I HAVE always felt that Hong Kong's vast air conditioned shopping malls, tucked away so discreetly, indeed so pristinely beneath the towers of Central or Kowloon, are unique. In the US it is not hard to find such malls beneath city high rises but they do not have the same style. The American way is of vast single storey centres spread out along the wide roads outside towns so identical, so anonymous that they confuse the mind into thinking you have returned to the city you have left. In Britain there is a different phenomena, the huge countryside shopping mall. There are around 1,000, often built conspicuously adjacent to a by-pass or on some once derelict industrial site. A phenomenon of the past decade they now take one third of all food spending and a goodly proportion of all the income from all other retail shopping. Local authorities love them - they give a town the opportunity to attract spenders from some other urban area and quite frequently enable a new roundabout or even a length of dual carriageway to be built at the expense of the developer rather than the local authority. Prices are often lower than in town, mothers with young children like them and they provide shelter from inclement weather. But you can only get to them by car. MPs have at last cottoned on to their presence and the massively negative effect they have on traditional town centres, including rows of 'To Let' boards where once were flourishing shopping streets. These are streets through which the only thing moving at night are the old chip papers blowing on the breeze and the occasional vandal. A Commons Select Committee this week called for an end to these out-of-town developments. Separately the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution said petrol should double in price to around GBP5 a gallon and called for the halving of the GBP19 billion road building programme putting the money into public transport instead. At the same time another committee of MPs has argued that the use of what is known in Britain as Super Unleaded fuel, high octane lead free, causes more dangerous - carcinogenic - pollution than leaded fuel. It was Margaret Thatcher who once praised the benefits of the 'great car economy'. But tides and times have changed. At every turn now we hear of the dangers of the car and of out-of-town development. According to one survey the out-of-town shopping malls of Britain now have 32 million square feet of building under construction compared to just 30 million in town centres. Their development goes hand-in-hand with the development of the drab suburbs which stylise the country surrounding most towns, a provincial lifestyle which looks down on town centres, sees the best restaurants as being in the country and the car as the only feasible way of travelling around. THROUGHOUT the past three decades transport and planning have been dominated by the notion that the car and road building would cure this country of many of its social ills. It hasn't just been a phenomenon under the Tories. In the 70s Labour minister Anthony Crosland's paper on public transport claimed rail and buses were only necessary for commuters, the old and the young and housewives 'stuck' without a car. The decision makers, being the ones enjoying the best mobility, inevitably thought in terms of cars. There was no other view, we had to borrow from America. Investment in public transport has always been looked upon as a subsidy, ignoring the potential for economic growth it can bring. After all it was only the subsidised Underground lines reaching out from central London which allowed outer London to grow effectively. Compare this with Hong Kong where space, population and a formerly low income forced planners into taking another course, where there is a positive inclination to think about urban development.