Jonathan Reynolds

By Jonathan Reynolds

Superstores in market towns and district centres: a critique

The impact of large food stores on traditional patterns of retailing is a topic that has been of longstanding interest to practitioners, policymakers and academics in the UK for the past thirty years. Attention has increasingly focused on smaller, and arguably more vulnerable, locations for such developments, not least in the light of changes in planning policy designed to focus such investment on town centres. Analysis of the net effects of such developments have too often been characterised by debates generating more heat than light.

Research recently commissioned by Tesco from the University of Southampton has sought to add to our understanding of these issues (Wrigley et al. 2010). The Southampton team’s report specifically investigates three market towns (based in the south of England) and three district centres (based in the North-West of England) where new large food stores have opened. It aims to provide a contemporary analysis of the impacts of supermarket developments in these areas, which moves beyond the ‘highly-polarised policy debates’ that surround the development of large supermarkets in different locations. In particular the report is designed to explore the impact of planning legislation from the mid 1990s: namely PPG6 (1996), the ‘sequential test’, and the ‘town centre first’ approach to retail development.

Analysis of the net effects of such developments have too often been characterised by debates generating more heat than light.

This work is all the more relevant bearing in mind the more recent PPS4, which has reiterated the importance of a town centre first approach and the need for impact assessments in relation to supermarket planning. The Southampton team argues that policy debates have run ahead of an outdated evidence base, which is overly reliant on a report into the impact of large food stores on market towns and district centres, commissioned by the DETR in 1998. The Southampton research is designed to remedy this information gap, and tests the effectiveness of PPG6 and the town-centre first approach to planning through a rigorous impact study conducted between 2007-9. In practice the research also attempts to redress some of the negative perceptions of supermarket development (‘onslaught’) on towns and district centres by demonstrating the positive knock-on effects of supermarkets.

The major conclusion of the research is that supermarkets can and do enhance trade clawback, and increase the overall attractiveness of the locations in which they are based (i.e. more local residents shop in existing centres as a result of supermarket presence, and those in
outer catchments are also more likely to gravitate to such centres). The study further argues that supermarkets act as anchors which can help stimulate additional trade in local shops; via spill-over in the form of ‘linked trips’. These effects are seen as crucial in enhancing the
vitality and viability of existing centres.

A brief review, commissioned by the Association of Convenience Stores from the Oxford Institute of Retail Management, seeks to provide a constructive critique of the research conducted by the Southampton team, endorsing the Southampton team’s view that polarised, polemical debates are unhelpful. The review was recently published by the National Retail Planning Forum and you can download a copy here.

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