Wal-Mart’s ASDA UK expansion via planning loophole

Friends of the Earth has discovered that Asda (owned by the American retailer Wal-mart) is building mezzanine floors in existing stores in order to significantly expand its non-food retail floorspace. In doing this Asda is exploiting a loophole in UK planning law which excludes internal building works from the definition of development requiring planning permission. Such works can go ahead as long as they do not affect the external appearance of the building however significant their other impacts may be. The addition of significant areas of retail floorspace, in some cases equivalent to a new store, may have significant negative impacts on local high street stores and lead to increased traffic levels and levels of noise and disturbance. Yet local planning authorities will have no opportunity to assess these impacts and there will be no chance for local communities to be involved.

Supermarket loophole

Wal-mart, the American owner of the Asda supermarket chain, is the world’s largest company by revenue . Wal-mart’s expansion plans for the UK include the take-over of Safeway, but it has also found a way to expand in the UK without the scrutiny of the competition authorities or local planning authorities by exploiting a major loophole in our planning system. The company has already embarked on building mezzanine floors in at least two existing Asda stores without planning permission and states that it aims to do this in 40 stores. The first mezzanine floor was installed in York and a second is under construction in Sheffield. In both cases the local planning authority has been powerless to act and local communities have been denied the right to be involved in the normally democratic process of reaching a decision on a planning application. Sheffield planners have confirmed that the development does not require planning permission because despite the huge increase in commercial floorspace the construction of the floor involves internal works only.

This loophole makes a mockery of planning guidance on retailing (PPG6) which seeks to maintain a diversity of local shops and to sustain and enhance the vitality and viability of town centres by protecting them from the negative impacts of large scale out of town developments. In the case of Asda’s expansion PPG6 has become irrelevant due to the absence of any planning application even though the scale of development may be equivalent to a new out-of-town store. In Sheffield Wal-mart is adding 33,000 sq ft, with the specific aim of expanding its non-food goods which will change the nature of the store and pose a new threat to non-food shops in the local area. There will inevitably be an increase in traffic to the store too. An Asda spokesperson has commented on how the non-food range in the York mezzanine is encouraging people to drive to the store from further afield .

Friends of the Earth is questioning the value of a system that allows the unopposed large scale expansion of the world’s largest retailer whilst much smaller developments come under close scrutiny including farmers markets and farm shops. We consider that the impacts of this large scale expansion in retail floorspace should be dealt with in the same way as an external extension or new store. Impact on town centres, increases in traffic and in levels of noise and disturbance are all legitimate planning considerations that should be subject to an assessment by the local planning authority. Friends of the Earth also considers that in the face of such significant impacts on their quality of life, local communities must be given the opportunity to take part in the decision making process.