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Quest for housing volume must not cloud broader vision

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LGC’s essential daily briefing

More gaps look likely to appear in the high street this month after a tumultuous time for retail last week, as Monsoon entered a compulsory voluntary arrangement and Philip Green’s struggling Arcadia Group announced plans to close 23 stores, with 25 more added to the list today.

In the same week, LGC’s Future Places event took place and provided an opportunity for directors of place, economic regeneration strategists and planners to discuss what steps they are taking to define a new sense of purpose for their town centres.

It has just been announced that permitted development rights can now be used instead of full planning permission to convert shops to office space, a move which will no doubt be welcomed by developers and landlords keen to speed up the planning process and maximise profits. Temporary development rights for converting shops, offices and betting shops to community uses such as a library or public hall have also been made permanent, and this provides more flexibility to councils to widen their town centre offering away from retail.

These moves are an attempt to address the blight of empty shopfronts, which have the impact of making the community lose faith in the future of their town centre. But there should be concern that shifting the power away from planners could make the important task of place-making more difficult for councils.

Councils need to be able to curate their towns, so that each one can provide a balanced mix of the right kind of property needed to draw people in.

The previous extension of permitted development rights to allow offices and warehouses to be converted into housing is another example of the contradictions brought about by central government in the relentless push to reach its 300,000 homes a year target. This means considerations of place-shaping and having a careful, managed approach to town planning could be in danger of being pushed aside in order to turbo-charge development. The same contradiction is evident in the government’s ‘building better, building beautiful commission’ which aims to ensure buildings are pleasing to the eye and mindful of local differences. These are lofty aims, but ones which could be at risk of being bypassed in the quest for more housing, more quickly, which appears to be the government’s overarching priority.

While the need to house the homeless and cool the overheated housing market further cannot be disputed, councils should be given more powers to shape their urban centres - not less. Unrestrained market forces let loose in urban centres are unlikely to consolidate and develop a sense of identity.

There is no one-size-fits all solution to the decline of the town centre and a number if recent articles on how they can be revived with more artisanal industries and independent boutiques could be said to have limited merit.

As Mark Robinson, president of the property trade association Revo, said: “We have created 300 clone towns anchored by department stores, and when they go, the purpose of a town centre changes. Let’s not mourn the demise of these clone town offerings, but let’s not create 300 more artisan clone towns - all with bakeries and a food hall.”

Andrew Carter, chief executive of Centre for Cities, advocates a planning system which responds to “those goods underprovided in the market”, which he said included parks in urban areas, social housing, open spaces and libraries “and the variety of activities and communities engaging with that”. 

“If you look at the literature about what drives wellbeing at an individual and community level, it is many of those things,” he added.

Although it may be hard to make the short-term economic case for creating parks in our urban wastelands, the legacy would be better health, cohesion through open, accesible spaces and an improved environment - all key contributing factors to sustainable growth.

In our increasingly divided and polarised society, the need for public spaces which encourage the community to enjoy common ground and shared experiences has surely never been greater.  

Jessica Hill, senior reporter

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