It’s a tough time for the high street. Up and down the country, shops are closing their doors, with towns in England and Wales having lost an average of 8 per cent of their shops since 2013. Toys R Us was the highest profile failure of 2018, while high street icons like House of Fraser, Debenhams and HMV all teeter on the brink.
One of the consequences is that the UK will need less retail space in the future. Changing consumer habits and the growth of online shopping are a clear threat to many retailers and even the kind of ideas being discussed for embracing new ways of operating physical shops will almost certainly lead to a reduction of floorspace. The government’s Future High Streets Fund aims to support local councils in developing and implementing transformation plans for their high streets, but the scope (and funding) is limited and excludes non-primary shopping areas.
In February, the Commission on Workers and Technology brought together senior figures in retail, politics and town planning to discuss the future of retail in Britain. Although much of the discussion related to the potential and challenges of automation, it was also clear that spatial planning will be an important issue, especially on the high streets of Britain’s towns.
The government’s main planning policy initiative, the general permitted development order, is likely to inhibit rather than help the transition towards more flexible high streets. Permitted development rights allow property developers to sidestep the planning approval process. Since 2013, developers have had a great deal of freedom to transform offices into homes and have also more recently acquired the ability to change shops, retail warehousing, bank branch buildings, and some storage facilities to residential use.
Ostensibly, permitted development promotes the creation of new homes and allows disused business units to be converted to other uses more quickly and cheaply than a full planning approval. In reality, the homes created are often sub-standard, lacking the living space and access to daylight that a quality home should have. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors found that only 30 per cent of the 526 permitted development units they inspected met national space standards. Just as concerning is the absence of any infrastructure facilitation payment or affordable housing contribution, both of which would accompany a full planning approval. In the face of a housing crisis as severe as Britain’s this cannot be tolerated.
A more pernicious effect of the system has been the loss of valuable employment-related units. In towns this can be especially problematic, since depriving small businesses in particular of space to develop further hampers rates of job creation, which are already half those of cities. Moreover, the lack of proper controls means that high streets especially have become, or are at risk of becoming full of poor-quality housing conversions alongside increasingly inappropriate retail space and offices with no coherence and no money to ameliorate the expanded demand created by development.
Ultimately, town planning policy must be understood in the context of a need to change our high streets. There is an opportunity to create more vibrant town centres by having more homes situated centrally. But for this to be a success, developers will have to work in partnership with councils, residents and local employers.
As councils have only a very limited (and potentially costly) ability to suspend permitted development, it’s clear that the whole system around conversion to residential needs to be scrapped. Converting surplus shops and offices to homes will then be subject to full planning approval and this will lead to better quality schemes, more local infrastructure support and much-needed affordable housing provision. Making a success of changing high streets will require local leadership, but our councils can’t deliver if they have neither the funding nor the powers that they need.
Jason Brock is senior researcher at The Fabian Society