Recent changes to permitted development rights and the introduction of Class E with the intention to simplify the planning process and allow landlords on highstreets to respond quickly, has in general been welcomed, even though we will see more change starting to happen after August 2021. But there have been certain concerns and unintended consequences of these policies. So, what does genuine flexibility mean when it comes to use classes, space, funding and leasing models?
Empty stores are a key priority at the moment for local authorities and landlords. Pop-ups and meanwhile uses have potential to revive the high streets. In that sense, flexibility in terms of mixing leasing models and types of tenures can allow for greater experimentation.
On the other hand, there is a huge amount of activity at the moment, with some flagship stores announcing their return to the high streets. But the role of the store is changing. When retailers talk about flexibility, they mean flexible use of spaces but also click and collect, returns, and those emerging spaces that will need to support a higher integration between online and traditional shopping environments.
Retail parks and outer town centres seem to be quicker at recovering, so there is a special concern about large stores with heritage value as they are not seen as flexible enough. However, they have been anchors of local highstreets for years and they provide character to an area.
Another essential part of finding flexible models to help local high streets thrive again is evidently involvement of local communities. Local authorities need to engage more with traditional landlords and the people who actually use their local high streets. But also, there is space for academia, emerging creative tenants and young people who want to have a say on their town centres.
It all comes down to partnership. A positive outcome of the pandemic has been that local authorities now share more information, experience and expertise with each other, with the GLA and with central government – there are lessons to be learned from cities across the UK and internationally too. Developers should find more bespoke models to the places and communities they are based in. And for both, communication is key and must be tailored to the communities they serve.
A big problem is still the fragmented nature of ownership on high streets around the UK. Private and public partnerships are key and local authorities are not the only ones who can bring everyone together. The Business Improvement District (BID) is a model that is being tested more and more across London, with various levels of success. But there might be other models to be explored still that can instigate genuine community involvement, get the right funding and tenure mix for the right location – and ultimately improve high streets.