Is market-driven or planned regeneration best? The debate continues.
Government is receiving heavy criticism for its proposal to expand permitted development rights to cover much wider conversion of commercial premises (including retail) to housing by allowing changes, without the need to obtain planning permission, from the recently created Class E (Commercial, Business and Service uses) uses to residential use (Class C3).
Part of the motivation for the proposal is to encourage regeneration of town centres faced with increasing loss of retail space as shopping patterns change and online retailing drives traditional retailers to the wall. Rates, poor transport infrastructure, market domination by large supermarkets and the constraints of lease terms also play a role of course.
The regulations will have a general application across districts and will not just deal with changes of use within town centres but also expand to other areas, particularly secondary locations in cities, suburban settlements and market towns. It is also capable of affecting out of town retail centres.
There is huge tension between the desire of Government to speed up regeneration of urban areas and the desire of local government and others involved in the planning industry to ensure that any change is carried out in a controlled way. Critics of the existing system argue that the existing process of (over?) regulated development is inevitably slow to react, always behind the curve of market changes and so exacerbates decay and redundancy of premises.
Critics of the Government’s proposals fear an unregulated rush to convert commercial buildings to residential with little regard to quality of the premises created and no regard to the cumulative impact of changes on the viability of the local area, the transport networks, education and healthcare needs or environmental impacts. Generally the introduction of more residential occupiers into urban central areas is seen as a revitalising process as the increased population will generate its own demand for services/shopping etc. The danger is of course the scale of change is so fast and so great that town centres or retail parks lose a critical mass of retail and leisure outlets and so cease to attract footfall.
A great debate rages over what town centres will look like in the future and it is unclear whether what we are seeing is just part of a wider trend. Increasing resistance to car transport undermines the thinking behind out of town retail centres, just as it does to the idea of the car-based weekend trip to town for shopping. Councils looking to reduce car traffic face a dilemma as this can be seen as helping to undermine the viability of retail centres they are otherwise campaigning to protect.
If the trend is really towards more localised live/work/shop lifestyles then a mix of uses within a particular area will be a necessity. The big debate is whether securing that outcome is best achieved through detailed regulation and planning policies as has been historically experienced or through the more relaxed market-driven approach which seems to underpin the Government’s latest proposals.
Consultation on the proposed changes expired on 28th January 2021 and the Government will be considering the responses before announcing its final decision.
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