Tighter retail rules will give high streets hope

Given the almost unanimous political support that town-centre-first planning has enjoyed for more than two decades, what proportion of retail floorspace would you imagine now lies in-town?

Richard Garlick: "Existing planning rules have failed to stop the drift out of town". Maxwell Hamilton photo
Richard Garlick: "Existing planning rules have failed to stop the drift out of town". Maxwell Hamilton photo

The answer, according to a research document that accompanied Mary Portas's government-commissioned review of the future of the high street, is 48 per cent. That number is one of a clutch of startling facts that reveal the steep challenge the high streets face in warding off competition from out-of-town rivals. The document shows that, while town centre floorspace has fallen since 2000, out-of-town space has risen by a third. On average, every year of the past decade has seen a rise of three per cent in this retail space. Separate government figures show that in 2007 two-thirds of retail space construction took place outside town centres, and that was a relatively good year for high street development.

The statistics reveal how limited the effect of the past two decades of town-centre-first policies has been. Out-of-town schemes are the norm, not the exception. The upshot is that high street retailers have to fight off ever-increasing numbers of out-of-town rivals, at the same time as battling the rising tide of internet shopping. No wonder that average town centre vacancy rates are close to 15 per cent.

The government clearly recognises the scale of the problem, or it would not have commissioned the Portas review. Whether it is prepared to take measures strong enough to counter existing trends is another matter. So far, its tendency has been to relax out-of-town controls in the hope of stimulating the economy. Portas and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills researchers deserve credit for highlighting this tension between the coalition's town-centre-first and economic stimulus policies.

They show how the draft National Planning Policy Framework could further weaken protection of town centres. By removing the requirement for office developers to meet the sequential test, which prevents out-of-town development unless suitable town centre sites can be shown to be unavailable, the draft framework is threatening existing high streets' customer base.

Portas also rejects ministerial claims that the NPPF retains existing levels of protection for town centres. "I am worried that the guidance has been softened to the point where far too much out-of-town development may be possible," she says. The fact is, as her data shows, even the existing planning rules have failed to prevent the drift out of town. Far from relaxing restraints on out-of-town development, ministers need to tighten them up to give high streets a fighting chance. Planning rules are not the only measures that can help the high street, as Portas's report reveals. But they are among the most important.

This is our last issue of 2011. The first edition of next year will appear on 13 January 2012. A merry Christmas and a happy new year to all our readers.


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