Locals could have more say on how Norfolk high streets look

In Norfolk we stopped short of riots seen in Bristol, but placards and petitions – not to mention the hundreds of letters written to councils – have made this region a familiar landscape for high-street campaigning in our city and our market towns.

Yet despite opposition and concern about the high street in Sheringham and on Unthank Road in Norwich, planning permission was given and stores have sprung up.

But if a Liberal Democrat peer has his way, the story could be very different for future campaigners.

From the seeds of an anti-Tesco, then anti-Sainsbury's, campaign in Cambridge – very similar to those fought within our borders – the House of Lords debated a small amendment in the Localism Bill yesterday.

Lord Anthony Greaves of Pendle has tabled the 'health and diversity of town centres and high streets' amendment which, if passed, will give local councils across the country the power to decide the mix of shops on their high streets, rejecting those that they fear would lead to their towns and cities becoming 'clones'.

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A recent EDP State of the High Street survey found that nearly 90pc of shoppers buy their food and other products from supermarkets, with nearly two thirds saying not enough quality and variety are provided in their local high street alone to persuade them to shop locally.

But two thirds of people said they were proud of their town centre and that if everything they needed was provided there then they would steer clear of the major supermarket chains.

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Those who have headed campaigns against supermarkets across the region welcomed the amendment.

Chris Hull was part of a campaign against Tesco which was eventually lost on Unthank Road and has spoken at a public meeting about the Mill Road Tesco application which sparked this amendment.

He said that anything which balanced out the 'tick box' planning mentality was a good thing.

'As with Unthank Road we had hundreds of written letters of objection, but they did not seem to carry any weight.'

Paul Clarke, regional office partner at Bidwells in Norwich, said: 'The present system is firmly based on certain criteria which has an emphasis on retail being in town and city centres. It is irrespective of who it is.'

Planners, critics say, are able to ignore tidal waves of often vocal opposition to supermarkets, and as a result many high streets packed with thriving small businesses and independents have disappeared and some are under threat.

What's more, the supermarket giants launch costly appeals and district councils are eventually forced to cave in not wanting to waste anymore of the tax payers' money.

But what about those who want the Tescos and Sainsbury's and other big names on their high streets. After 13 years in Sheringham there was eventually a significant 'yes' lobby. 'I think conversely this could favour the big players if people do want them. It cuts both ways in theory,' Mr Hull added.

But Sara Cordey, spokesman for the British Retail Consortium which represents supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury's, said that it was an unnecessary addition to our legislation.

'Local people already have the power to affect which retailers succeed in their local area depending on how they choose to spend their money. Customer choice dictates which retailers thrive and which fail,' she added.

'That is the greatest control any community can have. There is no need to add another level of bureaucracy. There is no need for another decision-making process. The market looks after itself.'

Nicola Currie, regional director of the Country, Land and Business Association, said it had long argued for the diversity and vitality of market towns. She said that for every small-scale shop there was something like three local food producers behind it.

'If you get rid of the small shops and the diverse range of shops in the market towns and reduce it down to one large out-of-town store you will affect the local economy dispropor-tionately because small local producers can only find outlet through local retail.

'Anything that gives more power to the local voice is to be welcomed,' she added.

She said that such powers would stop a 'monopoly' situation, which could only be a good thing.

Barry Dennis, chairman of the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, also welcomed the amendment, but he said the councils must also do their bit to promote city and town centres whether through schemes like shop art or help with business rates.

Cambridge City Council leader Sian Reid, who came up with the idea and lobbied for the amendment, said it had been welcomed across the country.

'I am delighted that Baron Greaves has responded to our concerns and tabled this amendment. People are calling it the Cambridge Amendment, but the implications reach further afield: it is about promoting the diversity of our high streets all over the country.

'The amendment, if included in the Localism Bill, would require councils to draw up retail diversity plans with the help of their residents and would be obliged to consider the plans when considering applications for retail change of use. They would have to take into account the balance of independent and multiple traders, unit sizes and classes of use.'

The Localism Bill is still going through the House of Lords and the report stage of the bill will be after the summer recess.

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