It’s time for a town centre revival!

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Could new planning laws bring life back to the high street? Photo credit: Metin Ozer

Can we expect to see a town centre revival in the next few years? The Government certainly hopes so. Changes to planning legislation, expected to be in place by September, will make it quicker and easier to demolish and rebuild unused buildings as homes, and to re-purpose commercial and retail properties to help revitalise high streets and town centres around the country. Other changes will also enable up to two additional storeys to be added to homes via a fast track approval process.

The aim is to bring people back into urban centres and make more space for new businesses, helping towns and cities adapt quickly to what consumers and business need, while at the same time reducing pressure to build on greenfield sites and deliver more homes that fit the character of their local area – but without the red tape. And if our national green strategy is to encourage people to use their cars less we need to live where our jobs are – another great argument in favour of living and working in our town centres.

The problem right now is that many of our town centres are rather depressing places to live in.   Institutional Build to Rent with flexible workspaces and amenities are coming – but not fast enough.

In reality, creating homes from commercial space can create problems for developers.  It is clear that our largely Victorian and pre-war high streets do not meet today’s requirements; parking provision is poor and expensive, units are often small with a lack of ceiling height or opportunities for mezzanine floors; basements are built on a grid system with a high number of structural partitions, and we have space to light and air-exchange requirements to meet. So retail buildings clearly present challenges. But conversely, frequently unused upper floors bring the prospect of creating on-trend loft-style units. And while we have ‘overlooking’ rules, with the appropriate screening this too could be a chance to open up atriums and create internal gardens.

With a little creative thinking, there are real opportunities for developer- led town centre initiatives.  First, one can achieve much higher densities in town centres, second, localism is unlikely to present any threats and third, making urban areas car-free is less likely to face opposition.  

We all saw the banks raise capital by auctioning off their freeholds and becoming tenants, with opportunities still remaining on our beleaguered high streets for more of the same.  Large stores could very easily downsize, lose some floors to residential, and with this autumn’s new legislation in place, have new penthouse floors on the roof.  Management company structures need not disturb the developer’s right to retail rental income, as the developer can grant his investment vehicle a head lease thereby making the retail unit a member of the management company, but removing the investment income.

So as well as loosening the planning laws, the Government needs to set a vision for the future for town centres; we need streetscapes, turnover rates, and a deadline for every local authority to put in place a town centre master plan.  We are now a ‘lifestyle’ society so the focus needs to be on what makes a town centre a place to choose to go to socialise and have a great day out.  Why can’t our town centres be dotted with children’s play areas?  Why can’t we encourage the private sector to put in free alfresco internet hubs on our high streets where once we had telephone boxes?   Why can’t this be the year that all national lottery-funded art simply has to go to our high streets?   Let’s encourage lifestyle providers to our high streets, such as hairdressers, nail salons and fitness centres, making the high street the place to go and get ready for a night out

And why can’t all building refurbishment in town centre development zones be VAT free?  That way there would be a presumption towards refurbishing our deserted department stores. Inevitably a number of lower rise buildings will need to go.  Our town centres lack people and we must bring them back. This new legislation, if used effectively, could make it possible.

It is so sad when you drive into a town centre only to see shops crudely bricked up and poorly repurposed as housing. It is time for a robust strategy and a design framework to re-claim these areas with housing that is as uniformly pleasing as our much-loved out-of-town streetscapes.

Arguably the world is now brand-driven. So if ‘Dreams’ and ‘Sports Direct’ can boast that acceptable percentages of their stores are ‘in town’ we need to tell British business that the best community initiative you can have is to send the message that ‘cool brands are in town’.

Out-of-town retail floor space has been increasing for decades, while in-town space fails. The economic fall-out from Covid-19 and the ever-increasing trend for online shopping is set to reduce retail footfall even further. So if by encouraging local government, planners and developers to work together to move the consumer into an experience-led high street within walking distance of home, then maybe we stand a chance of starting the revival we all want to see in our towns and cities.

What do you think? Will the Government’s legislation make a real difference to our high streets? We’d like to hear your comments.
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