Communities Secretary Hazel Blears will this afternoon outline tough new planning rules to protect small shops and town centres as a consultation on the Government’s ‘town centres first’ policy gets under way.

She will unveil the revised guidelines for the ‘Planning Policy Statement 6 – Planning for town centres (PPS6)’this evening at the Royal Town Planning Institute Annual Convention. The new proposals will keep the ‘sequential test’ that requires that most central town sites be developed first but will introduce an ‘impact test’ and remove the ‘need test’.

The ‘impact test’ will allow councils to prevent big developments that put small shops and town centres at risk. Councils will examine more factors including retail diversity, consumer spending, loss of trade, impact on town centre investment, and the scope for regeneration and job creation.

Blears said the revision would remove the ‘blunt and simplistic need test’ which has unintentionally stifled diversity and consumer choice by only assessing whether there was enough consumer demand to support new retail space.

She said: ‘This has led to some new retail schemes on the fringes of the town centre - which could benefit the centre - being ruled out because out of town developments already fulfil that function.’

Blears said the new proposals would give councils more scope to refuse out of town development proposals that threaten the survival of high streets and small shops.

She said the policy would help the Government do more now to protect local shops at the heart of communities, ‘particularly when we know that many are currently experiencing tough times on the high street’.

The Competition Commission investigation into the supply of groceries in the UK market recommended that the Government should introduce a 'competition test' for new grocery stores of more than 10,764 sq ft.

Blears says the Government will formally respond to the Commission's recommendations but its consultation on PPS6 will be ‘a clear signal of intent that will reassure town centre managers and independent retailers up and down the country’.

James Rowlands, RICS policy officer, said: ‘Town centres could be compromised by the Government’s decision to drop the need test assessing the suitability of an area for out of town development.

'There must be an unambiguous statement from Government that growth should be accommodated in existing town centres first and other development should only be considered when this is not possible.

'Any new proposals must be strong enough to continue to protect traditional town centres and help them thrive.’