High street heist

This report from the UK think tank the Adam Smith Institute looks at how to save the high streets by relaxing anti-competitive zoning rules.

The report argues that the problem with the High Street has been totally misunderstood. The Adam Smith Institute says that to reinvigorate our town centres we need to reform restrictive planning rules and reject a policy of managed decline: National Planning Policy Framework’s ‘primary shopping areas’ (PSAs) designation in town centres concentrates retail and leisure uses in one small zone, creating inactive dead zones outside the PSA and separating retail from the residential areas where their users live Primary shopping areas are often dominated by one or two large single-owner shopping centres, limiting the rental market. This allows property owners to charge higher rents to small businesses, hurting the high street. Local planning policies are based on retail capacity assessments that can be-come out of date before the plans are even adopted. Mixed use development, combining retail, office, leisure and residential uses, creates more viable, safe and liveable spaces with night-time activity and the ability to adapt to changing economic and social circumstances.

This paper looks at two concerning case studies of overregulation of the town centre, Stafford & Stone and Milton Keynes, and looks also at Aylesbury where less restrictive local planning rules show the benefits of more widespread retail. With online shopping on the rise, and more people wanting to live in our cities, the high street needs to be made fit for purpose in the next decade. The free market think tank the Adam Smith Institute says that we should expect fewer big chains dominating the high street. Instead we should expect to see supermarkets and pharmacies next to yoga and dancing studios beneath residential apartments and the odd hipster cafe serving smashed avocado on toast. Instead of a single street designed for chain shops concentrating retail and leisure uses in one small area, creating dangerous inactive dead zones in our towns and cities, and separating retail from the residential areas where its users live — towns, cities and national planning guidelines should expand the areas that shops and cafes can set up to encourage mixed use.

The paper identifies four ways that national planning guidelines have led to dead high streets across the country: They’ve encouraged monopolistic ownership by national landlords jacking up rents; Mixed residential, commercial and office space has been limited; Designated primary shopping areas are already heavily developed and sometimes overlap with conservation areas or contain a large number of listed buildings which has restricted growth; Towns and cities are often inactive outside their centres, leading to unattractive and unsafe streets, especially at night. Far from boosting growth, local plans have in many ways hindered our high streets, the report argues.

The bureaucratic nature of local authorities and the policy making process means that local plans are often out of date, superseded by new developments, other policy documents and market changes, before new ones are adopted. Plans are based on evidence gathered around a year or two before its publication, and local authorities are in constant political flux with a third of the council being reelected on three out of every four years. A ten-year plan is liable to be at odds with the policy direction of a new administration within a year or two of its adoption, or sometimes even before its adoption. A lack of central planning can actually be a good thing when it comes to local planning. The Vale of Aylesbury Local Plan 2013-2033 was rejected by the Government in 2014, and remains unadopted to this day. It may seem counterintuitive when nearly one in ten shops stand empty across the UK, but making it easier to set up shop throughout Aylesbury has meant the local town now expects to double the amount of retail space by 2033. The town is allowing new shops to set up where they will be able to entice people in, where punters want to be, and where rents will be competitive.

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