Town centres first?

boarded up shop

© Copyright michael ely and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

by Dorothy Laing

Has the town centre first policy failed in its attempt to restore vitality to Britain’s failing high streets?

Town centres and high streets across Britain have been suffering from the combined effects of the increase in online shopping, car parking issues, increasing business rates, and the impact of the recession, as well as the challenges of out-of town centres.

The benefits of vibrant town centres have been well documented by Portas, Grimsey and Fraser who have all supported the use of planning tools to help reverse the decline of town centres, including the ‘town centre first’ policy, backed in the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), and in the Scottish Town Centres Action Plan. The town centre first approach encourages councils to consider the potential adverse effect on local high streets of large out-of-town retail projects, and introduce positive planning to promote competitive town centre environments.

Has the ‘town centre first’ principle worked?

Despite promotion of the town centre first approach, written submissions published last week in response to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee inquiry into the operation of the NPPF in its first two years, provided evidence of the failure of the policy.

The  Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) said that ‘having a strong policy statement is only meaningful if it is enforced at local and national level – this is where the operation of the NPPF is lacking real cut through and has failed town centres’. The ACS presented evidence from an independent report Retail planning decisions under the NPPF, commissioned in 2013 to investigate how effectively the NPPF has dealt with major retail developments that qualify for town centre first tests since its introduction. The findings, based on 50 case studies from 157 planning authorities in England, show:

  • 76% of the new retail floor space given planning approval since the new national planning laws came into force is located outside of town centres.
  • only 7 out of the 50 applications (14%) were refused planning permission – of which 3 were refused because there was a competing similar proposal in the same town which was preferred.
  • and of the 43 application approved, 5 were in town centres (12%), 7 were edge of centre (16%) and 31 were out of town (72%).

These figures indicate that major retail developments approved under the NPPF have not been effectively driven into town centres. ACS’s research was also cited in the Town and Country Planning Association’s submission amid concerns that insufficient weight is being given to the town centre first policy. The British Council of Shopping Centres’  evidence included an analysis of data compiled by EGi Research, which monitored applications for new retail schemes (over 50,000 sq ft) and showed that just 24% of all new retail schemes in the pipeline in 2012 were being proposed for town centre locations compared with 56% in 2010, highlighting a trend towards more out-of-town applications than in-town applications immediately following the introduction of the NPPF. Further EGi data also suggests that blocking out-of-town schemes does not automatically lead to an increase in town centre development.

Further action

In addition to the town centre first approach and lifting planning restrictions to help landlords make better use of empty properties, the government has also introduced a number of other measures to help declining town centres:

Local authorities across the country are taking steps to revitalise their town centres. Last week York City Council announced that it is piloting free parking in city centre car parks in an attempt to combat competition from the new Vangarde Retail Park at Monks Cross.

It seems that planning policies alone will not solve the problem of declining town centres, a more holistic approach is needed as recommended by Bill Grimsey’s review of high streets  and his idea of ‘networked high streets’. Grimsey’s review concluded that:

town centre/high street plans must encompass a complete community hub solution incorporating health, housing, education, arts, entertainment, business/office space, manufacturing and leisure, whilst developing day time, evening time and night time cultures where shops are just a part of the total plan”

If you would like to receive a briefing on ‘Town Centres in Scotland: changing policy’ and practice please follow the link and request it from our briefings page

Further references (please note you must be a member to access articles)

British Council of Shopping CentresBeyond retail: redefining the shape and purpose of town centres.

Deloitte The changing face of retail: where did all the shops go? and Infographic.

Lloyd, Greg Town centre agendas (addressing town centre decline), IN Scottish Planning and Environmental Law, No 158 Aug 2013

Michael, AlexaThe changing face of the high street (town centre retailing), IN London Business Matters, No 103 Mar 2014, p13

Morton, Alex; Dericks, Gerard 21st century retail policy: quality, choice, experience and convenience.

Watson, Stuart Has planning helped the high street? (town centre planning), IN Planning, No 1970 1 Nov 2013, pp14-17

Geoghegan, John Town centre first rule under attack, IN Planning, No 1967 20 Sep 2013, pp6-7

2 thoughts on “Town centres first?

  1. Pingback: Evolution or revolution … the challenge of delivering future high streets | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

  2. Pingback: Counting down to 2015 … a year in policy (part 2) | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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