30 Apr 2020
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.
27 Apr 2018
It’s almost unheard of to be presented with the opportunity to write about the achievements of a member of staff who has almost 50 years’ service in the same company. It’s an absolute privilege when that person is a living legend of the profession and one of the original founders and shapers of planning consultancy as it exists today.
Geoff Smith is our longest serving member of staff by some distance, serving over the years as an assistant, partner, director, managing director, and chairman; and now as one of our three non-executive directors guiding the future direction of the business. His contribution to Lichfields and the profession has been absolutely massive. Put most simply it has led to the building of many thousands of new homes, shops, offices and other uses to help meet the needs of a population in the UK that has grown by 11 million people over his time in practice.
Geoff started his career at Lichfields, or Nathaniel Lichfield and Associates as it was back in the day, in 1969 in a two room office in Portland Place. Aged 23 he worked alongside three other assistants; they were none other than Michael Edwards, the late Honor Chapman and Mike Whitbread, all under the direction of our founder Nat Lichfield. What a planning team that was!
Geoff Smith aged 25, hard at work in our Portland Place offices
Geoff’s first two jobs couldn’t have been a better indicator of the general type of work that was to follow over many years for him, the business and indeed for much of the planning consultancy profession that was beginning to emerge beyond a handful of practices. He advised on Brent Cross shopping centre, the UK’s first ever out-of-town shopping centre; and alongside that worked for Milton Keynes Development Corporation on their masterplan, the new towns being a long running source of work for us as they were a major focus of housebuilding at the time.
Brent Cross, one of Geoff’s first big projects in the late ‘60s early ‘70s
Back in the 1970s planning consultancy essentially combined two main offers - masterplanning and land use economics consultancy. Geoff and the firm almost single-handedly invented the application of surveying and economic techniques to land use planning analysis; and from this, retail impact and housing need studies mushroomed alongside cost-benefit analysis which was very much in vogue at that time. Planning applications were simple affairs and almost solely within the architects’ domain. Planning consultancies were almost exclusively London based but covered the whole of the UK.
The economic problems of the late 1970s meant the survival of the firm relied increasingly on working abroad. Geoff led major projects including a shopping strategy for Randstadt in Holland, a redevelopment plan for modernising the centre of Tehran and planning for a new state capital city in Abeokuta, Nigeria.
Invitation to dinner from the Mayor of Tehran, and Geoff at a subsequent visit to a local market in 1975
Things changed considerably in the 1980s. The laissez-faire approach to planning led to a proliferation of planning inquiries and Geoff really came into his element. Having been given his first opportunity to give evidence at the ripe old age of 27 (when Nat Lichfield was trapped in Israel due to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War and unable to appear himself) Geoff became one of the UK’s top expert witnesses as this tide of inquiries began. After several hundred inquiries later - and having been called by the likes of the late Roy Vandermeer OBE, the late Lionel Read and Michael Fitzgerald OBE amongst many other pre-eminent barristers along the way - it wasn’t until 2003 that Geoff finally hung up his inquiry boots. Funnily enough the last one was for the extension of the Westgate Centre in Oxford, a subsequent incarnation of which has just opened its doors for trading. These inquiries led to thousands of new homes, hundreds of supermarkets and retail warehouses, dozens of shopping centres and hotels, two theme parks and two major new airports!
Geoff’s commercial awareness and his surveying (on top of his planning) background stood him and the business in good stead as the workload expanded to include development management and the furnishing of planning applications for private sector clients with EIAs and all the technical work that was never previously required. Long gone are those far less complicated days of the ‘red line outline planning application’ when the submission amounted to little more than just a red line plan! The likes of M&S, Madame Tussauds (now part of Merlin Entertainments), Capital Shopping Centres (now intu), pension funds and developers emerged as the backbone of our client base.
Alongside a growth in development management and plan-making type work, planning consultancy started to regionalise, this being cemented some time later by the localism agenda. Geoff was instrumental in the opening of our Newcastle office 25 years ago on the back of the emerging proposals at that time for Newcastle Great Park, an extension to the urban area on the north-western outskirts of the City; and then Cardiff as the business moved towards the eight office offer we have now.
With Geoff having set the company firmly on its current course he continued his fifty year journey by becoming chairman and now serves us as a non-executive director, applying his strategic mind in a different but equally important way. Geoff led the successful expansion of the company through the 1980s and 1990s and various changes in structure to help create the opportunities for many others who have followed in his footsteps. From that small office of six staff in Portland Place the company has now grown to its current complement of over 215 staff in eight offices across the UK – the numbers speak for themselves! And what has brought this tribute on? I was passing the time after a meeting today with a client and in passing he mentioned two of his projects at Brent Cross and Milton Keynes. I immediately thought of Geoff, the importance of those projects to him and the history of our company and remembered that I had a story to tell.