Town centres, including Newcastle’s, could be powerless to stop unpopular shops from opening because of controversial new planning reforms introduced by the coalition Government, the town’s Labour MP Paul Farrelly has warned.
Ministers have brought in changes to the planning rules making it easier for owners to convert empty buildings from one use to another without the need for any public consultation.
Mr Farrelly warned, however, that the change was an ill-thought out measure that stripped local residents of the right to have a say on the way shops should be used. “Far from helping to revive struggling high streets, these reforms could have the opposite effect,” he said.
“We could see a proliferation of gambling arcades, fast food chains and pay day lenders moving into vacant premises, leading to far too many such businesses and a change in the whole character and appeal of town centres,” Mr Farrelly said.
“Newcastle has suffered the loss of too many independent retailers in recent years and this has been made worse by the Government’s continued squeeze on household incomes."
"When times are bad, we need to plan ahead for when times get better in terms of the way places like Newcastle will look in the future when our children grow up."
"That means giving Councils and local people more power to shape their towns in the face of speculative and opportunistic development, not less, as these changes do."
Mr Farrelly has written to Secretary of State for Local Government, Eric Pickles, condemning the changes and accusing the coalition Government of undermining its declared commitment to encourage residents to have a bigger say on planning decisions which affect their neighbourhoods.
“The Prime Minister’s much vaunted Localism Bill promised people more involvement, but what we see instead in this latest de-regulation of planning rules is another example of the gulf between rhetoric and reality,” Mr Farrelly added.
“This reform will not only deprive local people of the right to comment on the use of empty buildings but will also run the risk of allowing inappropriate developments to move in and do lasting damage to the quality and character of towns like Newcastle and also deter potential new investors."
In a separate letter, Mr Farrelly also asked Newcastle Borough Council to call for the changes to be reversed. “Local Councils, not Whitehall, know best when planning rules need to be relaxed in the interests of developing a vibrant and viable town centre,” he said.
In Parliament, the Labour Party has responded to the reforms by calling on the Government to introduce a new planning use category to protect town centres.
This would ensure that prospective developers would always have to apply for a change of use before taking over premises previously used for something else.
During his 12 years as Newcastle’s MP, Mr Farrelly has been at the forefront of planning battles to preserve Newcastle’s town centre. In 2010, he secured a public enquiry from outgoing Labour Secretary of State John Denham into Tesco’s plans to build a massive new superstore at Trent Vale, which further threatened retailers in Newcastle and Stoke’s town centres. Following a five day hearing, Tesco’s application – to build a store like their new one in Hanley - was comprehensively defeated.