The EDDC Local Plan Panel focussed in the health of town centres in the area in their meeting on Tuesday (27th September) as part of the work of preparing a Local Plan for East Devon.
Members heard how the Government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) places a high emphasis on town centres as a key factor in both planning policy and local and regional economies.
The expert evidence was part of the comprehensive research EDDC is doing before a firm set of Local Plan proposals is drawn up in the autumn.
The LDF Panel’s meeting was the latest in a series designed to produce a planning guidance document running from 2011 for the next 15 years to 2026.
Running in parallel with the deliberations of the East Devon Members is a Government consultation on the NPPF – a simplified set of national planning guidelines that will drive local policies and provide the benchmarks by which building permissions are granted or refused.
Making the link between the NPPF and town centres in East Devon was a report from consultants GVA Grimley, whose experts act as advisors to the Government. Having carried out a Retail Study of East Devon’s towns in 2008, Grimley have recently updated their findings to reflect the picture in 2011.
The current state of town centres in East Devon has to be viewed against a national trend of declining retail sales, as shopping centres compete with online sellers. For example, while the online grocery market in 2000 was worth £365 million, by 2010 it had grown to £4.7 billion. Yet the online grocery market still revolves around local retail stores.
At the same time, shop space is shrinking in many towns, as leisure activities such as eating out and the cafe culture grow in popularity.
In East Devon, Grimley’s research shows that spending on food is rising at much the same level (around 0.7% a year) as in 2008. But the rate of growth in spending on non-food items has slipped from 4.3% a year to a little over 3% a year in 2011.
Turning to specific towns;
Axminster gets a reasonably clean bill of health, with good levels of people staying in the town to buy their food. But Grimley reports a low level of non-food shoppers (18%). Axminster was judged to have no spare capacity for further food store development.
Honiton is seen as a reasonably healthy town centre, with a good offering of niche shopping. Again, food shoppers tend to stay in town, although not in the centre, due to the dominance of the Tesco store at the western end. Taking into account current stores and those with permission but not yet built, there is still a small amount of additional food store capacity in Honiton, say the consultants.
Seaton has the highest level of empty shop units in East Devon and, at the time of the latest study, the town centre attracted only 30% of food shoppers, with the rest travelling elsewhere. This could change significantly when the new Tesco opens and there is deemed to be no new food store capacity in Seaton.
Sidmouth, say the consultants, has a popular and healthy shopping centre, with a good range of retail outlets. Around 60% of food purchases are retained in the town and an impressive 87% of food shoppers stay around to purchase non-food items. Grimleys say there is no extra capacity in Sidmouth for a new food store due to the number of local stores and the recent extension to Waitrose.
Putting the East Devon retail study into context, the consultants say the NPPF continues to distinguish between retail and other employment. They recommend that planning policies should:
· Support the vitality and viability of town centres as a priority
· Recognise that residential development can play an important role in this aim
· Allocate a range of suitable sites to meet retail and leisure needs in full.
A firm response to the Government’s NPPF consultation will be voted on by the Panel next week at their meeting on Tuesday 4th October. Members of the public and press are welcome.