More than half of new retail space is still being built out of town, in spite of the government’s attempts to shoehorn such developments into town centres.

Ministers are opposed to out-of-town development in principle, because it is thought to create more traffic congestion and pollution and it tends not to be integrated into the wider urban fabric.

But the most recent government data, for 2003, show that only 26.6 per cent of new retail floorspace was built in town centres. Even if “edge-of-town” development is included, the proportion being built in towns is still only 39.5 per cent.

John Prescott, deputy prime minister, claimed last month that government policies had “checked the growth of sprawl”.

Speaking at the Town and Country Planning Association’s conference on accessible town centres and sustainable communities, he said: “We have intervened through the planning system and our other policies to secure better outcomes for our economy, society and the environment.”

Yet in spite of that, and similar assurances from the government, more than 100m sq ft of out-of-town space is thought to have been built in the past 10 years.

The 2003 figure of 27 per cent of retail space being built in town centres was higher than its low point of 13.7 per cent in 1994, but still much less than the 52 per cent recorded in 1982.

Under PPG6, the relevant government guideline that was introduced in 1996, and PPS6, which replaced it this year, councils are encouraged to favour town centres over out-of-town sites. But the latter can be allowed if they will help secure the regeneration of brownfield sites in poor neighbourhoods with low employment.

Out-of-town development is still rampant, in part, because of old planning permissions working their way through the system.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said the trend was moving in the right way. But it admitted: “There is a massive time lag between planning permission and development, so what you are looking at reflects planning permission, in many cases, granted years before.”

The department last week introduced new laws to force developers to start work on projects within three years of receiving detailed planning permission rather than the previous five.

The struggle to restrict out-of-town development is epitomised in Belfast, where the city council and chamber of commerce are set to launch a legal challenge to the 500,000 sq ft expansion of Sprucefield, a nearby shopping centre.

John Lewis, the retailer that will anchor the expanded out-of-town site, said there were no viable in-town sites for it in Northern Ireland.

Sir Stuart Hampson, the group’s chairman, recently declared: “There is nothing less productive than a town whose economic vitality has been sapped by out-of-town retailing.”

But he added that retailers, including John Lewis, could not “stand aside from opportunities” that competitors would otherwise seize. He said: “We are campaigners but not crusaders.”

Donaldsons, the property agent, suggested that companies were set to build the equivalent of seven shopping centres, each the size of the one at Brent Cross in north London, in out-of-town retail parks.

These parks typically offer space to a number of “big box” retailers where customers can park next to the shops. Historically, the favoured home of carpet and white goods sellers, they have recently grown in popularity with retailers such as Next, Boots and TK Maxx.

Donaldsons estimated that permission had been granted for 6m sq ft of such parks. If other out-of-town retail was included – shopping centres and supermarkets – the figure for total space under development would be much larger.

However, the need for this new space is under question from figures, also from Donaldsons, showing the level of empty space in shops has jumped in the past year.

Donaldsons identified 15 new retail parks covering 2m sq ft which were already under construction. These were in locations such as Gloucester, Ayr, Orpington, Maidenhead, Lanark and Deeside. Of these, more than 90 per cent was entirely new space, with only a couple of the sites replacing old retail.

Another 4m sq ft of retail parks, most of which will be entirely new, have planning permission. In addition, the figures do not include small retail parks below 55,000 sq ft of space, which are becoming increasingly common in smaller towns.

The continued increase in supply was being driven by demand from fashion and sports retailers in particular, according to Patrick Heaps, a partner at Donaldsons.

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