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Can Your Council Be Trusted With Your High Street?

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It's enough to make you gag on your value mince pies. Barely a week after Mary 'Queen of Shops' Portas presented her menu of recommendations to save the high street, we learned that there are enough supermarkets in the planning pipeline to swallow every Tesco store in the country.

Analysis by property experts CBRE shows that if all the plans for new supermarkets currently in the pipeline are approved, the amount of supermarket trading space in the UK would rise by 50%. If that happens, we can wave goodbye to local resilience: we will be chronically dependent on a super-size food supply system dominated by four major corporations.

Of course not every plan will be approved, and supermarkets prepare more applications than they need. But they have deep pockets and can afford to play Monopoly for real. The standard strategy is to put in a planning application and, if it is unsuccessful, make minor tweaks and keep resubmitting or appealing against the council's decision until they succeed. Councils tend not to have the staff or resources to engage in this kind of trench warfare.

What's more, supermarkets can offer the golden carrot of jobs. The bigger the store, the bigger the headline figure of jobs created - and what local authority would resist a promise to offer some of those jobs to long-term unemployed people?

Thus the myth of retail-led regeneration is woven and sold to planners and councillors. But at a time of falling household income, the money spent to support these new supermarket jobs is money that is not being spent elsewhere. Nobody measures this displacement, though - the spin is that the jobs and spending are all new.

CBRE, as a savvy organisation that knows which side its toast is buttered, presents this boom as not only the 'only game left in town', but as great news for town centres:

'Aside from their local job-generating potential, an important attribute of grocers which is increasingly coming to the fore is their potent High Street anchoring characteristics.'

The key study people cite in this respect is one from Southampton University, thrillingly titled 'Revisiting the impact of large foodstores on market towns and district centres'. Researched between 2007 and 2009, it suggests that people who visit edge-of-town supermarkets are also likely to visit shops in the town centre. It was commissioned by Tesco.

This idea of the supermarket as an anchor to the high street only holds good if what is on offer at the supermarket is substantially different from the rest of the town centre. As supermarkets increasingly diversify into everything from clothes to TVs, it might be truer to say stores only act as an 'anchor' for the few activities that don't interest them or where there is no serious money to be made.

So who will present an alternative vision of a high street? It's a role that should fall to the local council as the authority responsible for local economic, social and environmental wellbeing, acting as a voice for the whole community.

Yet too often social and environmental considerations are jettisoned in the scramble for anything perceived as creating jobs. Councillors are frequently advised that they don't have grounds to refuse planning applications, and they begin on the back foot because their role is often to react rather than to make things happen.

This is where the idea of 'town teams' in the Portas Review could come into its own. By bringing local people, businesses, community organisations, councillors and council officers together to create a shared vision for the high street, it should be easier to resist predatory planning applications. Planning inspectors should have to show overwhelming reasons for overturning a town team's recommendation.

Neighbourhood plans for town centres should specify that new developments should add to the diversity of activities and demonstrate how they will keep money circulating within the local economy. They should show how they will build social, economic and environmental wellbeing by sourcing goods and services from local suppliers and creating opportunities for independent businesses and community activity.

Some supermarkets may be able to do that, building a symbiotic relationship with independent traders and the local community. Where they can, they should be encouraged. But given that we already have an oligopoly where four major chains sell more than three quarters of Britain's groceries, our councils should ask some very hard questions before feeding this cuckoo in the nest.