In a move that could derail big box development projects throughout England, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has rejected a bid by the furniture chain Ikea to build a 300,000-square-foot store (seven times the size of a football field) outside the city of Stockport.
In a letter explaining his decision, Deputy Prime Minister Prescott said the proposed store violated several provisions of both national and local planning policy. Major factors included the store’s impact on the vitality and viability of Stockport’s downtown and other nearby town centers, and the fact that it would foster increased automobile usage.
Mr. Prescott declared that local authorities had not conducted a “sufficiently rigorous assessment of the likely economic impact of the proposed store.” He said that Ikea’s claim that the store will bring more traffic to Stockport’s town center was probably overstated and unlikely to offset the store’s negative economic impacts on the downtown and other smaller towns nearby.
Mr. Prescott suggested that Ikea substantially reduce the size of its stores and locate them in or adjacent to town centers. He said the company’s approach to retailing—building massive out-of-town stores primarily accessible by car—ran “counter to the Government’s objectives to ensure sustainability and promote social inclusion.”
While planning and development is strictly a state and local matter in the United States, in England, local policies must follow broad national guidelines.
Ikea has already built eleven of its massive outlets in Britain. The government’s recent rejection may reflect a renewed and more stringent interpretation of “Planning Policy Guidance Note 6: Town Centres and Retail Development” (PPG6), a national policy that aims to protect the economic vitality of town centers.
PPG6 requires that town centers be given preference for all new development, followed by edge-of-town sites (defined as within walking distance of the downtown). Out-of-town development is allowed only if the developer demonstrates a need that cannot be satisfied with a more centrally located project.
Before approving out-of-town retail projects, local planners must consider the development’s impact on the downtown’s economic vitality, potential to attract new investment, mix of goods and services, visual character, and “role in the economic and social life of the community.”
Ikea plans to appeal the decision through the courts. Sprawl opponents, including the Council for the Protection of Rural England, hope the decision will be upheld and herald a stronger national commitment to maintaining vibrant local economies.