To help high streets adapt, we must change the class use system
3 December 2019
For as long as people have congregated, there has been trading – initially in markets and latterly from the converted front rooms of houses (the origin of the zoning method of retail rental valuation). Those converted front rooms came together to become high streets, and the evolution has continued.
However, over recent decades there have been many threats to the high street. Cars and the invention of out-of-town shopping centres have enticed people away from shopping on narrow high street pavements in the rain to the dry, orderly layout of shops arranged by type (mass market and luxury, ready to wear, and jewellery…). Footfall has diverted to places that were green fields only a few years before. Most recently, the internet revolution has meant that the high street is not needed for the dull purchase of our daily essentials, which can now be ordered from the comfort of the sofa. If the high street is to remain relevant, it needs to be a place for engagement, excitement, and experience: the engagement between people, interacting and socialising (we still want to meet up with one another, despite being glued to our screens); that excitement of discovering something new or unexpected; and those experiences which give us a reason to leave home and venture out.
For that to be possible, we need to be more flexible with the way we classify our premises, and keep up with modern needs and behaviours. The designation of shops into one of the A1, A2, A3, A4 or A5 use classes hinders the ability for demand and supply to meet – and it contributes to vacant shops. The change of use planning process is often seen as a means to control anticipated nuisance, which could be better managed through licensing rather than planning use control. While some local authorities are sympathetic when considering uses, others are more rigid in adherence to the strict definitions. This leads to a multi-tiered market, where certain boroughs are less attractive to occupiers that are on the ‘edge’ of use classes (the typical example being cafés) and are worried about possible enforcement action.
An overhaul of the use class system is required to ensure that the high street can continue to change and meet the needs of the consumers – and to keep it vibrant and active.
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