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Planning reforms needed for Northern and Midlands cities to thrive, says report

Words: Laura Edgar
Manchester / Shutterstock_496617733-(1).jpg

If cities in the North and the Midlands are to continue to flourish, planning rule changes are needed, in particular, to permitted development rights, according to a report published today (21 March).

City Space Race: Balancing the Need for Homes and Offices in Our Cities, a report by think tank Centre for Cities, suggests that cities in the North and the Midlands have seen the biggest growth in their city centres over recent decades, winning the struggle to rid themselves of their post-industrial hangovers.

The report suggests that Manchester has seen the highest city centre growth in England and Wales, which Centre for Cities measured by combining jobs and residential growth in central areas. Manchester was followed by Leeds (2), Birmingham (3) and Liverpool (4).

The city centre populations of the four cities grew more than 6.5 times faster than London’s between 2002 and 2015, which was ranked 20th. Growth in jobs in Manchester outpaced all cities in England and Wales, including the capital.

But, the study warns, this growth could be undermined by planning policies that prioritise residential development over commercial space in city centres. Permitted development rights only apply for offices being converted to residential properties, but for the reverse, the application must go through the planning system.

City Space Race says permitted development rights are most attractive where house prices are high because of strong residential demand. However, “cities with strong residential demand tend to also have strong business demand”.

Therefore, “take-up of permitted development rights is highest where offices most need to be protected”.

It also notes that the revised NPPF, currently out for consultation, tips the balance between commercial and housing towards the latter. “The use of explicit assessed targets for housing, but not commercial space, furthers this tendency to prioritise residential property.”

In response to the findings, the report makes the following recommendations.

  • The government should allow cities to exclude their centres from permitted development rights, to enable them to stop the ad hoc conversion of city centre commercial space into residential property. Cities would have more scope to protect their commercial centres, and to ensure that they have the office space required to attract more businesses and jobs.
  • Cities should relax planning laws in other parts of cities to allow more housebuilding. Alongside measures to promote strong city centres, cities should consider how they could free up more land for housebuilding in other areas, including allowing some controlled development of green belt land. This will be crucial for successful cities to address their housing needs, without undermining their commercial centres.

Andrew Carter, chief executive of Centre for Cities, said: “Thirty years ago the centres of places like Manchester and Birmingham were run-down and struggling, but since then they have undergone a dramatic transformation, and have become increasingly attractive locations for people to live and work in.

“This urban renaissance has brought opportunities for people living across these cities and their surrounding areas, and it’s vital that it continues. But for that to happen, cities need to take tough decisions on how to sustain the growth of their commercial centres, while also providing the homes their residents need.”

Rightly, Carter said, public debate has focused on housing in successful cities. Addressing those problems, though, should not come at the expense of commercial space.

“Reforming planning laws to protect the commercial heart of cities – and to encourage more housebuilding in other areas – will help cities to manage these competing demands, and to continue to prosper in future.”

* International law firm DAC Beachcroft sponsored the report.

City Space Race can be found on the Centre for Cities website (pdf).

Image credit | Shutterstock