What Does The Future Hold For Our City Centres?

With yet another UK High Street store on the brink of collapse; albeit rescued for now but with changes and implications continuing, Stuart Tym, Head of Planning at Wilkes takes a brief look at the changing face of the UK High Street.

11.2% of the UK’s retail units are now standing empty.  The nature of the new entries to business on the High Street and likewise those falling out of business are also very telling.  Barbers, beauty salons, cafes, tearooms, bars and restaurants see a resurgence with the more traditional offerings of pubs, banks, news agents, travel agents and clothing/ shoe stores falling by the way side.

To a degree this reflects the changing nature of the way we do our business and the function the High Street has in our lives.  We no longer need to visit a shop to buy a newspaper, book a holiday or bank when there is an app for that.  We no longer choose to buy our shoes and clothes in store when they are available for less online.

Is this simply a reflection of lower overheads or a question of changing habits and convenience?  It may be argued that the tax regime has changed the way we drink with punters concentrating on the experience, over the pint itself; hence the decline of the traditional pub and the coming into trend of more restaurants and bars. However, the fall of the town centre continues, and in this year alone around 3,800 stores are going to close. These most noticeable with a closure plan include Toys ‘R’ Us and Marks and Spencer’s.

The High Street and/or the Town Centre is an important space in planning terms and alongside the obvious retail uses is a space which demonstrates the affluence and/or vitality of a town but which also, when gotten wrong, can bring a town to its knees very quickly.

In assessing the direction of travel it is interesting to look to the new NPPF.  I have expressed the view elsewhere that the changes made in the NPPF are subtle around the edges rather than wholesale.  Para.86 & 87 reflect what was para 24 in the 2012 NPPF and are shown below with the notable addition in bold: –

p.86 Local planning authorities should apply a sequential test to planning applications for main town centre uses which are neither in an existing centre nor in accordance with an up-to-date plan. Main town centre uses should be located in town centres, then in edge of centre locations; and only if suitable sites are not available (or expected to become available within a reasonable period) should out of centre sites be considered.

p.87 When considering edge of centre and out of centre proposals, preference should be given to accessible sites which are well connected to the town centre. Applicants and local planning authorities should demonstrate flexibility on issues such as format and scale, so that opportunities to utilise suitable town centre or edge of centre sites are fully explored.

The observant amongst us will recognise this as a flashback to the old Planning Policy Statement 4:Planning for Sustainable Economic Growth at EC5.2 defining a reasonable period as the “the Plan period” and at EC5.2 (c) a sites likelihood of forming links with the centre boosting it back up.

It is also quite telling to compare the bullet point list of priorities that were at para 23 (#NPPF1) and now appear at para 85 (#NPPF2).  Notable is the omission to the various references to competition in the old version and the express inclusion of housing within the suitable mix of uses.  The below, selectively draws out the additions in bold and the omissions by way of strikethrough.

Planning policies and decisions should support the role that town centres play at the heart of local communities, by taking a positive approach, promote competitive town centre environments , to their growth, management and adaptation. Planning policies should:

1. Define a network and hierarchy of town centres and promote their long-term vitality and viability – by allowing them to grow and diversify in a way that can respond to rapid changes in the retail and leisure industries, allows a suitable mix of uses (including housing) and reflects their distinctive characters;

2. Define the extent of town centres and primary shopping areas, and make clear the range of uses permitted in such locations, as part of a positive strategy for the future of each centre;

Promote competitive town centres that provide customer choice and a diverse retail offer and which reflect the individuality of town centres;

3. Retain and enhance existing markets and, where appropriate, re-introduce or create new ones, ensuring that markets remain attractive and competitive;

4. Allocate a range of suitable sites in town centres to meet the scale and type of development likely to be needed, looking at least ten years ahead. Meeting anticipated needs for retail, leisure, office and other main town centre uses over this period should not be compromised by limited site availability, so town centre boundaries should be kept under review where necessary;

5. Where suitable and viable town centre sites are not available for main town centre uses, allocate appropriate edge of centre sites for main town centre uses that are well connected to the town centre. If sufficient edge of centre sites cannot be identified, policies should explain how identified needs can be met in other accessible locations that are well connected to the town centre; and

6. Recognise that residential development often plays an important role in ensuring the vitality of centres and encourage residential development on appropriate sites. 

Suffice to say the future is an interesting challenge for retail and our town centres.  Those that diversify to become enjoyable spaces to be rather than simply shopping destinations seem more likely respond to the new NPPF’s message and surviving.  The town centre is now a retail and leisure industry and that mix includes providing a space where people want to live as well as simply shop.

Stuart can be reached on  0121 710 5891 or via email at stym@wilkes.co.ukYou can also get all of the latest planning news straight to your inbox by signing up here.