13 Jul 2021
It has, without question, been a challenging year for our town and city centres. As the global pandemic continues and lockdowns come and go, a raft of the nation’s most famous retailers have disappeared from high streets across the country. As in the rest of the developed world, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a ‘game changer’ for the sector. 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 acted as a catalyst in speeding up changes in shopping behaviour, and impacted directly on the leisure and hospitality sector to the extent that it is now quite unclear how centres will function as restrictions ease.
In the North of England, our town and city centres have suffered more than most in recent years. While Covid-19 has sped up the process of change, even prior to the pandemic many centres were already experiencing major challenges due to both changes in shopping behaviour and weak underlying economic conditions.
The Government’s Levelling Up Fund Prospectus, published in March 2021, identifies a total of £4.8 billion to be invested over the coming years to support town centre and high street regeneration, local transport projects, and cultural and heritage assets across the country.
In addition to the Levelling Up Fund, as part of the Government’s wider package of interventions, there are three key funding streams, which have already seen a great deal of uptake across the North:
Future High Streets Fund – This fund seeks to allocate £830 million to help deliver transformative changes to struggling high streets;
Towns Fund – 100 cities, towns and areas have been invited to bid for part of this £3.6 billion fund designed for proposals which drive economic growth. In many places, town centres are integral to these schemes; and
High Street Heritage Action Zones – Seeking to transform High Street buildings which can help to fuel economic, social and cultural recovery.
Town centre stakeholders are responding with a range of radical and ambitious projects. These include strategic interventions by local authorities, including through the acquisition of shopping centres and use of Compulsory Purchase Order powers.
With innovative and ambitious strategies now in place in many towns – and Government funding available to support delivery - there are grounds for optimism over the future of our town centres.
Lichfields’ Insight, ‘Moving on up? Levelling up Town Centres across Northern England’, reviews the various different funding bids currently under consideration. Using this research, we have identified six key themes which underpin the different plans and strategies currently under consideration. These are:
Health and Wellbeing - With the demise of retail, we need to find a reason to draw visitors into town centres. As well as more pleasant and healthy outdoor spaces and experiences, this could also involve locating other essential services close to transport hubs where they can help to maintain footfall.
Education - Universities and colleges have long been key parts of daily life in our city centres. Opportunities exist to locate student populations in the heart of these centres, where they can contribute to vitality and viability.
Tourism - Many of the North’s town and cities have fascinating visitor attractions and dramatic physical and geographical environs. An ambitious and coherent tourism strategy should seek to make the most of these unique assets to drive trips to their town centres.
Heritage - The North has a rich and varied history, the remnants of which live on in many of our town and city centres. They can make a real contribution to the environment and attractiveness of these towns as visitor destinations.
Digital and creative - Whilst retail may never return to its previous levels, flexibility is required to re-purpose the floorspace left behind by these vacancies. Utilising new funding streams and planning reforms, space should be made to accommodate innovative small businesses which will contribute to the vibrancy and culture of town centres.
Town centre living - As retail space recedes, we need to ensure our town centres remain attractive places to live. As well as making an invaluable contribution to housing supply in our urban areas, maintaining a meaningful 24-hour population in town centres will in turn drive demand for services and facilities which contribute to the vitality and viability of the centres.
With these themes in mind, our Insight provides evidence across the North of innovation, optimism and ambition in the town centre sector, which means the future may not be as bleak as many sceptics would have you believe.
The Communities Secretary, Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, has issued a Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) confirming changes to the policy on Article 4 Directions in paragraph 53 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), following a consultation held at the start of 2020. The consultation also covered a number of other proposals the Government has yet to respond to (see our previous blog for more detail on these).
The changes will be included in a revised NPPF expected later this year, but have been announced now “so that local authorities and communities can take it into account from today when they consider bringing in any new Article 4 directions”.
Article 4 directions allow a local planning authority to withdraw a specified permitted development right within a defined area. With the Government having introduced a number of new permitted development rights over the past year, primarily intended to deliver new homes and make more efficient use of existing sites in and around town centres and high streets, the changes to national policy seek to limit the use of Article 4 Directions that withdraw permit development rights that permit new homes.
The Minister’s Statement confirms the new wording of the NPPF will be as follows.
“The use of Article 4 directions to remove national permitted development rights should:
where they relate to change from non-residential use to residential use, be limited to situations where an Article 4 direction is necessary to avoid wholly unacceptable adverse impacts (this could include the loss of the essential core of a primary shopping area which would seriously undermine its vitality and viability, but would be very unlikely to extend to the whole of a town centre)
in other cases, be limited to situations where an Article 4 direction is necessary to protect local amenity or the well-being of the area (this could include the use of Article 4 directions to require planning permission for the demolition of local facilities)
in all cases, be based on robust evidence, and apply to the smallest geographical area possible.”
The text for paragraph 53 of the framework previously read:
“The use of Article 4 directions to remove national permitted development rights should be limited to situations where this is necessary to protect local amenity or the well-being of the area (this could include the use of Article 4 directions to require planning permission for the demolition of local facilities). Similarly, planning conditions should not be used to restrict national permitted development rights unless there is clear justification to do so. .”
The WMS from the Minister says that the new wording will enable the measures to be used in a highly targeted way to protect the thriving core of historic high street areas, while ensuring they do not “unnecessarily restrict the ability to deliver much needed housing through national permitted development rights”. While there is nothing within the policy which limits the application of Article 4 Directions to ‘historic areas’ only, it seems likely that the presence of a conservation area or listed buildings may help justify a council’s decision where it intends to designate one, given that the WMS itself is also national policy.
The changes will likely make it more difficult for councils to implement Article 4 directions for larger areas of land within town centres, for example. This may support the Government with its aims of making more effective use of land in urban and rural areas. The new policy also applies to Class M (take-away, betting shop, pay day loan shop or launderette to residential), Class P (storage to residential) and Class Q (agricultural to residential).
The WMS is clear that the policy on limiting Article 4 directions relating to change of use to residential does not apply to change of use between houses of multiple occupation and dwelling houses.
In either instance, the area to be protected will need to be tightly defined and justified by “robust evidence”.
Within the Statement, the Minister also said:
“Councils should recognise the value to housing supply and increasing resident town centre footfall from supporting ‘flats above shops’; for example, councils can consider applying different policies to residential conversions above ground floor level.”
This seems to imply that where councils seek to restrict changes of use to residential by way of Article 4, they should consider limiting this to just residential development permitted by Class MA, while allowing for new homes created in the upper floors above existing commercial uses (under the existing Class G of the GPDO which allows for certain high street uses to become mixed-use).
Currently, Class G of the GPDO allows for a change of use for the spaces above shops, financial and professional services, betting shops and pay day loan shops to change to mixed use with up to two flats. In a separate technical consultation on the consequential changes to the GPDO (discussed in detail here), it was proposed that this PD right would be continued and extended to encompass all of the new Class E categories.
This recent consultation confirms that Class G (or equivalent) would continue to allow for up to two new flats to be created. Changes of use that would result in the creation of more than two flats may instead benefit from PDRs under Class MA, therefore allowing the authority greater powers to consider and mitigate any impact via the prior approval process.
The Minister’s statement also says that he intends to make the other changes to the NPPF proposed in the consultation - presumably those relating to design, plan-making and environmental protections - later this year.
The changes to the permitted development rights required as a consequence of the introduction of use Class E are expected to be laid before Parliament very soon.
UK Parliament, Written Statement, Revitalising high streets and town centres