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Permitted changes of use – a solution for the high street?
As highlighted in an earlier blog (Jonathan Wallace, Town Centres: A Time for Change), the high street is finally climbing up the political agenda. Although other issues – the housing crisis, climate change and of course Brexit - remain at the top of the list, the Government is, at last, waking up to the fundamental change being experienced in our town centres. We now have a High Streets Minister (Jake Berry) who, to his credit, set up an expert panel led by Sir John Timpson – of the shoe repairs chain, a staple of many high streets across the country. This panel published their recommendations in the High Street Report in December 2018. These included the creation of a High Streets Task Force to share information and expertise across the country, the Future High Streets fund (which has since been launched) and other short term solutions, related to town centre housekeeping, empty shops and parking. In parallel to this work, the Government undertook a consultation on supporting the high street, with a number of changes to Permitted Development Rights (PDRs) being announced. These new rights, which came into force on 25 May 2019, allow: shops (A1), financial and professional services (A2), hot food takeaways (A5), betting shops, pay day loan shops and launderettes to change use to an office (B1(a)); and hot food takeaways (A5) to change to residential use (C3). In addition to the above, the temporary change of use between commercial and community uses has also been extended from two to three years and the scope of the PDR extended to allow temporary change of use to certain class D1 uses. This is intended to give business and community organisations longer to test the market, before applying for a more permanent permission. My colleagues Steven Butterworth and Jennie Baker previously asked the question - would the new PDRs really improve vibrancy in town centres? The additional flexibility this brings to help centres adapt to change is a good thing. In many areas, particularly those with higher vacancy rates and limited investment, a ‘laissez-faire’ approach which prioritises re-occupation of empty units will be appropriate. The temporary changes of use also allow authorities time to weigh up any potential harmful impacts before granting permanent permissions. Some may have concerns that these recent changes could result in ‘dead’ frontages and/or that the new uses might not be ‘the right type’. Don’t forget, however, for permanent changes of use local authorities can use the prior approval process to consider the potential impact upon the provision of services or the sustainability of key shopping areas. Depending on the end use, they can also consider issues such as highways impact, noise, flooding, contaminated land and design/external appearance. Although perhaps more draconian, they also have the ability to impose Article 4 Directions which restrict PDRs. Lichfields has provided a quick reference guide to the various PDRs for changing between main town centre uses. Inspection of the different permutations raises a number of questions, not least whether a simplified version of both the Use Classes Order and these PDRs would benefit everyone. Why allow a bank to change to an office, dwelling or leisure use, but not a café/restaurant? And why could a hot food takeaway or laundrette go to an office or dwelling, but not leisure use, which would contribute more to town centre vibrancy? Rather vaguely, MHCLG confirmed in May that they will ‘amend the shops use class to ensure it captures current and future retail models’. This will apparently include clarification on the ability of the A use classes to diversify and incorporate ancillary uses. It remains unclear, though, whether the Government will merge A1, A2 and A3 to create a single use class. Whilst keeping A3 uses separate makes more sense, it would be strange if Classes A1 and A2 were not merged, when you can already switch between the two without seeking prior approval. Source: Retail and Leisure Market Analysis Full Year 2018 (Local Data Company – May 2019) Whatever the outcome, local authorities cannot rely upon PDRs to promote the future health of town centres. A more flexible policy framework and approach to determining planning applications is critical. Too many Councils are still developing overly prescriptive policies relating to frontages and protecting Class A1 uses. Primary Shopping Areas will continue to have role in the larger centres but their role and composition must be re-imagined. How many more high profile retail chains need to fail before we recognise the need for new anchors for our town centres? There is no doubt more to come from the Government on this topic. Reliance by Councils on further PDR changes will only go a limited way to addressing the challenges town centre are facing. However, a more flexible and pragmatic approach, allied to a longer-term vision of what their town centres can be in future, and use of the many tools local authorities now have their disposal, could help to provide a catalyst for their revitalisation and re-imagination.


The case for the high street – part two
This blog follows on from my blog last week, describing our research into the issues facing town centres in the North East, and our findings following the roundtables we held in Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Hexham, Berwick-upon-Tweed and Stanley. In this second instalment, I look at the recommendations coming out of our work with the North-East England Chamber of Commerce (NEECC), and the need for a holistic approach in making our centres fit for the twenty-first century.    There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to ‘saving’ the high street. If there was, then we would have cracked the problem long before now. Each and every town centre is different. That goes as much for the approach of traders towards engaging with other stakeholders as it does to the retail offer and shopping environment provided. Whilst the Business Improvement Districts (BID) in Newcastle-upon-Tyne has racked up some impressive achievements – increasing average spend by 16% in a three-year period – that in Hexham (in nearby Northumberland) has ended up in relative acrimony. Their success can only be achieved through effective collaboration but, as my colleague Summer Haly has highlighted in her own blog, they can play a significant role in generating economic growth. With the views from the roundtables held in these and three other town centres (Hexham, Berwick and Stanley) at the forefront of our minds, our joint (NEECC/Lichfields) report provides recommendations in four key areas. 1. Creating a vision The single-most important objective should be to create a vision of what town centres should look like and offer to visitors - enshrining this in a strategy, with a set of short, medium and long-term actions. One or more Unique Selling Points (USP) should be developed as part of this vision, and then promoted along with every aspect of the centre. This includes the retail and leisure offer, other things to do/places of interest and how to get there (not forgetting where to park…). The coastline in Northumberland is stunning, but how many tourists actually consider visiting Berwick upon Tweed Town Centre, or even know where it is? Not many, apparently – but surely, this is a missed opportunity? 2. Broadening the offer Of all the attention paid to town centres over the last year or so, probably the biggest theme has been the shift away from retail. This is not as easy to solve as it sounds, given that the food and drink sector has shown signs of saturation in some locations. That said, smaller centres still have some catching-up to do, particularly those with an evening economy focused towards alcohol – and ‘family friendly’ is the watchword here. To its credit, the Government is alive to the need for more flexibility, as shown by a succession of amendments to the permitted development rights (PDRs) regime, and further PDRs proposals included in a consultation currently underway. But local authorities must also think about what new (non-retail) ‘anchors’ they can attract, in order to keep people coming in. 3. Taking a pro-active and holistic approach Environmental improvements alone won’t solve all town centres’ problems but they do help. Getting the basics right means keeping the centre clean and tidy, safe, attractive and easy to navigate. To see these improvements, though, people need to be drawn in on a regular basis, and a well-curated programme of events can play a part, reinforcing the centre’s role as a civic heart. New residential development and student accommodation (in the right locations) also help to generate additional footfall and spending in existing facilities. They are not Main Town Centre Uses in planning speak but bring a range of benefits. 4. Business leading the way They might not want to hear this, but retailers could do more to secure their future – by reinvigorating their offer and the customer experience, for example. Independents, however, also need better support from local authorities in order to thrive. Perhaps more than national multiples, the more tailored-service independent traders typically offer gives them a decent chance of bucking recent trends towards use of the internet and out-of-centre retail parks, but to do this they need help and advice (the ones we met in Stanley, County Durham, certainly felt so). As I suggested in my previous blog, they need to embrace the internet, develop and promote their online offer, and promote delivery and click-and-collect services where they can. Final thoughts We cannot look at these issues through rose-tinted glasses. The economic circumstances of individual areas, particularly in the North-East, mean that some centres will inevitably contract and their importance diminish. But is it worth investing in our town centres? Certainly it is. Although their social role is perhaps even more important, the economic benefits of a thriving town centre far outweigh the short-term costs in, for example, creating an effective centre management function or creating a prospectus for investment (as Middlesbrough Council has done). What is the right approach for one centre may be wrong for another. Our recommendations could be seen as a shopping list (excuse the pun) for town centre stakeholders to pick from. Neglecting one area at the expense of others, however, is unlikely to reap the same rewards. In an age when social media and instant information rule, it is not enough having the right offer if no-one knows about it. Having met people from all parts of the North-East, I’m confident we can re-establish our centres at the heart of the community. Where there is a will, there is a way.