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1 May, 2018 - 14:52 By Will Mooney, Partner, Commercial, Carter Jonas Cambridge

How to restore the vitality of our town centres

The vitality of our town centres and cities should not slip under the radar Thankfully, two of the Government’s proposed revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) will help to strengthen the ‘town centre first’ policy approach.

This revised Framework now proposes a shorter 10-year time horizon for allocating sites to meet the forecast needs for new retail, leisure, office and other main town centre and city uses.

This contrasts with the current policy position, which requires local planning authorities to allocate sites to ‘meet needs in full’ over the plan period – currently 15 years or more.

The revision is a sensible and pragmatic approach as it recognises the dynamic changes that are occurring in the retail sector and the inherent uncertainties in forecasting long-term trends when identifying town centre sites, particularly beyond 10 years when the majority of retail floorspace capacity is usually generated.

Secondly, with regard to decision-taking and specifically the sequential test, the revised draft Framework is seeking to strengthen the ‘town centre first’ approach by bringing back the more flexible wording last seen in Planning Policy Statement 4 (PPS4) – namely that suitable town centre or edge of centre sites do not have to be available immediately for development, but within a ‘reasonable period of time’.

This should give local authorities, investors and developers more breathing space to plan, fund and assemble complex town centre and/or edge of centre sites that are currently in the pipeline but are not necessarily available right now.

The new approach echoes the recent findings of the Inspector at the Kingswood Inquiry in Hull, which I was involved in on behalf of the council. He concluded that it would be unreasonable to dismiss two potential (sequential) city centre sites as not being available at the time of the inquiry when there was a reasonable prospect that they would be vacant and in single ownership within a matter of months.

Notwithstanding this proposed revision, there is still uncertainty as to what constitutes a ‘reasonable period of time’ – is it a year, two years, or longer? Inevitably, this will depend on the circumstances of each case and will be subject to lengthy debate in the future assessment of retail and leisure applications if carried forward to the final version of the NPPF. The draft Framework recognises that where centres are in decline then policies and measures should be promoted that support diversification and changes of use.

This is a direct response to the fact that our town centres and high streets are now facing some of the most significant challenges to their roles and functions in generations.

The growth in online shopping, the long-term attraction of larger format and cheaper retail space in out of centre locations, and increasingly fragile retailer, investor and business confidence in the post-Brexit world has created a perfect storm that is bearing down on many of our high streets. That being said, Cambridge itsself has been named the top performing retail location in a recent industry high street report. This is based on its overall rental growth; vacancy rate and tourist spend.

The latter element has always been a key driver of the city’s economic growth and interestingly, those in the top 10, also have a tourist draw; maybe this is what is needed and the secret to our town centres’ retail success? 
The challenge for local authorities, developers, investors and landlords is how to effectively plan, fund, manage and promote the future of our centres when retail is no longer the key driver of their vitality and viability.

In my view, this means there is an even greater need for robust, commercially sound evidence-based visions and spatial strategies for centres, underpinned by wide-ranging stakeholder engagement.

This can help to identify the unique and competitive selling propositions of centres that necessarily go beyond retail. To survive in this brave new world, our centres need to be attractive, diverse, smart and, above all, entertaining and fun.

It is important to recognise that our town centres should be at the heart of the Government’s drive to deliver more homes in the most sustainable way – either above shops, in the ‘air space’ above shopping centres, or as part of mixed use developments. This is vital for our town centres and could be key to reversing their decline.

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