Planner, Where Art Thou?

Anne Findlay &  Leigh Sparks

Wherever one looks, the land-use planning system for retailing seems to be in some form of change or at least under reconsideration. In both England and Scotland recent reviews of the impact and effectiveness of the relevant national planning guidance has taken place. In England revised guidance has been prepared and consultation on this has just been completed. The main locus of for planning for retailing is shifting with an increased concentration on the regional level. Most recently, the Retail Strategy Group has reported and raised a number of issues and actions for retail planning. Tensions still remain over the role of planning in retail productivity and competitiveness. What are planners (and large and small retailers) to make of this state of flux?

The retail planning system is at something of a crossroads. Retail planning has often been perceived to be slow, reactive and only interested in saying no through development control. Much ‘policy’ is developed through one-off case battles and subsequent ‘clarifications’. Does the practice of retail planning live up to what might be expected or is needed? The changes to the planning system are reactions to this ad-hoc position and attempt to bring some degree of certainty and timeliness to the process. But, there are issues that come with these changes.

First, whilst the notion of a plan-led system working properly is an attractive one, it is one that may not be easy to achieve. Do appropriate data exist? How can we have a plan-led system with all that entails when in many cases regional planners (and even local planners) have inadequate databases on retail locations? They also really require a detailed and fundamental study of consumer demand patterns and choice behaviours. Policy is being prepared in something of a vacuum at all levels.

Secondly, the move represents a fundamental culture change in planning that will require training and a change of mind-set not only for officers but also for elected representatives. They will need to engage with the retail industry on a more regular and constructive basis and will have to make very hard decisions about the future of certain areas and locations. New skills will have to be developed. Will there be the will and capability to embrace these changes?

Thirdly, even with some data and new attitudes, can retail planners (and planners and decision-makers generally) make sense of the fast moving retail market and plan proactively? Since 1998, the Institute for Retail Studies at the University of Stirling has been preparing (for the NRPF) a Bibliography of Retail Planning. Annual updates and revisions are prepared and a commentary for 2003 has just been made available. It became clear early on that planners do not read much about retailing or retail planning. Their information sources are often horribly narrow. But, much of the academic work that is published is simply not useful for policy makers. And who knows what if any retail planning is taught on planning courses (with honourable exceptions)? It is a sad fact that policy makers are generally not well served by the academic community, but neither do they seek out and commission research that could help.

So, new approaches are being demanded. New skills and expertise are expected to emerge. New levels of understanding are anticipated. Given where we start from, the paucity of appropriate data and the mis-match between research and policy (at local, regional and national levels) this could be a real Odyssey!

Anne Findlay is a researcher and Leigh Sparks is Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling. A longer version of this note is published in the Oxford Retail Digest, Summer 2004, which is available from OXIRM, Templeton College, Oxford.

Website Links
PPG6 Review in England
Draft Guidance (PPS6)
OPDM Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Select Committee on ‘Planning, Competitiveness and Productivity’
Retail Strategy Group
NPPG8 Review in Scotland
Bibliography on Retail Planning