Some people in the Real Estate industry argue that many of our planning laws are outdated and inflexible and that change is needed.
However, as recognised at our recent Economic Breakfast Briefing on the Future of the High Street on 16 October 2018, others consider that our planning system and planning laws can provide an opportunity and a solution.
The National Planning Policy Framework ("NPPF") sets out the government's planning policies for England and how these are to be applied. All planning applications must be decided in accordance with the NPPF.
A revised NPPF was published on 24 July 2018 and contains policies for local authorities designed to help town centres. With an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into "High streets and town centres in 2030" addressing whether councils have the planning tools to help local areas flourish, protecting the future of our town centres and the high street is high on the government's agenda.
Does the Revised NPPF help ensure the vitality of town centres?
The need for planning policy to respond quickly to changes affecting town centres/high streets is contained in the revised NPPF.
It states that through their local planning policies local authorities should define a network and hierarchy of town centres and promote their long-term vitality and viability – by allowing them to grow and diversify in a way that can respond to rapid changes in the retail and leisure industries, allows a suitable mix of uses (including housing) and reflects their distinctive character.
There is also now a clear recognition that diversification is key to long-term vitality and viability. How this is interpreted in practice, by developers as well as local authorities, remains to be seen.
Local Authority Implementation
It is too early to call but a close eye should be kept on how local authorities implement the revised NPPF policies.
The national town centre vacancy rate has been hovering around 10% for the last year according to the British Retail Consortium’s monthly reports. Empty units are hard to let and many blame this on the challenge and expense of getting permission for their change of use. The revised NPPF states that local planning policies should make clear the range of uses permitted in town centres, as part of a positive strategy for the future of each centre.
How does the revised NPPF deal with housing on the high street?
One criticism of the revised NPPF is that its primary focus appears to be on housing. Many argue that this is to the detriment of town centres. This is not necessarily the case.
Housing is included as part of the suggested mix of uses in town centres in the revised NPPF. It is also explicitly recognised that residential development plays an important role in ensuring the vitality of town centres and the revised NPPF suggests that residential development should be encouraged in this regard.
There is a recognition that housing can play an important role in town centres in the revised NPPF, and residential developers may want to exploit this. However, they should consider if nearby entertainment and leisure venues may disturb future occupiers or consider how potential nuisances can be mitigated. The NPPF places the responsibility of managing changes of use on the introducer of the new use in order to protect existing uses. So a residential developer may be responsible for installing appropriate noise control measures if there is an existing live music nearby, for example.
The revised NPPF encourages local authorities to be more creative with their plans for the high street and gives them more power to make planning policy work for their areas. Some argue that the revised NPPF is trying to do too much by encouraging local authorities to allow housing in town centre sites but we would contend that this could be a good thing to regenerate town centres/high streets that are in decline.
We think that the revised NPPF presents an opportunity for a more flexible approach to town centre planning, for new ideas from retailers to be welcomed and for developers to have a voice in shaping the local authority’s plans for the high street.