• High Street High Street

19 July 2019

The high street has a future - but not as we know it, by Andrew Astin

Andrew Astin, Associate Director WSP | Indigo on how govt and planners must be more flexible

The Government and planning authorities must allow greater flexibility in the use of High Street buildings if town centres are going to survive and thrive.

This could be further assisted by also encouraging the benefits of flexible use planning permission allowing a property to switch between uses over a 10-year period.

Vacant retail buildings and sites will remain just that – vacant, unless a greater range of uses are permitted without planning consent and there is active encouragement of non-retail occupiers.

It has now been 8 years since the Mary Portas Review of the High Street and attempts to solve the High Street crisis to date have, at best, been half-hearted through the introduction of new permitted development rights enabling the change of use without planning consent in certain circumstances. Broadly, allowing offices to replace shops, hot food takeaways and financial services outlets to open doors, while residential conversion is also permitted in certain circumstances.

But is this enough?  Many local plans have resisted the introduction of non-retail uses particularly in primary shopping frontages.  For example, only permitting the change from retail to non-retail use in the primary shopping frontages provided the proportion of retail frontage remains at 80% or above the total frontage length.  Yet retailing on the High Street is undergoing a transformation and bears little resemblance to a sector as reflected in the 1987 Use Classes Order.

But how many retailers are looking for town centre premises? Do Councils need to recognise this, be more flexible and allow non-retail uses in existing shopping centres including community uses, health care, leisure, and offices.  All of these uses will help increase town centre footfall including boosting the evening economies. However, we recognise that it is important that town centres retain retail uses and do not include all non-retail uses such as housing. 

Town centres have historically been places where people/local communities meet and come together. For example, to go to a market and more recently for shopping but now increasingly for leisure and entertainment such as going to a restaurants/bars, the theatre or a beautician/salon.  

The diversity of uses in town centres makes an important contribution to their vitality and viability.  In the US healthcare providers have increasingly been adapting vacant spaces within shopping centres for small clinics, dentists, preventative care services, beauticians and salons. In addition to bringing vacant units back into active use and increasing visitor numbers locating healthcare services in shopping centres has made them convenient for people to access.

Similar proposals are less widespread in the UK, however, there are examples of clinics being opened in shopping centres.  A clinic has recently opened in a vacant shop unit in the Haymarket Shopping Centre, Leicester.  Locating the clinic in the shopping centre makes the services easier to access for people coming from all parts of the city and county whilst at the same time is significantly boosting the footfall in the city centre. 

At a time when the high street needs revitalising and health and wellbeing is becoming increasingly important, this represents an opportunity to increase footfall in city and town centres, reduce the number of vacant units whilst also increasing the accessibility to health and wellbeing services. 

WSP | Indigo has secured permission and is currently working on a number of schemes on behalf of developers and asset managers across the country which involve the redevelopment of existing shops and shopping centres for non-retail uses.