At first viewing, this year’s Budget certainly hasn’t provided all the answers for our “struggling” High Streets — lowering business rates for smaller shops and cafes is helpful, but it doesn’t really go to the heart of the problem. The previously-announced Future High Streets Fund is similarly a good thing, but even £1m per town centre (£1bn divided by 100 centres) doesn’t buy a great deal when it comes to addressing fundamental change.
I use the quotation marks around ”struggling”, because it’s such a cliche. However, there can be no doubt the nation’s High Streets are facing considerable and unsettling changes.…. and Covid 19 will only make it all worse.
Beyond the gloom
We shouldn’t however get too gloomy. Some good things are being done in town centres everywhere. Public realm enhancements, entrepreneurial town centre managers, Business Improvement Districts, old buildings repurposed, new leisure offers. A lot of people have a lot invested in town centres, and necessity is once more proving to be the mother of invention in many places and many ways.
The planning system is playing its part. Government has introduced various permitted development rights to help the process of adaptation; many planning authorities are promoting regeneration strategies that certainly sound good.
However, I think as planners we are driving into the fog. We think we know what lies ahead, but actually we don’t; hence a sharp turn in this direction might actually prove to be a bad one. We really don’t know what is going to happen next, or when, so planning for it — especially in a procedurally complex and ponderous development plan system — is almost bound to fail, or at least be left running hard to catch up.
Spirit of innovation
Isn’t it time to evoke the spirit of the Enterprise Zone, and create town centre islands where — within sensible limits — anything is permissible? In other words, rather than trying to second guess the commercial and social world, let it make what it can of well-connected central places, with the minimum of restriction and the maximum of support?
There could be mistakes, but out of the collective experience new models would hopefully emerge. And a few failures, outweighed by some surprising and inspiring successes, would be better than a general decline driven by well-meaning muddle.
From Stockport’s incubators to the creative spaces of ‘Made in Stirling’, the ideas are there. We need to give landowners and developers licence to act on them before it’s too late.
Roger Hepher is director of hgh Consulting, a London-based planning and development specialist
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