Ensuring economic prosperity: bringing in a new era for town and city centres

Oxford, UK
Date Published

07/09/2021

Reading time

8 mins read

Author

Stephen Ottewell

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the decline of our high streets and town centres. Having long suffered as a result of the ever-increasing popularity of online retail, town and city centres have also had to face the impacts of Covid-19 restrictions.

These have included prolonged lockdown periods and extensive working from home practices, resulting in less people visiting potentially busy hubs, particularly the city centres and larger town centres. With the move towards hybrid working as the new norm, it begs the question - what will a vibrant town centre look like in the not-too-distant future? And given my remit – I wonder what role does planning have to play in bouncing back?

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. This then must be complemented by a range of local and value-added services, set within high-quality designed and maintained streets and public places. In practice this means town centres which include attractively designed public realms and spaces that allow people to work and connect with colleagues or interact socially. The town centre of tomorrow also needs to include accommodating workers who have relocated due to the rise in hybrid working practices.

A plan-led approach to town centres should – delivered correctly and quickly - ensure that a vision and strategy for town centres is in place, taking a positive approach to their growth, management, and adaptation in the light of current issues. Under current legislation and guidance from the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), authorities have a broad range of powers and responsibilities to define networks of centres, shopping areas and frontages, and control the development that takes place there in line with their desired role. They can also allocate sites for development. In addition, a range of other tools can help to support town centres including Local Development Orders, Neighbourhood Development Orders, brownfield registers and compulsory purchase powers. There are lots of examples of these tools being used successfully across the UK.

The guidance which supports the NPPF states that “effective and creative leadership by local authorities and other stakeholders is key in bringing forward a vision for town centres that meets wider economic and community needs. Stakeholders with an interest in the success of the town centre should be encouraged to engage in the evolving vision for it”. However, having been involved in multiple plan-making projects over the years, often such stakeholder engagement has been done on a de minimis basis – driven by resource constraints that the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has persistently challenged on behalf of the industry for years. Now, the government is making funding available and has named 72 high streets across England that have been selected to receive £831m of investment to help fund their recovery from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and to protect jobs (the Future High Street Fund). Nevertheless, it remains important that such project level funding is matched by associated funding into planning departments, as money alone cannot achieve great results when so much rides on the value that can be added through developing a vision and strategy that flows through the planning function.

Furthermore, there is a risk that the ability to take a strategic, vision-based approach and the primacy of the development plan is at odds with, and risks being eroded by, recent changes to the use class order and permitted development (PD) rights. Last year saw the introduction of the new E Use Class Order as the government sought to give freedom to encourage the creation of more captivating mixed-use town centres and high streets. This saw the grouping of the previously separate-use classes of shops, professional and financial services, restaurants, business, medical or health services, indoor sport – affording the freedom to use premises for mixed uses and to switch between them without the need for planning consent. And now, from 1st August this year, the Government has introduced new PD rights (class MA) to allow for the change of use from this broad range of Class E (commercial, business and service) uses to residential use, (Class C2) without needing a planning application. This replaces previous PD rights (Class O) which provided for retail, financial and professional services and offices, but not the wider range of uses now under Class E including restaurants, medical facilities and gyms. Whilst there is a three-month vacancy requirement and also a 1,500 square metres of floorspace cap, which will potentially slow the loss of office space in particular, in so far as the cap applies to retail (and other uses within Class E) premises on high streets and in town and city centres there is no requirement to consider the impact of the loss of active frontages on vitality and viability (with the exception of Conservation Areas). Research by UCL for the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) found that as much of 89% of shops and commercial buildings are eligible and could be lost - this was using Barnet as an example (one of 4 areas looked at), suggesting the size threshold will have little impact in reducing eligibility. With vacancy assessed over such a short period of time (3 months), it is unsurprising there is a widespread fear that town centres will be hollowed out as landlords cash in. A London council has launched a legal challenge seeking to block the changes as a result of such fear.

The government states that these changes to the planning rules are needed because:

  • There is a housing crisis and we need to build more homes, and;
  • With the widespread switch to online retailing there is an excess of space of such uses.
     

There’s no doubt that town centres need to change if they are to thrive, and the need to use land efficiency, particularly in relation to providing housing, is also key. However, it is important that the ability to deliver a vision and strategy for town centres - through plan-making and decision-making - is not undermined. If delivered through a plan led approach, place leaders can ensure that such land-use changes do not undermine the viability of the centre, community engagement takes place before such changes are decided, there is control over quality and appearance, and that funding is secured from developers for infrastructure. However, local plan policies – including design codes – cannot be applied to prior notification applications, nor can local communities be meaningfully engaged in their decision making. There are also resource implications with prior notification fees much lower than planning permission fees at a time when budgets are already stretched.

What options are available to local authorities to manage this risk? Local authorities can, technically, issue ‘Article 4 directions’ to block performance and development review (PDR) conversions where they would be particularly damaging to the local area. However, in addition to the PD revisions, changes have also been made that restrict the ability of local planning authorities (LPAs) to impose Article 4 (A4) directions, which enable them to exempt specific areas from PD rights to stop unwanted development. The government’s stated desire is to restrict the use of this power to the smallest possible geographical area. LPAs are required to notify the Secretary of State of all new A4 directions and Robert Jenrick’s statement warns that Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLF) officials have been instructed “to look closely at all new Article 4 directions to check that they comply with the new policy, and [I] will consider exercising my power to intervene if they do not.” The battle lines are drawn - last month the Mayor of London published 'strategic evidence' to support councils in introducing Article 4 directions to prevent unwanted PD conversions in certain areas. It identified the London boroughs of Hackney, Islington and Tower Hamlets, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and Tech City as areas to potentially be safeguarded.

As with other permitted PD rights, those seeking to utilise the new MA right will have to satisfy prior approval requirements. There are still a lot of limitations and conditions related to the prior approval process which now includes matters which require subjective judgement, and therefore do not necessarily allow for a ‘light touch process’. The noise requirement is likely to be the key tactic for local planning authorities in opposing any high street residential conversions.

Whether or not through Article 4 directions, how prior approval applications are managed or in accelerating their plan-making activities, if councils wish to retain some control, they will have to act quickly. The PD changes have come into operation and, despite a commitment to review them and an outstanding legal challenge to the changes, they will be starting to come into effect. The need to act quickly is juxtaposed with the uncertainty of many planning departments of whether or not to crack on with existing local plans under current legislation or await the government’s new planning system.

And what of planning reform? Will the government’s contentious reform of the planning system help to ensure economic prosperity and the future of city and town centres? Obviously, there is a way to go and there is also very little to go on in the white paper around town centres. There is the commitment to building more homes at gentle densities in and around town centres and high streets, but this is effectively already under way via changes to permitted development. So, what of the strategic planning for town centres? There is a suggestion that “renewal areas” could include development in town centres with the plan setting out suitable development uses as well as limitations on height and / or density as relevant. Thereafter, there would be a statutory presumption in favour of development being granted for the uses specified as being suitable in each area. Pre-specified forms of development that meet the design and other conditions of the Local Plan would then receive automatic consent. Zoning has come in for some fierce criticism, including from the Government Committee looking at planning reform.
 
Without being able to predict the content of all emerging and future local plans, it is highly likely that were current national policy to remain, such plans would have looked to achieve a number of things:

  • identifying primary retail areas to protect;
  • seeking to preserve enough active frontage at ground floor level to support the viability of retail units;
  • allowing for potential future growth by identifying buildings for development.
     

Once such policies were implemented, a case-by-case assessment of proposals and the ability to take a holistic view of the merits of a scheme through a planning application would become possible. However, given the current direction of travel with the recent changes to permitted development rights it feels increasingly unlikely authorities will be encouraged to add more granular detail for town centres in their new Local Plans which has the potential to compound concerns over the ability to plan proactively and collaboratively for their future.

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Written by

Stephen Ottewell

Stephen Ottewell

Director of Planning and Building Control, Capita Local Public Services

Steve is a chartered town planner with over 15 years’ experience across the private and public sector. Steve has worked for Capita for over 12 years in various technical and managerial positions, most recently taking on overall responsibility for all our planning teams within local government.

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