It is difficult to look forward into 2019 without considering what will happen with our town centres, writes Donna Barber of Eden Planning.
With daily headlines on the struggle for retailers on the High Street there is a real need, now more than ever, for planners to create and apply policies that allow changes of use in town centres.
The Government is attempting to address the issue, with a new consultation “Planning reform: supporting the high street and increasing the delivery of new homes”. Extending the permitted development rights to allow the change of use of units within centres to leisure and community uses, including gyms and health centres, is welcomed as is the proposal to allow for upward extensions to create new homes.
This is an exciting opportunity, with the Government putting in place a flexible policy framework, allowing towns to evolve along with the changing format of retail and embracing the concept that people want to do more than shop when we visit our centres. We work, live and play there too.
But is this all too late for our northern towns and centres? Will the long-awaited draft Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, that has focussed on Green Belt issues, make it clear that creating supportive policies for vibrant centres must be a priority? Or will the policies still look to restrict centres to performing a primary retail function? Without this strong lead, our fear, based on experience, is that Local Planning Authorities will remain reluctant to the introduce non-retail uses and residential properties. Environmental health officers are often hesitant to embrace new technology that mitigate impacts such as noise and odour, while planners (and their committees) are overly concerned about the “saturation” of certain uses.
If the Government’s ambitions are embraced by planners and developers and backed by consistent positive decision-making, 2019 could be the year the direction of our centres pivots from decline to an exciting and vibrant future.