MPs urge halt to PD right changes as part of 'comprehensive review' of town centre policies

The government should undertake a "comprehensive review of planning as it pertains to the high street", focusing on speeding up the compulsory purchase system, an updated town centre first policy, a "complete overhaul and rewrite" of use classes, and restricting the use of permitted development rights, a report by a Parliamentary committee has recommended.

High streets: fresh report outlines strategy for revival

In its report, High streets and town centres in 2030, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee says that unless "urgent action is taken, we fear that further deterioration, loss of visitors and dereliction may lead to some high streets and town centres disappearing altogether".

The report says that "planning is crucial to high street and town centre transformation" and government "should ensure that planning powers are fit-for-purpose, sufficiently responsive and up-to-date".

The report says that compulsory purchase "is an essential tool for local authorities acquiring and assembling land as part of high street and town centre regeneration." But it says that, at present, "the process is cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming, making it too slow to be of real use in a retail environment that is changing so rapidly."

It says that a review of the compulsory purchase order process should focus "in particular on how the process could be speeded up."

The report also says that the town centre first policy is "little changed" since it was first developed in the 1980s and recommends that government "consider whether the policy should be updated to reflect better the non-retail uses, for example health, education and leisure services, that will become increasingly important in the future."

"Notwithstanding the outcome of the review, we believe that, where appropriate sites are available, public bodies should take the lead and locate health, education, leisure, administrative office and other services in town centres first," the report says.

Elsewhere, the report recommends "a complete overhaul and rewrite of the use class order, which dates from 1987, with the needs of the modern high street, and the need for flexibility and building a more coherent and sustainable mix of uses, in mind".

It also warns that the government’s changes to permitted development rights (PDRs) "risk undermining the strategic vision that a community has developed for its high street or town centre."

"While we understand that PDRs provide much needed housing— which we see as a key aspect of high street and town centre sustainability—a planned approach, with local plans identifying where housing should be situated, is far preferable," the report says.

The committee recommends that government "suspend any further extension of PDRs, pending an evaluation of their impact on the high street."

The report says that councils should be encouraged to develop "town centre masterplans and use their powers positively to renew their town centres" and, "where PDRs conflict with particular designations in the local plan or other established planning documents, councils should be given greater freedom to suspend PDRs in the affected area."

The report urges the government to take its recommendations into account and "consider and respond both to our report and the expert panel’s report in a holistic and joined-up way."

The government’s Expert Panel report was published in December. It recommended that the government's new High Streets Task Force, announced in October's Budget, should "play a role in boosting local authority capacity to enable planning".

Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Clive Betts MP said: "Local authorities must get to grips with the fact that their town centres need to change; they need to innovate, setting out a long-term strategy for renewal, reconfiguring the town centre and finding new ways of using buildings and encouraging new independent retailers.

"Dated planning policy must be reformed to reflect the needs of modern high streets and town centres. Business rates must be made fair.

"We must begin a period of renewal and regeneration, establishing high streets as focal points of our communities comprising green space and health, education and leisure services, as well as a core of retail. At a local and national level, government must create a framework that allows high streets and town centres to thrive.

"Local authorities must have the foresight to develop evolving strategies tailored to the needs of their local communities and drive the large-scale transformation needed. Central government must give them the powers, and back them financially, to allow them to put this into practice."

A report by the Centre for Cities think tank, published earlier this week, said government funding should be used to "help remodel struggling city centres", including "knocking derelict buildings down", while cities should be granted blanket exemptions from permitted development rights allowing the conversion of commercial units to residential use. 

Also earlier this week, a report by planning consultancy Turley said that at least 45,000 new homes could be created in town centres if a third of current vacant floorspace is re-purposed for residential use. It also warned about government plans proposing further town centre PDR and more flexible use class orders.