Britain’s town centres: down, but not out

Image: Mayfield development, Manchester (U+I plc)

Town centres have taken a battering in the past year, with many shops and services forced to close during lockdowns and growing numbers of stores going out of business.

But even before Covid-19, UK high streets were already under pressure. Economic recessions, rising business rates, higher rents, the growth of online shopping and development out-of-town retail parks have left Britain’s town centres struggling to survive.

Last month, Planning magazine brought together a panel of experts to discuss the future of town centres. Among the issues considered were trends affecting town centres, how demand for town centre property is changing post-pandemic and how developers are responding to changes in market demand and planning laws.

The bigger picture: online shopping and working from home

Jennet Siebrits, head of CBRE UK’s research team, gave a helpful overview of two key trends affecting town centres.

In the past decade, e-commerce has seen a dramatic increase in activity. Since 2011, the value of online shopping has mushroomed from £23 billion to £58 billion –a 158% increase. But in 2020, even that figure was eclipsed, with the value of e-commerce rising to £84 billion – a 44% increase in just one year. The evidence from the first national lockdown suggests that this step change is here to stay.

The impact of this, along with the Covid-19 restrictions, has been grim for town centre stores. Over 11,000 shops closed in 2020, and while not all of those closures were due to online shopping, it’s clear that e-commerce has been a real driver of this.

Jennet suggested that, as the restrictions ease, it’s likely that supermarkets, along with in-store health and beauty and DIY stores will continue to attract customers. But other sectors will have to come up with innovative ways to lure consumers off their iPads.

Jennet also highlighted the increased move towards home working. Once people return to their workplaces, it’s likely that many will ask to continue working from home, at least for part of the working week.

The rise in home working may also affect demand for residential property, with more people moving further away from city centres. This could have a knock-on effect for ancillary services like coffee kiosks and sandwich bars, with local town centres capitalising on the losses experienced by city centres.

The legal perspective: changes to planning laws

David Mathias, a specialist planning solicitor at Shoosmiths law firm described some recent planning law changes that have particular relevance to town centres.

Since the demise of Woolworths in 2008, more and more UK department stores have been closing down, leaving big gaps on the high street. In future, it’s likely that many property developers will want to convert from retail to residential.

Until recently, permitted development rights for conversion to residential only applied in a limited set of commercial uses. But the UK government has announced new permitted development rights in England enabling greater flexibility on conversions without the need for planning permission. These will go ahead in August, subject to certain conditions.

In addition, further legislation on expansion of permitted development rights introduced last summer allows the construction of an additional storey on freestanding blocks and buildings on a terrace to create additional housing, and the demolition of buildings built before 1990 and construction of new dwellings in their place.

The government has argued that these changes will help to revive town centres, although others believe easing planning rules for developers will have the opposite effect. 

The developer’s perspective: re-imagining Manchester

Martyn Evans from the U+I Group offered his view of how developers are responding to changes in market demand and planning. He did so using U+I’s development at Mayfield in Manchester.

Located next to Piccadilly railway station, in the centre of the city, this 24 acre-site is being redeveloped from derelict railway land. A consortium of Manchester City Council, Transport for Greater Manchester and London & Continental Railways (LCR), along with U+I, has been working to regenerate the area, with the first buildings due for completion next year.

Right from the start, the consortium focused on the importance of creating a place where people want to live, work, rest and relax. One important feature of the development is a seven-acre park. Although it was planned into the scheme years ago, this green space has become all the more significant in the past year.

Image: Mayfield development, Manchester (U+I plc)

The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of green space as a vital part of city living, both for physical health and mental wellbeing. Such spaces not only attract workers, residents and visitors, they also increase the value of developments. And because decisions about commercial property are increasingly being taken by HR teams rather than finance departments, the wellbeing benefits of workers’ surroundings are being taken more seriously. In short, understanding quality of place gives developers more of a competitive edge. 

The local authority perspective: managing change

To conclude, Michael Kiely from the Planning Officers Society looked at what local planning authorities can do to help sustain town centres.

Michael described some of the planning tools local authorities can use, including strategic planning, masterplanning and local plans. But with recent changes in planning laws, including the use classes order, Michael argued that policies such as Town Centre First may be ineffective.

However, local authorities can still make a difference, through partnerships with other stakeholders, such as land owners and Business Improvement Districts (BIDS), and the use of intervention and compulsory purchase powers.

In closing, Michael suggested the need for a licensing or permitting regime to manage and curate activities so that they do not cause harm and town centres can thrive.

Future perspectives: rethinking town centres

A £150m project to revamp London’s Oxford Street signals that high streets are already re-imagining themselves as leisure-focused and “experiential shopping” centres. And the Mayfield site in Manchester has the potential to transform a part of the city centre that has been underused for decades.

These are just two examples of the planning community working together to help sustain town centres. Britain’s high streets face substantial challenges, but this interesting discussion suggested there are good reasons to optimistic about the future.

A recording of The Future of Our Town Centres discussion is available to watch on-demand at the Planning magazine website.


Further reading: more on town centres from The Knowledge Exchange blog

‘Agent of Change’ protects music venues from noise complaints, but won’t stop them from closing

This guest blog was written by Marion Roberts, Professor of Urban Design, University of Westminster.

A Conservative minister for housing, a grey-haired Labour MP, ageing icons of rock and creative young people have formed an unlikely alliance in support of the Agent of Change (Planning) Bill. The proposed law, which will be discussed for the second time in the House of Commons on March 16, makes developers responsible for dealing with noise issues when they build new homes near music venues.

This all came about because people were worried about the high number of live music venues that were closing across the UK. The Greater London Authority (GLA) asked for a report on London’s grass roots music venues, only to find that 35% of them had been “lost” since 2007. Cities across the nation – from Glasgow to Manchester – have similar stories to tell, even though the government has recognised how important the music industry is for the economy.

So how did this happen? Many different governments since around the year 2000 have tried to get more flats and houses built in cities, because there aren’t enough for everyone who wants to live there. Many homes have been built on “brownfield” sites – where there used to be factories or warehouses, which are now used less or not at all. These types of places also offered spaces where creative entrepreneurs could set up new clubs, or take over existing venues and attract new customers with the offer of live music.

Buyer beware

But as people move into the new flats built on these sites (which they often pay a lot of money for) some inevitably complain about the noise coming from the venues. Venue owners in Shoreditch (one of London’s hip neighbourhoods) actually put up signs warning would-be buyers that there are live music venues in the area.

Up until now, these complaints caused big problems for music venue owners, because planning principles were not on their side. The onus was on them to ensure their neighbours weren’t disturbed by music and loud noises. But putting in proper soundproofing or keeping customers quiet can be difficult and expensive.

This doesn’t just affect the kind of places run on a shoe string on the outskirts of town. Even London’s mighty Ministry of Sound – which has been a mecca for House music lovers since 1991 – was caught up in a lengthy planning application for a tower block of flats nearby – a case which eventually ended in the flats having to be soundproofed.

A matter of principle

The way the planning system works, is that local authorities in England and Wales produce their own development plans, which must align with national policy as set out in a 2012 document called the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This document made a small move to protect venues, by saying that if they wanted to expand, then there should be no unreasonable restrictions. But it didn’t address the situation described above.

Some local authorities have already started to draw up their own policies, which put the burden of noise reduction measures firmly on the developer who is making the change – whether it’s for flats or other uses. This is the legal principle, known as the “Agent of Change”. The bill, now supported by government, will ensure that the principle is embedded in the NPPF – so all local authorities will have to follow it. It will also carry more weight in appeals against planning decisions.

Although the “Agent of Change” principle will help prevent live music venues from closing, it won’t be enough on its own. Sadly, it would not address other issues such as rising rents, hikes in rateable values and property owners preferring to redevelop their buildings into flats. For example, consultancy firm Nordicity estimated that a revaluation of business rates would cause a fifth of London’s grass roots venues to close. And London’s oldest LGBTQ venue, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, is still engaged in a battle to save it from redevelopment, by way of a community buy out.

Yet past examples show that people can save their local pubs from closure, whether through local campaigning or by taking ownership of the buildings. And to see creativity and culture, especially for young people, supported through the dusty corridors of parliament, is truly heart warming.


Marion Roberts is Professor of Urban Design, University of Westminster.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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Building Britain’s future: how the Infrastructure Act will affect local authorities

By Steven McGinty

After several months of debate, the Infrastructure Act was given royal assent on the 12th February 2015, introducing a number of important changes. The Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech with the intention to:

“bolster investment in infrastructure and reform planning law to improve economic competitiveness”.

On the day of its assent, Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, expanded on this, explaining that:

“This act will hugely boost Britain’s competitiveness in transport, energy provision, housing development and nationally significant infrastructure projects. Cost efficient infrastructure development is all part of the government’s long term economic plan, boosting competitiveness, jobs and growth.”

The Act has resulted in a number of policy changes.  The majority of these are relatively mundane and are unlikely to engender much public scrutiny; however, there are a few high profile and controversial changes. Below I’ve outlined some of the most important changes for local authorities, as well as communities.

Land Registry

The Act has introduced changes to Local Land Charges, transferring responsibility from individual local councils in England and Wales to the Land Registry, which will be providing a broader range of services. This was recommended in the ‘Land Registry, Wider Powers and Local Land Charges’ report, which suggested a need to standardise costs and provide a more predictable service.

This has been criticised by the Local Government Association (LGA), who have suggested that local councils are best placed to meet the needs of businesses and local residents.  They have also raised concerns about the costs involved in making technical changes to local council systems, as well as the disruption it would cause to the property market. It’s estimated that local councils have about 20 million entries on their registers of Local Land Charges, across 350 local councils.

Community Rights and energy exploration (fracking and renewable energy)

Individuals within or connected to a community have been given the rights to buy a stake in renewable electricity schemes.  This appears to have been well received, as local residents are now able to receive some of the financial benefits of local electricity production.

However, changes to hydraulic fracking have been a lot more controversial.  The Act allows energy companies the right to exploit petroleum or deep geothermal energy, without notifying the owners of the land, as long as it’s at least 300 meters below surface level. They also have the right to put any substance underground, to change the condition of the land, and to leave material behind.

Not surprisingly, campaigners, such as Simon Clydesdale from Greenpeace UK, have criticised these changes, suggesting that the new legislation is encouraging fracking and is so loosely worded that it could possibly permit the burial of nuclear waste.

Discharge of Planning Conditions

The Act makes it clear that certain types of planning conditions can be discharged if on application to the local authority, the developer has not had a decision made within the prescribed period. It also allows the Secretary of State to make a development order relating to the discharge of a planning condition in an area. This would mean that local authorities would not be able to stop these developments for lack of written approval.

Mayoral Development Orders

These orders provide greater powers to the Mayor of London to grant planning permission for development on specified sites within Greater London. It’s been seen as a useful reform to make it easier for planning permission to be granted on complex sites that cross local authority boundaries. This has been viewed as important for tackling London’s housing shortage.

Although not all of the changes are as high profile as fracking, it’s important that local authorities take time to examine the Infrastructure Act, and to make sure that they are ready to respond to the new legislative environment.


Although many of the changes in the Infrastructure Act will not come into force until a later date, local authorities need to be aware of the possible impact on planning processes and procedures.

Over two thirds of UK local authorities use Idox solutions to effectively manage the property and development lifecycle.

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on planning issues. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading