In a letter to local councils, ministers have told planning officers to use powers in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to deliver retail investment in town centres.

Clarification of planning policy has only previously been delivered by ministers on controversial planning issues such as greenbelt developments.

Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) chief executive James Lowman said: “Our evidence has shown that 76% of retail floor space under the NPPF has been delivered out of town, so the clarification of the policy by ministers is necessary.

“The town centre first policy is strong but it requires better enforcement by local planners, using the mandatory sequential and impact tests to drive new retail investment into town centres wherever possible.”

The letter to local councils states: “Ministers wish to restate policy which makes clear that where an application fails to satisfy the sequential test or is likely to have significant adverse impact on the town centre as set out in the Framework, it should be refused.”

The letter comes amid growing interest in the number of out of town developments being closed, or built and not opened, or granted planning permission and not built.

Evidence from Property Consultants CBRE shows that, of the 46m sq m of grocery retail space in the planning development pipeline, 84% of this is planned for out of town locations, yet only 6% of this is currently under construction.

Lowman continued: “When an out of town planning application is granted, it undermines investment in nearby town centres and that’s why we’ve seen a sharp decline in retail space being developed in town centres since 2013.

“Many councils have been seduced by the prospect of new developments, but they now look short-sighted, and if they had applied the town centre first policy more strictly the result would have been greater investment in town centres, as opposed to the empty fields once earmarked for new superstores but now abandoned.

“This Ministerial intervention is much-needed, and we welcome the Government’s clear commitment to a town centre first planning policy.”