Planning Reforms and the Future of Town Centres
The traditional high street has been under attack for decades. The basic problems are as follows. Landlords were too ambitious with the rents they demand, which squeezed out small businesses and left only the homogenous chains. Traffic congestion led offices to move out of town, reducing weekday footfall. Then leisure uses such as cinemas went out of town too, reducing weekend and evening footfall.
Councils tried to battle these trends by increasing car parking capacity in town centres, but that just added to the congestion, and parking used up huge amounts of land that could have been used far better. So town centres became dominated by three things: chain stores, car parks and empty buildings. Once the chain stores also moved out of town, the coffin lid was on, and online shopping has hammered home the nails.
One thing that West Yorkshire’s town centres do still have is fantastic vernacular architecture. An amazing amount of it survived the scourge of the 1960s and 70s shopping malls. Perhaps it’s better to think of the centres of places like Dewsbury, Halifax and Batley not as defunct but as mothballed, quietly awaiting a new lease of life. Some centres like Huddersfield and Wakefield have benefitted from public realm investments, and from regeneration initiatives such as last year’s High Street Regeneration Fund. But these funds tend to be awarded by competitive bidding, and many smaller towns struggle to demonstrate the impact to win such bids. Really, there’s one thing they need a big injection of: people.
There are so many ideas around now that should help smaller town centres, if they could be harnessed in an integrated way. For example, the 15-minute Neighbourhood concept, where most of your basic day-to-day needs are within a 15-minute walk, is gaining traction across the world. Some greenfield housing estates are so far away from this concept that you have to walk 15 minutes just to get out of the estate. But traditional, smaller town centres are tailor-made for it, if only they could be repopulated.
On the face of it, the Government’s recent moves to make it easier to convert offices, shops and restaurants into homes sound like a solution. But the policy tool they have chosen is to enable these changes of use to happen without planning permission. This has already led to a rash of old offices being converted to flats that are barely habitable. In the same week as Government announced the changes, it also published research it had itself commissioned, from the Bartlett Planning School (University College London), showing how Permitted Development rights were leading to a fall in housing quality. Studying examples across 11 local authority areas, including Wakefield, the researchers found that whilst 73% of homes built with planning permission met the nationally described internal space standards, only 22% of permitted development schemes did so.
These numbers demand further examination. Turning them around, they mean that 27% of homes getting planning permission, and a whopping 78% of permitted development scheme homes are too small. Considering that the UK already has the smallest homes in Europe, this is a shameful state of affairs, and it’s compelling evidence that when regulations (or ‘red tape’ as de-regulation advocates like to call them) are cut, standards fall.
It is no accident that towns and cities across Europe where many people live in spacious apartments with decent outdoor spaces, they achieve the higher housing densities that support local shops and amenities. The days of chain stores in high streets may well be behind us, but West Yorkshire’s town centres are ideally suited to well-designed apartment schemes and the local businesses that can thrive in 15-minute neighbourhoods. But decent space standards for indoor and outdoor space are crucial, and we need a stronger planning system to implement them, not the weaker one that the Government has in mind.