In its latest report, Need and impact: planning for town centres, the Communities and Local Government Committee declares itself "unconvinced" that the need test is having undesirable effects. The Committee finds that the need test continues to serve a useful function and that to remove it, particularly in the current economic climate, could put town centres at unnecessary risk.
Launching the report, Committee Chair Dr Phyllis Starkey MP said:
"We strongly support the Government’s 'town centre first' policy. There are many reasons - economic, social and environmental - why it’s crucial to maintain the vibrancy and vitality of town centres. We are pleased by the Government’s continued commitment to that policy, and by the wide degree of support this commands across the whole range of stakeholders.
"We conclude that the removal of the ‘need test’ potentially threatens town centres. The changes place responsibility for judgements about the appropriateness of particular developments firmly in the hands of local authorities - the organisations best placed to consider the character of a local area, the concerns of local communities and the balance of facilities they require. We consider this to be the right approach to prevent inappropriate development. But local authorities need the right tools to do that job, and the ‘need test’ is one of those tools."
The Government is proposing to replace the 'need test' with a broader 'impact assessment framework' under which local planning authorities must consider the overall impact of proposed development on the town centre and the rest of a locality.
The Committee concludes that the new 'impact assessment framework' has the potential to significantly improve the current approach to decision-making affecting town centres. However, the Committee believes the need test must be retained alongside the new framework.
The Committee also recommends close monitoring by the Government to ensure the introduction of a broader impact assessment framework and other changes to the planning guidance do not undermine the vibrancy and vitality of town centres.
Dr Phyllis Starkey MP continues:
"We also believe it will be vital for Government to see what these changes mean in practice and for Ministers to revisit the guidance in the light of what that monitoring reveals, to ensure guidance delivers the objectives of the ‘town centre first’ policy."
Lastly, the committee underscores a number of concerns identified in a report published last year (Planning Matters) about the capacity of under-resourced local planning authorities to implement a new planning policy framework. Having recommended remedies - such as joint working between authorities or the development of 'generic' commissioning and management skills among senior public sector planners - the committee notes that little progress has been made towards these goals or the long-term annual assessment of numbers employed in planning.
Commenting on these issues, Dr Starkey says:
"The advantages of a new 'impact assessment framework' can only be realised if local planning authorities have the capacity to implement this approach effectively. We expressed serious concerns a year ago about both labour shortages and skills gaps in local authority planning departments and we have heard nothing since then that is sufficient to allay our concerns."