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PRESCOTT U-TURN ON OUT-OF-TOWN STORES

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The government has given backing for the first expansion of an out-of-town shopping development for almost a decade...
The government has given backing for the first expansion of an out-of-town shopping development for almost a decade - signalling that Whitehall may be clearing the way for a spectacular U-turn over planning policies aimed at supporting town centre high streets, reported The Mail on Sunday (Financial Mail, pp 1-2).

John Prescott last week nodded through the final element in plans to increase the size of Britain's biggest out-of-town development, the MetroCentre near Gateshead, by 10%. The expansion involves a new department store, a further 27 shops and more than 1,100 car parking spaces. In exchange for DETR approval, Whitehall has extracted a commitment from MetroCentre's owner, property company Liberty, to contribute towards better train links with the huge shopping centre.

Friends of the Earth said: 'This is a major U-turn. The MetroCentre decision effectively gives landlords the green light for expansion. We will do everything we can to stop this happening again'.

The MetroCentre decision will be scrutinised carefully by local authorities around the country worried about the impact of out-of-town developments on town and city centres. The decision comes as a planning report for a major retail wharehouse development next to Manchester's Trafford Centre awaits Mr Prescott's judgment. A senior property source said: 'After the MetroCentre decision it is difficult to see how he can turn this down'. Property group Chelsfield is also holding discussions with Dudley MBC over plans to expand Merry Hill in the west midlands.

The last two out-of-town shopping schemes to get consent were Braehead, near Glasgow, and the Trafford Centre in 1992. Since then, both Tory and Labour governments have banned new centres and extensions to existing ones. Meanwhile, a lobby of property companies and retailers is being formed to try to force the government to ease the tough planning rules restricting more out-of-town expansion.
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