The mainstay of National Planning Policy is providing sustainable development and being able to meet people’s needs in full (para 23), be this through the provision of a range of suitable housing in the locations that it is needed or through ensuring a full range of services, including retail, is delivered.
In theory therefore, the approach to delivering development to meet the needs of the public is the same for residential and commercial development. The Local authority carry out research to establish what ‘need’ there is in the local area and then make provision for meeting that need through the development plan process, by allocating a range of suitable sites.
Unfortunately, however, this is not always the case when it comes to delivering retail floorspace. Instead, all too frequently I have dealt with Local Authorities who do not have an up to date development plan or evidence base to support plan preparation. This means that allocations for retail development are few and far between and Local Authorities do not have an accurate picture of what type and level of retail floorspace is required in their administrative boundary. This is all aside from the fact that a number of high order retail destinations have a draw beyond the Local Authority boundaries and a trade pattern that Officers have no chance of mapping on a macro level.
The retail market is one that changes frequently because it is driven by changes in the wider UK economy as well as changes in fashions and trends. People’s ability to spend, their desire for different products and the way that they want to shop alters frequently, so the requirements for new or different floorspace does as well. As a result, Local Authorities need to be updating their Retail Studies frequently, at least every couple of years, in the same way they do their Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessments and Employment Land Reviews. They need to monitor retail closures, delivery and uptake of new retail floorspace and public opinion of their retail centres and commercial destinations. Without this they surely cannot know what is ‘needed’ in their area and they cannot effectively plan for change or growth.
At present only 39% of Local Authorities have an Adopted Core Strategy that is five years old or less. That means a whopping 61% have plans that are out of date in retail terms. While even fewer Local Authorities have adopted Allocations and Development Management Policy Documents. If plans are not up to date then the evidence base supporting them will not be either.
We are told on a regular basis that this gap is caused by a lack of resources and expertise in the public sector meaning it is not a situation that is easy to remedy. Therefore, it poses the question; is there anything that Local Authorities can do to ease the burden and provide clarity for developers which would facilitate better meeting the needs of the public?
I would say that there undoubtedly is. But it would require a change to the way that retail policies are currently drafted and sites are allocated. I believe a wider range of sites should be allocated for retail uses, particularly commercial centres and those appropriate locations for retail uses outside designated Town, District and Local Centres. Yes, it is only right that such centres should be protected from harmful development and retail uses directed to them, if at all possible, but perhaps there needs to be a recognition that to meet needs in full, sites have to be set wider and controls have to be altered to facilitate change.
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