Town centres and retailing in the London Plan: Five things you need to know
The draft new London Plan is gradually making its way towards replacing the current adopted London Plan 2016. We have attended many of the Examination sessions for the new Plan and so can offer valuable insights into the interpretation and meaning being applied to the new policies. This piece continues our analysis and summary of key issues discussed at key EIP sessions.
On 15 May, Director in the London Planning team, Paul Keywood attended the session held to examine policies on ‘Town Centres and Retailing’ and offers his top five observations and perspectives below.
- New homes in centres welcome – with caution: The new London Plan takes a much more positive stance than the NPPF in supporting the “adaptation and diversification” of town centres, including realising the potential for mixed-use or residential development. Proposals should ‘make best use of land’ (see Policy SD6). These principles were not challenged in the session, however it was flagged that new residential development in centres should not undermine the objective to promote and enhance the vitality and viability of centres (also SD6), i.e. new homes should not be at the cost of what makes centres special.
- Polarisation – big centres win, smaller centres could lose: The Greater London Authority (GLA) fully expects polarisation of where retail space is located, particularly for comparison goods. Retail space is expected to shift significantly from smaller allocated centres towards the limited number of higher order international, metropolitan, major centres and Central Activities Zone (CAZ) frontages. Smaller centres will have no choice but to adapt and innovate to survive. GLA guidance for local authorities on preparing town centre strategies is expected later in 2019.
- Fight-back from out-of-centre: Some attendees flagged the wording ‘discouraging’ and limiting floorspace increases for new out of centre retail proposals (Policy SD7) as inconsistent with the NPPF. The Mayor’s team highlighted the potential for intensification of development at retail parks. Concerns were also raised by representors about the clarity of wording requiring provision of small shops and affordable commercial units alongside development proposals of more than 2,500 sq m of A-Class floorspace (Policy E9). The Inspector asked the Mayor’s team to look again at the relevant wording of these policies.
- A ‘hands off’ approach to locations for meeting retail need: The plan’s evidence base shows a need for around 1.2 million sq m of additional comparison retail space (once pipeline schemes are taken into account). The Mayor’s team confirmed it does not seek to dictate specifically in which centres this is provided. However, we note from Experian data that there is already circa 1.2 million sq m of vacant commercial space in London’s town centres.
- Smaller unit dilemma: In light of the second and fourth points above, we expect to see many centres contracting in size and centre boundaries being re-drawn. A concern raised in the session was that this will exclude and expedite the loss (through mixed-use redevelopment) of many smaller units on the periphery of centres; this is where rents are lower and often support specialist, independent, community and start-up businesses. Whilst new homes in centres can support vitality and viability, we note that it is precisely these smaller occupiers which the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) see as giving local identity, leading innovation and being the driving force behind the future of trade in town centres.
Overall, do not expect to see any seismic shifts now in the suite of lengthy new policies which will come into play in guiding development plan policies and planning decisions in and around town centres, or involving town centre uses. There is much to take on board in navigating through the requirements and finer points of the policy wording. How the balance plays out in new Local Plans between protecting the uses which have traditionally made centres unique, and managing / allowing housing and employment space-led schemes will be crucial to the prospects of success for both centres and applications. A big question is whether new Local Plans and strategies can put the new policies into practice fast enough to proactively manage and lead change for town centres? A follow-on question is whether new Permitted Development Rights will undermine new policy frameworks?
For further details or to discuss proposals for development in or around town centres in London, please contact Paul Keywood or Ben Wrighton.
20 May 2019
 As noted in the Government Response to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee inquiry into high streets and town centres in 2030, MHCLG, May 2019