A lot of attention has been given to the health of our town centres over the past decade. We know that shopping habits have changed, that consumers want an experience and that properties are taking on different uses.
Faced with ailing high streets, the government, independent bodies and real estate operators have all been looking for ways to revitalise our towns.
All these initiatives have little or no regard for the future, however. The indicators used by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to measure the health of a town centre are out of date.
The world has moved on, with much more emphasis on digitisation and the environment. If we are to create truly sustainable town centres, we need to start judging their health by the right parameters.
Although recently updated, the Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) on town centres and retail still contains the same old static measures when assessing the health of town centres: diversity of uses, vacancy rates, rents, yields, pedestrian footfall, the balance between independent retailers versus multiples and environmental quality of the town.
Throughout the entire document, there are no mentions of ‘digitisation’ or ‘technology’ to future-proof a centre for the emergence of 5G or the installation of electric car charging points. Why isn’t sustainability factored into the indicators of the health of a town?
A recent report from the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), Planning for a Smart Energy Future, highlights the lack of attention that current national planning policy gives to smart energy.
While strides are being taken to reduce carbon emissions, the current pace of change will not keep up with the ambitions outlined in the Clean Growth Strategy. The report argues that no development should be planned without successfully demonstrating it is fit to take its place in a zero-carbon future.
Significantly, the RTPI calls for joint endeavours between all those involved in development or regeneration. It is true that the fragmented real estate ownership in town centres and high streets creates a barrier to implementing new technology. In contrast, a shopping centre with a single landlord can have far greater control over implementing technologies or measures.
However, councils are increasingly becoming active players in the commercial market through the purchase of shopping centres and other assets, giving the potential to implement these initiatives to the betterment of town centres.
All our towns need to move towards digitisation and away from fossil fuels. This must be led from the top and we are waiting for that to happen.
Atul Joshi is associate director of planning, developmentand regeneration at Lambert Smith Hampton