Can planners help to save our town centres?

Findings and reflections from a workshop on town centre regeneration at the PAS conference for Heads of Planning and Rising Stars, Wolverhampton July 20221

My home town – the new Glass Works and public square, Barnsley

“Town centres are close to my heart” said one conference delegate as we made our way to the town centre regeneration workshop in Wolverhampton earlier this month. I share her sentiments, especially for my own town centre in Barnsley, South Yorkshire.

Sometimes a victim of ridicule in the past, and with previous plans beset by problems and delays, the regeneration of Barnsley town centre is never the less emerging as a great success. Just this spring, Barnsley was amongst the top 10 places for both footfall and spend recovery following the removal of Covid restrictions, and you only have to walk around the place to see the new businesses and numbers of people. I think Barnsley and many similar town centres have a good story to tell, as well as some real opportunities in the future.

With these thoughts in mind I joined over 40 other planners, representing a range of different authorities and types of town centre, at the PAS conference to discuss recent trends and the role of planning in the future.

Town centres and high streets have experienced many changes and challenges over recent years, but few as significant as the Covid-19 pandemic with official lockdowns, radical changes in consumer spending and moves to flexible (home-based) working for many people. This workshop was a chance to take a step back and think about the issues and opportunities now facing our town centres. In particular, we explored three questions:

  • What has been happening in our town centres over recent years?
  • What does this mean for the role of our town centres in the future?
  • What should planning be doing about this?

Along the way we looked at evidence showing the different rates of recovery from Covid lock downs last year, as well as more recent data on the level of food and drink spend in different centres. Add to this the phenomena of “Zoom Towns” and a rapid increase in the number of remote or flexibly based jobs being advertised in some places, and it is clear that something very interesting is happening in many areas.

As well as data and evidence, this workshop was also a chance to think more broadly and speculate about the factors likely to shape change in the future. We drew heavily on Mathew Carmona’s work on the existential crisis facing shopping streets and what makes a place attractive, which provides some good pointers on where planning practice should be focusing in a post covid economy, including the key factors shaping the way people choose to shop.

It would take too long to detail all the issues we covered, but I’ve attempted to capture the key points. Some of these reflect issues that are common to many town centres, but others suggest differing experiences in different type of centre or different regions of the country.

What has been happening in our town centres over recent years?

Many find it difficult to answer this question with confidence. Town centres are dynamic, with changing trends and patterns of decline or development that vary constantly. Frequent monitoring is often beyond the means of local planning teams. Added to this, the introduction of a new Use Class E in September 2020, which now covers the majority of town centre uses meaning that significant changes can take place on a high street without the need for planning permission or any formal interaction with local planners.

A few places, like Bolsover, are undertaking annual surveys of their town centre as well as utilising mobile phone data as a proxy for footfall. Others, such as Newbury, utilise data from a Business Improvement District. For many though, comprehensive evidence on the town centre is limited to local plan production or preparation of a masterplan.

Of course, anecdotal evidence is also an important source of information and there are some common experiences. The decline of town centre retail is not a new trend, but Covid has helped to accelerate this in many areas. Places as diverse as Canterbury and Plymouth, Colchester and Peterborough or Mid-Sussex and Beverley have all experienced the loss of department stores or familiar high street names.

Whilst this is common to larger towns, it is seen as less significant in smaller centres which have a stronger independent retail base and therefore less in the way of national multiples to lose. The differing experiences of larger and smaller town centres means generalisations are difficult and experience in places like Cheshire East and the East Riding suggest fewer problems for retail in their smaller towns.

A decline in retail has led to an increase in vacant units, but this contrasts with a boost in the number of food and drink-based businesses (including evening economy type venues) that is helping to re-animate town centres. It marks an increasingly important role for leisure in town centres, with planners from places as different as West Berkshire, Ipswich, Worthing and South Norfolk all experiencing the trend.

Many were also keen to talk about the increasing importance of town centre residential development. Given the introduction of a new Permitted Development Right (PDR) for the change of use from Class E to residential, this is a major part of Government policy and perhaps not surprising. But only a few places, such as Milton Keynes and Medway, report pressure for conversion of former offices to residential uses in significant numbers. Although it is a concern, PDR to residential is not yet seen as a significant trend in large parts of the country.

Instead, local councils are working hard to support new residential uses on planned sites as well as bring forward projects directly in partnerships with developers. The desire to attract town centre-based living in increasing numbers is an ambition that ran throughout the workshop and encompasses all areas. A good example is Dartford where town centre housing is not currently widespread, the new local plan encourages higher density housing, and the Council are addressing viability issues to bring forward difficult sites.

What does this mean for the role of town centres in the future?

More town centre housing, both higher and medium density, is something that many planners see as central to the future. This is based on the transport links and access to amenities that town centres offer, providing opportunities for sustainable housing on sites that become available as retail, commercial and other traditional land uses scale back.

Importantly though, planners are also alive to the benefits that a town centre residential community can bring in terms of increased spend and footfall for business as well the potential to attract new people to their district. At one end of the age scale, this may be younger professionals enjoying the opportunities of distance or flexible working and a town centre-based lifestyle. At the other end of the age spectrum, older and retired residents could be important town centre communities, benefitting from easy access to local services in amenities.

To support diversification, planners are also making efforts to introduce mixed-use development with many local authorities involved in direct investment to deliver hotels, leisure and residential alongside convenience retail schemes. For example, Cherwell Council are redeveloping a shopping centre with a hotel, supermarket, cinema and restaurant in Banbury, a significant financial commitment and long-term effort to diversify. In other places like Rochdale development is already underway and in Norwich change is being supported through City Deal and Transforming Cities Fund investment. Many councils have also taken ownership of vacant shopping space in preparation for new mixed-use schemes.

But this is not the case for all areas, and different town centres will pursue different strategies or seek to define themselves through different roles in the future. Participants talked about the Unique Selling Points (USP) they are trying to define for their town centres. For example, Canterbury is leveraging its heritage offer; whereas Worthing has an appeal through its seafront setting and proximity to the coast; and Bolsover needs to boost the provision of overnight accommodation to maximise potential for visitors to the castle and surrounding countryside.

Education also emerges as important, with some areas seeing positive impacts from the development of new further and higher education facilities. A new college campus alongside culture and leisure facilities is helping to transform a traditional town centre offer in Dudley, whilst Epsom has seen student footfall benefitting their town centre through a University of the Creative Arts. Peterborough is also seeking to establish a new university centre and Ashfield is introducing education hubs to its town centre.

What should planning be doing?

This was the question that generated the greatest amount of discussion and suggests town centres remain very much at the heart of local planners’ focus. Major areas of work for the future include:

  • Ensuring stakeholder engagement – looking beyond traditional consultation, this means actively working with and alongside local groups, businesses, and other public services to share knowledge, facilitate constructive discussions and create consensus on long-term objectives. It’s more than the usual argument about how many car parking spaces are needed!
  • Preparing comprehensive plans – many planners in the room are working on town centre master plans, strategies or supplementary planning documents. Although different plans will have a different planning status, they often bring together individual projects or schemes, set a policy framework and ensure that interventions are complementary or sequenced. A town centre plan can also help to build investor confidence as well as reduce the risk for Council assets in the town centre.
  • Consolidating retail areas – rather than extending a town centre, regeneration in the future is about consolidation. This means defining and then strengthening the core of a town centre’s retail area as well as enabling positive change to the surrounding areas. Many in the workshop talked about managing the contraction of retail space and identifying appropriate uses for sites that become available, i.e. residential, leisure or employment.
  • Delivering catalyst sites – town centres can contain several vacant sites or underused areas which rapidly become a barrier to progress or could be transformational if delivered in the right way at the right time. Planners are identifying these opportunities, and many shared their experience of using development briefs or masterplans to help bring them forward, often alongside bids for funding through the Local Growth Fund, Levelling Up Fund, Future High Street Fund and City Deals, etc.
  • Improving public realm and active travel – planners are seeking to use Community Infrastructure Levy income, Transforming Cities Funds and direct council investment to create higher quality and better designed town centre spaces, with more opportunities for enjoying time in the town centre as well as reducing the impact of motorised traffic so that walking and cycling is more attractive.

This is not a comprehensive list, with many other examples of activity in different localities. But it does suggest some core roles that planners themselves see as important to their work and which will be critical to the future of town centres.

And in conclusion …….

Reforms like the creation of a single Use Class for all commercial, business and service uses, or the introduction of PDR for residential uses, led many to suggest that there would be less of a role for planning in town centres.

In contrast, it appears from our workshop that planning and planners are at the forefront of town centre regeneration in many areas. Rather than responding to change, local planners are working with other stakeholders and taking a lead role in determining the future shape and success of their town centre.

Overall, this was a tremendously positive session revealing some of the energy and ideas that planners are bringing to town centre regeneration. We hope to build on that in PAS as we develop our work programme in this area and will maintain our support for LPAs as they continue with their plans.

1 see the PAS website for presentations and information from the conference