The Future of the High Street

17th August 2020

It is well known that the high street has been suffering for some time and has been affected even further by the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown measures. This is not a topic of conversation unique to the planning world; it is relevant to many sectors of society and business.

Early in June 2020, Partner Rebekah Jubb spoke at a conference organised by Trusted Land which posed the question: “Is Retail to Resi a Reality?”. The event combined input from surveyors, architects and Rebekah (providing the planning angle) forming a debate about the anticipated changes in the market, design approaches and how planning needs to respond in order to turn a potential crisis into an opportunity…

Town and neighbourhood shopping centres are a focus for local communities and are critical to deliver key shops and services whilst providing a cultural hub for people to meet and spend their leisure time.

It is difficult to know where the negative impact originated, but it is fair to say that a combination of changing shopping habits, leisure activities, travel patterns and property factors have all contributed. As a result, primary retail areas need to adapt to survive as a viable entity and to continue to serve the critical function for communities.

Planning policies have traditionally sought to protect primary shopping frontages, with A1 retail use as the top priority and secondary shopping frontages still protected but to a lesser extent. Other A class uses, such as financial and professional services, cafes, restaurants and pubs have been considered detrimental to the vitality and viability of town centres. Uses outside the A classes, such as offices and leisure in shopping frontages have also been frowned upon by planning policies whilst residential use is accepted as appropriate within town centres, but generally only above ground floor level.

However, that approach is changing in response to changing demands. The planning system seeks to find ways to ensure that policies do not result in long term vacancies in what were previously active shopping frontages. It can help by relaxing its protectionist policies that have a starting point of ‘no’, to being proactive and positively worded policies that seek to embrace change and welcome investment into these areas.

The National Planning Policy Framework advises local planning authorities that their planning policies should:

“define a network and hierarchy of town centres and promote their long-term vitality and viability – by allowing them to grow and diversify in a way that can respond to rapid changes in the retail and leisure industries, allowing a suitable mix of uses (including housing) and reflects their distinctive characters.”

Emphasis is placed on increasing the footfall and flexibility of town centres for them to survive and thrive. The policies need to adapt accordingly and allow for greater flexibility and variety in the combination of uses that are accepted in order to bring people back into formerly retail dominated areas. A positive step to encouraging change is the introduction of additional permitted development rights which allow for changes of use and upwards extensions to buildings to take place in certain circumstances without the need for a planning application (read more here). Come September the change of use process will become simpler again with the implementation of the new Use Class Order, giving owners of commercial units greater flexibility in their use (read more about the recently announced new Use Class Order here).

A prior approval application is required before implementing the change of use from retail to residential use under permitted development rights and there are still a certain criteria that need to be met. In some instances the Council may have imposed an article 4 direction which removes permitted development rights and controls any proposed changes of use.

Whilst the financial and social strain on the retail sector may spell bad news for some businesses, recent announcements present new opportunities for other uses along the high street. A simplified system should attract new buyers and tenants which in turn will encourage customers back into town centres. Some of these may be businesses that don’t exist yet. The escape room phenomena certainly took town centres by storm, making use of vacant units where demand had otherwise disappeared. We do not know yet what else is around the corner…

So retail to residential is a reality; having people living in the high street, supporting the economy and enabling sustainable travel will be a positive result and contribute towards the rejuvenation of these areas. Residential is just one of many potential uses to occupy our currently vacant town centres though. Councils need to support opportunities for mixed use spaces and provide flexibility on parking standards and residential amenity standards to ensure that our communities are served by a varied offering whilst their demands are being met.

Rebekah Jubb, Partner

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