A recent publication from thinktank Policy Exchange has suggested that town centre first planning policy has, in its words, “decreased competition between retailers and damaged the social fabric of communities” and that it is difficult for companies to build out of town. This is nonsense.
The government has maintained its commitment to town centre first, and is consulting on new rules which aim to make it easier to bring empty buildings in town centres back to life, either as residential properties, schools or other businesses. However, even with town centre first planning policy and the frequent commitments from ministers about its virtues, more than 80% of the supermarket developments in the pipeline are set for out-of-town locations. Building out of town with a mass of free parking can be a death knell for many businesses that have been trading for decades.
Maintaining town centre first planning policy is essential to the future of our high streets. Without it, supermarkets and other retailers would be able to build out of town at will. We need councils to be focused on providing confidence to high street investors and making building in our centres easier and more affordable, not allowing speculative short-term out-of-town planning proposals to scupper town and neighbourhood centre regeneration schemes.
We must not dismiss our high streets and town centres as ‘nostalgic’. There is still an opportunity for these locations to be bustling, vibrant destinations for consumers, but we need targeted policies from government to ensure that businesses are given the right conditions to be able to trade successfully.
This goes beyond town centre first policy to include root and branch reform of the business rates system to provide meaningful relief for small businesses and an annual cap in line with inflation targets. Without this, high streets face a continuing fight against soulless out-of-town sheds.