Attracting footfall to the high street rather than A1 retailers

13 September 2019

"The planning system, and in particular the Use Classes Order, is slow to react to changes in the operators that are found on the high street."

Over the course of the past eighteen months we have become accustomed to reading about store closures. Stark headlines out this week, based on research by PwC and the Local Data Company, identify that retailers shut 2,870 stores in the first half of 2019, equating to 16 store closures a day. The lesser told story is that of store openings and what can be done to ensure that they can open with minimal obstacles and delay. Ultimately a thriving town centre is of benefit to all.

The planning system, and in particular the Use Classes Order, is slow to react to changes in the operators that are found on the high street. Those of us of a certain vintage will recall that internet cafés were only classified as an A1 use in 2005, which was 11 years after first entering the UK.  Once a standard presence on the high street, they are now a rare sight. In the space of 25 years they have appeared and then disappeared from the High Street and for almost half of that time there was no certainty with regard to the use class that the operation fell under.

This creates uncertainty for landlords and tenants as to whether they will end up with a lengthy planning, and potential appeal process causing delay and economic costs.

Consumer habits are constantly changing, which in turn leads to a change in the operators that are successful. Offering something that is not available on the internet is always going to be a successful tactic, as evidenced by the growth in nail and beauty salons and dog-grooming parlours. However, these are both sui generis uses and therefore will require a change of use application prior to the tenant occupying the space. Both are however drivers of footfall to the centre, providing the potential for linked trips with other retailers and services, and attracting customers who may have previously turned their back on the high street.

To facilitate the ability of new retailers and formats to come forward, it is essential that the planning system is sufficiently flexible to be responsive to the changing requirements of high street tenants. In order to address this, Planning Potential seek to secure flexible consents. A recent permission allows A1 (retail), A3 (food and beverage) and D1 / D2 (leisure), enabling the landlord to market the unit to a wider range of tenants and be able to offer certainty that the proposed use is in accordance with the planning permission, removing uncertainty and delay. Importantly, the underlying A1 (retail) use of the unit has been retained in order to maintain the value of the asset. 

In order to support this planning application, it was necessary to provide information setting out the difficulties experienced in reletting the unit, the challenging market conditions and the constrained planning use limiting the number of tenants that could be attracted to occupy the space. The Local Authority were initially concerned about losing an A1 unit within a defined frontage, however a compelling case was constructed demonstrating that the alternative uses proposed would generate footfall and the “do nothing” scenario would lead to a longer-term vacancy.

The landlord is not the only beneficiary of a wider range of occupiers being attracted — the nearby shops and services benefit, as do the local population who use the centre on a regular or ad hoc basis. A new tenant may also lead to changes in shopping habits which could have a knock-on effect on other shops and services within the town centre, benefitting all parties.

At the end of the day the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus does not worry about the use class of the shop, café, or dog-grooming parlour they enter, so maybe the planning system needs to take a leaf out of their book and consider footfall generation and the ability to attract people to a centre rather than a reference to a rigid set of use class rules.

If you would like advice on any of the above, please do get in touch.

Penny Moss, Associate