Planning is obscure at times. It is governed by a sprawling collection of frameworks, statements of guidance, strategies and miscellaneous documents. Any decision is a matter of judgement – we call it the planning balance.
This article is an attempt to explain to you the planners’ conclusion on Tuesday that the impacts of the proposed Rocks Green supermarket on Ludlow town centre “were more than minor in terms of significance but not significant enough to be significantly adverse.”
In the planning balance, there are hurdles of different height that have to be jumped if a scheme is to be approved. If you want to knock down a listed historic building for example, the hurdle is very high. The courts have said that the historic fabric of country has to be given special consideration in the planning process. If you want to build an affordable house in a green field, the hurdle is usually lower because we have an acute need for rural affordable housing. I am proud that the South Planning Committee approved 13 affordable houses last Tuesday. Officers had wanted one home at Onibury refused. We voted unanimously for it to go ahead because it met a local need.
When it comes to supermarkets, the rulebook is much slimmer than it used to be. We can no longer ask whether a supermarket is needed but national and local rules dictate certain that certain tests still need to be applied. Developers must look for sites in town centres first and edge of centre second. If no suitable sites are found, then out of town sites can be considered. This is called the sequential test. One way of passing the sequential test is to make your initial application for a supermarket so big a site within a town cannot be found.
I accept that the Rocks Green application passes the sequential test. It is far too big for any site within the A49.
The next test is impact. National and local planning rules require a developer proposing a retail development prepares an impact assessment. This is an inexact science. Over the years, retail planners have found ways of working that – surprise, surprise – come out in favour of their out of town supermarket developments. Council planners do not have the resources to conduct their own impact assessments. So they usually ask a retail specialist to check that the applicant’s assessment is okay.
Planning consultancy Peter Brett Associates (PBA) was asked by Shropshire Council to review the impact assessment. PBA accepted that there is no clear methodology for undertaking parts of the impact assessment. This includes linked trips – occasions where people shop at Tesco or Aldi and then go on to other shops in the town centre. The company admitted that “there is no established or particularly robust method by which to calculate the indirect trade impacts of out-of-centre retail proposals.” In my book, that means that much of the analysis of retail impact is little better than guesswork.
PBA concluded that the impact of the Rocks Green proposal on retail trade in the town centre are “clearly not insignificant”. Council officers, using the same data and relying on the PBA report, said the impact would be “less than significant” in their report to the committee.
This significant difference between “clearly not insignificant” – an awkward double negative – and “less than significant” was noted well before the committee meeting, leading to at least one letter to the press. Clun councillor Nigel Hartin picked up the point during the committee debate. He asked officers:
“My understanding is that the [PBA] report we have had produced for Shropshire Council… pointed out that the impact on the town centre “would not be insignificant”. What would you take that to mean?”
A planning officer replied:
“The conclusion from the Peter Brett report translated into our report were more than minor in terms of significance but not significant enough to be significantly adverse.”
Officers are under resourced and often under great pressure. It hasn’t helped that this scheme was not decided one way or the other last Tuesday. They have been instructed by the committee to look again at the impact this scheme would have on the town centre. They have also been asked to review the level of congestion the supermarket and petrol filling station will create on the local roads and the A49, taking into account plans to build 200 homes south of Rocks Green. We expecting the scheme to come back to committee for a decision in December, possibly January.
I am hoping for a clearer explanation of the significance of insignificant significance at that meeting. I hope too that clear plain English could be used in reports and during committee. This will help those campaigning in support or against an application.