The government has denied it wants to water down planning policies that favour city centre retail developments rather than large out-of-town projects.

In its Planning White Paper, published last month, the government proposed scrapping the needs test, which local authorities use to determine whether an area needs new retail space before giving permission.

In recent years the test has slowed the construction of new retail shopping parks, while encouraging regeneration of existing outlets in town centres.

During a Commons debate on local trading this week, trade and industry minister Malcolm Wicks admitted the White Paper had provoked concerns over a possible move away from the government's town centre first policy.

But he assured MPs the government remained committed to "promoting the vitality and viability of town and village centres".

"We remain absolutely committed to promoting viable town centres," he said. "The planning system has a real role in supporting thriving high streets, where small shops can succeed and provide real choice for consumers."

The intention was to continue with "tough tests" for new developments to protect and enhance town and city centres "as the bustling hearts of every community".

"We will require better assessment of how new developments will affect town centres, including the impact on high streets and local shops."

Launching the debate, Tory MP Charles Walker claimed "vibrant local shops and communities" offered environmental advantages, especially as people did not have to travel miles by car to shop.

But town centres needed to be more welcoming, especially to drivers, while small retailers could do more to attract customers.

Though insisting he was "a great fan of independents" he said they had "no automatic right to exist". "Supermarkets undoubtedly make life difficult for independents, but that is no excuse for shutting up shop. Independents need to go head-to-head with supermarkets in different ways. They need to offer their customers a quality shopping experience."