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Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill - implications for high streets / town centres
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.   Summing up 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.   [i] BBC News: Shop owners to be forced to rent out empty premises, government says

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This blog takes a closer look at the potential implications of emerging policies for embodied carbon in planning. It follows on from Lichfields recent insight on the role of the planning system in targeting net zero. This showed that 35% of emerging plans issued in 2021 have policies which now reference a need for applicants to identify how they are addressing embodied carbon in bringing forward development. A further 24% have reference in supporting text to a more general ‘climate change’ policy. Figure 1: % of Draft (Reg 19) Plans published between January and October 2021 identifying named ‘standards’ to address Climate Change in draft policies or in the supporting text of draft policies In November the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) held its third evidence session exploring the sustainability of the built environment and embodied carbon[1]. The Committee heard from industry experts over two panels. The first discussed the sustainability of different building materials on offer, including concrete and steel to timber. The second panel explored how the planning system and building regulations can facilitate a sustainable built environment. Previous evidence sessions have focused on embodied carbon and the retrofitting and reuse of buildings. In October[2], the EAC heard disappointment from panellists that the Government had not gone further with its heat and building strategy[3]; the Government’s Response to the Committee on Climate Change Annual Report[4] and the Government’s Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener[5] in terms of regulating and calculating embodied carbon. The increased emphasis of thinking about whole life carbon as part of development was recently the subject of a Parliamentary briefing note[6]. It details that many stakeholders, including the Climate Change Committee, now consider it imperative that an increased focus is given to the whole life carbon emissions of buildings, including embodied carbon emissions in order to address aspirations for Net Zero. The importance of the emissions from buildings was recognised at COP26, with a day dedicated to ‘Cities, Regions and Built Environment’.     National Planning Policy: Towards Net Zero? In terms of the Planning White Paper and outline of Planning Bill the EAC committee heard criticisms that Government appeared to be failing to adequately reflect the role planning has in delivering Net Zero. There were also calls for the NPPF to make Net Zero a fundamental common thread throughout it and to recognise the wider role planning has alongside changes to building standards. If we are to meet the UK’s target of Net Zero emissions by 2050 it is evident that there is a need to look at the environmental impact of buildings in Britain and focus specifically on strategies to reduce whole-life emissions of buildings. However, there are currently no statutory requirements to measure or to reduce the embodied carbon emissions of buildings in the UK. So what role can and should the planning system play in this? How is embodied carbon measured? How should the planning system make decisions weighing up issues the issues of embodied carbon against other development plan priorities? And how might the role of materials be used in development change? Policies for Whole Life Carbon Assessments A whole life approach to carbon emissions reduction includes tackling embodied carbon emissions alongside operational carbon. This approach has implications for:   building design and materials selection; designing with less material to improve resource efficiency and reduce waste; and selecting materials with a lower carbon impact. With the life cycle approach each material should be chosen only when it has the best performance compared to other materials and has the lowest whole life carbon impact. Materials with a higher embodied carbon could be considered only if a reduction of the operational carbon over a building’s lifetime can be achieved. Circular economy based strategies, such as reusing materials and designing buildings to be adaptable or able to be deconstructed, can also contribute towards whole life carbon emissions reductions. The key difference between a linear v’s circular economy approach, is the shift away from waste (completely) with the drive towards repurposing and reuse. For developments, this means ‘new build’ needs to look not only as construction techniques, materials and flexibility of use over lifetime, it also anticipates enhanced management of asset to maintain materials for longer. For the development industry, it also means prioritising retrofit or refurbishment of existing buildings over new builds. Considerations of a life cycle assessment is shown on Figures 2 and principles of a circular economy in Figure 3. Figure 2: Considerations for measuring whole life cycle impacts Source: LETI Embodied Carbon Primer illustrating considerations for measuring whole life cycle impacts Figure 3: Circular v’s Linear Source: LETI Embodied Carbon Primer showing the principles of a circular economy Lessons from the London Plan Previous Lichfields blogs have explored London’s response to date on the climate change crisis and reviewed findings of the Climate Change Committee’s 2020 report to parliament. More recently, following the adoption of the London Plan in 2021, we reported on its policies requiring all new developments to now ‘calculate whole lifecycle carbon emissions through a nationally recognised assessment and demonstrate actions taken to reduce them’ (Policy SI 2, Part F). The London Plan has done on whole life carbon, it is one of the most important things that has happened in this country on this topic. It is a complete exemplar of what we need to be doing around the country.Will Arnold, Head of Climate Action, Institution of Structural Engineers, giving evidence at EAC Committee November 2021 The London Plan approach was described by panelists as a an ‘exemplar’ of what we need to be doing around the rest of the country. By requiring teams to assess whole life carbon at concept / early stages in the project, it allows key decisions on carbon embodiment to be incorporated in the DNA of the development. The GLA approach also requires whole life carbon to be looked at pre-app stage, at planning stage and post construction. The information is reviewed and it is compared with the benchmarks[7]. There is an opportunity for carbon offsetting in exceptional circumstances.  Materials to consider The November EAC Committee also heard evidence on how the Government can encourage sustainability of buildings that are being designed and constructed now and in particular the materials that are being used. With regards to materials the consensus from the panel is was there is: “no evil or sainted material”. That is there is no single solution that suits all low embodied carbon buildings. What the evidence session demonstrated was the myriad of considerations that designers need to take account of when selecting materials. For example: strength and durability; safety and insurance considerations (i.e. with timber); availability of materials within UK; and potential to dismantle and reuse (particularly steel vs concrete structures). The panellists were asked if there are enough tools available to understand the carbon impact of materials that are being commissioned, used or deployed? It was acknowledged that the tools and the data is already there. What is needed is more transparent data, for example a with a centralised national database of measurements. Ideally the database should stretch across the lifecycle of a product or a material so that they provide the whole picture when specifying materials. The Government also setting a maximum embodied carbon per square metre, per building type, was considered as a response by Government that would be incredibly helpful.    Lichfields Commentary: Implication for planning Understanding a development’s whole life carbon impact, including embodied carbon, is increasing in importance. Will the Government follow the lead of the London Plan and require all major developments to include whole life cycle carbon assessments? Will the Government take bolder steps with revisions to the NPPF be revised to better address climate change and net zero? Could we see a national targets set on embodied carbon? Or will it be left to local plans? Planning has a front and central role to play in this. Importantly, at the same time planning also has an economic, social and environmental position that needs to be carefully navigated. For developers, the financial case for sustainable buildings is now better established. The NLA reported research undertaken just before the pandemic showed that demand for sustainable office spaces was increasing and sustainable buildings in central London have a rental premium between six and eleven per cent[8]. So certainly there is more of an inclination in the industry to embrace sustainability. At the same time socially, it is understood that there is a correlation with net zero aspirations and creating spaces which support well-being and health (e.g. in terms of air quality, ventilation, the use of natural materials, and access to nature). Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance agendas are also now being taken increasingly seriously among developers, landlords and occupiers, as these three factors become mainstream in measuring the sustainability and social impact of investments[9]. Decision makers (planning officers and members) want to encourage the most sustainable buildings and make decisions in an informed way, which helps them address climate challenge and work towards net zero targets. There is a need for upskilling to support understanding of developments’ climate change impacts. At the same time this should recognise that decisions prioritising embodied carbon in emerging designs have knock on implications for developments. For example, a challenge of existing buildings is that they already have significant levels of embedded carbon. For planners, there may need to be a careful balance struck when retrofitting between retaining and reusing parts of the building, e.g. the steel or concrete structure, whilst not compromising future function like optimal floor layouts and generous ceiling heights. In some cases this may also mean other development plan policies need to also be ‘balanced’ if compliance with car parking, servicing or amenity policies cannot be achieved. The EAC discussions also asked if there was a greater role for permitted development rights to make better use of existing building stock, with 600,000 vacant buildings in the UK. The feedback from panel was apprehensive due to concerns with inconsistency of quality of spaces created (e.g.in case of single aspect buildings or with lack of natural light). How do you encourage buildings back into use and still create quality spaces? Ultimately is it better to have a well performing whole carbon assessment but which compromises on other policy requirements? How should these be balanced with other planning considerations? If you retain and reuse a building or structure there are constraints, which require compromise… … or should the balance now be tipped in favour of addressing climate change? [1] https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/62/environmental-audit-committee/news/158900/net-zero-buildings-what-materials-are-on-offer-and-how-can-the-planning-system-support-sustainability/[2] Embodied carbon and retrofitting policy under the microscope by MPs - Committees - UK Parliament[3]Heat and Buildings Strategy [4]Government Response to the Climate Change Committee [5]Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener [6] UK Parliament Post, Reducing the Whole Life Carbon Impacts of the Building, November 2021 [7] Rhian Williams from the GLA London Plan team speaking at the EAC also confirmed the intention of the Mayor to publish the final version of the Whole Life-Cycle Carbon Assessments guidance in the New Year. [8] JLL, The Impact of Sustainability on Value (2020), p. 5. Cited in NLA, WRK/LDN: Office Revolution? (2021) [9] NLA, WRK/LDN: Office Revolution? (2021)  

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