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Planning matters

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High Streets / Town Centres Funding Shortlists: Seizing the opportunity
The 2018 Budget saw the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, introduce Our Plan for the High Street, part of a wider package of Government measures designed to help struggling high streets and town centres. In previous blogs we have covered the planning reform aspects of the measures, including the consultation for new permitted development rights (PDRs) aimed at supporting high streets; and commentary on those brought into force in May 2019.  Over a year on, we look more closely at the measures associated with high street funding and progress made with these in 2019, as well as additional towns funding announced this year. Future High Street Fund The £675 million Future High Streets Fund was announced in the 2018 Budget to support the development of high streets in a way that drives growth, improves customer experience and ensures future sustainability. It will do this by providing co-funding to successful applicants to support transformative and structural changes to overcome challenges in their area. An additional £325 million for the Future High Streets Fund was announced in July 2019, taking the overall fund value to £1 billion. The Fund will assist local areas to produce long-term strategies for their high streets, and will fund a new High Streets Task Force that will provide expertise and practical support to the successful bids. The Fund will be used to co-fund improvements to town centre infrastructure, including: investment in physical infrastructure, including improving public and other transport access, improving flow and circulation within a town / city centre, congestion-relieving infrastructure, other investment in physical infrastructure needed to support new housing and workspace development and existing local communities, and the regeneration of heritage high streets; and investment in land assembly, including to support the densification of residential and workspace around high streets in place of under-used retail units. Towns can secure up to £25 million of funding for their plans, but most projects are expected to be in the region of £5m-£10m. Successful bids will have to demonstrate that they have secured shared funding and support from the relevant local authority, local businesses or other organisations.As of September 2019, 100 town centres in England have been shortlisted. These towns will receive up to £150,000 to develop detailed proposals, assisted by the High Streets Taskforce. Shortlisted places are now invited to develop their strategic vision and business cases for specific projects for submission in Spring 2020. High Streets Heritage Action Zones Part of the Future High Streets Fund has been reserved to support the regeneration of heritage high streets. The High Streets Heritage Action Zones Fund is open to applications from high streets within conservations zones and is administered by Historic England. Successful applicants have to demonstrate that the funds will be used to: regenerate historic buildings and the associated public realm, on or around high streets, using it as a catalyst for improving wider social, cultural, environmental and economic outcomes; and An associated cultural programme focussed on working with communities and local cultural organisations in developing site-specific events designed to encourage local people to engage with the heritage on their high street. 69 high streets across England have now been selected to receive a share of the £95 million fund.  Those shortlisted will now progress to the next stage of development and will work with Historic England to develop plans to revive their high streets. Funded schemes will begin in April 2020. Towns Fund The 100 places invited to develop proposals for a Town Deal as part of a new £3.6 billion Towns Fund were announced in September 2019.    The eligible towns were noted as having, “proud industrial and economic heritage but have not always benefitted from economic growth in the same way as more prosperous areas.”  Of the 100 shortlisted this includes total of 45 places across the Northern Powerhouse and 30 places in the Midlands Engine. The Towns Fund prospectus published in November 2019 details that bids should set out how targeted investment in connectivity, land use, economic assets, skills and enterprise, will stimulate long term economic growth and productivity. Each place will have the opportunity to bid for funding of up to £25 million. Lead Councils will need to put together Town Deal Boards, responsible for coordinating a local vision and strategy by the end of January 2020. Where appropriate these should be chaired by a member from the private sector. Town Investment Plans will then need to be produced no later than Summer 2020. Where towns are both preparing to agree a Town Deal and are already involved in the Future High Streets Fund, these are expected to be aligned, whilst still meeting the separate objectives of the funds.Seizing the opportunity So what next for those on the funding shortlists? For High Street Heritage Action Zones, delivery Plans are being prepared. For others, the real hard work to get hold of the money is only just beginning. Detailed submissions for the Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund will follow later in 2020. In order to be successful, local authorities, and others involved with supporting the bidding process, need to be able to clearly define proposals and put together substantiated and evidenced business cases for them – within very tight timescales. Assembling the right team and articulating a clear offer and set of solutions will be key. Asset managers and land owners should check whether they have interests within areas that are shortlisted. If so, as a local stakeholder, it will be important to actively engage with those preparing proposals and developing business cases, and potentially providing input to help demonstrate deliverability and local benefits. So many of the headlines about our town centres in recent times have been negative. But these recent announcements have brought possibly the largest injection of central government funding focused on high streets for more than a decade. With innovative and deliverable proposals, and the evidence in place to support them, there is now a real opportunity to bring forward measures that can help turn around and reposition our town centres. Let’s see what 2020 brings…

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Empty shop units: headache and / or opportunity?
It seems that a week hasn’t gone by in 2018 without more alarmist headlines about the high street and the retail property sector.   The last 7 days have been no exception. The media hysteria was taken up a notch, with House of Fraser (HoF) announcing it is closing 31 of its 59 stores. HoF is entering into a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA), an insolvency process designed to let a firm with debt problems reach an agreement with creditors to help pay off part or all of its debts.   HoF is one of a number of retailers that have embarked on CVAs this year; others include Toys R Us (now in administration), New Look, Byron, Carpetright and Mothercare. Maplin and Poundworld have also gone into administration. Elsewhere, retailers have been continuing to ‘right size’ their portfolios, with M&S recently announcing it was closing a number of stores by 2022.   Whilst the CVA process, in particular, is creating headaches for landlords in terms of rent negotiations, at the same time newly freed-up space has the potential to open up new opportunities - which many are seizing. Recent experience with former BHS units shows, in place of a tired retailer and with a bit of imagination, units have the potential to be reconfigured and reused for shopping, eating, bouncing or golfing – improving vitality and viability of centres as a result.     As the retail sector continues to go through a process of restructuring and adjustments, there are a number of ways in which Lichfields is assisting clients to ensure positive outcomes are secured.   Future-proofing strategies: We are helping clients formulate strategies for future-proofing their retail and town centre portfolios, responding to changing consumer and tenant needs. These can include prospective alternative uses and / or development, both those creating floorspace and upgrading tired public realm and elevation designs - all part of enhancing ‘places’. Securing change of use for other town centre uses: National trends show a strong growth in the food and beverage sector, broadening of the range and choice of outlets in centres and thus complementing the wider retail offer and increasing dwell-times. We are helping to secure planning permissions for a diversification of uses to F&B, leisure and other town centre uses to help clients curate the right mix of uses and right environment to continue to attract customers. Sub-division / right sizing of units: We are assisting clients to sub-divide and right-size units, both through rationalisation and expansion, by negotiating planning conditions, overcoming planning policy tests and addressing heritage constraints to secure the necessary approvals. Amending constraining conditions and/or obligations: Large units, in particular, can have historic constraints limiting the range of goods sold and/ or controlling floorspace. We are renegotiating these constraints for clients through the planning system, to enable new tenants to occupy the space and securing the longer term outlook for them. Introducing residential uses: We are also helping clients to make the most of sites, with strategies for introducing residential uses alongside, instead of, or on top of existing retail assets. Recent research by Lichfields and the Federation of Master Builders looks at how the potential for new homes on our high streets can be unlocked.   Contact Lichfields for more information on how we can help with your town centre and retail projects.

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