The closing of the high street during the current pandemic has had enormously serious consequences for all the businesses operating there. As we start to look forward to the further easing of the lockdown during June, we have to wonder what the lasting effects will be, post-COVID-19. One view is that the pandemic has merely acted as a catalyst to high street trends which were already in progress. The recent subsidies in rent and rates may have papered over the cracks, but perhaps now there will be more of a blank canvas, giving the opportunity for a major reshaping.
Casting our minds back further, we know that after the terrible impact of World War II there was great need for physical rebuilding on a large scale and an investment opportunity. The recovery from the pandemic is clearly going to be a very different experience: business confidence, wellness and safety of employees and customers is today at the forefront of everyone’s minds, at least in the short term.
As we entered lockdown, the Prime Minister seemed to want to capture a Churchillian spirit as he tried to rally the country to the common cause. Truth be told, there is so much more still to do in dealing with this modern-day fight against the pandemic. It seems to me that the focus needs to extend from the current state of the crisis, increasingly to look beyond it, showing that the whole of government is ready for – and working towards – the recovery.
In terms of the high street we might expect that focus to include legislation that will allow it to emerge as an updated hub for retail but also a place which offers recreation, wellbeing facilities and, perhaps, flexible office space. The high street could again become that meeting place and hub that used to flourish in every town and city in the country but with a different mix; a destination for work and leisure.
Similarly, offices may well have to adapt. Many businesses have seen that their workforce can work effectively from home and many employers will want to embrace that change of working culture. Inevitably that would reduce the long-term demand for office space. In the shorter term however, space is still needed to accommodate those attending the office safely, in “COVID secure” conditions. This could see a return to the cellular office.
Much of our thinking as to what the high street and office sector is going to look like post-pandemic is still evolving. The situation remains fluid. However, experience teaches us that we need to look for flexibility as we think about the legal and regulatory framework which governs these parts of our economic life: flexibility in regulation will surely be an enabler of economic recovery.
At present, the current legislation governing changes of use permits changes within classes of use (and sometimes between classes without the need for new planning permission. This at least is a positive thing: permission takes months to obtain, is costly and will be a significant burden and drag on recovery if it is needed as we emerge from the pandemic.
The existing planning category for shops (known as class (A1)) is fairly broad and includes hairdressers, travel and ticket agencies, post offices, pet shops, sandwich bars, showrooms, dry cleaners, and internet cafes. Under what is known as the General Development Order, it is permitted to change from A1 to a number of other classes; a mixed use (shop and up to two flats); a restaurant or café; financial and professional e.g. banks and building societies (A2); dwelling houses (C3) or assembly and leisure e.g. cinemas and gyms (D2).
Remember, however, that local authorities do have the power to remove these permitted changes by what is known as an “article 4 direction” and, if that is done, a planning application must be submitted for change of use.
Although the legislation looks as though it is flexible, it has been so greatly amended over the years that it is not always easy to discern whether permission for a particular change is needed. The system is anachronistic and speaks to a time when local and central government control was much greater, because of the need for much closer co-ordination in the rebuilding that took place after the War.
It seems to me that what we really need, in order to regenerate our high streets now, is a much more adaptable and generally easier approach. Change of use ought to cease to be a stumbling block when it comes to buildings already established on the High Street. It would be simpler to do away with use classes altogether or to introduce an overarching “High Street” class (which would still have to include some categories that would need planning permission, such as night clubs and the like). The advantage of this approach would be that it would automatically give flexibility for high street buildings to be used, not only for retail and offices (as now), but also for a wider category which would include beauty salons, creches, restaurants and takeaways, health, leisure and residential spaces. Changes could be made between these various uses – all within such a “High Street” use class – without the need for planning permission.
Clearly, there would still need to be planning controls when it came to new buildings (but not as to the use within the class in which the new building fell). There would also need to be enhanced environmental controls to ensure that all the uses were compatible, so as to mitigate clashes between residential vis à vis restaurants and nightclubs, for example.
As the country begins to emerge from lockdown and we hope for a strong recovery, it seems clear that we need to breathe new life into some of the dustier corners of our planning laws. Perhaps the unique circumstances of 2020 will give us the impetus we need to see a fresh approach in this area as we look to the future and to the hoped-for re-emergence of the high street.
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