Posted: 05/03/2019

‘Stop swapping shops for housing,’ say MPs in High Streets 2030 report

High Streets
Photo credit: shauntaylorhome/

A cross-party committee of MPs has called for a halt to the extension of permitted development rights (PDRs), which allow empty town-centre shops and takeaways to be easily converted to housing or offices without planning permission.

Last year the Government proposed broadening PDRs to allow more commercial land and premises in town and city centres to be switched to residential.

It argued this would reflect changing market demand as more high street shops fall empty, and help with the national housing shortage. Fans of PDRs also says more housing means more footfall for remaining businesses.

But in a major new report on the future of town and city centres, the Housing, Communities & Local Government Committee says PDRs “risk undermining the strategic vision that a community has developed for its high street and town centre”.

The new report, High Streets & Town Centres in 2030, followed a six-month inquiry by the Committee, a period it said “appeared to be the most turbulent for the high street so far”.

It heard little support for extending PDRs, with many calling for the system to be changed or scrapped.

Loss of commercial premises can mean more of those living in the centre have to find work elsewhere. The Local Government Association told the Commons inquiry the PDR system “has the effect of depopulating town centres during the day, which impacts on retail and service sector businesses”

This view is echoed by Victoria Hills, chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute. Speaking at conference of the Association of Town & City Management in February, just before the report’s publication, she said removing existing shops permanently gave consumers fewer reasons to visit and could put the final nail in the coffin of struggling high streets.

High Streets
‘What we need is active high streets,’ says Victoria Hills of the Royal Town Planning Association

While a healthy residential population was important, Hills said research showed commercial activity created more footfall than housing. “What we need is active high streets with active frontages that draw people into living in a town centre.”

At Wally‘s Delicatessen in central Cardiff, owner Steve Salamon told FFD empty high street units should ideally be repopulated by shops or foodservice outlets. “A vibrant, mixed offering of retail and hospitality is what consumers visit high streets for. Office or residential occupancy simply doesn’t create the same footfall.

“Town councils can assist, for sure, by reducing business rates – although high rents are a much more of a problem.

“But far more important is their role in promoting high streets as varied, interesting, experiential offers. Just converting empty units to residential/offices is a cop-out.”

Sangita Tryner, owner of central Nottingham deli Delilah Fine Foods, stressed the need for a good mix of homes, offices, shops and eateries.

“If the proportions of space is balanced, I’d go for a used building vs an empty one every time,” she told FFD. “If it brings more people into the area it’s organically going to benefit any businesses in the area.

“We have residential flats above us in the city and they all come down for provisions and to eat in. However, you do need to keep the balance.”

The call to rein back PDRs is just one in a long list of proposals in the report, designed to address huge challenges faced by town centres, from the dramatic rise in online shopping to a failing business rates system and the slashing of council planning departments.

Recommendations include a new tax on digital sales and a reduction in business rates for high street retailers and moves at local level to create an “overarching vision” for town and city centres that balances the needs of residents, shoppers and traders.

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