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06/11/2019

Can ‘meanwhile uses’ renew our town centres?

Flexibility in planning is essential to maintain vibrant places where people want to live, work and visit, says Nicola Crowley.

Flexibility in planning is essential to maintain vibrant places where people want to live, work and visit. The NPPF dedicates a chapter to this, encouraging the development of underused land and the need for planning policies and decisions to reflect changes in demand.

It is common knowledge that our towns and city centres are changing. The introduction of office-to-residential permitted development in 2013 – and retail- to-office rights more recently – has gone some way to providing the flexibility towns and cities need to adapt, but can more be done?

On a recent trip to Budapest, I was inspired to see the ways vacant plots and buildings have been turned into street food markets, bars, restaurants and exhibition spaces, creating vibrant pockets of usable space that are highly sought after for their character and central locations. It was a refreshing change from the familiar sight of empty shops and fenced-off plots.

The UK is following suit to some extent with ‘meanwhile uses’ – short-term uses for buildings and plots. These offer a range of benefits, including a temporary solution to vacant spaces, opportunities for start-ups and experimental uses, increased footfall, and additional income for landowners.

There are 51 active meanwhile uses in London and many more across the country, including Stack in my hometown of Newcastle, where shipping containers occupy the former Odeon site in the city centre offering food outlets, shops and a yoga studio while permanent plans for the site are developed.

“In Newcastle, shipping containers occupy the former Odeon site in the city centre, offering food outlets, shops and a yoga studio while permanent plans are developed”

A 2018 report published by Centre for London found that in the capital alone – which has the lowest commercial vacancy rate in the country – there were 24,000 empty commercial properties, with many other towns and cities in similar or worse positions. Many more sites earmarked for development or with planning consent also remain undeveloped.

The rise of meanwhile uses is positive but there is limited data available on facilitating these uses for developers, landowners and potential occupiers to access. This should be addressed through measures such as better guidance, incentives and a vacant space registers.

Currently, many temporary uses need full planning consent, which can be a costly and long process for something that might only be there a year or two.

With the right guidance and legislation, meanwhile uses could play a vital part in solving the problem of vacant spaces in our towns and cities.

Nicola Crowley MRTPI is a senior planner with DPP Planning and a member of RTPI North East Young Planners

Image credit | Shutterstock

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