A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away*.... the British high street was thriving, footfall was high and, for most of us, a trip into town on a Saturday for a little retail therapy was something of a highlight.  Now, however, that feels like a very dim and distant past. 

In a dark place we find ourselves, and a little more knowledge lights our way...

Even before Covid-19 led to the government closing all non-essential retail outlets, the British high street was in trouble. The increasing popularity in online shopping, rising business rates, and declining footfall created a very challenging retail environment, which hit the country's high streets particularly hard. The current pandemic response, however, has tipped the situation over into a potential crisis of Death-Star-like proportions.

On Thursday (April 30th) , the British Independent Retailers Association warned the Government that as many as 20% of retailers surveyed by the trade body  do not intend to reopen after the lockdown. They are fearful that the on-going social distancing requirements may make trading conditions untenable - with footfall remaining far too low for reopening to be commercially viable. 

Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope

We cannot encase our high streets in carbonite. They are going to change. We may not be able to stop the change, any more than we can stop the suns from setting, but planning can have a vital role in helping retail businesses survive it.

In a situation where uncertainty reigns, we need to provide retailers with as much flexibility as possible to allow them to adapt to life after lockdown. The return to normal is difficult to see. Always in motion is the future, so if retailers are to survive, then agility will be crucial. The planning system will need to enable the rapid changes that are likely to occur - rather than inhibit them.

Many of the truths that we cling to depend on our point of view.

It doesn't take a Jedi to work out that  the use classes order is long overdue for an overhaul. This is particularly true when looking at the retail use classes, which have not been adjusted for some time. We are still working within the parameters of:

  • Class A1: shops
  • Class A2: Financial and professional services
  • Class A3: Food and Drink
  • Class A4: Drinking Establishments; and
  • Class A5: Hot Food Takeaways

Despite the lines between them becoming increasingly blurred. 

In particular, the lines between restaurants, takeaways and pubs were increasingly fuzzy in our pre-covid world, with street food restaurants, home delivery services and pop up pubs becoming more and more common.  This trend is only likely to increase when lock down is lifted, with businesses looking for ways to continue to engage with and serve their customers despite the restrictions of social distancing.

Never tell me the odds!

Efforts have been made to compensate for the increasingly outdated nature of retail use classes , through widening the scope the general permitted development order. However the results have been patchy and inconsistent**. At present, there are PD Rights covering the following changes:

From

To 

Restaurants, cafes, or takeaways

Retail or financial and professional services

Drinking establishments

Drinking establishment with expanded food provision

Drinking establishment with expanded food provision

Drinking establishments

Takeaways

Restaurants, cafes

Shops, financial and professional services, casinos, pay day loan and betting shops

Restaurants, cafes

Shops

Financial and professional services

Financial & professional services, pay day loans and betting shops

shops

Pay day loans & betting shops

Financial and professional services

retail, takeaway, betting office, pay day loan shop, and launderette uses

offices

casinos

assembly and leisure

As well as a significant number of permitted development rights which allow the conversion of various high street uses to residential uses. However, much like the Force itself,  the General Permitted Development Order is not particularly user friendly. Many permitted development rights are subject to restrictions or conditions limiting the amount of floor space that can be moved between uses, or making use of the rights subject to prior approval procedures. As such, trying to figure out whether or not you can make use of them can be complicated, and often highly technical.

Use the Force, Luke

The current formation of retail permitted development rights, also, somewhat bizarrely given recent trends in consumer behaviour, largely overlook the role that assembly and leisure uses can play in increasing footfall on our local high streets. Gyms, art galleries, soft play and other 'experience' led facilities are becoming an increasingly important part of the retail mix; drawing people to high streets in a world where traditional retailers are struggling to attract customers.  

They also do not cope well with 'hybrid' uses. Between the light side and the dark are many shades of grey, and it is in these 'grey areas' between use classes that many retailers are likely to find their coping strategies. From cafes offering soft play, to sports shops hosting yoga classes and music shops acting as live music venues, diversifying away from a pure retail offer is becoming a vital tool for survival. One that is not well catered for by the planning system. The case law around ancillary uses is notoriously murky - If I told you half the things I’ve heard about ancillary uses, you’d probably short circuit - so it can be hard for businesses to know whether they need to engage with local planning authorities over these types of projects ahead of time.

If we are going to ensure that the current crisis does not finish off the traditional high street entirely, it is perhaps time to move to the dark side and embrace 'life in the grey areas' and leisure uses on the high street more fully.

Aren't you a little short for a Stormtrooper?

There have been calls for Councils to rethink their business rates for some time. However this may also be an opportune time for local planning authorities to review their CIL rates - particularly relating to retail schemes.  As a general rule, the two types of development most likely to attract CIL in England are residential and retail schemes. Whilst many authorities apply differential rates to different types of retail - with supermarkets and retail warehouses attracting a higher rate than smaller scale operations -  even nominal CIL charges are likely to discourage new developments coming forward, or the repurposing of units that have been vacant for some time, given the current uncertainties.

Do. Or do not. There is no try. 

If there is going to be further intervention to help the high street get back on its feet, then it needs to happen soon. MHCLG would need to double their efforts to get the new rules in place for when lockdown begins to ease. 

In order to reinvigorate our high streets, we are going to need to unlearn much of what we have learned. It  will take imagination, and a wide ranging package of reforms that go far beyond the scope of this blog - encompassing everything from licensing to parking charges. 

From a planning perspective, however, the following would at least give the Retail Alliance a chance to Strike Back:

  •  Reviewing the Use Classes Order so that it maps more neatly onto the modern retail environment;
  • Amending and simplifying the Retail Provisions of the GDPO to allow more flexibility around the incorporation of home delivery services, leisure uses and 'hybrid' retail environments on the high street; 
  • a pragmatic and sympathetic approach being taken by council enforcement officers in the event that businesses get the balance wrong; and
  • reviewing local authority CIL charges to make sure that are not unduly impacting on the viability of new retail developments in the current climate.

After all, ensuring the future of the high street is important for all of us. England has always been a nation of shopkeepers, and even the Empire was dependent on the Trade Federation for survival. 

The possibility of successfully navigating this particular retail storm may be  approximately 3,720 to 1, but I believe that we can do it.  In the immortal words of Yoda: Save them we must. They are our last hope.

May the Force be with you


* yes, it's another theme post. It's been a wet and miserable weekend and I had time on my hands....

** You might even go so far as to call the GDPO a scruffy-looking nerf-herder