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Feeling needy, Mr Pickles?

August 29th, 2012

When PPS4 was issued in 2009 one of its key purposes was to abolish the requirement for applicants to demonstrate a ‘need’ for new retail floorspace.

The abolition of this test was in response to criticism in the Barker Report that singled the need test out as a blunt and dysfunctional tool that, as the Government acknowledged, all too often causes planners to get caught up in debate about technical definitions, and overlook the vital question of what the proposed development actually means for the town centre and the people who rely on it.

Three years on, and PPS4 has been superseded by the NPPF that makes absolutely no reference to a requirement for applicants to demonstrate a ‘need’ for new proposals.

Yet, in a number of recent retail appeal decisions the need test gained as much consideration as the sequential test and impact. So are Inspectors and retail planning boffins ignoring the guidance and giving life support to a hypothetical and pretty meaningless test that ought to have been lain to rest three years ago? It certainly seems so on the face of it.

So why has the need test continued to appear in retail planning cases? The first reason appears to be that PPS4 was drafted so badly that need appeared, albeit obliquely, as one of the strands (16.1.d) of the impact test.

It referred to impact “..taking account of current and future consumer expenditure capacity in the catchment area up to five years from the time the application is made…”

If it were limited to this reference alone, then one would have expected the need test to be confined to a few lines at the end of the impact chapter in current retail assessments and appeal decisions.

What appears to have occurred however is that in seeking to provide ‘Practice Guidance’ on PPS4, Sir Humphrey has opted to insert the need test liberally and randomly throughout the document.

For example, at Paragraph 5.7 in the context of the sequential test it refers to the prospect of opportunities coming forward “likely to be capable of meeting the same requirements as the application is intended to meet.” Sounds like a need test to me.

At Paragraph 6.33 in the context of the sequential test it is somewhat more explicit:

“While there is no policy requirement to demonstrate need, an operator claiming that it is able to be flexible about its chosen business model would be expected to demonstrated (sic) why a smaller store or stores could not meet a similar need.”

Sir Humphrey has done well with this one. In the same sentence he has claimed there to be no ­policy requirement for a need test at the same time as insisting that one would be necessary to support a new retail proposal.

He has also managed to sneak the dreaded need word into Paragraphs 7.34-7.36 in the context of assessing the appropriate scale of new proposals.

Indeed, the only reference in the Practice Guidance that appears to be properly reflective of the actual Guidance itself is hidden away in the appendices at Paragraph D12, which suggests that turnover ought to be considered:

“in light of of quantitative capacity and other qualitative need considerations.”

As I have noted, the NPPF has superseded PPS4 and is completely silent on need.

This has however proven no obstacle to Sir Humphrey. Immediately following publication of the NPPF his flunkies at DCLG asserted that the Practice Guidance is still a material consideration in the determination of retail planning applications.

The NPPF and the Practice Guidance make for unlikely bedfellows. What we have is on one hand a national policy framework in England built on principles of simplicity and supporting development and on the other an ‘adopted’ Practice Guidance that continues to advocate a test that contributes towards a confused, dysfunctional and perhaps even anti-development approach towards new retail.

The result is confusion, with neither practitioners nor local authorities understanding fully whether to consider, and what weight to place upon, a demonstration of need.

One would have hoped that the egregious, plain speaking Mr Pickles would have stepped in and addressed this inconsistency. Perhaps he hasn’t seen the need.