Simon Adams, managing director of Peill & Company, the PAI member for Cumbria, the Lake District and Lancashire looks at proposals to try and assist retail voids in town centres.
The Government is reported to be looking at a relaxation of procedures involved in the change of use of High Street properties in an attempt to boost occupancy rates of the ailing sector. It is reported that the Community Secretary, James Brokenshire, is looking to amend the strict use classes applied to properties in High Street locations in an attempt to make them easier to be occupied by different uses.
The current situation dates back to the Use Classes Order and categorises most High Street properties within ‘Class A’ with Class A1 being retail properties, A2 Financial and Professional Services (such as estate agents), A3 as Restaurants, A4 as Public Houses and A5 as hot food take-aways. As such, a change of use application to the local planning authority is generally required to transfer from a lower use class number to a higher use class (for example, if a shop wanted to be occupied by a restaurant, a change of use application would need to be made). This can take a considerable length of time, and cost, and it is regarded as being a disincentive to occupiers taking units along many High Streets. Indeed, a lot of local plans specifically protect prime retail (Class A1) uses in certain stretches of town centres.
However, it is thought that there is a new ‘High Street’ use class classification proposed that would incorporate those under Class A1, A2 and the Café element of Class A3 so that no planning application for change of use would be needed for any changes within those particular uses. Various exceptions are proposed to try and prevent ‘unacceptable’ uses such as betting shops and amusement arcades, tattoo parlours and gaming uses where planning applications would still be required. The proposals are to seek to address the rising number of vacant properties on the high street which rose by more than 7,500 units during the course of 2018 – the Local Data Company recorded a total of 50,828 units closing with new openings slowing to a total of 43,278.
In general, whilst retail vacancies have increased slightly within our region, they are not currently as badly affected as other areas of the country and, in particular, tourist centres are holding up surprisingly well in terms of high street retail. We are, however, detecting a longer period of time in order to secure a letting, particularly in some locations, and these proposals ought to go some way to addressing that. Whilst retail sales have seen a decline in latest reported statistics, bricks and mortar retail still accounts for over 80% of all retail sales.
The proposals, if implemented, are generally welcomed by both landlords (who ought to be able to let units to a wider range of occupiers more quickly) and end users, for whom the currently lengthy and expensive process for change of use could be shortened significantly. We will watch with interest any proposals being issued by the Communities Secretary.