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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.

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Technology in the public realm: ‘Street smart’ just got a whole new meaning
‘Smart Cities’ are those that invest in and make optimal use of technology to transform the physical and social environment of the urban area and improve the performance of urban services. However, definitions of Smart Cities are broad and exactly what technologies are to be focused on is not specifically defined. At the end of the 20th century, ‘Smart Cities’ became a familiar buzzword in the planning arena, perhaps in response to major technological, economic and environmental change at that time. It has developed from a trend to a crucial city planning objective, to secure economic competitiveness, greater efficiency and better quality of life. Since the London Mayor’s ‘Smarter London Together’ Strategy was introduced last summer, innovative data application and smart technologies have been leading ideas in the development sector. The Strategy sets out how London can become the ‘smartest city in the world’. This has been recognised in the draft new London Plan. Draft Policy SI6 (‘Digital connectivity infrastructure’) seeks to ensure new developments have the digital connectivity required to support London’s global competitiveness and recognises the potential opportunities for mobile digital infrastructure to be accommodated within the public realm, to help meet consumer demands for mobile connectivity. Nationally, the National Infrastructure Commission’s July 2018 report sets out that ‘building a digital society’ should be a Government priority; the UK must progress improvements in digital connectivity to meet the needs of consumers and prevent the UK being left behind by other countries with smart agendas. We recently attended talks on digital street infrastructure by Future Cities Catapult and the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, which investigated and advocated just this topic. We found the possibilities for the integration of digital technology into our streetscapes a fascinating idea and a conspicuous example of the Smart City agenda. There are various methods of digitising infrastructure currently being explored in the urban context – all of which have the potential to make the City safer, cleaner, more efficient and exciting. This blog explores just some of the digital infrastructure emerging in London’s streets, and around the UK. InLinks InLinkUK, from BT, are modern panel units being installed on streets, replacing some old payphones. They provide ultrafast internet, phone calls and other digital services such as mobile phone charging, maps and directions and a digital BT phone book. All for free. InLinks have digital displays which are used for advertising purposes and can also show real-time information such as weather forecasts, messages to the community and travel updates. The first one was launched on Camden High Street in 2017. There are now 435 InLinks across the UK (correct as of May 2019) as shown on inLinkUK’s interactive map. If you haven’t spotted one of these in London yet, where have you been? Source: Nancy Stuart & Georgia Crowley, Stockwell. Interactive road crossings London-based software company ‘Umbrellium’ focuses on methods to build ‘engaging cities’, where people’s needs are put first. Umbrellium has developed an interactive road crossing that responds dynamically, in real-time, to road users. The Starling Crossing (STigmergic Adaptive Responsive LearnING Crossing) is designed to be the Zebra crossing of the 21st century. It reacts to the changing capacity of the road and may disappear when there aren’t many pedestrians or widen when there are a lot. Bright LEDs embedded into the road surface flash warning signals to (often smart phone-using) pedestrians, who veer onto this interactive road surface. The lights and patterns are controlled by a computer system, which analyses footage from cameras that constantly monitor the crossing. Source:  Umbrellium Smart street furniture When we rely on our smartphones for almost everything, running out of charge when out can be problematic. But, there are now benches around London where one can charge their smartphones for free. Source: Nancy Stuart & Georgia Crowley, London Bridge. Need to charge your electric car from a road-side parking space? Modified lampposts can provide easily accessible on-street charging points. In Southwark, 50 specially adapted lampposts have been installed by charging point company ‘Char.gy’. Other local authorities that wish to roll out on-street electric car charging can also apply for investment from the government’s ‘Onstreet Residential Chargepoint Scheme’, until 2020. Source: Nancy Stuart & Georgia Crowley, Clapham. This new generation of street infrastructure has the potential to adapt all sorts of ordinary street furniture to new multi-purpose digitised versions. As well as phone and car charging provision, street infrastructure is being explored that could act as security cameras or could deliver electricity for filming and festivals.The introduction of 5G has a huge role in the growth of Smart Cities and the proliferation of digital technology in the public realm. While the main media focus of 5G is improved personal data browsing speed, 5G is also a key enabler to many emerging technologies as digital connectivity is a precursor for deploying smart systems effectively – meaning 5G could strengthen and support this new generation of street furniture. There is a need for the planning system to be proactive to enable the delivery of both digital street infrastructure, and 5G connectivity. However, there are persistent cost, time and coordination challenges to the roll-out of new digital infrastructure. For instance, London boroughs have different approaches to granting planning permissions and prior approvals for digital infrastructure, and some Boroughs have prioritised this more than others. This could create disparities in accessing the benefits of new technology across the City. Digital infrastructure can also impact amenity and heritage, which are often concerns for planning authorities, and local policies aimed at decluttering public spaces often conflict with the installation of digital street infrastructure or mobile equipment such as masts. It may not always be clear what should take precedence, and outcomes of such a judgement may vary spatially. Overall, our streets are becoming more technologically friendly, benefiting the quality of life of city dwellers. As technology is increasingly becoming part of everyday life, our streets must adapt to accommodate our technology-driven needs. ‘Street smart’ has taken on a new meaning and we look forward to watching the public realm change to accommodate these and many other urban emerging technologies.  

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