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Planning must keep up with town centre change

Our town centres are changing - with less retail and more leisure and residential use. Planners and the planning system must be adaptable, says Jonathan Harper

Significant growth in online retailing has had a fundamental impact upon the way consumers shop. Planning needs to keep pace with this seismic change. 

In June, according to Internet World Stats, internet use in the UK reached 62 million users – almost 95 per cent of the population.

The Office for National Statistics said online sales reached 16.2 per cent of all retail spend in the same month.

We are all spending more time on the internet, on computers, tablets, or smartphones. This has led to a scenario where the webpages or apps of retailers can be accessed instantly, products can be purchased and delivered on the same day they are ordered, and at a cheaper price than from a bricks-and-mortar retailer. 

Online shopping is forecast to continued growing for at least the next 10 years. In addition to the core retail sectors, online retailing has also expanded rapidly into services – banking, estate agency, travel agency and takeaway food delivery.

"There is no longer a place for restrictive policies which prohibit any non-A1 retail use from coming forward"

The ramifications for the property sector are already being seen, with less retail floor space being required in town centres and additional distribution space being needed to service the delivery of goods bought online. 

Town centres have to diversify to attract consumers. We’re seeing a clear trend towards improving customer experience through more food and leisure uses. These uses will ultimately attract people to town centres and make them want to spend time and money in these locations.

This shift ties in with the general aspirations of millennials, who appear to value experiences over owning things and place greater value on health and well-being. Thus we see more town centre gyms and yoga studios. We are also seeing a trend towards re-urbanisation – More people want to live in city centres to be near to these facilities and services.

This shift in the role of the town centre needs to be recognised through planning policy to ensure that it is suitably flexible to allow this wider range of uses to come forward. There is no longer a place for restrictive policies that seek to prohibit any non-A1 retail use from coming forward. Indeed, there are some A1 retail uses that are better located outside of town centres.

There must also be recognition, particularly with regard to medium to low-order settlements, that many town centres are simply too big, with too much retail floor space, which is no longer required to serve the need it once met. These areas must not be protected for retail use in perpetuity and options should be pursued to release such sites for alternative uses.

Jonathan Harper MRTPI is a senior associate with Rapleys LLP


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