Login | Register

Retail policy must keep pace with our changing shopping habits

High Street Shutterstock

The disruptive effect of online retail puts pressure on planners to move away from an 'archaic' approach to protecting town centres, says Claire Adie

I have recently been involved with several projects where the clients are seeking to impart more flexibility into the use of their retail units just to secure tenants.  

This won’t come as much of a surprise, given the constant news stories about our treasured high street stores closing or retailers having to rapidly change their business models to avoid closure.

Retail policy has rightly protected our town centres to create places where people can travel sustainably to shop at their convenience. But the shift to online retail has irrevocably changed the geography of the marketplace from the high street to the settee. When we do explore physical shops, we look for a selection of stores at a mall.

I’m not saying the change in shopping habitats is because of retail planning policy but planning policy must keep up with and support the retail changes. This in turn enables retailers to respond to change, as opposed to their options being limited by an archaic approach to protecting town centres.    

“The shift to online retail has irrevocably shifted the geography of the marketplace from the high street to the settee”

Our fast-paced lives, our need for quick fashion, tech and gadgets and 24-hour access to the internet means trawling round the shops looking for a bargain just isn’t convenient now. In our spare time we have prioritised meeting friends and family to eat, drink and socialise. This is where the ‘new town centre’ can be born – the ‘social hub’. Town centres can adapt and thrive again through a social and community focus. A variety of cafés, bars, leisure and community uses mean an active town centre day and night.

And with growing pressures for housing, some poor-performing centres could provide vital housing supported by good sustainable transport links to the main social hubs. This would also alleviate the pressure on greenfield sites.  

You may not agree that these are the most apt responses, but we cannot ignore the changes happening in the way we shop.

We need to consolidate our town centres to ensure they remain a focus for activity and a destination for visitors; but retail policy needs to acknowledge this ‘social’ opportunity and a more concentrated geography.

Being protectionist about town centre retail space is clearly not working, with vacant units and sites a familiar sight. Meanwhile, other struggling large-format retailers are being penalised by policy for being outside the town centre, and prevented from adapting and proactively responding to the market owing to the strict sequential test process.

Retail policy lags behind our shopping habitats. Failure to adapt will have a detrimental impact on the health of town centres. As planners, we should seek to make these thriving destinations again.

Claire Adie MRTPI is a senior town planner at Planning and Design Group (UK) Limited

Photo | Shutterstock


  • Titled 'The future of planning: What's next?', this year's Planning Convention asked big questions about the direction in which the profession is headed and the role it can play in shaping our collective futures. The Planner's editorial team took note

    Images from the convention
  • Discussion of the housing crisis – and what planners can do to fix it – again permeated the annual convention. The Planner sat in on panels focusing on specialist housing and the role of local authorities, as well as an address from the housing minister, writes Matt Moody

    Illustration: Housing construction
  • ”What we do with our cities will either make or break our species,” suggested New York architect Vishaan Chakrabarti in considering how to create future successful cities. Martin Read reports

    A modern city scene
Email Newsletter Sign Up