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I recognise that our high streets continue to face difficult challenges. Whilst the planning system is not the panacea, I believe that it has a key role to play in allowing town centres the opportunity to retain and develop their retail base. The strategic planning policy statement (SPPS) that I published last month furthers that belief. It introduces new strategic planning policy to assist with supporting and sustaining vibrant town centres across the North through the promotion of established town centres as the appropriate first choice locations of retailing and other complementary functions, consistent with the regional development strategy 2035.
The SPPS recognises the wide range and complexity of issues that influence the development, role, function and success of town centres. It therefore encourages councils to work collaboratively with all relevant stakeholders to inform the preparation of local development plans based on robust and up-to-date evidence. Under the new planning policy framework, councils will define a hierarchy of centres, consider their role and function and develop a strategy for town centres and retailing that must promote town centres first for retail and other main town centre uses. In addition, a sequential approach will have to be adopted, with preference given to town centre sites and then edge-of-centre sites, before consideration is given to out-of-centre sites. Plans will also incorporate a new call-for-sites approach to identify available land to meet retail need.
I consider that more can be done to support town centres and the retail sector. My assessment is that the new strategic policy context and its key features can be a catalyst for facilitating successful, sustainable and attractive town centres.
I thank the Minister and welcome his comments around collaboration. Does he share the concern of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association that the development of town centres and the retail sector requires a joined-up approach involving the Executive, councils and the sector?
I thank Mr McKinney for those very pertinent and timely questions. As I have said, going forward, more can and must be done to support town centres and the retail sector across the region. I wish to see closer working among Executive colleagues, who have key roles to play in the creation of the thriving town centres that we all want to see. Urban regeneration, the provision of public transport and other infrastructure, rates and effective town centre management are but some of the necessary ingredients to create the mix of uses essential to the continued attractiveness of our town centres. I also believe that, with a greater array of powers or functions, councils now have considerably more power to influence positively the shape, attractiveness and use of city and town centres. The retail sector is one of the most important elements of our economy, and I am confident that it has the resolve to respond successfully to the present challenges and difficulties with which we are all familiar. Collectively, we can all bring about positive change, economic growth and a more sustainable future for city and town centres.
I thank the Member for her question and remind the House that there is no application for or from John Lewis at Sprucefield or anywhere else in the North.
The purpose of the SPPS is to set out a clear regional strategic planning policy for the new two-tier planning system. This will allow the new councils to take account of the strategic direction in their plans and policies at local level. Therefore, it is not considered appropriate to include a specific site in the SPPS. Such issues should be and, I have no doubt, will be dealt with through the local development plan of the new council.