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New NPPF - The policy boost that our town centres needed?

For landlords, investors and occupiers engaged in the promotion of retail, commercial leisure or hospitality related development, a cursory review of the new NPPF may easily lead one to conclude that it is ‘business as usual’.

The emphasis on a town centre first approach to plan-making and development management is retained, as are the principles of the two key related policy tests – sequential assessment and retail impact.

While the consistency of retail policy at the macro-level continues, there are a number of subtle detailed changes in the new NPPF which could have an impact on new development proposals in the retail/town centre use sector. On the whole, our first impressions are that these changes will do little to boost the beleaguered retail sector, as considered further below.  

Divorcing economic development and town centres

There appears to be a ‘conscious uncoupling’ of matters relating to economic development and town centre related development in the new NPPF. In the previous version the definition of “economic development” in the Glossary included town centre uses. That was important as it supported the case that retail development helps to promote economic growth and creates ‘real’ jobs, on a par with those generated by traditional B-class employment uses. Economic development is not defined in the Glossary to the new NPPF. Also gone from the Glossary and the main text are the references to defining primary and secondary retail frontages. Local Plans only now need to define a Primary Shopping Area. This is perhaps a recognition that the main footfall drivers are often dispersed in a town centre – and are not necessarily now only A1 retail.

The core planning principles set out at para 17 of the old NPPF are no more. One of those was helpful to retail developers, stating that “Every effort should be made objectively to identify and then meet the housing, business and other development needs of an area, and respond positively to wider opportunities for growth”. That was useful, because of the link to “economic development”, to ensure that in development plan preparation, every effort was made to meet identified retail needs.

Defining sufficient provision

While para 11 b) of the new NPPF requires “strategic policies” to provide for objectively assessed needs for housing and “other uses[…]as a minimum”, para 20 states that strategic policies should make “sufficient provision” for retail, leisure and other commercial development. In our view, those two requirements are not synonymous. Hoping to find any ambiguity resolved in the section of the NPPF dealing with town centres and retail development, we note that the plan-making requirements are somewhat watered down compared to the old NPPF. For example, the old NPPF forcefully stated that “It is important that needs for retail, leisure, office and other main town centre uses are met in full and are not compromised by limited site availability.” The same para subsequently required LPAs to set policies for the consideration of proposals for main town centre uses which cannot be accommodated in or adjacent to town centres (e.g. leisure parks or retail warehousing).

The replacement advice is not so clear cut. While para 85 states that meeting anticipated needs for town centre uses should not be compromised by limited site availability, it suggests review of town centre boundaries can take place to meet these needs. There is no requirement to set policies for out of centre proposals. Instead policies should “explain” how identified out of centre needs, in other accessible locations well connected to the town centre, can be met. In our view these subtle shifts in emphasis in national policy may lead LPAs to take a harder line on out of centre retail development, potentially with no specific policies in future development plans to set criteria for such proposals. That said, perhaps having to deal only with the broadly familiar NPPF sequential and impact tests may not be a bad thing.

Testing, testing

There are only minor changes to the sequential and impact tests. Under para 86 applicants proposing edge and out of centre development will now need to more formally wrestle with the somewhat nebulous issue of whether a potential town centre alternative site can be expected to become available within “a reasonable period of time”. In practice, we have learned to present this on a case-by-case basis under the previous NPPF, in the context of fluctuating legal judgements on the interpretation of “availability” and the particular circumstances of the proposal, so we do not envisage any substantive change in approach is now required to address this matter.    

The old NPPF clarified that in respect of assessing impact, periods of up to 5 years and for major schemes, up to 10 years were appropriate. The new NPPF takes away that certainty, deleting any reference to timescales, so that applicants will also now have to agree these matters on a case by case basis “as applicable to the scale and nature of the scheme”.

There are certain other NPPF changes which may have a direct bearing on future developments for town centre uses.

The section of the previous NPPF advising LPAs against seeking to protect employment sites with no reasonable prospect of being developed for B-Class uses from being developed for alternative uses, is not retained in the new version. That is particularly unhelpful in terms of making the case for release of a long vacant/underutilised employment site for retail or leisure-led development. Many LPAs have site specific or general employment protection policies with specified criteria to govern release, which will need to be considered by proposals. However, the lack of emphasis at national level regarding spurious long term protection may thwart otherwise beneficial re-use of non-viable employment sites for retail, leisure or hospitality related development.  

Collaboration in Design

Turning to design, under the now more generic heading of "Achieving well designed places" the importance of place-making appears to have been elevated in the new NPPF. This includes an increased emphasis, in paras 128 and 129, on a more interactive approach to design evolution with both LPAs and the public. This is a factor that all developers will need to take into account from inception of town centre use proposals, but we see this as a good thing in terms of raising design quality. Also, gone is the para in the previous NPPF which warned LPA's to refrain from seeking to impose their architectural styles or tastes on scheme design. Combined, these changes may embolden LPA's to interfere more in design evolution.  

Keeping up with change

To summarise, it may be broadly business as usual in terms of town centre policy, but the watering down of some of the previous supportive language for the sector may make the case for town centre uses more difficult to justify, especially outside of centres. There is some recognition that town centres are becoming more diverse in their uses and flexibility being needed in local policies to enable a response to rapid changes taking place in the sector. It remains to be seen whether the plan-making process can keep up. So far it has trailed behind and stifled innovation in the sector as a result.

It seems therefore that investors, developers and occupiers will continue to have to take the lead in shaping the future of our town centres, with little in the way of policy innovations to boost or help them. Not what an industry that is struggling with economic uncertainties (the impact of on-line retail, Brexit, sluggish growth) wanted to hear, but Turley’s planning, economic, place-shaping and other expertise will continue to help the delivery of future investment.

Please contact Paul Keywood or Neil Denison for further information.

7 August 2018

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