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Over the past two years, a significant proportion of my time in planning consultancy has been spent working on major, mixed-use town centre regeneration proposals.  This has involved projects for retail, commercial leisure, food and beverage uses, and purpose-built student accommodation in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire and in Kirkby, Merseyside.  The two town centres are very different, with Newcastle-under-Lyme being a traditional market town and Kirkby being relatively new, having been purpose-built in the 1960s.  Because of this project work, it has been possible to identify 5 key actions by landowners and developers that could help lead to more positive outcomes for all stakeholders.   Proposed purpose-built student accommodation and retail development in Newcastle-under-Lyme.  Image credit: Stride Treglown  Proposed retail and leisure development in Kirkby.Image credit: Saunders Take full account of site characteristics and contextEnsure that the proposal responds to the features of the site and its context, such as its size, topography, vegetation, natural features, access, conservation / heritage assets, the uses of neighbouring buildings, and existing on-site buildings.  Designing a proposal to fully take account of the existing features of the site and its context will go a long way towards ensuring a positive outcome is achieved.  Include strong links and connectionsMake sure that the proposal includes strong physical and visual links to the wider town centre, even if the application site is in an existing Primary Shopping Area.  Strong links will: encourage linked trips; provide spin-off benefits to the wider town centre / existing businesses; maintain / improve the legibility of the town centre; and provide a pedestrian-friendly environment.  Get to know the key issues for councillorsGet to know likely key issues for councillors, by analysing recent decisions on similar proposals at Planning Committee and those which were taken to appeal.  In Newcastle-under-Lyme town centre, one of the key issues for councillors is that developments should not cause on-street parking problems in nearby residential areas.  This issue is addressed through requiring a financial contribution from applicants, which is to be used to fund parking surveys and for the introduction of Resident Parking Zones in the event that it is found that the development is resulting in more on-street parking pressures.  Design the scheme with the likely operators in mindA scheme needs to be designed to meet the requirements of future occupiers, including the up to date needs of modern retailers, and commercial leisure operators.  Important aspects of targeted design include the configuration of floorspace (i.e. proposing the right size of unit), the inclusion of a mezzanine level, providing maximum accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists alongside adequate surface level car parking, the inclusion of space for anchor tenant(s), the provision of trolley bays, orientation of retail floorspace and satisfying any other specific operator requirements.  If a development does not suit retailers’ requirements, they will not sign up to a proposal.  Designing to suit occupiers’ needs to be apparent during the pre-application process, including if and when a scheme is to be considered by a design review panel.  Ensure the local community is engagedEngage the community at an early stage, take on board comments received where possible and ensure that the final proposal benefits the local community, but know that it is impossible to please everybody and make it clear that compromises will need to be made.  It is important that proposals are designed in response to their context, to ensure that a new development is a ‘good neighbour’.  Job creation is a very important benefit, often stressed by local communities in their comments on proposals.  Conclusion Lichfields led negotiations in arriving at a positive recommendation for both proposed developments referenced in this blog. Planning permission for the Kirkby proposal was granted in November 2017. Also in November 2017, the local planning authority in Newcastle-under-Lyme reached a resolution to grant planning permission for the scheme in that town subject to conditions and the completion of a legal agreement. Drafting of the legal agreement continues. Lichfields’ experience and track record of success means it is very well placed to lead on planning for high-profile town centre regeneration schemes.   

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NPPF consultation proposals – what could they mean for town centres?
The consultation proposals on the vitality of town centres would not change the thrust of the NPPF, but there are some important modifications. These include logical points of clarification that address areas of dispute that have arisen in recent years.   It is widely accepted that very long term projections have inherent uncertainties. In response to these uncertainties, local authorities will no longer be required to allocate sites to meet the need for town centre uses over the full plan period. The need for new town centre uses must still be accommodated over a minimum ten year period, which reflects the complexities in bringing forward town centre development sites. In line with the Government’s economic growth agenda, a positive approach to meeting community needs is still required. This is a sensible proposal.       The consultation proposals were expected to address inconsistencies in the application of the sequential test in recent appeal and legal decisions. There is no mention of the need to disaggregate planning application proposals for out-of-centre retail or leisure development onto a number of separate town centre or edge of centre sites, which is consistent with recent Secretary of State decisions and how the Courts have clarified the meaning of the sequential test. The Government appears to reject requests in some quarters to introduce disaggregation into the sequential approach, and this questions the consistency of some recent appeal decisions.   The most pertinent suggested change (paragraph 87 –change underlined) is “main town centre uses should be located in town centres, then edge of centre locations; and only if suitable sites are not available (or expected to become available within a reasonable period) should out of centre sites be considered”.  The explanatory document indicates that the reason for this suggested change is to avoid prejudicing more central sites that are in the pipeline but not available straight away. A “reasonable period” is still open to debate, but logically this period should relate to the likely timetable for delivery of the application proposal.      The third modification removes the need to assess the impact of out of centre office proposals on town centres. The Government, correctly, points out that the sequential approach adequately controls inappropriate office proposals.   The proposed changes to the effective use of land will also have implications for town centres, by promoting higher density development, including and development of under-utilised land and buildings. The potential development of service yards and car parks is another sensible proposal but it may create challenges, recognising there is a fine balance between providing new facilities and maintaining high levels of accessibility, to enable the town centre to compete effectively.   Town centre policy has withstood the test of time and hasn’t changed significantly.  The proposals are silent in a number of areas, e.g. disaggregation, which is equally as informative as the proposed changes.   See the ‘National Planning Policy Framework and developer contribution consultations’ suite of documents here   See our other blogs in this series: National Planning Policy Framework review: what to expect? Draft revised National Planning Policy Framework: a change in narrative NPPF consultations – what could they mean for designers? Draft NPPF: heritage policy is conserved… Draft NPPF: implications for aviation? Draft NPPF: business as usual? Draft NPPF: more emphasis on healthy and safe communities Lichfields will publish further analysis of the consultation on the revised NPPF and its implications. Click here to subscribe for updates.

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