Transfer of planning power to councils could backfire if town centre development is not prioritised

I am thrilled that communities secretary Eric Pickles is the keynote speaker at the ACS Heart of the Community event on 2 November. He's a key figure in the new government and his earthy style connects with retailers.

This conference, at London's Imperial War Museum, is the first chance to hear a senior minister speak directly to our sector about how we fit into the coalition's vision for change. I am sure he will reassure us about how integral local shops are to the government's vision for communities. Our success is a key part of its aims for economic recovery and community change.

In particular, we want Pickles to explain the implications of the 'open source' reforms of planning policy.

This means stripping away national planning rules and guidance to give councils much greater flexibility over their decision-making. The current system, by contrast, is centralised, prescriptive and gives people little say over what happens in their area.

So far, so 'big society', but what of the government's pledge to defend centres from big new out-of-town developments? Can Pickles be sure that a more organic way of guiding planners will lead to vibrant town centres?

I have real fears about this. Our friends in the major supermarkets are masters at influencing planners at a local level. They use their own interpretations of data and research, legal arguments, planning gain and every legitimate tactic under the sun to get the decisions they want. The Grocer's own figures show that, even under current rules, the big four supermarkets account for more than 80% of all retail development given planning permission in 2010.

I am not denying that supermarkets are the dominant force in grocery retailing or that there will be an ongoing need for new supermarkets as communities grow and change. However, given their scale and impact we have to be careful about how future growth is managed and make it a priority to ensure that supermarkets are harnessed to the benefit of centres. For more than 20 years, national policy has appeared to put town centres first for all new retail development, but the amount of new retail space given planning approval in town centres has never exceeded 40% of the total.

This is a watershed moment for high streets. 12,000 town centre stores shut down last year and out-of-town developments have once again seduced councils in tough economic times. If Pickles doesn't confront this crucial issue, it could be a spectacular own goal for a government that clearly wants to support town centres.

Given the current experience of developers getting their way on out-of-town building we have to fear that, under an open source system, supermarkets would be even better able to nibble away at safeguards for town centres.

The Conservatives and Lib Dems both made pre-election commitments to strengthen town centres, and in opposition they spoke out strongly against the weaknesses of the government's reforms. But how can we be sure that the out-of-town sheds opposed by the Conservatives will be stopped?

The answer may be to make town centres an exceptional case with an over-riding set of principles that go beyond open source planning. Let's hope so.