The last Thursday before Christmas saw a flurry of activity from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) including Sir John Timpson's report on High Streets and Town Centres (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-high-street-report).  

This follows "hot on the heels" of #NPPFMk2, which revised the list of priorities that were at para 23 (#NPPF1) and now appear at para 85 (#NPPF2).  Notable is the omission to the various references to competition in the old version and the express inclusion of housing within the suitable mix of uses.  The below, selectively draws out the additions in bold and the omissions by way of strikethrough.

Planning policies and decisions should support the role that town centres play at the heart of local communities, by taking a positive approach, promote competitive town centre environments , to their growth, management and adaptation. Planning policies should:

1. Define a network and hierarchy of town centres and promote their long-term vitality and viability – by allowing them to grow and diversify in a way that can respond to rapid changes in the retail and leisure industries, allows a suitable mix of uses (including housing) and reflects their distinctive characters;

2. Define the extent of town centres and primary shopping areas, and make clear the range of uses permitted in such locations, as part of a positive strategy for the future of each centre;

Promote competitive town centres that provide customer choice and a diverse retail offer and which reflect the individuality of town centres;

3. Retain and enhance existing markets and, where appropriate, re-introduce or create new ones, ensuring that markets remain attractive and competitive;

4. Allocate a range of suitable sites in town centres to meet the scale and type of development likely to be needed, looking at least ten years ahead. Meeting anticipated needs for retail, leisure, office and other main town centre uses over this period should not be compromised by limited site availability, so town centre boundaries should be kept under review where necessary;

The High Street is under pressure like never before - the Report describes it as the perfect storm (as we moved from the 2008 crash into the growth of internet retail) - but finds the 10th straight year of footfall decline.  This scary stat should not be taken in isolation as the Report finds some Town Centres, where footfall is increasing, showing that when you can get it right the High Street is still a thriving place.

The Report is based on a lengthy set of case studies entitled High Street 2030: Achieving Change (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/766846/High_Street_2030_Achieving_Change.pdf) by the Manchester Metropolitan University.  Interestingly the longer report identifies what people want to see on the High Street of 2030 - Whilst high streets evolve, it is still people that are visiting them – and, as humans, our motivations are remarkably stable over time. The consumer of 2030 imagines that they will want to eat and drink nice things, be in a pleasant environment, get access to the things they need, be attracted to something a bit different sometimes, not waste too much time moving around, and feel safe. Like the consumer of 1930, or even 1830…  It is interesting to note in this that retail in and of itself is not really mentioned in this list.  Retail that is “need” led can now serviced online and brought to your door.  Retail that is experience led or based on luxury is something one will go out and look for.

Sir John opens noting that retail will not return to the high streets that existed 10 or 20 years ago - this we kind of knew already and is accepted in the integration of leisure uses into NPPF Mk2 where previously retail had primacy. 

The Report should not be a huge surprise to many as it is noted that it was shared with the Chanceller ahead of #Budget 2018 and that #Budget 2018 created a £675m Fund for an Action Plan for our high streets and town centres; though Sir John prefers the term "town centre" as he notes that variety is key to the future of this shared space. This plan includes funding to help places to adapt and evolve for the future.  It also includes funding to set up a Task Force to support local leaders in their efforts to improve their local places. 

Sir John stresses the importance of empowering local places: the ‘Upside Down Government’ approach, which sounds a lot like a return to localism - encouraging and trusting local initiatives, but what does this mean for planning?

Planning provides key tools to enable local communities to shape and deliver their high streets agenda which when used wisely can bring great benefit. The Task Force should encourage action that can make planning decisions simpler, quicker and more aligned to local strategies.  We welcome the announcements at Budget of two consultations in respect of planning for town centres. However, we think there is more to do which is why we recommend that the Task Force plays a role in boosting local authority capacity to enable planning to support local areas and stakeholders to design effective and innovative high street and town centre strategies.  It is unclear what this means at this stage but could this see an element of the Chancellors Fund used to fund some of the massive gap in our underfunded LPA’s.  I have worked with LPA’s who have had funding ring fenced for a Major Projects Officer or via the now lesser seen PPA for a planning officer to be allocated for a period of time to a large development.  Most planning officers are organised geographically and by seniority but with funding diverted could LPA’s bring back sector led planning officers with a specific Retail/Town Centre team within a planning dept?

Short Term

Both the Future High Streets Fund and the Task Force tasked with implementing it are long term so the Report also tasks the Task Force with some key Short Term Solutions, noting that even nimble local leaders, with the support of Councillors and their local community, could take years to make the sort of step change that will make a real difference.

The challenges facing town centres are huge and this takes time to fix. 

- Everyone can improve high street and town centre housekeeping through a determined campaign to eliminate litter and graffiti. Our suggestion is to have a ‘National High Street Perfect Day’ - one day in the year when every shopping street looks the best it possibly can ... a source of civic pride.  This sounds a bit like bringing back the "Best Kept Village Competition".  In it’s hey day it turned villages and towns around.  A lot of the bigger retailers already do this well.  Where it needs drawing together is in the shared spaces – these are either owned by Management Companies who would typically charge a fee for their “Perfect Day” which would be passed on to their already struggling tenants or in the hands of the local Council – whose budgets have already been trimmed back to only doing what is necessary.

- Empty shops can be depressing eyesores that drag down shopping areas. It can be hard for local stakeholders to know who owns these properties, and we would like to see further detail on the announcement at Budget 2018 to pilot a register of empty properties in selected local authorities. Local authorities should use their initiative to encourage landlords and tenants to think innovatively about how to use empty properties. If a deal can’t be struck at the market rent, special terms should be offered to community businesses or other traders with social purpose. The announcement to pilot an “Open Doors” brokerage approach matching landlords of empty properties with community groups looking for space was welcome, and we would like to see this go further across the country and sustained over time. The Task Force could disseminate best practice and learning from the pilot.  Some commercial landlords are probably on-board with this kind of initiative already. Cynically I would comment that this requires the planning system to think and react faster than it currently does.

- Parking - while gathering evidence, it became clear that parking is an important factor taken into account when people decide where to shop. In the short term, local authorities should review their parking provision to make sure that existing restrictions and charges are working to support accessibility to local businesses, encouraging footfall and attracting customers to town centres and high streets.  On the one hand – I couldn’t agree more – it is getting increasingly costly to pop into town, do something and come home again; but if you move away from the idea that parking is increasing in cost due to “supply and demand” and car park operators making the most of their supply, the other key reason for this is to discourage car use.  It is extraordinary to think that with our retail centres often being in towns and cities - the places with the worst air quality - that the answer to bumping up trade is simply a nod back to the days when parking was cheap.  In Birmingham, parking is expensive!  And the Mayor is about to introduce a pollution charge – it would really take the incentive out of the charge if at the same time parking prices dropped.  Should not a more joined up approach be used in terms of sustainable transport; or is this an acknowledgement that something needs to happen to support our failing town centres very fast - and funding a fully integrated sustainable transport system takes time?

All in all the challenge for our town centres continues to grow.  There are some good ideas in Sir John's Report but before the government tops up the Action Fund, I would commend to them my holiday reading - The Happy City by Charles Montgomery - available from a traditional bookstore down your local high street or delivered to your letter box, depending on where your priorities lie...