Pre-Covid, town centres were undergoing huge change. Bricks and mortar retail, food and leisure have all been impacted by growing consumer shifts to online channels and now with online penetration at 30% and likely to stay high, that change is only getting faster. We had long advocated that the Use Classes Order seemed anachronistic in this new world, but the level of change proposed and speed of implementation of the new proposals has taken many by surprise.

So what do we think? Changes to the planning system aren’t the whole solution, of course, but the recent government announcement on use class order changes from 1 September are a recognition of what is already happening on the ground, with new uses increasingly taking the place of retail in town centres. 

Successful town centres are already an interconnected mix of uses – shops, offices and other workspaces, leisure, health, community, cultural – co-existing and evolving together. The more diverse that mix the more attractive each one becomes.  These town centres need to serve their communities and visitors at all times of the day and into the evening though.

Bringing together these commercial uses into one new category (E) and allowing swift changes between them while protecting community and cultural assets (the new Class F) should immediately make it easier to manage these assets far more nimbly.  

At Montagu Evans we believe bringing offices and workspace into this new use class will be particularly important to help rebalance the structural reduction in retail floorspace now taking place.

More generally, landlords will be able to rework their tenant mix with more flexibility, reacting quickly to market and seasonal demand and filling voids with a wider range of SMEs and independents as well as national multiples which was already a trend as shoppers reacted against uniform shopping centres.

As towns respond more effectively to what their residents’ and visitors’ need, the potential for local distinctiveness should increase too, with more momentum to enhance and promote character areas for longer term commercial benefit.  This places more emphasis on active and most importantly innovative management.

While these new changes should offer some quick fixes, the more that decisions are made with a town’s long-term vision and strategy in mind the more successful they will be. On the flip side, these changes may also introduce anomalies with unintended and more negative impacts, something that will become clearer over the coming weeks and months and should be monitored.

Longer term, this new system is no substitute for the larger scale regeneration proposals that many towns and cities still desperately need, and which will continue through planning as before. The ability to start the masterplanning process knowing that most new spaces, especially at ground level, will have this inbuilt flexibility should create a new generation of town centre proposals that are better future-proofed than the ones we are all currently trying to support and only add to investor confidence.