The government is planning on relaxing planning rules in a bid to try and promote businesses to the high street. In a move proposed by Mary Portas, the government is planning to reduce red tape meaning owners and developers will no longer need permission to change the use of certain buildings from one type of business to another for up to two years.
It’s hoped the relaxation will help businesses move into vacant high street premises and reinvigorate town centres – empty premises mean fewer people and fewer people means less business leading to more empty units, it’s a vicious circle and one the government are keen to reverse.
However the Local Government Association (LGA) has warned that relaxing controls on the use of buildings will lead to less choice for residents and shoppers. Current planning rules mean that owners and developers must make an application to local authorities to change the use of a building, say from a grocers to a betting shop, and this application has to go through a process whereby local residents can have a say on the proposed change. New proposed legislation would cut out this process and this, the LGA say, could lead to problems, namely high streets filling up with businesses that local residents haven’t been consulted about.
It’s a fact that in a recession certain businesses are more in demand – betting shops, pawn brokers, pubs, payday lenders, used car sales, discount stores, etc. – all figure more highly in peoples day to day workings as they try to make ends meet, find money wherever they can and look for the odd bit of cheap entertainment.
The LGAs fear is that if building and business owners are free to change the allowed use of buildings at will then it is these businesses that will move into empty premises, and a high street made up predominantly of betting shops, pawn brokers, pubs, payday lenders and pound shops does not make for a very healthy or attractive high street.
The problem with that argument is that if that is what a community will support, if that is what is in demand then that is an accurate reflection of that community. We’d all love to live on a street where every business was a Bentley dealership, a health spa or a Michelin stared restaurant however that’s not the state of the country today. The fact is that money is tight and many people need access to quick short term loans, inexpensive entertainment and cheap staple supplies. As the economy picks up so that will change and the shape of local high streets will change along with it, but to try to prevent high streets reflecting the community around them seems futile.
The LGA is calling on the Government to allow local areas to decide for themselves if it would be beneficial to relax planning rules. The LGA’s environment and housing board chairman, councillor Mike Jones, said: “People tell us that they’re fed up of having their local high streets filled with betting shops and payday loan companies.
“We have been clear that if we’re to get people back out shopping in their local town centres, we need to give them more say on what type of businesses and shops open there. Instead, from today they will have less. Planning controls are not there to make life difficult for new businesses, but as a form of democratic quality control which ensures new shops and businesses will be good for the area and the people who live there.”
However, seemingly, it looks like this might already be the case. Talking on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 Local government minister Don Foster said “local authorities who don’t like it have the power under what is called an Article 4 directive to stop it happening.” So even if the plans do go through at government level, local authorities will still have the right, locally, to make the final decision about whether a building’s use can be changed.
At the end of the day local councils should be looking to get redundant buildings in our town centres back into productive use and help increase footfall on local high streets. The alternative is boarded up, empty buildings which create a cycle of decline.