Log in | Register

Local plans key to improving high street health

Words: Laura Edgar
High street health questioned / iStock-921916902

The large-scale structural change of high streets in order to improve their health requires intervention led by local authorities in partnership with communities. Local plans are a key element of this.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Committee said local plans must consider green space, leisure, arts and culture, health and social services to create space “that is the intersection of human life and activity”.

High Streets and Town Centres in 2030 states that given the financial pressures faced by local authorities, central government funding will be needed for the structural change of high streets, as well as “significant” private investment.

The government’s Future High Streets Fund is geared up for this, but the committee said evidence submitted to them suggests that the funding offer needs to be increased. It recommends that the government should assess a sales tax, an increase in VAT, an online sales tax, and ‘green taxes’ on deliveries and packaging to provide fast relief for retailers. The revenue generated from such tax changes would fund the structural changes, along with a reduction in business rates and 12-month ‘holiday’ from rate increases.

MPs also recommend the suspension of further extension of permitted development rights, pending an evaluation of their impact on the high street. Instead, policies should reflect local circumstances and councils should be encouraged to develop town centre masterplans. Where permitted development conflicts “with particular designations in the local plan or other established planning documents, councils should be given greater freedom to suspend PDRs in the affected area”.

The report adds that, as they currently operate, “Article 4 Directions do not give councils adequate ability to remove PDRs quickly and without liability to pay developers compensation”.

Clive Betts, chair of the committee, noted the collapse of well-known high street chains and the growth of online shopping.

“It is likely that the heyday of the high street primarily as a retail hub is at an end. However, this need not be its death knell. Local authorities must get to grips with the fact that their town centres need to change: they need to innovate, setting out a long-term strategy for renewal, reconfiguring the town centre and finding new ways of using buildings and encouraging new independent retailers."

For Betts, “dated” planning policy must be reformed to reflect the needs of modern high streets and town centres. A period of renewal and regeneration that establishes high streets as focal points of communities must begin.

“Local authorities must have the foresight to develop evolving strategies tailored to the needs of their local communities and drive the large-scale transformation needed. Central government must give them the powers, and back them financially, to allow them to put this into practice.”

A Centre for Cities report cites the main challenges facing the high streets as a lack of skilled workers and the demand to shift away from retail towards leisure services. It recommends that the chancellor should allow city leaders to access to the National Productivity Investment Fund to invest in making city centres more attractive places for businesses and employees.

In contrast to MPs, planning consultancy Turley said in a recent report that the fears about the death of the high street are a “myth”. Commenting on the HCLG Committee report, Cat White, associate director at Turley, aid "the idea that the high street’s hey-day is over, is wrong".

“We strongly believe retail has a key role to play in the regeneration of our urban centres and that this latest report is unnecessarily gloomy.” She highlighted that in-store spending is not falling but is projected to increase to £227 billion by 2026.

The retail offer in town centres needs to be supported by developments that offer a number of different uses to drive daytime and evening footfall. This could include housing, workspaces, hospitality and leisure facilities.

“The report recommends the further extension of permitted development rights should be suspended, as it could undermine the local vision for the town centre. This reflects the voice of many commentators. However, while policies do need to reflect local circumstances, waiting for housing sites to be identified through development plans will not enable the timely intervention needed. There is a need to ensure that housing and other uses can be delivered quickly, but with the right controls in place to ensure we create vital, desirable and liveable places. Collaborative working between public and private sector stakeholders is key to realising this."

Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders, said the report has taken a "visionary approach" to fundamentally reimagining the ways that we regenerate our high streets in order to adapt to the challenges of modern life.

Contrary to the committee’s views on permitted development, Berry said "streamlining the process for upwards development above certain premises would help [the government] meet their targets while maintaining a more rigorous application process for other kinds of developments".

"What we must avoid is perfectly good space lying empty and achieving nothing in terms of boosting the local economy or providing homes for individuals and families.”

High Streets and Town Centres in 2030 can be found here on the UK Parliament website.

Read more:

Lack of skilled workers contributes to high street woes

Fears for the high street are ‘exaggerated’  

Image credit | iStock