Local authorities need to be given more powers to have the final say to grant planning permission, prevent land banking and encourage landlords to fill empty shops, The Grimsey Review 2 has concluded following extensive research into the state of Britain’s high streets.
A team led by the former chief executive of Wickes, Iceland and Focus DIY, Bill Grimsey, argues that greater devolution and stronger local leadership is needed to give high streets a renewed sense of purpose and identity.
Among the 25 recommendations in the review (see below) are also calls to replace business rates, create a Town Centre Commission to develop a 20-year strategy for local high streets, and accelerate ongoing digital transformation in smaller towns.
The review has also looked at the costs, financing and operating models of towns. It reveals many examples of best practice showing where there is political will and good local leadership, smart regeneration that embraces technology and recognises the challenges posed by an ageing demographic is possible. The authors have also proactively contacted key stakeholders of towns and cities to gather evidence and opinion, as well as understand what town/community plans already exist.
It has already been welcomed by the former boss of John Lewis and current Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, who has praised the “combination of business experience, rigorous research and creative thinking” contained in the Review.
Commenting ahead of the launch of the review, Bill Grimsey said there had been some progress since his original review – but not nearly enough.
“In our first review in 2013 we argued that there is no point clinging to a sentimental vision of the past and that we need to start planning for a bold new world. This is still very much the case and we need to look to the future,” he said. “What we have seen during our research this time is that some very good initiatives have been put in place up and down the country over the last five years. These need to be celebrated, but progress is too slow and the retail landscape is rapidly changing.
“The first six months of 2018 have seen the highest rate of retail closures, administrations and CVAs for more than a decade and there is no sign of a slowdown. Our cities, towns and communities are facing their greatest challenge in history which is how to remain relevant, and economically and socially viable in the 21st century. Towns must stop trying to compete with out-of-town shopping parks that are convenient and with free parking. They must create their own unique reason for communities to gather there – being interesting and engaging and altogether, a compelling and great experience.
“There are, however, many barriers to progress including business rates, complex layers of government and the current fiscal environment,” he continued. “There is a lack of an independent evidence-based organisation in England and Wales to help towns recognise, react to and realise the opportunity that the current changes bring. As a nation we must give every high street and town centre the best possible chance to flourish.”
Create a more supportive environment
1. Establish an empowered organisation or Town Centre Commission under strong established leadership through the local authority (LA) for each town centre with a defined remit to build a 20-year vision/strategy for their unique place. Ensure that this vision is underpinned by a comprehensive business/place plan.
2. Create a national independent organisation, similar to the Scottish Towns Partnership, to capture and share best practice from towns online for Town Centre Commissions to access. This could be hosted by the Local Government Association (LGA) but would need central government endorsement. Work such as this review, the recent LGA Revitalising Town Centres handbook, academic research, various investment models and helpful case studies could all be accessed, as well as information and advice on how to build an evidence base and how to write a town plan supported by a network of experts that the organisation co-ordinates.
3. Accept that there is already too much retail space in the UK and that bricks and mortar retailing can no longer be the anchor for thriving high streets and town centres. Town centres need to be repopulated and re-fashioned as community hubs that include housing, health and leisure, entertainment, education, arts, business/office space and some shops.
4. Embed libraries and public spaces at the heart of each community as digital and health hubs that embrace smart technology.
5. Establish common key performance indicators to measure the economic and public health of each town. Link the reporting through a data dashboard to provide independent, objective and current data on performance. Data gathered by the town needs to be delivered in Open Format (Open Data) so it can be shared.
6. Set up a National Urban Data Knowledge Portal to support the implementation of data platforms for high streets and town centres. A shared dashboard (cloud-based) with Local Data Portal-as-a-Service should be piloted.
7. Local authorities should establish ‘events teams’ to manage a comprehensive programme of activities that complement the Town Centre Commission Plan by driving footfall to local high streets.
Government and planning
8. Accept that there is no confidence in business rates, it is accelerating shop closures in many towns and is an out dated and unfair tax that needs a major overhaul. An immediate independent review should look to replace it with either a land/area/property value or sales tax.
9. Give local authorities powers to introduce penalties and incentives for landlords of commercial properties that are left empty for more than 6-12 months. Review the existing property use class system to increase flexibility and look to establish a change of use to make the asset productive.
10. Introduce clear high street assets ownership accountability by establishing a landlord register for each town to be able to trace the owner of every single property and engage them in the health and wellbeing of the place.
11. Enable the change of use process through new legislation to be used to convert entire sub-high streets to residential or other uses within the agreed town plan and relocate successful independent businesses to the main commercial centre.
12. Connect planning applications and in particular new developments to the business plan for each town and ensure that developments fit within the criteria set by the Town Centre Commission Plan.
13. Give the local authority the ultimate power in granting planning permission in line with the Town Centre Commission Plan. Remove the appeal and authority of the national Planning Inspector to override local decisions.
14. Give local authorities powers to introduce incentives and penalties to prevent the process of “land banking” for future speculative developments.
15. Local authorities should appoint high quality design teams to create and enhance spaces for civic and social use. Design should celebrate the historic character and local identity with quality streets and public realm.
16. Create a flexible planning framework to unlock the potential of each area by encouraging SMEs and making it easy to pilot new business concepts at low risk. The Fountain Arcade in Stockton-on-Tees offers a great example where the local authority is providing conditions to incubate new businesses at low risk.
17. Review Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) provision and make it more straight forward for Local Authorities to enforce a CPO in order to benefit the Town Centre Commission Plan.
18. Review and amend planning use class system legislation to enable greater flexibility of building use and also to distinguish between the specific use of logistics warehousing used for direct retail sales and commercial distribution.
19. Create a nominal maximum charge (£1) for the first two hours of parking in town centres, while introducing 30 minutes free parking in high streets with no paid extension option.
20. Review and evaluate the future use and relevance of out of town shopping parks and prepare a plan to bring unwanted space back into use to benefit the community in line with the Town Centre Commission Plan. While applying a Town Centre First policy and calling for no further out of town development.
21. Local section 106 income or any planning gains should be used to support the delivery of the Town Centre Commission Plan.
22. Establish a review of the Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) process, which have relevance in big urban conurbations but needs more scrutiny in smaller towns. Consider replacing them with Community Improvement Districts (CIDs) embracing all the stakeholders, occupiers, owners and service providers in an area including the local authority.
Smarter use of technology
23. BT and Virgin Media, the major beneficiaries of SuperConnected Cities £150m funding between 2014 and 2016, need to offer a Town Digital Package to ensure ongoing digital transformation to the top 13 cities and all 1,048 UK high streets in smaller towns.
24. Install LED lights in street lamps to improve the quality of light on the street, while minimising costs. The lamps will also provide improved security as they can include CCTV cameras and integration with police systems for fast response.
25. Provide free public wi-fi and well-connected work places that support flexible working patterns and attract freelancers to high streets and town centres.