Will planning changes revive our high streets?

Oliver Freer, director, planning & development at CBRE Leeds

By Oliver Freer, director, planning & development at CBRE Leeds

For decades successive Governments have used the planning system to control uses in our town and city centres, through a “town centre first” approach to restrict non-retail and office related uses.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the ongoing trend in the decline of physical retail floorspace and as the flight to online continues apace, this has left many high street locations with multiple vacancies and landlords left with distressed assets.

In response to the “crisis on our high streets” the Government has introduced significant changes to the Planning Use Class Order, including the introduction of the new ‘Class E’ which consolidates retail and commercial use classes together with some community projects. This is intended to give the high street the flexibility it needs to recover post-pandemic, as changing between these uses, such as going from retail to a gym use, no longer requires planning permission. The implication of the introduction of Class E being that the “town centre first” policies for retail and offices uses, so long a cornerstone of the planning system, have become largely redundant.

Alongside the introduction of Class E, new permitted development rights allow change of use from qualifying Class E buildings to residential use to be secured through a prior approval process, permitting traditional high street buildings to be converted into new homes. Again, this provides landlords with new flexibility in repositioning buildings that have become vacant, or to forward plan where lease events are upcoming.

The Government has confirmed through the recent Queen’s Speech that it will be moving ahead with its draft legislation taking forward its proposals in its Planning White Paper, which brings with it further proposed radical changes to the planning system, including zoned areas for “growth, renewal and protection”. As ever the devil will be in the detail in the draft legislation to understand how the new zoned areas will work in practice.

The full implications of the new changes of Class E and prior approval for residential uses aren’t known yet and it will be a number of years to understand whether these fundamental changes in planning policy will allow town centres to thrive and evolve successfully moving forward.