Portas: ‘Right Diagnosis; Wrong Prescription’.

….At least that’s the view that has been offered today by Phil Wrigley of LXB Retail and Majestic Wines, who has insisted that if the government were to adhere to the recommendations of Mary Portas’ review, the High Street would be condemned to continue to plunge further into a ‘Death Spiral’, taking already ailing town centres with it.

Wrigley’s own recommendation for our beloved urban centres to avoid this grim fate is to encourage increased conversion of high street premises to housing, which echoes some in-depth research conducted by think tank ‘The Policy Exchange’ in March last year. 

Both Wrigley and the Policy Exchange have championed the idea of increasing flexibility within the current planning structure to allow properties to under go a quicker and easier transition, if required, from Class A to Class C. The common criticism of the current planning system is that councils’ obsession with ‘maintaining the town centre’, or ‘supporting economic regeneration’, means that they occasionally force buildings to stay within a certain use class, often refusing a change of use until the premises have been vacant for a number of years.

The reason for this is that councils consider planning applications within the confines of local development frameworks (LDF) set out roughly every decade to outline how they hope the area to develop. Change-of-use applications which appear out-of-line with the LDF are seldom given approval, no matter what their viability, with councils more inclined to agree to a short term solution which fits in with their development plan.

I don’t particularly share Wrigley’s overriding negativity about the recommendations Portas outlined in December last year; but his view, substantiated by the think tank, represents almost the exact opposite way that Portas could have gone with her suggestions. It is a view that was perhaps too radical to suggest to the current government, who have already relaxed change-of-use laws pertaining to office buildings, with so far less-than-resounding success.

Is Portas, as Wrigley puts it, “propping up a failing sector”, or is she attempting to exacerbate a latent desire within the British public to return to thriving town centres, thereby resisting the temptation to consign traditional high streets to the history books? What is certain is that the government’s implementation of any of Portas’ recommendations will be put under intense scrutiny, as the queue of people waiting to say ‘I told you so’ gets longer by the day.

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