers to locate there. Nearby Newnham Court has been identified for retail expansion in Maidstone Council’s emerging Core Strategy, and there are concerns about the cumulative effect on the town centre now that another out-of-town location has got approval for retail.

It seems to me that allowing through such proposals risks removing the foundations of the Core Strategy and thus creating more uncertainty rather than the certainty which a Core Strategy is supposed to bring.

The Council Leader has been reported as saving that if the application is refused Next will walk away and end up somewhere else in Kent -this will send out the wrong message and also damage Maidstone economically, and that the economic benefits outweigh the negatives put forward by officers.

I would have thought that the potential threat of ‘going elsewhere in Kent’ could have been handled by the other Local Planning Authorities using their duty to co-operate and agreeing a coordinated and robust town-centre-first set of policies, which would avoid them being picked off one-at-a time by the big national retailers – perhaps the LEPs should lead on co-coordinating the duty to cooperate, (although other levels of Government are available)?

Also, I see more of this willingness to accept ‘departures’ from the Local Plan happening now that Local Authorities keep a share of Business Rates – the temptation of additional revenues against a balanced local plan (and short-term over long-term) will be too temping for some Local Authorities to resist. We only have to look to the USA where the local government raises a large proportion of their revenues locally to learn this lesson.

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