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Planning failing to keep pace with retail change, say experts

Words: Simon Wicks
Empty shops in Bracknell

The planning system is too inflexible and too slow to respond to changes in retail, with the result that many UK high streets face an uncertain future.

A habit of “fighting yesterday’s battles”, a failure to update use classes to match new approaches to retail, and slow responses to the impact of digital shopping trends has left many town centres facing the prospect of long-term commercial decline.

But a review of the NPPF and greater innovation and flexibility from planners and the planning system could help turn things around.

These were the key messages that came from the National Retail Planning Forum (NRPF) seminar on ‘The Changing Faces of Retailing’ this week.

“High streets really need to look at how they promote and market themselves to younger generations. That’s the future of town centres"

“High streets really need to look at how they promote and market themselves to younger generations. That’s the future of town centres,” said Steve Norris, head of retail at Carter Jonas.

Addressing the issues, challenges and opportunities for town centres, Norris outlined the ways in which the retail landscape is transforming under pressure from digital technology.

Online sales made up some 15 per cent of UK retail sales in 2015 – the third-highest proportion in the world after China (30 per cent) and the USA (27 per cent). The impact of this is seen in shop closures as many firms are put out of business by digital rivals or adjust their balance of on and offline outlets to reflect a modern, multi-channel approach to retailing.

Norris pointed out that in the mid-2000s big chains required 250 stores to maintain brand visibility; that has now fallen to just 70.

Likewise, the growth in shopping centres had slowed and towns were more focused on managing existing assets rather than adding to new ones. Some local authorities have even bought their local shopping centre so they would “have a seat at the table in regeneration”.

There is around 30 per cent too much retail floorspace, said Norris – and much of that is too small for modern brands. Emerging trends were evident in click-and-collect outlets, brand ‘showrooms’ rather than out-and-out retail stores; experience-based stores, and larger out-of-town units.

Winners and losers

“It’s clear that town centres cannot rely on retail alone to underpin attraction and viability,” he said, pointing out that the top 100 cities and towns that were strong tourist and business locations were more resilient in the digital age than the plethora of mid-sized towns that lacked these advantages. Traditional high streets with small units and limited space in particular were being “squeezed”.

Jonathan Reynolds, of Oxford Institute of Retail Management and Saïd Business School, identified that the winners in the digital age were towns whose demographics suggested high internet use, where broadband internet was fast and widespread, and where transport connections were strong.

Speaking about the planning implications of internet shopping, Reynolds noted that “spatial aspects of retail” were changing rapidly. In some places differentiation was taking place at the scale of entire shopping malls, which might market themselves to specific demographic. Malls were also becoming entertainment spaces, stockless stores were appearing, as were unmanned stores and pop-up shops.

The planning system, he said, needed to be able to keep up with these changes: “It requires a more creative, flexible and permissive planning system,” said Reynolds. “The planning system is very good at saying 'no'; it’s much less good at facilitating flexibility and growth.”

One of the issues raised was land use allocation and local planning which as, as one questioner put it, tended to reflect the recent past rather than the present and future because it could take so long to work through the system. “All too often, one finds a local planning authority seeking to fight yesterday’s battles,” he said.

"Planning by definition is often retrospective. It’s reacting to trends that have already been and gone in many ways"

John Percy, head of retail development consultancy at Cushman and Wakefield, reinforced the idea that certain elements of the planning system needed to be updated.

“I think the use classes order is outmoded now and there is greater crossover between what might be considered leisure and what might be considered retail. A lot of shops might be leisure destinations more than they are retail.”

He went on: “Planning by definition is often retrospective. It’s reacting to trends that have already been and gone in many ways. How do we get it more flexible going forward?”

Norris stressed that there was no “one-size-fits-all” approach to placemaking in town centres and high streets. However, new approaches to planning would need to be mindful of a wide range of potential uses, including retail, community facilities, public entertainment space, employment and residential.

He also advocated a review of the NPPF with regard to retail planning. “At the moment the review is coming through appeal decisions and high court judgments. That’s not the way to go about planning. It was like that back in the 80s.”

He continued: “The bottom line is funding. Local authorities have limited resources in terms of people and money, but they are being asked to do more.”

Summing up, outgoing NRPF chair and former chief planning inspector Chris Shepley said: “The number of planners working in forward planning work is hugely diminished. It’s what planners really want to do, but they are not able to.”