The Competition Commission wants to make the Office of Fair Trading a statutory consultee on supermarket schemes – which is a splendid way to make regeneration even more difficult, says Jackie Sadek
I have been endeavouring to keep up with the various pronouncements from the Competition Commission on the food retail sector. I’ve kept a particular eye on what effect this will have on urban regeneration projects. I have to say I’m finding it all a bit opaque – actually this is something of an understatement, in truth I’m beginning to suspect that the Commission is chaired by Franz Kafka. I don’t think it’s just me.
I come at this not as chair of the British Urban Regeneration Association (and this article does not represent the BURA view, which is still being consulted on) but as a cynical regeneration practitioner, and I admit that what I have to say has more than a whiff of self-interest. By which I mean that many of the regeneration projects with which I have been involved over the past 20 years (and at this point I ought to ’fess up to having worked in site acquisitions for Tesco for three of them) have been predicated on a food store of one sort or another. More to the point, some of these regeneration projects would never have got off the ground had it not been for the package of investment and jobs that the right format of supermarket brought with it (leaving aside other potential benefits such as transport or public realm improvements).
I pride myself on my track record of delivering large-scale complex schemes and, frankly, much of my reputation has been built as a result of one enlightened supermarket chain or another being prepared to invest in an area when nobody else wanted to go anywhere near.
The Competition Commission’s proposal is to make the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) a statutory consultee within the planning system on “larger supermarket schemes”. I feel every sympathy for the planners on this. An already overloaded system would clearly struggle with yet another layer of statutory consultees.
Are we really suggesting that local planning authorities should be required to consult the OFT on whether a supermarket development with more than 1,000m2 of net sales floor space should be given the go-ahead? Be reasonable: 1,000m2 is the size of a small neighbourhood store – the likes of a Sainsbury’s Local or a Tesco Metro. It is just this size of store that makes the difference between turning a food desert
into a viable estate, able to stand on its own two feet. This is fragile stuff. In areas that are not overwhelmed with people desperate to invest, please do not put another obstacle in the way.
Who is to decree which supermarket should go where? Is an omnipotent person to decide between the rival merits of Sainsbury’s and Asda, say?
And who is to decree which supermarket should go where, for goodness sake? Is an omnipotent person to decide between the rival merits of Morrison’s and Lidl, say, or Sainsbury’s and Asda? The mind boggles at such a command-led approach. Is the Competition Commission seriously suggesting that an OFT ruling from Westminster would be better for the local community than one made by the local authority planner who has a thorough understanding of the needs of the local people in a hard-pressed urban space?
Nobody in my game could possibly be opposed to measures which take into account the impact that development might have on retail diversity. But we must be careful not to further overload the planning system or, worse still, undermine its inherent fairness.
And what does the OFT think of all this? Rumour has it that it would prefer to see responsibility resting with the communities department. Needless to say, my sources inform me, the communities department would like to see it resting with the OFT. Can you hear the sound of a buck being passed?
Our existing planning policy for town centres is flawed but essentially sound: it is a blunt instrument but it tries to promote competition and consumer choice. Planning for Town Centres (PPS6) is complicated enough; for pity’s sake, leave well alone.
I trust the commission will carefully consider the implications for business, consumers and communities as well as protecting the impartiality and productivity of our planning system before suggesting anything that may further restrict regeneration in failing urban settlements. Jackie Sadek is head of regeneration at CB Richard Ellis and chair of BURA