Town centres role change argument held premature

Possible changes in town centre policy following the Covid-19 pandemic do not justify conversion of a former bank in a Pembrokeshire town to two flats, an inspector has ruled.

The premises, which had been vacant for two years, lay in a prominent location characterised by commercial uses at ground-floor level on a main route through the town centre and fell within a secondary retail frontage identified in the adopted local plan. The council’s adopted retail policies specifically excluded conversion of ground-floor commercial premises in the secondary retail frontage to residential use.

Having acknowledged this objection, the inspector went on to consider whether any material considerations indicated that a decision could be made other than in accordance with adopted policy. One of the appellants’ arguments was that the centre’s role should be reassessed to take account of the impacts of Covid-19, especially in light of the Welsh Government’s July policy paper Building Better Places - The Planning System Delivering Resilient and Brighter Futures.

The inspector did not dispute that the direction of travel in policy terms was such that the role and function of town centres was likely to be reassessed. However, she held that it would be premature to consider this prospect on a case-by-case basis without knowledge of the long-term implications or in the absence of a comprehensive strategy to deal with the effects of Covid-19 on the town centre as a whole.

As the appellant’s submissions did not include any details of a specific marketing exercise for reuse of the appeal premises, the inspector concluded that it had not been satisfactorily shown that alternative commercial uses had been properly explored or that there was a lack of interest and demand in this regard. She reached this view despite acknowledging high vacancy rates in commercial units in the town and limited retail spend identified in a recent study.

Inspector: Melissa Hall; Written representations

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