Planning system 'getting in the way of thriving high streets', says minister

The local growth minister has said he wants the planning system to "move out of the way" to allow town centres to thrive, adding that he wants to see a situation where a mortgage shop can close on a Friday and a nail bar "can open again on Saturday morning".

Local growth minister Jake Berry (centre) speaking at a Conservative Party Conference fringe event on Monday
Local growth minister Jake Berry (centre) speaking at a Conservative Party Conference fringe event on Monday

Jake Berry, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government minister for local growth, was speaking on Monday at a Conservative Party Conference fringe event on high streets organised by the Spectator magazine and building society Nationwide.

Berry told the audience that the death of the high street "has been exaggerated".

He said: "In order to maintain the dynamic retail environment on our high streets we need to look at what planning reforms we need to do. 

"If you have a mortgage shop on a high street and you want to change it to a nail bar that requires planning permission. 

"And as far as I'm concerned, that's the state, the local government, getting in the way of you, an entrepreneur, taking that potentially vacant unit and turning it into a new thriving business. And the delay can be up to 18 months.

"As a government, we need to work out how the mortgage shop can close on Friday and the nail bar can open again on Saturday morning. 

"And only then will government planning rules be as dynamic as the entrepreneurs we find on our high streets."

He went on to describe the current planning system as "out of date", citing the example of his local coffee shop, which also functions as a book shop and yoga studio. 

"The 1980s use class order doesn't really deal with those mixed-use shops that we enjoy," said Berry. 

"I think there's a big job to move the planning system out of the way to have a truly vibrant high streets."

Later Berry said the use class order "is long overdue for a refresh" but said a balance needed to be struck between deregulation and allowing local authorities to "have the power to shape their high streets". 

"I don't think the balance is quite right," he added. "It's something the government should revisit."

Berry also suggested that local authorities should use some of their land assembly powers to address the problem of "fractured ownership of high streets".

In addition, he said that councils should "use the public sector and the public estate to make high streets thrive", such as making sure libraries and council offices are placed on high streets to attract footfall. 

Speaking at another fringe event yesterday, communities secretary Robert Jenrick said that ministers were keen to consider further high street planning policy changes to help councils assemble and regenerate land and "to get housing into town centres".

In March, the previous communities secretary Brokenshire said the government would introduce a new PD right allowing shops (A1), financial and professional services (A2), hot food takeaways (A5), betting shops, pay day loan shop and launderettes to change use to an office (B1) and to allow hot food takeaways (A5) to change to residential use (C3).

Also speaking at the same fringe event as Berry was Andrew Carter, chief executive of the Centre for Cities, who said the "answer to the problem of our high streets isn't more retail".

Carter said declining high streets were primarily caused by a lack of spending power by people living in the wider area, itself created by low levels of skills and education.

Last December, a report by the High Streets Expert Panel review, which was commissioned by Berry, recommended that the government's new High Streets Task Force should "play a role in boosting local authority capacity to enable planning" to help revitalise town centres.

It also said the task force "should encourage action that can make planning decisions simpler, quicker and more aligned to local strategies".

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