At the start of December, the BBC published a postcode checker, which illustrated the changing face of British high streets between March 2020 and March 2022.
It is clear from the results of this survey that there have been considerable changes since the Coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in a difference in how and why we use our high street.
This survey demonstrates a loss of retail units and services, such as banks which are now provided online, while there has been growth in other sectors, such as beauty, tattoo studios, and fast-food takeaways. There has been a shift from the traditional Class 1 and Class 2 uses and more demand for Class 3, Class 11 and Sui generis uses.
While it is positive to see new uses within our towns and cities, and the occupation of units is always preferable to long-term vacancies, there is a need to ensure we are supporting dynamic change and encouraging a range of uses which will support the health of our high streets and allow towns to prosper.
Planning policy is not always as fast to react with some local authorities still seeking to protect the high street for Class 1 uses, which can often delay the delivery of development in the town centres. However, the newly published draft NPF 4 recognises the need to create centres that are vibrant, healthy, creative, enterprising, accessible and resilient places for people to live, learn, work, enjoy and visit.
Whilst generally supportive of town centres and the need to apply a town centre first approach, the draft NPF 4 in Scotland does include a policy which could restrict non-retail uses where they undermine the character of the centre. This specifically recognises hot food takeaways, betting offices, and high-interest money lending premises as uses which could undermine the health and wellbeing of communities. But this may not always be the best approach, and it is important that each application is considered on its own merits, considering the unique aspects of each town or high street.
Support for town centres will always be encouraged. However, British high streets are rapidly changing, and there is a need to ensure that the policy approach incorporates the flexibility to allow a range of uses which can meet the changing public needs. It could be considered that policy has been too slow to respond to the wider retail and leisure sector. We need to support our town centres through a framework of flexible policies which put vibrancy and vitality at the forefront. There is a need to ensure that any new policies do not result in further decline of our town centres and instead look to add value to our places and spaces. NPF4 represents a positive move forward, recognising the need to create vibrant, prosperous centres and highlighting the importance of creating resilient places.
Please take a look at the BBC high street postcode checker, and see how your town has changed over the last few years.