More change is coming the high street

October 01 2020
More change is coming the high street

Planning Matters, with Chris Gosling

SINCE penning last month's article, and still ahead of the White Paper which is likely to change many of the fundamentals, a raft of changes to what does and does not require planning permission has been introduced. The speed of this has, in part, led to legal action by a group called Rights: Community: Action which will be heard this month, but that challenge is on procedural matters, rather than being explicitly over the contents of the new legislation. The greatest effect that this challenge can have is to force a re-think on ideas that the government appears to be committed to.

Many of the changes that have happened and will most likely be confirmed after the legal process will include removing the kind of control over types of development that the 'man in the street' would expect to require planning permission. This month the particular street I am going to look at is the high street. Shopping areas will be able to change very quickly by virtue of the changes to the Use Classes Order, and you are only likely to know about it once it has happened. While that may appear a bit alarmist, in practice I suspect that the changes will come incrementally, certainly site by site, and their timing will often not be determined until leases run out.

On September 1 the Use Classes that I introduced you to a few months ago were severely concertinaed. All commercial uses have been bundled into a hastily fabricated box marked Class E. At a stroke, this set up a tension between local planning policies which had the intention of 'saving the high street' by ensuring that shopping in long-established streets would have primacy and not get pushed out by the likes off estate agents and takeaways. I would have included banks and building societies in this list, but many of them are either long-gone or packing for an imminent move. So at a local level, these shopping frontages are intended to contain mostly shops, which can in practice often lead to empty shops, without other uses having a chance to get in. At the same time, nationally, that control has been removed. The planners will no longer decide and in their absence, the market will determine what happens within the new, broader Class E. If reading this is driving you to drink, fear not, public houses fall outside this loosening up and move to a class of their own – so a change of use to them will require a planning application, upon which you are free to comment. If, conversely, reading this is giving you an appetite, the same applies to a pizza outlet. As long as the pizza is hot. Planners make a significant distinction between hot and cold food.

If you are wondering what is driving these changes, you may well have been self-isolating or shielding. The answer is COVID-19. This disease, which sadly did not stay put in 2019, has had a devastating effect on the retail sector. Its slow descent and replacement with on-line shopping has accelerated in the lockdown and beyond. Many people will unfortunately swap the checkout queues for the convenience of home delivery permanently. The opportunity for 'footfall' to return to the High Street now looks to depend upon more than just which shops survive, but what uses move in to accompany those survivors.

So what can you expect to find on Fishponds Road? Retail, financial and professional services, cafes and restaurants, some non-residential institutions, assembly and leisure uses all now find themselves in Class E. Overnight, your hairdresser or corner shop could become a travel agents, a cafe, a gym, a church, a dentist or a day nursery, for example. Perhaps more former churches in Bristol will follow the St Werburghs example and become climbing centres.

This is not the root and branch sorting out of the classes that myself and many others were calling for, but instead yet another amendment and simplification to the existing Use Classes Order. The simplification is welcomed and will provide a fast cure for empty shops. That is bound to make it more difficult for charity shops, which benefited from the choice between a short term retail solution or an empty unit. This measure gives town centres the opportunity to adapt quickly, subject to market forces. I believe that this is the best that could have been hoped for. As for the other impacts of this change, the proof will be in the pudding. It adds to the growing list of contemporary uncertainties and unknowns.