Town centres and high streets have traditionally been the focus of urban life, whether this is somewhere like London - often described as ‘a collection of villages’ - or a market or regional town. There can be no doubt town centres are facing immense changes and pressures, but are these unique to the current time?

Writing in wartime 1944, the doyen of town planning, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, said in his ground-breaking and visionary Greater London Plan, "One of the principal urgent needs at present is for each planning authority to undertake a careful survey of its area, more especially the built-up portions. Full information is essential to form a sound basis for any conclusions as to proposals for the future."

It strikes me that this is equally true today as local authorities seek to establish the facts and evidence in coming to terms with the short, medium and longer term impacts that Covid-19 is having on the health and vitality of town centres, most of which were already seeking to come to terms with the rise of online shopping.

The ’Use Classes’ Order specifies uses for which planning permission is not required for a change from one use to another within the same class. Following on from the raft of changes introduced last August, notably the introduction of the new E (dubbed ‘E’ for everything) Use Class Order, the Government's confirmation earlier this year that, from this August, commercial space in towns will be able to be converted to housing without the prior need to obtain planning permission, is highly likely to see high streets face still greater changes and challenges. As they continue to adapt to the revolution in retail, it is likely that many district and local centres will provide a more traditional balance of activities and services in meeting the needs of their local community. Indeed, as we have witnessed post lockdown, with far more people working from home and therefore around during the daytime, many local centres have enjoyed a mini resurgence; often at the expense of the major city centres where offices remain underutilised or shut altogether.

Whilst the immediate short term effects of these changes are evident and have been well documented, in the medium and longer term we await to see the extent to which - post-pandemic and the Use Class Order changes – both the demand for town centre property and the planning environment for town centres changes. Also, whether local authorities are able to be as proactive as many have been in the past in being able to dictate and influence responses to changes in market demand and the need to adapt their town centres.

Back to Abercrombie, he advised that, "A clear estimate of the total cost of bringing the town services, amount of open space etc sufficiently up to date to allow for any proposed increase in population should be worked out and a proper appraisal made of what it involves and of the desirability or otherwise for growth." Again, a very valid observation that applies today as our local centres in many cases seek to re-invent themselves, and we all re-evaluate our local environment and its worth to our health and well-being; in some cases, appreciating things that previously we took for granted or were simply oblivious to.

Looking into the future, the most successful town centres are likely to be those that are able to retain or establish a civic role but with a smaller (albeit more varied in terms of independents) retail offer complemented by a range of local and value-added services, set within high-quality designed and maintained streets and public places. So, town centres with attractively designed spaces that allow people to work and connect with colleagues or interact socially, thus accommodating workers who have relocated due to the rise in hybrid working practices.

In creating, or perhaps re-creating, the local town centres we aspire to, it will also be interesting to see whether there is an enhanced and re-invigorated enthusiasm for the role that neighbourhood planning can play; particularly given the Government's encouragement for the use of design coding. Anecdotally, in my local area the community formed a society and, having established a neighbourhood forum area, has recently embarked on writing a neighbourhood plan that focusses on the district town centre of South Woodford in the London Borough of Redbridge. In planning for the next generation and recognising in the words of Whitney Houston's song 'that the children are our future', we recently sought the opinions of students attending the local secondary school of the things they liked and disliked about their local area. We weren't disappointed – we came away an hour later with a wealth of brilliant and insightful suggestions and opinions. Who knows, the 21st century Abercrombie may emerge from those students we met, who were evidently passionate and care deeply about their local environment!

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Written by

Ken Bean

Ken Bean

Associate Director Planning Policy, Capita

Ken is our national lead for planning policy. Working at regional and local authority levels for over 30 years on strategic planning, development plans and planning casework, Ken has extensive experience of the English planning system. From 1987 until 2010 as a Civil Servant on pan-London issues, then at Enfield Council and Epping Forest District Council.

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