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26/06/2018

Planning retail’s future - hurry now while stocks last

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The health of town centres is under threat from a variety of forces, and the NPPF is doing too little to protect them, argues Chris Shepley

Here’s one of many unsolicited emails from people offering me work:

“Hello! I’m a retail analyst.“ I’ve been quoted in the finance pages of our top broadsheet newspapers talking about the future (or lack of it!!!) of shopping. Since nobody even looks back to check whether I was right, this is a doddle. Being apocalyptic always goes down well with journalists, and I’ve been predicting the end of town centres as we know them for over 30 years now.

“Observing the decline of reputable and much- loved firms such as Toys R Us and Maplins, the closure of my local Jamie’s, and the imminent loss of vital bookmakers, I have predicted that within a few years all goods will be delivered by drone and that tumbleweed will be blowing down your local high street.

“This is good publicity for my firm, Footfall & Turnover, and as you are yourself a purveyor of high-class comment to a respected journal, where again nobody ever checks whether you were right, I wondered if you would like me to include a quote from you in my next comment, to help in your career? My fee for this is minimal of course. I look forward to hearing from you...”

I declined his offer, while noting that it is a shame nobody ever looks back at my earlier columns since they have always proved to be uncannily accurate. But I thought I might venture a couple of thoughts regarding town centres.

Mr Turnover is right that there is a bit of bother in the retail sector. Many still blame the ‘Beast from the East’, and other weather events, although I am in a position to warn retailers that there is very likely to be bad weather at some point next winter and they should build this into their business plans.

"We need a more positive vision from MHCLG about the changing nature of town centres, and a clearer idea of where, for example, office and leisure, ‘event spaces’, and healthcare facilities should be" 

But due to internet shopping, declining disposable income since Brexit, maybe high business rates and similar factors, we have a problem. Chapter 7 of the draft NPPF does not, sadly, go so far as to say that the nation is over- shopped – but it is, and you might expect it to ponder this issue. This is going to mean declining rents and a reduction in floor space in many areas.

So we need, as the NPPF implies but does not sufficiently stress, to look at town centres holistically, and to row back on retail, especially outside centres. In this context, proposals like the expansion of the Cribbs Causeway regional shopping centre on the M5 by 50 per cent seem odd to me.

At the time of writing the decision is awaited, but from this distance the idea of expanding retail substantially in such places and adding a hotel, ‘event space’, and other leisure facilities seems at odds with present trends.

"We need a more positive vision from MHCLG about the changing nature of town centres, and a clearer idea of where, for example, office and leisure, ‘event spaces’, and healthcare facilities should be." 

Where I live both the council and the police have moved much of their activity elsewhere, and health facilities are still being been shifted to the suburbs (where they cause mighty traffic problems).

Office space is threatened by the drive to turn every building residential under the permitted development freedoms. Some people want to remove a major sporting facility. So there must be policies in the NPPF about hanging on to existing uses, especially offices and major leisure facilities, as well as generating new activity, for obvious reasons of accessibility, sustainability and social cohesion. This is not incompatible with encouraging residential uses in suitable locations, but that is not a panacea for the ills of any town centre I know.

If Mr Turnover wants to beef up these thoughts for the broadsheets, my fee is minimal of course.

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector

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