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Historic attitudes to use classes are laying waste to the high street

28 May 2020

The face of retailing has changed with the ability for customers to undertake their shopping online. Why are we still of the view that retail is the most important use in our town centres?

If I were asked what frustrates me the most about the planning system, it would be the inflexibility of policies that control the uses on our high streets, and their inability to keep up with the times.

Banks used to have no shopfront and restaurants were closed for the majority of the shopping day. They were known as the ‘dead’ frontage uses, and you can understand why planning policies in place at the time sought to direct these non-retail uses away from the retail core. Whilst the nature of these uses has changed over time, policies have not. 

Despite the fact that the NPPF has moved away from the identification of primary and secondary shopping frontages in primary shopping areas (paragraph 85[b]), local policies are still designating these frontages and setting unrealistic thresholds and rigid criteria.

I have never understood the logic of keeping a retail unit vacant for 1-2 years whilst it is marketed to demonstrate A1 retailers are no longer interested, when a new restaurant operator that wants to invest in that vacant unit can bring more vibrancy to a high street than a shop.

Equally, I have never understood policies that say “within the retail core, changes of use from A1 use to uses within A2, A3, A4 and A5 use will be permitted provided that…, what about all the other non-A uses thatdraw people into our town centres, which often have higher footfalls than many shops? What about the beauticians or nail bars that are categorised as sui generis?  What about launderettes that would not be deemed as an acceptable use under the policy? And places for leisure?  

The face of retailing has changed with the ability for customers to undertake their shopping online. Why are we still of the view that retail is the most important use in our town centres? . The COVID-19 pandemic will hit our highstreets hard, but I am hopeful that with the closure of some retail chains, we will begin to see new uses take up our vacant town centre units. 

These new uses won’t be A1 uses. Invariably, they will be uses where the offer cannot be provided online. It will be about services and experiences rather than simply buying and selling of goods. It will be the restaurants with external seating areas and all those sui generis uses that our planning policies too often forget.

I’m not advocating a complete removal of shopping policies and for matters to by wholly left to market forces, but there has to be a relaxation of the policy approach. Changes to the Use Classes Order, a relaxation on tables and chairs licenses in tandem with pedestrianisation and cycling schemes, and determining applications in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

Those five words are too often forgotten when assessing applications for town centre changes of use where thresholds are in place. I can’t think of a more significant material consideration facing our high streets right now than the loss of footfall due to COVID-19 Let’s use this challenge as an opportunity to encourage vibrant and lively uses on the high street.

Katie Turvey is a member of Planning Potential's leisure and special projects team. For advice, insight, or to share your thoughts on Katie's views above, get in touch on 020 7357 8000, or by email on [email protected]