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The High Street isn’t dead, long live the High Street #1

The current crisis has inevitably meant even more headlines declaring the 'death of the High Street' in the press and amongst some property people. There are huge challenges ahead but we are at a pivotal moment. The gravity of the situation we currently face is going to mobilise energy, dynamism and innovation like never before, such that the rebound - when it comes and it will take some time - will bring a genuinely new and positive future for many of our town centres.

This is the first in a number of blogs about the future of the High Street and I start with where we are now, in the middle of a crisis.

The bad news is well trodden ground already and the situation is going to get worse before it gets better. Many town centre businesses are in distress, some have gone to the wall already and more will follow in the coming weeks and months. Landlords are faring no better; everyone is facing up to the reality of a long phased exit strategy including a lingering fear pervading amongst the population until a vaccine eventually appears.

So what is there to be positive about? Plenty in my view if you look carefully at what is stirring and it starts at the top.

Up until about two years ago the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government were only really interested in planning for more homes and they didn't concern themselves that much with the potential of town centres contributing to that very important policy agenda. Thankfully things have now changed - the Government is engaged and the problems we now face should only increase the funding and resources that will be made available in the future. Putting this together with the levelling up agenda will mean more centres will benefit and there will be a better spread of investment than ever before. It might also be that the business rates holiday handed down to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 will herald much needed wholesale reform in that area, a longstanding ask of the industry.

At local level we are seeing a tremendous response from many local planning authorities to Covid-19. Our Business as (un)usual live web tool gives up to date information about how over 90% of local authorities are responding to the challenges they face undertaking pre-application and decision-making processes, amongst other things, at the current time. Some are struggling with a lack of IT investment following cuts to budgets; others are requisitioning planning staff to work closer to the frontline, dealing with such things as business rates and supporting small businesses on the High Street by providing training on selling their products via on-line platforms to create new income streams whilst their shops are closed.

I am an independent member of the Planning Decisions Committee at the London Legacy Development Corporation and was involved in its first virtual committee meeting earlier this week. The Corporation is not covered by the Government's emergency legislation but no matter; urgency powers were invoked and decision-making authority was vested in the chair, informed by discussion with committee members. There were presentations from officers and public speakers, all curated via Skype for Business. No committees have been missed so it's (almost) business as usual and this is critical to ensure that those developers proceeding with schemes are not held back.

What we are seeing is more of the best of what local government has to offer. At a time of adversity we see new leaders come to the fore, driven by a strong sense of duty to do all that’s required to help those in need. Economic development departments are all hands to the pump and we have seen strong interest in our Covid-19 Economic Risk Index as minds turn to future investment planning. With town centres very much in the policy spotlight and money available from Central Government we will see this vigour carried forward in the planning arena. More action plans and investment plans will emerge and we will see a new wave of development coming forward when market conditions improve.

What form that development will take brings me on to the last matter for this blog. Despite the decline of retail in recent years the value - actual and perceived - wrapped up in shops and the car parks that serve them has been a barrier to re-development with appraisals having to deal with very large negative starting points. But the balance has now tipped. Just as the decline in retail values shows no sign of abatement the fundamental shortage of new homes will underpin demand, and values, in the residential sector, even if recession remains a short term challenge. Shopping centres are of increasing interest to residential and mixed use developers and local councils. Retail uses will shrink to a more sustainable core offer, a wider variety of commercial and community uses will be intertwined and new homes will sit on top and around them. But there will be regional variations and different strategies for different centres. In town centres where there is no market for residential development, we should plan for a renaissance in start-ups and independent businesses combined with the re-purposing of existing space and improvements to the public realm and basic infrastructure.

The commercial property industry is currently taking a massive kick in the teeth and its focus is necessarily a short term one overcoming an unprecedented situation. Representative organisations are representing their members and lobbying Central Government hard, with a noteworthy recent proposal by Revo, the British Property Federation and the British Retail Consortium for a Furloughed Space Grant Scheme (where the state would cover the fixed costs of businesses that have experienced falls in turnover), having received much publicity.

Just as there have been major challenges for local government over the last decade responding to massive cuts in their budgets, the property industry will need to strike out of its segmented silos, cross-fertilise knowledge and ideas, and rise to the epic challenges our town centres face and seize the opportunities that always arise out of adversity. There is hard work ahead but the High Street certainly isn’t dead; long live the High Street.

Other blogs in this series:


Business as (un)usual – how is the planning system holding up?
Like the country as a whole, the planning system finds itself in an unprecedented situation. The position is changing fast, but our live COVID-19 tracker provides us with an initial view on how local planning authorities across England, Wales and Scotland are responding to the crisis: it shows variations in pace of response, but on the whole the picture is positive.
This blog provides a summary of what is happening on the ground. Our tracker has a 90% coverage of LPAs, but please note that any figures relate to the percentage of authorities who provided a response to specific questions, and not all answered all questions. Analysis is based on data collected between 16th and 24th.
Lichfields has partnered with the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) which will be engaging with Councils on their COVID-19 response, including on updating the position with individual LPAs.

Getting started – validating applications

Half of authorities say they are able to validate applications on a ‘business as usual’ basis, and a further 41% said they can with limitations and/or delays. Many emphasise that the best way to minimise delays is for applicants to submit is electronically. Only 2% of authorities state they are unable to validate applications altogether, but it is possible that this will change. Overall, this is a positive picture for applicants in almost all areas.

Going public – publicity requirements

There are a number of ways authorities fulfil their statutory duty to publicise and consult on planning applications – those already operating a primarily electronic-based process mostly report little or no impact on procedures and are operating business as usual. In fact, nearly half– 45% - are again operating on a ‘business as usual’ basis. For those which expect some disruption, it is possible that this will improve over time as Councils get more clarity around the regulations and come up with workable solutions. One common solution – in place in almost one-fifth of Councils (and entirely consistent with the legal requirement) – is to request that applicants/agents put up site notices, which will inevitably help keep the application process ticking along.

Decisions, decisions – committees and decision-making

With increasing numbers of Councils already using online platforms to stream their committee meetings, undertaking these virtually has become the natural solution for many, including Birmingham, Bristol, Exeter and Liverpool. Other Councils have opted for delegation to officers (or selected/senior officers) with some input from members (so called ‘Delegation +’).
In time, it is likely that most other authorities will have moved to ‘virtual’ committees, and we can expect increased certainty on decision-making protocols in the near future from those where firm plans are not yet in place. Key matters to be resolved will be how far Councils accommodate their previous practices for members of the public to speak at committee as well as to view proceedings.

Getting personnel – redeployment

Our research finds that in most Councils, all or the vast majority of planning staff are remaining in their roles. Over half of Councils have not yet redeployed any planning staff, but in a small number of areas this was under review. One third of Councils have redeployed 25% or less of their planning staff, and others have redeployed some staff on a voluntary and/or part-time basis. Again, this is an overall positive picture for planning teams, as the majority of Councils maintain most if not all of their staff presence.

Looking to the future – local plans

The effect on plan-making will depend heavily on what – if any – consultations are planned for the near future, and how consultations are currently carried out. Of authorities which do have consultations planned, it is approximately a 50:50 split between those expecting business-as-usual and those expecting delays. For authorities reliant on public (in person) consultations, a move to online consultations will inevitably help minimise delays, but this could carry both practical and political issues.

Final thoughts

We are now inevitably in a period in which Councils are ironing out new procedures and working arrangements – much as the business community has been doing - but many appear to be operating planning services on a ‘business as usual’ basis. Many already have the technology in place to support home-working, processing applications and decision-making, and these systems need only be extended or implemented to allow continuation of business. The situation is no doubt helped by the fact that most planning departments appear to have retained most, if not all, of their staff. The overall picture is a positive one, which will likely improve in time, helping keep (albeit, at a somewhat slower pace than usual) the planning system moving.