Where next for town centres?

The landslide victory for the Conservatives was underpinned by winning many deprived towns across the country, which has placed high street regeneration high on the political agenda.

Housing Secretary Jenrick yesterday put some meat on the bones confirming the government is keen on a housing-led regeneration of our high-streets.

From Redcar to Bridgend the Conservatives now represent many parts of the country that observers say have been ‘left behind’ and ‘deprived’. So, where next for town centres and high street regeneration? What opportunities and challenges will there be for developers working in this space over the next few years?

One example of forward-thinking change comes from Stevenage. The Labour run council’s development partner recently submitted its proposals to transform the town centre. The application is a mix of 1800 new homes, 3500 sqm of new retail and commercial space, a new public square and park, as well as a new public services hub and a new primary school. With retail struggling, Stevenage is repositioning its town centre, adapting it to the changing market conditions.

Councillors realise matters of planning can be the difference between votes won or lost at local elections and high streets are a very emotive topic. Their constituents often make their displeasure known about derelict buildings because there is a perception that they attract anti-social behaviour.

Whilst some councillors of an older vintage may hark back to the view of town centres being primarily A1 retail led, not the café culture of today, there is across all political parties a drive to modernize and improve town centres for the future.  But councillors like to hear a good business or social case presented to accept change at planning committee, particularly as their policy is still trying to play catch-up. 

One example is in Bolton. The £1.5bn regeneration plan includes outlying towns like Farnworth, Horwich and Westhoughton as well as Bolton town centre itself. The masterplan was drawn up under a Labour run council, but since May 2019 the council has been run by a Conservative-led administration who have continued the project. The Conservatives only criticism of the Labour plan was that it wasn’t started sooner.

Lib Dem run Kingston Council have also recognized the need for change. The leader Cllr Liz Green, commenting on their plans to develop a future vision for Kingston town centre has said; “Town centres across the country are needing to adapt to a change in the retail landscape with the growth in online shopping. In addition, there is a need for more homes as the population in London continues to rise”.

Planning rules that came in last year show the trajectory in government thinking on this, permitted development rights were widened to allow the conversion of some tertiary shops and hot food takeaways to residential. However, local people often instinctively want to keep retail, lobbying their councillors to vote against plans to change the use. Councillors may then bow to public pressure on unpopular planning applications that lose retail units to housing, even though they are aware of the economic arguments against keeping shops.

Alternative uses for the high street, like hotels, offices, restaurants and gyms are being considered by councils across the country, but updates to local plans are slow. The London Plan includes a policy on increasing the amount of hotel rooms in the capital. With tourism a growth industry, there are opportunities for developers here, particularly given the amount of department stores like Debenhams and House of Fraser becoming vacant.

Whilst the Conservatives at a national level might be driving forward policy changes around permitted development, putting money into the Future High Streets Fund and cutting business rates for shops, cinemas, restaurants and hotels, councils represented by all the main parties are slowly accepting and embracing change.

Many local plans though still reflect a view of the high street as A1 retail led, and developers looking to convert a Debenhams or BHS in a town centre location may still run up against policy.

To achieve planning permission, developers should look to use community support for regeneration as well as convince councillors of the business case, both economic and social for any changes. Thorncliffe have plenty of experience in this area. If you have a site on the high street you are regenerating, do not hesitate to contact us.