Tighter planning regulations around supermarkets and out-of-town retail parks are being considered in Birmingham as part of a council inquiry into boosting local shopping centres.
A group of councillors alarmed at the stagnation of local centres and high numbers of empty units are looking at the impact the major stores are having on the high street as part of its review.
The inquiry into local centres, carried out by the economy and jobs scrutiny committee, will also look at what help the council can provide for ailing shopping parades, including where to invest a £2.75 million council fund for maximum benefit.
Committee chairman Coun Ian Cruise said: “The council published a local centre strategy in 2006 and has not updated it since.
"There have been significant developments – including a new statutory planning document, the Localism Bill and the Portas Review of High Streets.
“We need to see if we can and should be doing more in the light of this. Things are changing.”
He said the opening inquiry session heard from the Acocks Green business improvement district that major stores are a drain on shopping parades and that perhaps too many are now being given planning permission.
Recent years have seen a growth in superstore development – Tesco has opened at The Swan in Yardley, Spring Hill, Witton, the Fox and Goose in Hodge Hill, New Street, and has recently secured consent for Stirchley and Moseley, while Sainsbury is looking at Selly Oak and Erdington, Asda has Bartley Green and Morrisons has opened on the West Bromwich border near Soho Road and is also looking at Acocks Green.
Coupled with a major stores are the growth of the big chain’s convenience stores.
Equally, superstores have been welcomed in some areas, provide much needed jobs and are undeniably popular.
Asked about the impact of supermarkets on jobs and local centres, assistant director of regeneration Sharon Freedman said: “When we get supermarkets on the edge of local centres we do take the opportunity to ask them for support.
"An example would be making car parking available. It might also be public realm, a local jobs commitment or transport improvements.”
She admitted she was not sure if those benefits, especially the car parking, are a huge boost to local centres.
But there is a problem if the council does decide to limit the march of the superstore.
As cabinet member for jobs, development and skills, Coun Tahir Ali (Lab, Nechells) points out: “These supermarkets and retail parks bring jobs for the long-term unemployed and investment to an area. People want to use them, they like the convenience of free parking and one visit.”
He was criticised by the committee for appearing to shrug off responsibility for local centres, saying that they, along with the £2.75 million budget, would be devolved to local districts to look after.
In a brutal assessment of the economic outlook he said: “The economy is stagnating and we are going to be in this recession until 2017. The council does not have the funding.
“It is not the council which creates the wealth, it’s the businesses.”
Coun Elaine Williams (Lab, Harborne) said: “You shouldn’t be saying that. We need to do something to pick ourselves up.”
Mr Ali replied that the economic outlook was ‘a fact’ but conceded that the council could kick-start some economic activity.
The committee also heard that five business improvement districts based in local centres around Kings Heath, Northfield, Erdington, Acocks Green and Sutton Coldfield had been successful and particularly good at getting the number of empty shops reduced.
These BIDs raise about £1 million between them through a levy on the business rates which is then invested in local promotion, facilities and improvements.
They were encouraged to look at more creative ways of using BIDs to support smaller centres, perhaps by grouping them to share resources, or creating associate BIDs linked to the established ones.