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Lichfields is currently monitoring the draft London Plan Examination in Public (EiP), which is scheduled to last until May 2019, and will report on relevant updates as part of a blog series. The eighth blog of the series focuses on the hearing sessions for draft policies SD6-SD9, E9 and the Plan’s approach to town centres and retailing.
The Examination in Public focused on town centres and retailing on Wednesday 15 May. The discussions did not offer anything new to the debate, but as expected, solidified the GLA’s commitment to protecting town centres.
The Panel consisted of representatives of the retail sector such as Accessible Retail and operators such as Sainsbury’s and McDonald’s. Heritage England praised the GLA for the specific focus on high streets, recognising their historic origins. Just Space (an alliance of community groups) argued the need for better recognition of specialist retail and street markets, which tend to serve a local community and meet cultural and religious needs.
The GLA acknowledged the varied and important roles that high streets and town centres play. They defended their Town Centre Network as offering a long-standing and consistent analysis of town centres across London, based on evidence such as health checks. The Town Centre Network allows Councils and investors to understand the key features of an area and it’s residential and commercial growth potential, and to see what trends are likely to occur in certain locations. This approach was broadly supported by representors.
The Town Centre Network creates a hierarchy of larger town centres, but the identification of local centres and neighbourhood parades remains the responsibility of Boroughs. The GLA called for Boroughs to look more closely at their high streets, within and beyond town centre boundaries, and identify new forms of local designation to help manage them, as encouraged by draft Policy SD7. Even if a commercial area does not meet ‘local centre’ status, it may be worthy of business/employment or local parade status.
The polarisation of investment within larger town centres and the potential impacts of this trend, was not fully debated. Larger, stronger centres are able to grow and remain competitive, while smaller ones continue to decline. This is referenced in Policy SD6 but not discussed in the Examination.
In relation to the sequential test, the GLA defended draft Policy as SD7 as being in line with the NPPF, though not slavishly repeating it. They stated that London’s variety of town centres provides a range of spaces and formats to accommodate various uses and allow for diversification, now required in the current retail climate. Boroughs are encouraged to ensure this range of units exists, to create the mix of spaces town centres need.
However, some representors disagreed the policy followed national policy because the GLA specifically seeks to ‘discourage’ out of centre development. I agree if the sequential and impact tests are satisfied then an out of centre development should have no further hoops to jump through. Representors also indicated that some operators are turning to out of centre retail parks, due to cost advantages and the availability of better sized or shaped units; town centre locations are no longer always a viable business proposition.
The GLA countered they had already amended the policy from ‘firmly resisting’ out of centre development, to ‘discouraging’ it. It will be interesting to see whether the Inspector believes the framing of the policy should be changed and this policy criterion removed.
The Mayor’s team concluded that a decline in the demand for retail floorspace need not lead to the demise of town centres. The London Plan seeks to support the continued vibrancy of town centres, and there was consensus that diversification is necessary. This comes as no surprise. The intention of the retail policies in the Plan is to protect town centres, in line with national planning policy, and the GLA has included various ‘policy hooks’ for Boroughs to consider and implement at a local level.