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Housing, communities and local government committee: high streets and town centres 2030

On 8 January the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee heard evidence from Sir John Timpson and Jake Berry MP on the subject of ‘High Streets and town centres in 2030’.

The questioning and discussion was wide-ranging and brought together many of the points flagged in recent reports and publications – such as the Grimsey Review 2, The High Street Report and High Street 2030: Achieving Change.

Two key strands stood out from the responses made by Sir John Timpson and Jake Berry.

Firstly, retailers and businesses that are located in centres have to innovate and give people new reasons to visit the centre; new experiences and human interactions that they cannot get on-line. Community, education and health uses also have a role to play.

Secondly, constraints need to be freed up allowing greater flexibility for the use of town centre buildings, even if this is to facilitate changes away from retail to deliver office and residential use in the core.

The key themes and particular items of note drawn out of the discussion are below.

It is essential for centres to adapt

Timpson underlined the importance of communities, businesses and strong local leadership in drawing up a successful strategy for centres. He also recognised that all centres are different and need their own solutions. He sees the Future High Streets Fund as a way of providing a source of funding for helping to deliver the best strategies. The Task Force will provide a resource of data, expertise and examples of good practice to support these strategies. Simple measures such as changing opening hours of retailers to suit when people want or are able to shop were flagged as ways of encouraging spending and footfall.

He also highlighted that redefining public spaces in town centres is an important and exciting opportunity to deliver places for people to meet and spend time.

Has the town centres first policy failed?

Jake Berry was pressed on whether the sequential test has failed and if now is the right time for it to be strengthened. The suggestion was this would ensure new retail and leisure investment in centres, rather than out of centre. Berry said in response that the NPPF is strong enough to give authorities control. However, he avoided fully addressing the concern raised by the committee that significantly more retail floorspace has been constructed out of centres than in them since the sequential test has been in place.

Reform of Use Class Orders and General Permitted Development Orders is being pushed hard

Berry explained he “particularly favours” merging of the A-Class uses to free up how units are used. He also strongly advocated widening permitted development rights (PDR) to enable new residential and office uses to occupy retail buildings in centres.

However, one of the areas of greatest concern of the committee members was that less control over uses and the loss of retail could radically change a centre – undermining a new strategy or Neighbourhood Plan that a council, businesses and the community might have carefully formulated.

The concern was also raised that new PDR allowing office uses to occupy retail units on high streets could lead to the loss of important anchors and attractors, creating dead frontages at ground floor and reducing footfall. The possibility of poor quality residential accommodation being created via PDR was also raised. These risks were acknowledged by the minister, but not really addressed.

Parking control in centres needs to be considered carefully

Timpson flagged reducing parking charges in centres as an immediate way in which consumers could be encouraged back to centres – helping centres compete with the free parking which is offered in retail parks. Although he recognised parking charges often provide councils with significant income, he said high charges in centres “can kill the goose that lays the golden egg”.

The need for a level playing-field

A number of measures were discussed to level the playing-field between on-line and ‘bricks-and-mortar’ retailers. All agreed that High Street retailers are more burdened in terms of costs than the pure on-line retailers. Suggestions were made such as greater tax on on-line sales, linking business rates to turnover and re-classifying for business rates purposes on-line retailers’ logistics warehouses as retail units. However, no definitive solutions were proposed – and it was accepted this is complicated where High Street retailers have on-line platforms. These are also largely matters for the Treasury.

Final thoughts – proceed with caution

MHCLG see the solution to town centres as being in local hands. This is not a bad position: Local Authorities, owners, local business and communities understand their centres best. The intention of the Future High Streets Fund and Task Force initiatives, announced in the 2018 Budget, is to help provide funding for innovative projects and access to knowledge, data, expertise and examples of success elsewhere. A locally-driven solution should lead to an approach which is tailored to local circumstances. Strong leadership is essential to delivery, but the worry is that many authorities no longer have the in-house resources to participate in having this lead role.

Whilst review of the Use Classes Order and Permitted Development Rights is timely, we have seen that allowing market forces to dictate uses is not necessarily a recipe for success. In some locations office-to-residential PDR has decimated the office stock and driven out businesses, as landlords cash-in.

A great deal of caution must be exercised in considering any blanket removal of controls nationally. Whilst localities must recognise that large ‘white knight’ retail occupiers may never return, we are concerned UCO and PDR reform could mean that carefully crafted local strategies and solutions are at risk of being undermined as highest value uses (again potentially residential) are allowed to fragment currently vital and viable core retail frontages; to the detriment of the retail businesses who survive. Community, education and health uses will have even less chance of being able to compete to occupy vacant space.

In the suffering marginal parts of centres, greater freedoms to change between uses for smaller units and introduce new homes makes sense, but careful consideration needs to be given to the detail of these mechanisms and their likely practical effects. These can still be locally-led solutions, as Local Development Orders could be used within limited zones, but they need to be part of a wider considered strategy.   

In the background, we see changes to business rates or taxation of the on-line retailers to enable bricks-and-mortar retailers to be some way off in the distance. However, these measures alone will not entice existing and new generations into centres. They need confidence there is something to go there for, something to see and others will be there to share the experience with. We agree with Sir John Timpson’s assertion that place-making is central and fundamental in helping to recreate the heart of our towns.

Turley has a strong track record in the development and regeneration of town centres. For a discussion on opportunities in town centres or the future of the High Street please contact Paul Keywood or Andrea Arnall.  

11 January 2019

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