Ministers urged to bolster 'town centre-first' rule

A government-appointed taskforce has called for the strengthening of town centre-first policies as part of the solution to maintaining the vibrancy of Britain's high streets in the internet age.

Empty shop: report calls for strengthened town centre-first policy
Empty shop: report calls for strengthened town centre-first policy

The industry group, named the Distressed Town Centre Property Taskforce, was appointed in the wake of retail expert Mary Portas’ High Streets Review and has outlined more than one dozen recommendations for managing the transformation of the nation’s town centres away from a reliance on current levels of retail floorspace.

One of its key recommendations is the amendment of National Planning Policy Guidance (NPPG) to require retail impact assessments on proposed new developments to consider the effects of such schemes effects over a timescale of more than five years. "In order to allow town centres greater time to respond to the changing retail structure,this five-year assessment period should be extended to look up to ten years ahead," the report said.

The panel, made up of senior industry figures including British Property Federation chief executive Liz Peace, and Giulia Bunting, planning director at property consultancy GL Hearn, said it it was vital that the town centre-first approaches outlined in the NPPG provided "further clarification on the key issues of suitability, availability and viability and their interpretation".

Improved masterplanning is a core theme in the taskforce’s just-published report, Beyond Retail – Redefining the shape and purpose of town centres.

The report argues that smaller retail cores in town centres, with a greater mix of other uses, is an inevitable consequence of changing shopping patterns fueled by the internet, but that a lack of proper planning for the change result in many towns "moving further into decline".

It calls on town planners to support change-of-use flexibilities to increase the residential offer in some parts of town centres, but stresses that such moves should be resisted in primary shopping areas, where "different policy approaches" should be used to create "competitive advantage" for retail.

Other measures called for include:

  • A more flexible approach to the mix of uses for land in town centres to enable alternative attractions - likely to be leisure based - to be developed to support the retail function;
  • Extended Compulsory Purchase Order powers to help councils piece together land packages for redevelopment; and
  • An effective redefinition of "infrastructure" in regeneration terms that would allow Local Enterprise Partnerships and local authorities to access both public and private sources of funding to help town centres.

Edward Cooke, director of policy at the British Council of Shopping Centres, said the change that was currently taking place in town centres was not solely related to not just economic cycles.

"Radical solutions are needed to enable the repositioning and redevelopment of many places so they are fit for purpose for the future," he said.

"All stakeholders have a role to play; individuals, local councils, local and national businesses and central government."

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