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British Land: "Shopping centre development gain outweighs pain - but only just"

"Britain’s retail planning system is variable: variable in policy, variable in approach, variable in quality and level of response.

"Add to this inconsistency the hazards thrown up by judicial reviews and the new Community Infrastructure Levy and the retail development system finds itself in a difficult corner.

"All retail developers want is to create the new space required by both retailers and consumers, jobs and good shareholder returns. Right now the odds are against all three aims.

"Let me explain: first, how the system is challenging developers, and then how we believe the retail planning system can be fixed.

"Anyone who has run applications for major urban regeneration projects knows the planning system in the UK is bureaucratic, lengthy, expensive, inconsistent and just when the country needs to be generating economic growth, falls short.

"There are many councils doing a great job operating within difficult parameters, but there are some who make it harder than it should be.

"In Sheffield, we have been engaged in a high-profile battle with the city council, which refused ourselves and Next permission for a Next Home and Garden store near Meadowhall.

"British Land and Next argue that the £10 million store is unsuitable for the city centre – with Next chief executive Lord Wolfson hitting the headlines for saying Sheffield is `closing its doors for business’ by potentially turning away 125 new jobs.

"The council, on the other hand, says Next should open its store on an alternative site closer to the city centre - even though the retailer doesn’t want to because the council’s proposed site would not meet its requirements. Put simply, the company wouldn’t locate there.

"Of course planning policy should promote town and city centres first for those types of retail that can be accommodated in those locations. We shouldn’t try, though, to impose a one size fits all approach. If we do, the end result will often be a lack of investment and new jobs.

"The fundamental problem is that many people do not fully understand the hurdles required to create a new retail scheme.

"Long gone are the days when retail development was a cash cow: now the risk combined with the impact planning, site assembly and legal delays have on the timing of returns, make retail-led urban regeneration a difficult call.

"The hurdles often start with the Official Journal of the European Union process, where contracts are often awarded purely on price rather than ability to deliver.

"If planning can be secured, the judicial review system is a further difficult hurdle to negotiate and delay much needed investment and jobs, often by a year or more. Even the possibility of judicial review often impacts the programme because developers are loathe to start in the three month period of potential challenge. The proposed reduction to six weeks would have an immediate effect in reducing this delay.

"Add in the hazards of the Community Infrastructure Levy and the barriers to entry to significant UK retail development are high.

"That’s why only two major retail schemes have opened this year – USS and British Land’s Whiteley Shopping Centre on May 23rd and Trinity Leeds – and why so many projects in other major towns and cities are struggling to get off the starting blocks.

So what can be done?

"First, it would be good for local authorities to take more responsibility – to realise that they can be the catalyst for great new schemes.
"There is a tremendous example of this in Woking, where the council has bought the town’s centre with a view to ensuring the appropriate redevelopment takes place within a sensible timescale.

"Next, could councils be more flexible with OJEU? A short, sharp selection process will satisfy European criteria just as well as the gruelling bidding process which now takes place. Selection should be on the basis of a scheme’s deliverability rather than bid price.

"Third, local authorities could be more robust in assisting with land assembly and Compulsory Purchase Orders. Retail development creates jobs – for 1,000 people in Whiteley’s case.

"Fourth, the judicial review system needs a total overhaul: the current three month time limit for a review to be lodged should be cut to six weeks, and it is crucial that there should only be one opportunity for all parties to appeal.

"And finally, the Community Infrastructure Levy should be part of a wider plan for an area, rather than a stand-alone tariff, creating an integrated, coherent `action plan’ for infrastructure and jobs.

"The irony about retail planning today is that two of the key aspirations I outlined earlier – appealing to retailers and creating jobs – are shared by councils and developers alike.

"There isn’t enough of the right type of retail in the UK, there aren’t enough jobs and economic development is unnecessarily stuck in treacle. However, as proven by Whiteley, which was 91% pre-let on opening last month, the demand is there if developers can provide the right space within a sensible time line. Why is it made so difficult?"

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