When it comes to town centres, failing to plan is planning to fail

At the end of July, the government announced plans to expand Permitted Development Rights in high streets and town centres, making it easier for empty shops to be turned into new homes.

Made public in a much grander speech citing Medici, Gaudí, Nash and other ‘populists’ playbook’ urbanism references, the announcement was almost a footnote. Wrapped in some sensible sounding ideas to densify urban places, rather than unleashing a vibrant town centre renaissance, this move risks undermining the very high street activity that it claims to support.

New housing undoubtedly has a role to play in the future evolution of high streets, but inviting it to take over anywhere and everywhere without careful consideration is a recipe for lifeless centres and poor-quality homes.

The thinking goes that, since decline in demand for retail is creating empty properties, the obvious way to fill that space is to turn it seamlessly into gleaming new homes. Our high streets will be filled with happy residents, milling about spending their time and money. Even better if planners don’t have to get involved.

The principle of increasing residences in town centres is great. City-centre living can create vibrant and dynamic places with reduced reliance on cars, more chances for social interaction and greater economic opportunity for residents and businesses. The issue is that using Permitted Development Rights (PDR) as an enabling mechanism for new homes creates more problems than it solves.

Studies have shown that homes delivered through PDR are more likely to be low-quality, more likely to be below national space standards and more likely to have no external amenity space than those delivered with full planning consent.

Without the need to go through a formal planning process, there is no requirement for affordable housing in these developments, nor any Section 106 or Community Infrastructure Levy to be paid. It only takes a moment to think about how poorly suited many high street properties are to be turned into homes: deep units with large windows at the front but generally dark towards the rear, and with ‘hidden’ access into inhospitable service yards. In design terms, housing delivered in ground-floor retail units is likely to be even worse than the converted office blocks that many of the recent (damning) PDR studies have been based on.

Our experience at We Made That, working in high streets up and down the country, tells us that the location of vacant shops is often very central, rather than the ‘bits around the edges’ where our centres meet residential areas. Whether in London, Kent or Cornwall, we have seen plenty of examples where the most central area of a high street is the one that is struggling most – typically larger units, perhaps formerly a larger national chains or department stores – are the empty shops in question.

It would extinguish the last embers of life that these bits of our centres hold if such prominent areas become low-quality accommodation – and, under these new proposals, the risk is that there will be no controls in place to prevent that.

High streets and town centres are resilient but are weathering several storms at the moment: still reeling from the pandemic, grappling with advances in online retail and coming to terms with new patterns of use and demand. However, at their best they are places that bring us together – where we can connect, enjoy ourselves, get the things we need. New cultural, community and civic uses are springing up all over the place. Careful plans and strategies are being prepared to improve public realm and introduce greenery.

Stakeholders are working together to tackle sites with potential for new mixed-use developments. When design and planning are addressed effectively, these sites can deliver much-needed new homes to a high standard, where active, sustainable travel is an easy choice and proximity to all the amenities of an urban centre supports a high quality of life for residents.

Government efforts to support town centre regeneration through programmes like the Levelling Up Fund will be undermined by this proposal for expanded Permitted Development. The new homes we create in our centres must be the high-quality places that our communities deserve, not bargain basement – and for that we don’t need a free-for-all, we need a plan.

Holly Lewis is co-founding partner of We Made That. A version of this article was first published in The Municipal Journal