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24/08/2020

Flexibility and diversity are the key to vibrant, resilient town centres

Changes to the Use Class Order could liberate England's high streets and give them greater vibrancy and resilience to shocks, says Heather Lindley-Clapp – but it's up to local authorities to rise to the challenge

The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020 were introduced by the Government on 20th July and take effect on 1st September 2020. The new regulations make drastic changes to the 1987 Use Classes Order which also sit alongside the recent additions to Permitted Development Rights, forming part of the government’s ‘Project Speed’. 

The overarching aim is to support the high street revival and allow greater flexibility. The changes provide for three new uses classes: Class E (Commercial, business and service), Class F.1 (Learning and non-residential institutions) and F.2 (Local community). 

This trend towards greater diversification along high streets and in town centres – away from retail as the overriding core land use – is being accentuated and accelerated by Covid-19. This is particularly relevant for smaller high streets and suburban town centres, and is likely to underline the growth of these locations for leisure, enterprise and civic life. Whilst retail will always be a key element of all defined centres, there is a need to diversify our centres to ensure they remain, or indeed become, important ‘hubs’ for local communities.

“Whilst retail will always be a key element of all defined centres, there is a need to diversify our centres to ensure they remain important ‘hubs’ for local communities”

Drawing all recent trends together, considering both the pre- and post- Covid-19 impacts, we see that resilience, diversity and flexibility will be key drivers of change going forward. Successful high streets will be able to embrace these new dynamics and the flexible approach being promoted by the government, allowing greater flexibility to change uses within town centres without the need to obtain planning permission.

Whilst the new regulations make big changes to the Use Class Order and permitted development rights, the focus of the white paper released on 6 August is clearly on housing delivery and speeding up development, and is particularly light in respect of the potential implications of proposed changes on retail and town centre development.

There is, however, a general thrust in the overarching objectives to bring forward further residential development in and around town centres. Such development can help bring land back into active use and, critically, provide additional footfall to support existing businesses. Inevitably there will be a need to retain a good diversity of uses within centres to provide for local catchments. How local authorities seek to address this in new local plans and town centre strategies will be key to securing the future of town centres.

As always, the devil will be in the detail, and whilst the government seeks to simplify the plan-making process it will be important to ensure that our town centres accommodate a range of facilities and have the potential to support linked-trips, thereby helping to provide for their resilience in light of current significant pressures.

Heather Lindley-Clapp is associate director at Nexus Planning’s Manchester office

Photo l iStock

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