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Revolution or evolution? A new future for Scotland's town centres
It has been another tumultuous few weeks for our town and city centres. As the pandemic and UK-wide lockdowns continue, a raft of the nation’s most famous retailers are soon to disappear from high streets across the country. Neither Debenhams nor Arcadia’s high profile Topshop or Burton brands have been able to secure buyers for their existing retail units, and those stores will now add to the ever-increasing level of vacancy on the high street. These stores alone span 562 retail units totalling 1,389,137 m2 of floor space, or the equivalent of almost 200 football pitches[1]. Symbolically for Scotland, the iconic Jenners department store in Edinburgh is to close after 183 years. Amid all of this bad news comes the publication of ‘A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres’ by the Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, Chaired by Professor Leigh Sparks. The report is a follow-up to the Scottish Government’s 2013 Town Centre Action Plan, which itself emphasised the role of town centres and the need to prioritise and support them. It promoted the Town Centre First principle, and explored themes including town centre living, accessible public services, proactive planning, digital towns, enterprising communities and vibrant local economies. For a period during the years that followed, there were encouraging signs. Lichfields undertook our own research (Supporting Scotland’s Growth: What Next for Town Centre and Retail Development?) in 2016 which suggested that, whilst the sector had been subject to considerable change, it continued to offer significant growth potential. Indeed, at that time, our research suggested that cities such as Stirling were expected to generate growth of over 20% in terms of retail and leisure GVA. We also found that retail and leisure jobs accounted for over 25% of total jobs across Scotland and contributed to around £88 billion of consumer spending. The sector therefore continues to be pivotal to the future social and economic wellbeing of both Scotland and the wider UK. However, as in the rest of the developed world, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a ‘game changer’ for our town centres. With the growth in online shopping over the last decade or so, most centres had already devised strategies based on re-focusing their offer away from retailing and toward a leisure and food and beverage-based offer. However, successive lockdowns have both acted as a catalyst in speeding up changes in shopping behaviour and impacted very directly on the leisure and hospitality sector, to the extent that it is now quite unclear how many centres will function when restrictions ease. Against this background, ‘A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres’ acknowledges some of the successes which followed the publication of their 2013 report, but does not shy away from several radical new recommendations which aim to counter the damage caused by COVID-19. Firstly, the Group wants to further strengthen the position of town centres in national planning policy, including by prioritising centres within the next National Planning Framework 4, developing Town Centre Plans with local communities, and placing increased emphasis upon data and the monitoring of town centre health. Together, these initiatives seek to acknowledge that town centres are unique places and have specific characteristics and communities to consider. Secondly, the Group asks the Scottish Government to review current tax, funding and development systems to better reflect different factors such as well-being, fairness and equality and climate change. This is possibly the most radical, and controversial, aspect of the report, and includes actions such as amendments to Non Domestic Rates, the introduction of a digital tax on online shopping, establishing out of town car parking charges and putting in place a total moratorium on out-of-centre retail development. It is difficult to imagine that the Scottish Government will adopt all of these suggestions, but it is interesting that several of the actions lie outside of the planning realm within taxation and broader economic policy. Such a holistic approach is currently being advocated by many parties across the UK. Finally, the Group seeks funding for ‘demonstration projects’ in towns and town centres across the country. This could include housing sector incentivisation in town centres, digital skills development for businesses, strategic acquisitions, and action on climate change. Most of us with a vested interest in the success of our town centres would agree that any additional funding is to be welcomed at the present time, and the Scottish Government’s budget now includes over £80 million for projects to support community regeneration, town centres and ‘20 minute neighbourhoods’. We await the Scottish Government’s response to the Group’s recommendations with interest, but regardless, the report has hopefully already succeeded in emboldening and energising debate on town centre issues across the UK.   [1] https://twitter.com/AltusGroupUK/status/1359157110370664451 Image credit: Daniel0685 via Flickr 

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Planning for growth in the North East

Planning for growth in the North East

Robert Dibden 28 Feb 2019
Article originally featured in North East England Chamber of Commerce.  As a profession, town planning plays a crucial role in identifying what development is needed and where, to meet the needs of both local communities and the economy. Key to this is a Local Plan, which should set out a framework for the future development of an area. At a time of increasing economic uncertainty, Local Plans offer an opportunity to establish a strong and long-term vision for new jobs and housing in regions like the North East. A Local Plan should provide certainty for communities, businesses and investors. Despite these obvious benefits, the latest research undertaken by Lichfields shows that, since the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2012, only half of all local planning authorities have adopted a Local Plan. From its outset, the NPPF 2012 was expected to entail a ‘simpler, swifter’ planning system, with clear guidance on plan-making, a strong focus on the plan-led system, and a commitment to meeting the nation’s housing need. And yet after six years, and the publication of an updated NPPF in 2018, just half of all authorities benefit from a post-NPPF 2012 strategic plan. Indeed, as at 31 December 2018 almost a quarter of authorities we studied still have plans under examination, and 22% of authorities are yet to even submit a post-NPPF 2012 Local Plan. This is reflective of the picture in the North East – a region which stands to benefit more than most from a strategic and planned approach to development. Of the 12 North Eastern local planning authorities (encompassing those Council areas from Teesside to Northumberland), seven (58%) currently benefit from a post-NPPF 2012 local plan. Of the five authorities yet to adopt an up-to-date plan, Durham and Northumberland cover a significant proportion of the overall region and, to some extent, have been hampered by the complexity of their transition to unitary authorities in 2009. With the exception of Darlington, the other four authorities also all incorporate Green Belt designations which can act to constrain development. To meet its manifesto ambition of building 300,000 homes annually by the mid 2020s, the Government is committed to increasing the supply of housing through a plan-led system. Alongside other recent changes to national planning policy, the Government has also now introduced a statutory requirement to review, and if necessary update, the strategic policies of Local Plans every five years – or sooner subject to changes in local circumstances. This leaves over half of all authorities nationally needing to review their plans within the next two years. Again this has potential implications for the North East. Of the seven authorities which currently have up-to-date Local Plans, both Newcastle and Gateshead are required to review their plans in 1-2 years, and Middlesbrough within the next 12 months. Given the inconsistent plan progress under the NPPF 2012, the Government’s new reforms are clearly much needed to meet its housebuilding and plan-making goals. However, these increased expectations that plans will be kept up-to-date also brings challenges and higher workloads for local planning authorities. Whilst the preparation of a Local Plan must be led by a local planning authority, the process should ultimately be a joint endeavour in collaboration with local communities, developers, landowners and businesses. As the pressure mounts, let’s hope the North East can rise to the challenge and help to secure the investment our region needs. If you have any queries about Local Plan progress in your area, or wish to explore opportunities to promote your development through the plan-preparation process, please contact Robert Dibden. Durham’s Local Plan is currently subject to consultation until 08 March 2019, and Northumberland’s until 13 March 2019.

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