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‘Cut red tape to save the high street,’ architects tell government

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Architects have joined a call for government to make it easier to switch between commercial use classes to help high streets in the wake of the coronavirus crisis

Last week (30 April) the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) published a report arguing that structural challenges to high streets, such as e-commerce and remote working, have been ‘exacerbated’ by Covid-19.

RICS said planning rules around use change had been created in a more ‘static’ time and should be eased, adding: ‘The seismic nature of what is currently taking place in the commercial property sector should not be underestimated.’

Gort Scott co-founder Fiona Scott, who published a report on ‘adaptive strategies’ for town centres with her practice in January, said she strongly supports the proposal.

‘The idea of more flexibility and moving more easily between use classes, as well as mixing use classes and incorporating multiple uses within the same property [will be crucial],’ she said.

‘Increasingly we are seeing the nesting of uses, where a property operates in one way at certain times but switches to a different use at different times of week or evening: workspace and bar, or café and yoga studio, for examples.’

Scott and RICS both said they did not believe commercial-to-residential use changes should be included under any relaxation of planning rules.

Phil Waddy, chair of RIBA’s planning group, said he agreed that government ‘needs to cut red tape and encourage flexibility’ but said some quality control still needed to be in place.

‘Irrespective of planning policy, the market determines what will and will not be economically viable and the impact of the pandemic is clearly going to shake up the retail and business sectors,’ he said.

‘Quality thresholds must, however, be maintained and this could be achieved by allowing immediate temporary changes of use for a period of, say, one or two years, with permanent consent applied for at a later stage.

‘In this way, planning control can be exercised, should the particular change create material problems.’

A spokesperson for the government said it would amend the shops use class to allow retail units to diversify in line with future retail trends and keep other use classes under review. 

The spokesperson also said government had introduced ‘a comprehensive package to support [high streets]’, including ‘scrapping business rates for the financial year, cash grants, government-backed loans, VAT deferral, paying 80 per cent of staff wages and safeguarding businesses from aggressive debt collection.’


Alistair Macdonald, director, Allies & Morrison 

There is no doubt that the current Covid-19 situation has added another layer of challenge and complexity to the planning of our town centres. Market conditions are changing rapidly, and it seems inevitable that high streets could look very different when we emerge in a post-Covid world. 

We welcome initiatives for greater flexibility in the planning system, particularly where this might allow ease of movement from traditional retail towards alternative ground-floor uses, such as those with community benefit including educational institutions, leisure or workspace. Such activities could be temporary or ‘meanwhile’, and play a role in rejuvenating both the high street and local communities they serve.

We’d be more cautious about introducing changes allowing a permanent transition towards residential

However, we would be more cautious about introducing changes that allow an unrestricted, more permanent transition towards residential or otherwise. This merits more comprehensive, joined-up thinking, either through area-based masterplanning or local policy. 

The impact of existing permitted development rights from office to residential has had mixed results in terms of the vitality of town centres and in their resilience for future adaptation, not to mention the quality of housing that has been delivered as a result. In some cases, it might be the right thing to do but, without a proper process in place, there is a risk of forfeiting design quality, or undermining the ambition of longer-term regeneration or placemaking.

Fiona Scott, director, Gort Scott

We strongly support the idea of more flexibly and more easily moving between use classes, as well as mixing use classes and incorporating multiple uses within the same property. Increasingly we are seeing the ‘nesting’ of uses, where a property operates in one way at certain times but switches to a different use at different times of week or evening. This is something that we recommended and advocated in our the High Streets and Town Centres Adaptive Strategies report.

We have talked about the need for strategic iterative testing within our High Streets document because each area has nuances, which require us to adjust our approach. We need to ensure we monitor the results of any policy shifts. We also need to look at who benefits, because, while flexibility is key, balance is, too, and so we need to carefully judge how residential works as part of this mix.

More flexibility between non-residential use classes would have to also fit with local policies and plans, which themselves need to be adaptable. For example, some local policies have set rules such as 85 per cent of the frontage within a town centre boundary must be retail. We already have anecdotal evidence that in some places that is limiting the potential of the town centre to evolve, for example, by preventing people from opening cafés, restaurants, gyms, or co-working spaces.

However, I think it would be catastrophic for the economy and for the diversity and social life of the city if commercial or retail premises were more easily converted to residential. We have already seen first-hand in London local small businesses like yoga studios and cafés (vital for community cohesion, health and wellbeing as well as supporting local economy and livelihoods) go out of business where they are in small premises that are just outside a designated retail parade and the landowner is able to profit from conversion to residential within permitted development rights. 

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