The malaise affecting the UK's high streets is well documented. As more and more consumers do their shopping online, retail districts are suffering a gradually worsening plague of vacancy. In September, researchers the Local Data Company reported that there are now 22,339 empty shops in Britain's top 650 shopping destinations, an overall vacancy rate of 14.1 per cent.
Prophecies of doom abound: in the spring consultancy the Centre for Retail Research predicted that the total number of UK stores will fall from its current level of 281,930 to 220,000 in 2018.
Can planners and the planning system do anything to tackle the effects of this structural change? Can they help to protect town centres or assist them to adapt? In September, two think-tank reports suggested that it might be best if they stepped out of the way. The Centre for Cities and Policy Exchange produced documents advocating the abolition of the town centre-first approach.
The "sequential test", under which town centre sites must be shown to be unsuitable before out-of-town retail development can be considered, has been enshrined in planning policy since 1996. Indeed, some property industry groups argue that the government's draft online National Planning Practice Guidance, published in August, makes it tougher than ever before.
That a free market think-tank like Policy Exchange should oppose restrictions on business did not come as a great surprise. However, the study from the more centrist Centre for Cities took a similar view: "Policy should not be about restricting choice. Instead of looking to create barriers to growth elsewhere in a city, which could reduce overall investment in a city, it should look to remove barriers to growth in city centres for the benefit of the city economy overall."
Adam Pyrke, director of town planning at consultancy Colliers International, argues that planning authorities are holding back the redevelopment of areas where retail is no longer viable by preventing change to a profitable alternative use. "I don't think they have yet woken up to the fact that things have changed. Too many haven't yet reduced the area covered by their primary shopping areas and primary and secondary shopping frontages. They need to update their town centre policies," he says.
Switching shops to residential use
A recent initiative by the government suggests that it too thinks planning restrictions are preventing empty shops from being put to better use. In August, a consultation document from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) proposed allowing shops to switch to residential use under permitted development rights. The proposal follows a similar initiative in May to take decisions about office to residential conversions out of planners' hands. In addition, government has pushed local authorities towards relaxing planning restrictions on car parking to protect the vitality of town centres.
Dr Hugh Ellis, chief planner at the Town and Country Planning Association, argues that an approach characterised by deregulation is fundamentally mistaken. "You need planning to try to understand and mediate change. Planning authorities can plan for a greater diversity of uses and that was already happening," he says. "There is a myth that we have a strong constraining planning system. In fact it's now one of the weakest in western Europe. To successfully defend town centres you need to have a strong system, and we have one that is on its knees."
Some local authorities are responding to the changing retail landscape by seeking to concentrate their main shopping facilities into a smaller area, while allowing fringe areas to revert to residential use (see panels pp16-17). Planners at these councils are worried by the implications of an expansion of permitted development rights. "That change cuts across a strategy like the one we have developed - seeking to introduce residential into the city centre in a planned and managed way. You can't plan and manage something that doesn't require planning permission," complains Paul Barnard, assistant director for planning at Plymouth City Council.
Jeni Jackson, head of planning services at Woking Borough Council, fears that landlords of shops in counties like Surrey and Berkshire, where residential values are high, will be tempted to cash in by converting viable shop space to residential use.
Association of Town and City Management chief executive Martin Blackwell believes that unplanned conversions of retail space to residential could undermine businesses. "An area becomes less commercial in character with less footfall, and that makes remaining businesses less viable. You end up with a residential district," he warns.
Change of use to residential is not the only option, says planning consultant Michael Bach, a former civil servant who drafted the town centre-first policy in the 1990s. "Eating and drinking and leisure uses are what you should be looking for. Turning shops into houses is a marginal thing. It's not going to add much to purchasing power available in the centre. You need attractions," he says.
A clear policy framework
In this new economic environment, has town centre-first outlived its usefulness? Bach believes not: "There is a contradiction between these reports' calls to leave it entirely to the market and for intervention to make town centres more attractive," he says. "Since the mid 1990s nearly all the top 50 city centres in the country have experienced major in-town shopping centre development. Town centre-first provides a clear, consistent policy framework that has given people the confidence to invest."
But Jeremy Hinds, retail planning director at Savills, thinks the policy should change with the times. "A rigid application of the sequential test is probably outdated because it is not allowing the retail industry to respond to a variety of pressures, particularly from the internet, very quickly," he says.
Hinds argues that the test is too often used by owners of in-town sites that will not be suitable for development to delay development of out-of-town sites, regardless of the impact that development will have on the town centre. "For the sequential test to have a sensible role and not to be used as a means of delaying investment elsewhere, its role should be as part of the plan-making process and it should have a significantly reduced role in the decision-making process on individual applications," he contends.
Some authorities have responded to the government's exhortations to make car parking easier.
Ipswich has approved extra temporary car parks to provide more spaces in the town centre. Plymouth has lowered charges at its city centre car parks.
Balancing parking and congestion issues
Woking, however, will not be creating many new spaces to serve its proposed 12,000 square metre Victoria Square mixed-use development. Jackson argues that there is a trade-off between parking capacity in the town centre and congestion, which is also a big concern for residents. "That is a really tricky problem, particularly in the South East and other metropolitan areas," she says.
Chris Shepley, chair of the National Retail Planning Forum and a former chief planning inspector, warns that to consider the question of the decline of town centres primarily in terms of retail is misguided. "Any town centre is a combination of the retail offer, the tourist facilities, the community, arts, cultural facilities, restaurants and so on. All those things make it work and create the influence, prosperity and reputation of the town," he says.
"Some town centres have scope to expand and some need to retract and retrench," Shepley adds. "Local authorities are best placed to recognise what to do in these circumstances. They should be encouraged and given all the tools to do the job." However, doubts persist over whether central government trusts them to do so.
- How three local authorities are planning to transform their high streets
Woking Borough Council's core strategy, which was adopted in October 2012, revised the boundary of the town centre inwards in an attempt to focus retail and leisure-led development on the area around the Surrey town's railway station. The council intends that some of Woking's secondary shopping areas will revert to residential use. It hopes that this will increase the supply of land available to meet housing need, while at the same time reducing pressure on the green belt surrounding the town. The authority is also taking a more pragmatic approach to change of use from retail to food and drink in the town centre to encourage the evening economy.
In May, Ipswich was one of seven towns to secure a share of the DCLG's £1 million High Street Renewal Award. The borough council won praise for its use of "innovative planning permissions" that will allow unoccupied retail space in the Buttermarket shopping centre to be used as a cinema and for other leisure uses. For decades the council unsuccessfully attempted to attract a large retailer to the eastern end of its high street. "We realised that is a failed policy," says town centre planning manager Steve Miller. "We are now moving towards a shrinking of the town centre and better linkages to the waterfront, where there has been investment in a new university and leisure facilities."
Plymouth's low-rise city centre means that its shops are dispersed over a wide area, often in older buildings smaller than the units demanded by modern retailers. The city council recognised this weakness in an area action plan, adopted in 2010, that calls for the creation of a new anchor shopping development while allowing for contraction of the retail area. Former fringe shopping areas are intended for student accommodation, cultural facilities such as museums and libraries, and high-rise housing. To encourage development, a "market recovery scheme" was operated between October 2010 and March 2013 under which developers' section 106 contributions could be reduced or paid in instalments.