The Planning Scotland Act 2019 introduced the concept of Masterplan Consent Areas ('MCA'), which are a key topic of discussion within the current consultation by the Scottish Government on changes proposed to permitted development rights ('PDR'). The Scottish Government are inviting views on whether MCA could be used as a tool to provide flexibility regarding the use of buildings in town centres.
The Scottish Government suggest that MCA could offer a similar level of flexibility as the new 'Town Centres Use Class' proposed by potentially amending or introducing PDR; whilst ensuring that MCA is limited to the particular area or site covered by the scheme and allowing these to be tailored to the specific needs and pressures MCA face.
This article is the fourth in a series of five considering proposed changes by the Scottish Government to permitted development rights and the Use Classes Order to support the future of our town and city centres.
Masterplan Consent Areas and their effect on Scotland's town centres
MCA is expected to be areas of land identified by Local Authorities for particular types of development or uses. The details of what will be permitted within these areas and associated restrictions are expected to be included within a defined MCA scheme. The MCA schemes will essentially grant authorisation for the types of development set out in the scheme, within the designated geographical area to which the scheme relates, without the need to apply for planning permission. Through the PDR consultation, the Scottish Government ask:
Do you agree that MCA could be a useful tool to provide more extensive planning freedoms and flexibilities in Scotland's town centres?
In response to this, we would acknowledge the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, which have shifted the focus for many across the world, creating a greater awareness of the importance of investing in our local communities and high streets. With working from home and hybrid working now becoming the norm, we are seeing a greater reliance on smaller, decentralised local town centres and a move away from the model of large city centres primarily supported by office workers.
We are also seeing an increased awareness of the importance of creating 20-minute neighbourhoods in Scotland, a key theme in the Draft National Planning Framework 4. Further investment in our town centres will play a key role in delivering this ambition.
Evidence shows that retail spending has been gradually decreasing, with a greater emphasis on online shopping, which has become more prevalent during the lockdown. Town centres urgently need help, but how can planning help reinvigorate them?
In England, we have seen bold changes to the Use Classes Order to offer more flexibility and encourage a wider range of uses in town centres, and the Scottish Government are now consulting on similar changes. We know that the more diverse uses there are in town centres, the more attractive the centres are. Successful town centres demonstrate a mix of interconnected uses from retail and office to leisure, health, and community uses. Could expanding the range of acceptable uses in a town centre, and a shift from the current principle of retail first, be the key to reducing vacancy rates and enhancing the vibrancy of our town centres? And are MCA the tool we need for real change in our town centres?
The existing policy approach by some Local Authorities in Scotland to safeguard retail uses can be damaging to the future of our local centres. It is often the case that Local Development Plan policies will seek to retain Class 1 uses unless it can be demonstrated that units have been vacant and marketed for prescribed periods. This approach does not promote or, in any way, support a diverse range of uses that reflect the needs of each local centre and, as such, can reduce the vibrancy and individuality of our towns and cities. We are beginning to see a relaxation of policy in light of the changing nature of the retail market, with some cities increasing the range of permitted uses on their primary retail streets to encourage more leisure and Class 3 uses.
Change is needed, but perhaps a more measured approach may be more appropriate in Scotland, one that encourages flexibility and promotes growth, which I think is where MCA could be used.
Unlike the proposed merged 'Town Centre Use Class', an MCA could allow for certain controls and restrictions to be implemented by Local Authorities whilst allowing for greater flexibility. An MCA could also be tailored and made to be specific to the town or city that it relates to. The Scottish Government recognised in the consultation on the proposed merged 'Town Centre Use Class' that whilst a merged town centre use class is intended to be used in town centres, it would ultimately be applicable across the country as national legislation, which could have unintended adverse impacts on our communities. As an alternative, the MCA approach would allow Local Authorities to define town centres and the range of uses suitable in those areas. Ultimately MCA would allow for greater flexibility, which could lead to more opportunities for landlords, occupiers, investors and developers to better respond to market interest for sites whilst still allowing for a level of control through the planning process.
The changing shift of attitudes and the use of town centres should not be ignored. Where previously a retail-focused high street has been the norm, this is no longer the case. It is my view that local high streets should be a community hub with a range of vibrant uses, including healthcare facilities, cafes, gyms and many more, all successfully co-existing with an existing retail offer, which is not always possible in the current planning policy context.
The twenty-minute neighbourhood model highlights the importance of having local services near local people. It is recognised that expanding the Use Classes Order could help achieve this goal, but does this give enough confidence that the correct development will happen in the right place, and will this inhibit a place-based approach to development? Perhaps not. Instead, I think MCA for town centres could provide a balanced middle ground that will ensure planning continues to be a tool for growth whilst protecting and enhancing our existing assets.
The Scottish Government are accepting comments on the proposed PDR for moveable furniture until 3 August 2022. If you are interested in finding out more, or if you would like to understand better how the proposed permitted development right may relate to your commercial property interests, please get in touch with any member of the Montagu Evans Planning team and/or visit our dedicated town centres sector page here.