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Could councils do more to save town centres?By: Jason Towell, Cripps Harries Hall LLP

Jason Towell, Cripps Harries Hall LLP

In his 2013 Budget, Chancellor George Osborne stated that the government will be consulting on relaxing the rules for town centres to allow a change of use from retail to residential without express planning permission. This comes on top of the other recent proposal to allow temporary changes of use to town centres, which was lost among the recent announcement of changes to permitted development rights to allow offices to become residential dwellings. The first town centre proposal would allow changes of use from shops, financial and professional services, restaurants, cafes and offices to commercial uses. This was another attempt to reverse the trend, recognised for some years now, that a large number of our town centres are struggling. The Budget Statement goes further envisaging changes to residential.

But can a relaxation of planning policy, making it easier to alter uses from retail to other purposes, whether temporarily or on a permanent basis, solve the issue alone? For some town centres more activity could be facilitated by allowing more alternatives, from shops to bars/nightclubs etc. Although that would create activity, do we want all of our town centres to become no-go zones at night for anyone under the age of 30?

The only way to revive some town centres would appear to be by creative mixed use developments that pay more than lip service to the concept of genuine place making. The increased integration of residential development with leisure and recreation uses, creative use of communal space, allied to historic or artistic draws has proved successful in a number of towns. The Turner Contemporary in Margate is a good example. It has helped kick start regeneration and is resulting in new people discovering the seaside town. However, not every town can solve its problems by building a new arts centre. Arguably, are some towns beyond saving?

The planning system was previously seen as harming town centres by allowing the growth of out of town shopping centres. Changes in planning policy brought about by PPG 6 through to PPS 4, and now the NPPF, can only do so much to protect town centres with their sequential approach. A lack of suitable sites for town centre development has meant edge-of-centre and even some out-of-centre developments have continued to be developed despite the town centre planning policy approach. The rise of internet shopping is the current threat to our town centres. This, combined with recent high profile retailers such as HMV slipping into administration has resulted in increasing vacant units.

Our planning system, under which Development Plans such as Core Strategies or Local Plans allocate sites for redevelopment and establish suitable uses for parcels of land, has flexibility within it. So, if a developer wishes to bring a planning application for a development on a site that is not consistent with the Council’s Development Plan then planning permission should be granted if other material considerations justify the departure from the Development Plan.

The problem that is arising at times is an inflexibility from some Councils. They are refusing planning applications for schemes on the basis that a particular site is allocated in the Development Plan for retail use. This means the developer will need to pursue the scheme by way of a planning appeal causing delay, cost and ultimately often harming viability. Those Councils that are following the Development Plan less slavishly, and are more prepared to see a variety of town centre uses, are seeing this is as a way to breathe fresh life into their town centres.

The best Councils of all, however, are those that are taking the lead and bringing forward changes to Development Plan policies or driving forward with planning applications either themselves or in joint venture with the private sector. The involvement of Councils in the bringing forward of development schemes has the advantage that land constraints can be overcome where the private sector may be unable to do so. Councils have been encouraged to utilise their own landholdings or use their statutory powers, such as compulsory purchase, to deliver title for a necessary site.

The ability for communities to bring forward Neighbourhood Plans under the Localism Act 2011 would appear to be a golden opportunity for local input. The community can set the framework for what it wants to see in its town centre. That must surely be a good approach for injecting new life into a town centre? To date though, a greater proportion of Neighbourhood Plans have been focussed on rural areas and the question of promoting, or quite often resisting, residential development.

About the author

Jason Towell is a partner and head of planning and environment at Cripps Harries Hall LLP.
He advises on all aspects of planning, public and environmental law.

Features April 2013

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