We value our high streets – and probably more than we realise. They remain the heart of our urban communities, drawing people together as they meet to transact business, socialise, or just stop a while, passing through on the way to somewhere else. High streets are the result of significant accumulated investment by both business and civic society, and there’s understandable fear that we’d all be worse off if they were significantly weakened.
As areas have expanded and changed, urban centres have altered, too. Admittedly, photographs from a century ago often suggest significant continuity of place: over the years, trams might have been decommissioned – and sometimes returned to use – yet many high streets are still easily recognisable. But it’s what’s going on that’s changing. Retailing remains the lifeblood, but the floor space needed for the storage, display and sale of goods has been shrinking since online and other channels began to exert their disruptive effect in the 1990s. The same could be said of premises for banks and other financial services – but not, however, of newer businesses that are meeting the demand for healthcare, pampering, and goods and services unanticipated even a few years ago.
The introduction of various new Permitted Development (PD) rights is enabling some owners and occupiers by removing the need to get planning permission for certain changes. In theory, that can be helpful, but in reality the process for securing the PD rights and the prior approvals required can seem as arduous as obtaining planning permission itself.
Alongside PD rights, there’s a useful but underused option for owners and occupiers: flexible planning permissions, which allow premises to switch between different uses over a ten-year period without the need for another permission.
The introduction of new PD rights is a welcome recognition by Government of the need for a more open and positive approach to the inevitable change arriving in our high streets. Too many councils have tried to conserve high streets as primarily places for shopping, including policies in their local plans that resist the introduction of non-retail uses where this would reduce the proportion of the total length of retail frontage below an arbitrary measure – perhaps 80%.
But the system can’t hold back the tide of change, and relying on PD rights to plug the gaps without a strategic plan could store up even more problems, making unhappy neighbours of residential and commercial tenants; instead, it should anticipate and facilitate the right sort of changes. It’s therefore welcome that many councils are now working with Local Enterprise Partnerships and business groups to act more strategically with regard to the role and future of urban centres – and to face up to the need for radical action to resize and reshape our high streets.
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