The move back to city centres

Business Insights

The experience of Covid-19 has changed how many people think about where they want to live. A recent report by Right Move says people are moving back to cities to take advantage of lower rents, and that Cornwall has taken over as the most searched location due to priorities having changed during the pandemic.

The pandemic has changed working practices and for some the idea of permanently working from home, perhaps in a rural location, is appealing.

The lure of city living

However, for many the lure of city living is still strong, particularly now rents are coming down. Over a significant period of time shops and businesses have been deserting the high street. This has been a long-term decline but now, as we emerge from the pandemic, our towns and city centres are on the cusp of a renaissance. 

Government’s proposed plans

The last year has seen more changes to the planning rules in England than the previous 10 years combined, as the government looks for a way to reach its target of creating 300,000 new homes a year and simultaneously stimulate the economy as part of the COVID recovery efforts.

The government’s proposed plans to allow many town centre buildings to be converted to residential use under Permitted Development Rights (PDRs) will see more homes being created, effectively recycling existing buildings.

Generally people like living in towns that have a vibrant high street on the doorstep. So, the more residential property there is, the more independent retail there is, encouraging more residential, and so on. By encouraging more housing we could create a virtuous cycle that leads to the wider regeneration of the high street.

So, how do we achieve this transformation? We need to repurpose the existing buildings in our town centres to create the right balance of homes, workspaces, retail, leisure and services operating side-by-side supported by the planning changes. But the starting point has to be residential. Because by creating attractive homes in town centres, the demand for these other shops and services follows automatically.

The perfect moment for redevelopment

This utopian vision sounds amazing, but can it really be delivered? Interestingly, there’s arguably a perfect storm brewing at the moment because:

  1. More homes are desperately needed – 300,000 per year are required according to the government
  2. Town centres have long been in decline and need rejuvenating
  3. There is an increasing number of vacant buildings in town centres
  4. More retailers are going bust due to the pandemic and the recession
  5. The retailers that remain have less need for storage on site
  6. Businesses are looking to downsize their office space in town and city centres, and incorporate home-working into their business model full-time. This will free up existing centralised office space and also create a demand for smaller, more local office space
  7. Permitted Development Rights are being created to make it much easier to repurpose unused buildings
  8. The government is overhauling the entire planning system to make it quicker and easier to create new homes.

As a result, there is a large incentive to develop un- or under-utilised retail space in town centres into residential and boutique retail spaces. The risk is lowered by PDRs and the number of available properties is increasing.

Possible stumbling block

An issue could be the absence of a firm plan to deliver the right balance of housing, retail, and office space in each individual town. While PDRs makes repurposing buildings easier, we don’t want our town centres to be turned into housing estates, and developers clearly cannot be relied upon to create the ideal balance of different types of property - they will naturally be focusing on individual projects, rather than taking on the role of town planners.

One potential way around this issue may be for local planning authorities (LPAs) to override PDRs entirely by using Article 4 directions. By issuing such a direction, they could require that any town centre development must have full planning permission. Unfortunately, however, this would simply bring us back to where we were before, with little incentive for developers to bother with town-centre regeneration.

The way forward

Instead, we need joined-up thinking between the government and LPAs that ensures the vision is realised. With this 2021 should mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter for city life across the country, as we create diverse and interesting town centres that will work for everyone.

By Ritchie Clapson CEng MIStructE, co-founder of propertyCEO