The overdue update of the PPG does not radically change the approach to town centres and retail but there is a clear shift in emphasis. Restricting out-of-centre development is not the key to saving town centres and high streets, they need to change and evolve to respond to structural changes in the economy.
Minor amendments to the PPG tighten the wording of advice relating to the sequential and impact tests but limited further clarification is provided. There is no mention of disaggregation when applying the sequential test, but the availability of alternative town centre sites within a reasonable period of time should take account of scale and complexity of the proposed scheme i.e. it’s open to debate.
A key change is the Government’s response to the Solo Retail Limited v Torridge District Council (March 2019) judgement, which indicated the PPG relating to the impact test “cannot and should not be interpreted and applied in an overly legalistic way as if it was setting out mandatory requirements.” The diagram highlighting the steps that should be followed when carrying out impact assessments has been deleted. This change should allow applicants more flexibility when producing proportionate impact assessments.
The relevance of the list of indicators of a centre’s health and vitality have been downgraded from “are relevant” to “may be relevant”, although new indicators include: the balance between independent and multiple stores, barriers to new businesses and the evening/night time economy.
The main shift is the increased support for town centres to adapt and change, by providing a wide range of complementary uses, evening and night time activities. The PPG refers to town centres developing their own unique brand and offer services beyond retail. The creation of hubs or groups of particular uses in centres e.g. restaurants and leisure use in encouraged. Local planning authorities can still define primary and secondary retail frontages but this is not mandatory. The use of frontages and policies to control the mix of uses need to be justified i.e. where it clearly supports the vitality and viability of a centre. This change implies a more flexible and location specific approach to the protection of retail uses.
Finally, the need for a collaborative partnership approach between local authorities and other parties is reiterated and expanded, with a list of relevant stakeholders provided.
A note of caution, the Solo Retail Limited v Torridge District Council judgment is still a reminder not to interpret the new PPG too legalistically.
The consultation proposals on the vitality of town centres would not change the thrust of the NPPF, but there are some important modifications. These include logical points of clarification that address areas of dispute that have arisen in recent years.
It is widely accepted that very long term projections have inherent uncertainties. In response to these uncertainties, local authorities will no longer be required to allocate sites to meet the need for town centre uses over the full plan period. The need for new town centre uses must still be accommodated over a minimum ten year period, which reflects the complexities in bringing forward town centre development sites. In line with the Government’s economic growth agenda, a positive approach to meeting community needs is still required. This is a sensible proposal.
The consultation proposals were expected to address inconsistencies in the application of the sequential test in recent appeal and legal decisions. There is no mention of the need to disaggregate planning application proposals for out-of-centre retail or leisure development onto a number of separate town centre or edge of centre sites, which is consistent with recent Secretary of State decisions and how the Courts have clarified the meaning of the sequential test. The Government appears to reject requests in some quarters to introduce disaggregation into the sequential approach, and this questions the consistency of some recent appeal decisions.
The most pertinent suggested change (paragraph 87 –change underlined) is “main town centre uses should be located in town centres, then edge of centre locations; and only if suitable sites are not available (or expected to become available within a reasonable period) should out of centre sites be considered”. The explanatory document indicates that the reason for this suggested change is to avoid prejudicing more central sites that are in the pipeline but not available straight away. A “reasonable period” is still open to debate, but logically this period should relate to the likely timetable for delivery of the application proposal.
The third modification removes the need to assess the impact of out of centre office proposals on town centres. The Government, correctly, points out that the sequential approach adequately controls inappropriate office proposals.
The proposed changes to the effective use of land will also have implications for town centres, by promoting higher density development, including and development of under-utilised land and buildings. The potential development of service yards and car parks is another sensible proposal but it may create challenges, recognising there is a fine balance between providing new facilities and maintaining high levels of accessibility, to enable the town centre to compete effectively.
Town centre policy has withstood the test of time and hasn’t changed significantly. The proposals are silent in a number of areas, e.g. disaggregation, which is equally as informative as the proposed changes.
See the ‘National Planning Policy Framework and developer contribution consultations’ suite of documents here
See our other blogs in this series:
National Planning Policy Framework review: what to expect?
Draft revised National Planning Policy Framework: a change in narrative
NPPF consultations – what could they mean for designers?
Draft NPPF: heritage policy is conserved…
Draft NPPF: implications for aviation?
Draft NPPF: business as usual?
Draft NPPF: more emphasis on healthy and safe communities
Lichfields will publish further analysis of the consultation on the revised NPPF and its implications. Click here to subscribe for updates.