From the £1bn Future High Street Fund to changes to how planning rules can actively support town centres, there have been a number of recent announcements and changes that have the chance to rejuvenate our beleaguered high streets.

After attending this week’s Town Centre Adaptation meeting in Leeds at the British Property Federation (BPF) Regional Forum, Shoosmiths real estate partner Richard Outhwaite discusses some of the key issues that will not only benefit Leeds (and the surrounding areas), but other city centres across the UK.

  1. £1bn future High Street’s Fund - Will local authorities be able to set out an overall vision for their area, unite the various stakeholders and effectively use the exercise of planning and other placemaking tools available in order to achieve the vision? Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed recently that an additional 50 towns will benefit from the £1 billion Future High Streets Fund. Towns across England – from Dudley to Dover and Scarborough to Stockport – will join 50 successful areas already shortlisted to develop plans to reinvent their high streets. The funding could be used by these areas to improve transport and access into town centres, convert empty retail units into new homes and workplaces, and invest in vital infrastructure. The extension to the shortlist comes on the back of the £3.6 billion Towns Fund announced in July, which included an additional £325 million for the Future High Streets Fund, taking the overall fund to £1 billion as the government looks to drive forward local growth. In order for this to work both the public and private sectors will need to continue to work together. We will need to see more use of CPOs and a greater introduction of genuine mixed use schemes into town centres in order to achieve the vision. It will obviously take time and who knows what will happen with the current political climate.
  2. High Street Task Force - To what extent will the High Street Task Force be able to assist with the delivery of the above? A new forward-thinking High Streets Task Force supporting local leaders to revitalise high streets and town centres was launched on 2 July 2019 by High Streets Minister Jake Berry MP. The High Streets Task Force will be comprised of experts who will provide tailored guidance and advice to local authorities seeking to breathe new life into their local high streets and town centres as they battle against changing consumer habits. The Task Force has been created in response to the recommendations of the High Streets Expert Panel chaired by Sir John Timpson, who argues that successful change is created by local communities who have a vision for their high streets and town centres. It will be run by the Institute of Place Management (IPM). The IPM has put together a consortium of high street experts with a wide range of knowledge and insight, including in planning and design. As part of this offer, local authorities will also be able to access up-to-date behavioural data that will provide insights into consumer habits. The High Street Task Force’s main aim is to strengthen local leadership. It’s the local guys on the ground who live with the issues day to day and who are best placed to decide how to tackle the problem. It will be interesting to see how the task force develops and what support is provided to local leadership.
  3. High Street Adaptation Group - Great to see that the BPF’s High Street Adaptation Group has developed a programme of work which will look at: the review of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954 (1954 Act), General Permitted Development Order (GPDO), Company Voluntary Arrangements (CVAs), business rates and Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs). Business rates are probably the single biggest issue facing retailers today. Reducing rates by a third for small businesses does not even start to address this issue. The “big guys” have other methods such as the “controversial” use of CVAs to reduce their rates liability but this is not available for smaller retailers. There needs to be a complete overhaul of business rates. The use of CPOs is a highly emotive subject but if utilised adopting the appropriate communication and allowing the general public affected to see how this will benefit them, then CPOs can be an extremely useful and effective tool and one we will see more of going forward. It has been mooted for many years to overhaul the 1954 Act allowing greater protection for businesses. I suspect that this reform is many years down the line but one that would be welcomed by many tenants alike.
  4. Planning system supporting the high street - Amendments to the GPDO, the Statutory Instrument that allows certain works and operations to be carried out without the need for obtaining planning permission came into effect on 25 May 2019. Flexibility has been offered to changes of use (Part 3, Schedule 2) within the GPDO adding (amongst other matters) a new Class of Permitted Development. The new Class JA entitles retail, takeaway, betting office, pay day loan shop and laundrette uses to offices (use class B1(a)). To qualify for this new class of permitted development, premises need to be in their pre-existing use on 29 October 2018 with no more than 500sqm of floorspace changing use. A prior approval application is required to assess the impact of the proposed change of use in respect to transport and highways, noise from neighbouring commercial and retail premises, and on whether there remains “adequate provision of services” in the area, particularly where the site is located within a shopping area, to ensure the sustainability of that shopping area. This should be seen as a positive and will offer a greater flexibility to developers.

The forum was generally positive and the BPF are certainly applying lots of pressure. There is a desire by all parties to reinvigorate our town centres but given the current economic and political environment there is still a degree of scepticism but if half of the above can see fruition then this can only be a positive for both businesses and consumers. Many retailers are working hard at enhancing the consumer experience in attempt to entice customers away from on-line shopping and with continued effort there should be no reason why the two cannot dovetail in perfect harmony..