NPPF: Victory for town centres, or staving off the inevitable?

It’s telling that the responses from the British Retail Consortium and BCSC to yesterday’s new planning guidelines were altogether more positive than those given less than a week ago following the budget. 

The main section of the significantly-condensed planning document which would concern retailers and developers is that which deals with the future vitality of town centres, and how planning guidelines can assist the market in making vibrant, competitive, successful centres a reality; and not just a celebrity’s dream.

It was pleasing to see the document make reference to the individuality of town centres, and recognise that local authorities need to govern what constitutes sustainable development in their area. The authorities can define the extent of their town centres, and develop their area plans around these parameters. This in turn will mean a greater power to refuse permission to schemes which are seen as being detrimental to the progress of urban recovery, and thereafter, development.

In strengthening the Town Centre First mechanism, the framework has certainly put faith in the long-term ability of struggling town centres to recover – but in terms of shopping and retail, the question remains whether the problems are too endemic for a planning reform to fix. Several planning hurdles may have been removed for town centre retail schemes from a development point of view – but can consumer behaviour change enough to make them ‘viable’ and ‘sustainable’? And how many retailers will survive until the benefits of the guidelines are felt?

The public often give their backing to retail-led regeneration schemes in town centres, only to then either vote with their wallet and shop on-line, or to drive to the out-of-town retail park, where the stores are larger and the parking free. There also needs to be a little more help given to retailers in the battle to pay rent (an opportunity missed in the budget); as there is little point in making the delivery of a gleaming new project easier if there is nobody there to fill it.

The next couple of years will be of interest – as we observe just how quickly the reforms catch on, and how many schemes are turned down due to failing the requisite impact assessments. Only then might we see retailers, developers and, crucially, shoppers turn their eye towards the town centre rather than away from it. The NPPF may be seen as the first step towards town centre recovery – but make no mistake – there’s a marathon still to run.

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