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London council sets out protection for variety on high streets

Words: Laura Edgar

Westminster City Council has taken action to prevent its high streets from being overrun by non-retail businesses like estate agents.

The new planning rule aims to ensure that all conversion of shops to services such as estate agents, employment agencies and bureau de change on Westminster’s high streets require planning permission.

Between February 2015 and February 2016, the number of estate agents increased from 179 to 228.

Robert Davis MBE DL, deputy leader and cabinet member for the built environment, Westminster City Council, said the sudden increase “has put the character of some centres at risk”.

The Article 4 Direction allows the council to limit particular industries from dominating retail space, reducing variety in the city’s shopping districts and making them less attractive to shoppers.

Davis said these measures will “protect variety on our high streets and improve everyone’s shopping experience”.

“This is not a blanket restriction. Some financial services, like local bank branches, which provide valuable local services will be encouraged, but if we do not act now, our high streets are under threat of being overrun. The action we are taking will help us strike the right balance so that Londoners continue to have a range of shops and services on their doorstep,” he concluded.

Malcolm Sharp, chair of the National Retail Planning Forum, said the direction does seem an interesting development in protecting variety on high streets.

However, he told The Planner, it is not likely to be easily replicated elsewhere, “especially where the high street does not have the obvious advantages of Westminster, where spending power remains high and letting space to more traditional high street uses will be likely to fill any gaps created by the policy”.

He said that in centres that are struggling, business uses that the Article 4 Direction is trying to restrict may have a positive effect, particularly if concentrated in secondary areas enabling a concentration of retail in primary areas.

“In general, successful centres will have a good healthy mix of uses, not exclusively retail shops. Article 4 initiatives may prove successful in certain circumstances but for the few, not the many.”

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