Policy Briefing: New Welsh retail policy tries to span an awkward divide

The Welsh government bid to retain 'town centre first' retail policy while offering local flexibility presents a challenge, explain Elliot Jones and Owen Francis.

The Welsh Assembly building in Cardiff
The Welsh Assembly building in Cardiff

Q What are the key provisions set out in this document?

A The Welsh government is consulting on an update of chapter 10 of Planning Policy Wales and Technical Advice Note 4 on retailing and town centres. It aims to reflect the changes affecting town centres, maintaining the "town centre first" emphasis while trying to introduce more flexibility in how policy for town centres is applied.

The "town centre first" principle is reiterated through the retention of the need and sequential approach policy tests, concentrating new shops in centres and requiring evidence for unmet retail demand outside these areas. A new emphasis on flexibility enables a wider range of town centre uses, however, recognising that they must develop non-retail attractions while retaining a core offer.

Q What challenges will this guidance present to local planning authorities?

A The guidance emphasises the role of local authorities in preparing masterplans and development briefs. They are now seen as the lead agent in guiding new town centre proposals through preparing clear, concise yet flexible policies on core retail. Given the time and resources required to prepare such plans effectively, it is questionable how this idea will work in practice at a time when budgets are under pressure.

In addition, some of the new policy requirements could be considered to lack clarity. It is evident that the sequential approach will apply to a wider range of uses, but it is not clear whether developers will still have to prove that they have considered disaggregating their projects to fit available town centre sites. This could be considered onerous and is no longer demanded in England. Arguably, it could result in a less flexible approach than the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) at a time when private investment is needed in many towns across Wales.

Q How might these policies play out across Wales?

A It is clear that the onus is on local authorities to take a more proactive role in developing their town centres with a greater requirement to prepare land-use masterplans and strategies. While this is to be supported, what happens when these plans and the supporting evidence base are not in place?

In such cases, there are questions on the degree of clarity and certainty that this guidance gives applicants. As stated, many tests now removed from the NPPF remain in this guidance. This may give rise to added complications for applicants preparing retail proposals.

Moreover, while the guidance aims to introduce flexibility, the retention of these tests means that retail development such as small or mid-size convenience stores planned outside centres may find it difficult to comply with policy – despite offering benefits such as new investment and job creation. This could be critical in towns that have declining retail centres and require significant investment and economic growth.

Q What effect might the divergence between Welsh and English guidance have?

A The emphasis on councils having to prepare town centre masterplans in an overall retail hierarchy will give applicants an opportunity to become involved in the process from the outset. This new approach has the potential to enable a more coordinated, holistic response to difficult market conditions.

To secure this in practice, councils will have to ensure that policy and land-use plans are sufficiently collaborative and can be adapted to market interests. This is necessary given the renewed emphasis on the needs test and the application of the sequential approach for all town centre uses, as well as the requirement to show flexibility. The retention of these tests runs the risk of making planning in Wales less flexible in promoting investment and economic development.

This difference could potentially affect investment decisions if the policy requirements in Wales are considered more restrictive, particularly as it is envisaged that much of the investment in retail in the near future will be for developments at the smaller end of the scale, where such tests will have to be addressed.

Elliot Jones is a director and Owen Francis an associate director in the Cardiff office of planning consultancy Boyer

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