Blog: 5 October 2016From retail to resi – putting the life back into city centres

Dan Mitchell

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Dan Mitchell

Planning Partner

Manchester office

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While chairing a BPF breakfast seminar, fringe event at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool last week, we once again tackled the future for regeneration in our towns and cities across the UK, and the importance of residential being included in this. Joined by representatives from government and industry, including Land Securities Chief Exec Rob Noel and Paul Clark of Crown Estate, we began by discussing ‘change’.

People’s behaviour is changing. The way we work, shop, play, move and communicate has and continues to change, and it is clear that our towns and cities, and our high street’s in particular, need to respond to this. The panellists quickly agreed that we need to look at the high street from a customer focused point of view. To make a place attractive connectivity, leisure, education and community facilities are all important components that we have to get right. But it’s housing that unlocks all of these aspects by providing an immediate population and onsite customer base. Housing brings density, animation and security. Proximity is essential for our knowledge based economies UK wide, and urban living is a major opportunity people of all ages and stages in life can benefit from.

The rise of interest in our Build to Rent market has provided a clear catalyst for urban regeneration, but, as the panel agreed, developments and design must also be linked to lifestyles for all ages and demographics. The customer is changing fast and this coupled with an increase in the ageing population means we need to ensure we’re developing town centres to meet the needs of everyone who lives there.

So how do we unlock the huge amount of unused retail space to rebalance the mix, especially outside of the South East and in some of our more challenging third and fourth tier town centres?

This week, the Government made their latest move to assist this urban regeneration need, in a ministerial announcement that builds on the Housing & Planning Bill. This statement further emphasised the presumption in favour of brownfield development, their ambition for Brownfield Registers and further expansion of ‘Permitted Development Rights’. These proposals are largely welcomed but are they really going to assist Local Authorities in having a sufficiently open-minded approach to the change of use of existing buildings? Are they going to be ambitious and understanding of the need for change? Are they going to drive clear strategies for underused space? Are ‘Permitted Development Rights’ releasing the right types of space? How can they help the industry to unite the often diverse landowners and operators to facilitate change?

What is clear is that we need to make our cities future proof for the next generation and the sooner the better. Communities need binding together again and we need to look beyond just commercial space to do this. The offer in town centres needs to be more flexible and generate greater diversity, personality and opportunity across housing, workspace and open space, in order to encourage a stronger, more sustainable community.

All this will be no mean feat. It will take a strong leadership to diversify beyond simply retail, which has been so dominant in our towns and cities for decades. We need clear planning policy, investment and strong, considered collaboration across all sectors to achieve it. I can’t help thinking that those who deliver all of these will be the towns and cities who succeed in delivering long lasting vitality and places we all want to visit.

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Manchester, Planning, Retail