The pivotal role of councils in shaping planning and development can underpin long term change when combined with the understanding of their hands-on responsibilities for town and city centre management. In response to COVID-19, this will extend to reassessing short and long term demand for different property uses.
Your council is able to set out the vision and framework for the future development of an area through local plans, including policies on new retail parks and housing developments. It can also determine detailed decisions on planning applications and change of use. For town centres to prosper, it is vital that such decisions are made with town centre impacts in mind and for planning to be proactive in underpinning revitalisation.
Achievable steps for proactive planning are part of recommendations from a Government-backed property industry task force aimed at redefining the shape and purpose of town centres. The report’s recommendations for the role of local authorities remain a valid stimulus for your council’s strategy development today and include:
- Long-term masterplanning to rebalance the role of town and city centres and provide a broader range of functions including employment, commercial, leisure, community, residential, healthcare and educational uses.
- New retail capacity models that are fit for purpose and based on understanding the catchment demographic, evolving shopping patterns and the role of neighbouring town centres. The work undertaken by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is cited as an example of such an effective approach.
- New ways to help overcome fragmented property ownership within town and city centres including a more pro-active approach to land assembly and using their compulsory purchase order powers to facilitate long-term change.
Planning through partnership
Such a proactive approach is echoed in the LGA report on planning positively through partnership which emphasises the importance of involvement of key stakeholders in local plans, site assembly and community engagement and which can be applied to town and city centres. The report highlights case studies that illustrate ways that councils and developers are working together to bring new development forward and highlights six valuable learning points:
- early engagement during the development of local plans
- site assembly and de-risking of sites
- involvement in pre-application advice services
- implementing permissions swiftly
- engagement with communities and local councillors
- leadership and the role of councillors
Unlocking property investment
Town Centre Investment Management and Zones are new concepts that take such private-public cooperation a step further in town centres by offering a leading role for councils in land assembly and unlocking property investment. The concept seeks to mirror the investment, collective ownership and asset management provided by shopping centres. As a report published on getting investment back into the high street by the British Property Federation advocates, strong leadership through masterplanning will be key and councils can also choose to be local investors.
The BPF report advocates that strong local leadership is a critical first step and that council master-planning, advocacy by a BID or other group and localism through a Neighbourhood Plan can play a positive role. Critical within this would seem an ability to understand and broker necessary trade-offs between community and individual commercial interests so that a resulting town centre Masterplan or development brief is attractive to investors and is deliverable.
The report concludes that the TCIM and TCIZ models are workable and that the principles can apply to small or even struggling town centres where collective asset management could unlock investment potential. The necessary powers and legal structures already exist. Take-up, the report suggests, will depend on the willingness of local councils to adopt a novel and largely untested approach and the ability to marshal different stakeholder groups to agree a common plan.
Steps towards establishing a Town Centre Investment Zone involve creating a trustworthy governance structure to manage funds and recruiting experienced asset managers able to agree and deliver targets. As well as being facilitators, there is the exciting prospects of local councils having a major commercial stake in their town by investing their own reserves and potentially pension funds through the new ‘UK Wealth Funds’.
Influencing the business mix
At a detailed level, councils have some powers to determine the mix of town and city centre businesses to ensure sustainability, promote public health and ensure that the whole community is suitably served.
The ‘tipping the scale’ report features case studies where the planning system has sought to introduce restrictions on the proliferation of fast food takeaways. Key messages from a review of the case studies focusing on using planning powers to make an authoritative local case:
- Using planning powers as part of a community healthy weight strategy
- Providing a policy context for supplementary planning documents
- Supplementing national evidence with local evidence
- Ensuring planning decisions refer to health issues where relevant
The LGA’s councillor handbook on gambling regulation summarises councils' responsibilities and highlights recent changes introduced by the Gambling Commission, including the requirement for gambling operators to carry out local risk assessments.
Planning for recovery and transformation
As well as offering flexibility in the short-term through policies supporting some change of business use such as from restaurants to take-away provision, planners are going to have to assess long-term impacts of changing business practices in town centres. Surveys of business types and occupancy and retail/leisure demand will need updating as long-term impacts become more evident in the recovery stage.
Southampton City Council's city centre masterplan is helping to achieve integrated, large-scale development including significant amounts of good-quality housing and transforming a brown-field site in to an iconic, new leisure-led development.
Gateshead Council has used a Supplementary Planning Document on hot food takeaways to avoid clustering of such A5 uses detrimental to the vitality and viability of a local centre.