The Government published the Planning for the Future White Paper in August, hailing it as a once in a generation opportunity to fix a planning system that has long been regarded as not fit for purpose.
Although the White Paper recognises that the planning system faces a number of challenges including rebalancing the economy, a simple word search discloses that there is no reference in it to “retail”.
Brief reference is made to helping businesses to expand with readier access to the commercial space they need in the places they want and having flexibility to change use of buildings, but the key focus of the White Paper is on the ability of the planning system to deliver housing.
So what is the implication of the proposals in the White Paper for retail?
One of the paper’s key proposals is to revise the Local Plan-making process. Local Plans set out land use policy documents within a local authority’s administrative area. These policies inform decision making when local authorities consider planning applications.
The Local Plan-making process has long been criticised as it is often a lengthy one. Only about half of local authorities have adopted Local Plans and many have taken up to 15 years to work through that adoption process. This means that in many local authorities there is a policy vacuum.
The White Paper has proposed that Local Plans should be briefer documents and literally more plan-based, disposing of lengthy contextual aspects which make them cumbersome documents and changing the emphasis to a more zonal style of planning.
It also proposes that the Local Plan-making process should be subject to a statutory time frame of 30 months in which they must be adopted. The intention is that this will ensure that all local authorities have a Local Plan and there will cease to be a policy vacuum.
Establishing an up-to-date policy base gives long-term certainty to developers and sets the scene for master planning of communities, not just piecemeal development proposals. However, it will be critical that a reform of Local Plan-making emphasises the need for a holistic approach to sustainable community making, not just a single-minded focus on the delivery of housing.
This is important to the retail sector, not just in terms of its own decision-making relating to new retail development, but also because up-to-date land use policies give certainty to housing and commercial property developers and set the scene for the delivery of development that is properly integrated with existing high street and city centre resources. Such an approach to planning policy would directly benefit established retail uses and encourage new retail uses.
If the coronavirus pandemic leads to long-term major changes to living and working habits such as a desire for rural living, a shift in focus towards home workers making more use of high streets and a rebalancing of city centres with more residential development, together with a transport system that addresses local mobility where commuting habits change, then these are all matters that the current planning system is not agile enough to respond to.
Reform of that system is welcome but must be well thought through and go beyond housing delivery. The CBI has responded to the White Paper on behalf of all business sectors.
By Christian Silk, head of Strategic Infrastructure at Foot Anstey. If you would like to find more information about government planning for the Future White Paper, more information can be found here.