Alliance Party Environment Spokesperson Anna Lo MLA and myself have welcomed announcement from the Environment Minister Alex Attwood that he intends to introduce a new Retail and Town Centre Planning Policy.
We have however urged immediate action to ensure edge and out of town retail developments aren't allowed to gradually transform to become much larger developments than originally intended.
The announcement was made in response to an Assembly Question from Anna Lo MLA concerning unchecked growth of edge of town retail developments which can occur to the detriment of Town Centre's across Northern Ireland.
Commenting on the issue, South Belfast Assembly Member and Alliance Environment Spokesperson Anna Lo MLA stated "With Town Centres feeling the effect of the current economic downturn a balanced growth strategy is essential to ensure the growth of edge and out of town retail developments doesn't occur at the expense of Town Centres.
I welcome the Minister's statement in reply to my Assembly Question but await sight of the detail. In order for the new Policy Planning Statement (PPS) to have real teeth it needs to be clear, straightforward and have the promotion of our Town Centres at its heart. Clear, decisive and prompt action is essential to regenerate Town Centres and ensure a vibrant retail sector".
Commenting on the unchecked growth of edge and out of town developments stated that locally in North Down we have seen Bloomfield Shopping Centre grow from 7,432 square metres net retail floor space when it opened in April 1992 to a rateable area of 34,862 square metres in 2012.
The current net retail floor space is unknown by the Department of the Environment to allow easy comparison between now and 1992 and highlights my main concern, namely that the edge of town retail development has been able to balloon as a result of a stream of individual Planning Applications.
Whilst I welcome the Minister's commitment to explore how better monitoring can be introduced urgent action is required to ensure more rigorous assessment of the overall impact of individual expansion applications for edge and out of town developments. With Northern Ireland experiencing the highest town centre shop vacancy rate in the UK (14% compared to 11%) the time for action is now.
Friday 4 May 2012 Written Answers, WA 177
Department of the Environment (AQW 10436/11-15)
Edge-of-Town Shopping Complexes
Ms Lo asked the Minister of the Environment whether he intends to (i) review the situation under which the gradual growth of edge-of-town shopping complexes, through numerous planning applications, damages town centres over time with retailers drawn away from the towns and towards the new developments; and (ii) implement a more stringent and balanced approach which involves on-going monitoring of the current net retail floor space for edge and out-of-town retail developments.
Mr Attwood (The Minister of the Environment): I believe there is a strong need to review retail and town centre policy. To inform this I intend to commence a wider debate on the future of city and town centres in the North and all matters relating to their vitality and viability. It is my ambition to bring about a new PPS to cover these issues.
I recognise that we must have up to date robust evidence to inform this process. I can advise that officials are currently considering how this can be best facilitated, including identification of information needs and the role of monitoring.
In addition, on-going monitoring will be handled through the new 'plan-led' local development plan system. This will require councils to prepare a monitoring report annually as to the extent to which objectives, including town centre and retailing objectives, set out in their local development plans are being achieved. Regular reviews of plans will take account of this monitoring to allow plan policies to be more responsive to ever changing retail needs and demands.
However, retail decisions will still need to be made. I plan to be decisive in this regard.