Ahead of the publication of the Levelling up and Regeneration Bill
(‘LURB’), Prime Minister, Boris Johnson made clear
that addressing challenges high streets have been facing was a key focus, proclaiming:
“High streets up and down the country have long been blighted by derelict shopfronts, because they’ve been neglected, stripping opportunity from local areas.
“We are putting that right by placing power back in the hands of local leaders and the community so our towns can be rejuvenated, levelling up opportunity and restoring neighbourhood pride. (Boris Johnson, 7 May 2022)
Town centre regeneration is seen as central to ‘levelling up’ and to the Bill. Indeed improving ‘people’s satisfaction with their town centre’
is one of four overarching objectives listed in the Explanatory Notes
“To deliver a new suite of powers for local authorities to regenerate their towns through high street rental auctions and reforms to compulsory purchase to support delivery of the Government’s levelling up mission that ‘by 2030, pride in place, such as people’s satisfaction with their town centre and engagement in local culture and community, will have risen in every area of the UK, with the gap between top performing and other areas closing.”
Against all this launch fanfare, how does the detail match up? Here are further details of my top eight takeaways in the Bill that are designed to help high streets and town centres.
- New powers to re-let vacant shops: Intended to overcome issues with vacancies, a Local Authority (‘LA’) may designate a street in its area as a ‘high street’ or ‘town centre’ if it considers that the street is important to the local economy because of a concentration of high-street uses or premises on the street/ in the area. Once designated LAs can begin a process of compulsory re-letting, if the unit has been vacant for a year, or more than 366 days in last 2 years. A local benefit condition must also be satisfied (for example, if deemed beneficial to the local economy, society or environment).
In practice, how much impact this could have is questionable. If there is no demand for the unit it is difficult to see that they would be filled. Commentators including the British Property Federation have been quick to assert that property owners do not generally want their premises to remain empty, anyway. They also highlight that the measures do nothing to overcome other financial barriers including business rates and occupational costs which make it unviable for many small and independent businesses to trade from town-centre premises[i].
On the other hand– there may be community, cultural and charitable organisations that it could work for, even if only the threat of such intervention causes landlords to act first. If the Government can address other issues – including business rates and potentially the online sales tax – it would make vacant units more attractive.
- Streamlining and modernising Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPO): The LURB grants power to local authorities to use CPO for regeneration purposes. This clause amends section 226 to make it clear that, for the purposes of the power, improvement includes regeneration. This recognises the role of compulsory purchase as a catalyst for regeneration in town centres and high streets which are seeing persistent long-term empty properties, and where there are complex and fragmented land ownership patterns. In terms of ‘CPO reform’ - these are minor but welcomed changes.
- Pavement licensing changes: Intended to support “vibrant high streets, pavement licensing red-tape will be permanently scrapped, freeing up businesses to serve food al fresco and attract diners all year round”. There is no doubt that a positive outcome of Covid-19 has been how we use outside space in our town and city centres in a much more imaginative way. The LURB makes provision for a temporary streamlined route to pavement licensing across England. The purpose of these provisions is to make permanent the regime for pavement licences with certain amendments set out. This is a helpful nuts and bolts measure to enliven high streets and support hospitality businesses. See also James Fryatt’s previous blog from when the changes were initially introduced – look out also for his forthcoming blog where the implications are discussed in more detail.
- Locally led development corporations: New provisions allow the Secretary of State, upon request from a local authority or authorities, to designate an urban development area and create an urban development corporation for which a local authority rather than central government is responsible. Development corporations are potentially powerful structures that can drive forward regeneration. They can bring about transformative change that could be used as a tool to help bring forward regeneration of town centres. The Government has recognised that retaining local control, whether in terms of designation or operation could be the key to greater engagement amongst LAs in assessing the potential benefits for their areas.
- Changes to how planning permissions can be amended: Importantly this will include the ability to amend descriptions of development and conditions. The new wording refers to allowing amendments when not ‘substantially different’. The changes positively remove the current situation where developers need to do multiple applications to amend an application (i.e. s73 to vary condition and s96a to amend description). This should be welcomed by all and particularly those involved in implementing town centre schemes (and all the development sector given recent uncertainty following the Finney decision). Given schemes are amended often multiple times, this will assist the process and should be very well received.
- Increased role of Supplementary Plans: Supplementary Plans (‘SP’) are potential helpful tool to prepare planning policy documents focused on town centre regeneration strategies. Importantly they will have the full weight of the development plan, when previously they haven’t. In terms of the subject matters that a supplementary plan can address when prepared by a local planning authority. These echo those for local plans but are limited geographically to matters relating to a specific site or two or more nearby sites; other than in the case of design matters, which may cover a wider area.
According to the Explanatory note this will allow supplementary plans to address site-specific needs or opportunities which require a new planning framework to be prepared quickly (like a new town centre regeneration opportunity), and to act as a vehicle for setting out authority-wide or other design codes. If these new style plans can be prepared quickly and have the enhanced weight of the development plan they could become a powerful tool, giving developers greater certainty on key design before embarking on major schemes.
- Amendments to completion notices: The amendments would require unfinished development to be completed in a reasonable period. It specifies planning permission for incomplete parts of the development will cease, unless completed in certain time. The LURB will remove the requirement of the Secretary of State to confirm completion notice. The effect of streamlining the process may see greater use of completion notices by LAs for example where development on key sites has stalled. Importantly the powers still can’t make developers complete final elements of scheme. Whilst mainly focused on addressing perceptions of ‘land banking’ in residential schemes, they can be used in town centre schemes if a LA is inclined to do so. In the past take up has been limited because they don’t help complete the development, rather they take away the benefit of planning permission. It does not appear that the proposed changes would address the reason they tend to be ineffective.
- New national policy and decision making mechanism– New national development management policy is to be prepared. In addition, because of planned amendments to s38(6) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act, the national development management policy will have the same weight as development plan. If there is conflict between national and local policy – national policy prevails. It remains to be seen what new policies might be in new national development management policy of relevance to town centres. Also what implications might arise for implementing town centre policies – if nationally policy overrides more restrictive local policies-could there be friction with impact thresholds or frontage policies?
There is no doubt that most agree that there is too much duplication of policy produced at different levels of government and this will streamline things and be welcomed by the majority of those who use the planning system. What we can expect though is a burgeoning of national policy, and its more frequent review. In 2012 the Government heralded the stripping away top-down regional and national policy, but this Bill will only see it much increase again, even if the digital presentation means it will remain light years ahead of the pre-2012 position.
Overall, the changes proposed in the LURB range from welcomed updates to legislation that will support town centre transformation in terms of CPOs and UDCs; as well as fine tuning of other development management changes. The powers to tackle empty shops in the Bill is being heralded by Government, but slightly sceptically received by the industry.
The measures in the LURB are all small pieces of the jigsaw, they will only deliver real change and improvements if supported by other significant measures.
It is notable that alongside the changes the Government importantly will also be overhauling the business rates system as part of the Non-Domestic Rating Bill. It has also announced providing £1.7bn of temporary business rates relief in 2022-23 for up to 400,000 retail, hospitality and leisure properties to support the high street.
In combination, this should be welcomed by those work in retail and town centre development; and users of high streets across the country.