Retail-focused development, neglect and vacancy dominate our town centres and high streets. But change is possible.
High streets are seeing the largest shift in use patterns since the birth of internet shopping and the explosion of globalised retail development.
Developers are looking to de-risk retail development by combining a mix of offers. And those developers that are staying offer-specific – such as Market Operations, the developer behind Manchester’s Mackie Mayor food market – are increasingly leveraging multi-concessions to provide more robust exposure.
At the same time the use patterns in our city and town centres are changing. Live-work is becoming an integrated reality in denser urban cores, realising the potential in propinquity. Those living in the urban-core expect variety and convenience. Whilst those travelling into the centre, are seeking to optimise their visits and make the most of time spent there.
As a result, what we understand as the ‘urban’ is shifting.
Local Plans are not keeping pace with economic trends
Whilst our perceptions, decision-making and use of town centres is changing, designers have to work hard to negotiate the planning system to meet this demand.
Local Plans, which seek to guide the planning process and ultimately shape developers’ schemes, are often rigid in their delineation of uses and zoning. In an effort to retain and protect their retail function, town centre cores are often defined by specific ‘Class A’ uses.
But with 1 in 10 high street shops now vacant, it seems these prescriptive policies are no longer viable.
A changing landscape
There has been a recent trend of Local Authorities issuing Compulsory Purchase Orders to regenerate town centres which have failed to attract investment.
Faced with existing units and shopping centres that are unfit-for-purpose, Local Authorities are now feeling the impact of their own rigid land-use policies.
We could see Local Authorities, as direct stakeholders, become more open-minded, understand the need to engage with private sector partners and embrace a lighter approach to use-class hierarchies to fully realise the potential of mixed-use development.
In March, we saw the Government relax planning rules so that pubs and restaurants could operate as hot food takeaways during the Covid-19 outbreak – extending Permitted Development Rights for restaurants (A3) and bars (A4) to operate as takeaway classes (A5). Unprecedented circumstances called for unprecedented measures.
If we view the current state of the high street – and its now uncertain future – as an urban and retail emergency, then continued deregulation of use classes and Local Plans that keep pace with them, could be a wise move?
Embracing a mix of uses
The most inspiring and vibrant centres of the world have diversity, intrinsic fluidity and a characteristic playfulness.
Imagine a scheme in your own town centre that, unlike Rochdale’s retail-led Riverside and Northwich’s Barons Quay, is a vibrant, street-by-street mix of offers. Homes, offices, workshops, bars, restaurants and shops blend harmoniously and are linked by high-quality pedestrian routes and engaging streetscape infrastructure.
This is achievable, but we must be adaptable and open-minded in our approach.
If retail-led development is creating a culture of neglect and vacancy, then surely a shift to a diverse opportunity of use classes to create truly mixed-use centres is worth a try?