Our high streets have been making headlines recently, notably during COVID-19, due to the closure of non-essential shops and the rise of online shopping. More recently, shifts in consumer habits and structural changes in retail markets have altered again due to the current cost of living crisis.
A key challenge for the government is to ensure that high streets are at the forefront of recovery, investing £10 billion of funding for high streets and town centres, targeted at regeneration and spurring private sector funding.
Does the planning system have the correct tools to assist with the delivery of a more resilient high street to withstand future trends and needs?
Diversifying Uses on the High Street
The shift in retail markets and consumer trends has resulted in a notable increase in vacant premises on many high streets. Many retail outlets have shut their doors in favour of selling to their customers online or more devastatingly, businesses closing up completely, due to an increasing volatile economic climate.
In order to attract businesses to an area and safeguard the future of our high streets, the government has acknowledged that the creation of more vibrant, mixed use communities is one solution.
To support this, the government made changes to the Use Classes Order in 2020 to allow more flexibility when changing between operations within the same use class. This enables the change of use of specific categories listed in each ‘class’, without the need for planning permission. For example, the introduction of the new ‘Class E’ includes sectors such as retail, cafes, financial and professional services, health centres and indoor sport (amongst others), which were previously in separate use classes. This new use class provides flexibility for buildings to change quickly and respond to market demands.
In addition, the recently introduced Class MA of Part 3, Schedule 2, of the General Permitted Development Order 2015 (as amended), which allows conversions from commercial premises to new homes without the need for planning permission is a further attempt by the government to encourage the repurposing of vacant buildings and facilitate a mix of uses within town and city centre locations. Whilst such conversions must go through a process of Prior Approval first, it is far more streamlined than applying for planning permission.
Prior to the introduction of Use Class E and Class MA of the GPDO, as a way of encouraging diversity and vibrancy into the high street, the government introduced Class D to Part 4, Schedule 2 the GPDO which permits a temporary change of use of a building between commercial uses for a period of up to 3 years. Such uses include medical and health services, display of works of art, museum, public library, exhibition hall or public hall.
How is this reflected in Planning Policy?
The government’s drive for flexibility where high streets are concerned is not always reflected in local plans. This is partly due to the time-consuming statutory plan making process that is involved when updating a local plan. It is therefore often the case that local planning policies are not aligned with national guidance and legislation, and do not have the same level of flexibility that is needed to respond to the evolving needs of our town centres.
Due to the fact that many local planning policies are at odds with national legislation and the national push for flexibility in the high street, it can put local planning authorities in a difficult position when making decisions on planning applications.
If you need an experienced planning consultant that understands the planning system and can advise you on the best way to secure your development proposal, please get in touch.