Local Authorities are not planning properly nor proactively for future retail development.
The Government’s Town Centre First policy, which is very clearly set out in the National Planning Policy Framework, is not being applied consistently or strongly enough by local authorities and their planners. Even within the last few days it has been reported that there is more floorspace being developed out of town than in town centres.
If Local Authorities really want to save their town centres and high streets they need to take their town planning role and responsibilities seriously. They need to put adequate staff and resources into gatherering the required research base, producing robust LDF Core Strategies, Area Action Plans and other policy documents, and ensuring that resources are in place to proactively work with developers (and other partners in the private, public and voluntary sectors) so that all constraints to delivery are identified and removed. This includes coordination of all directorates within each local authority.
It seems to me that too many local authority leaders fail to understand the vital importance of Town and Country Planning, and the vital role the Local Development Framework and its related policies and documents play in shaping in all ways the future of their areas. They seem to not understand that if they fail to have a robust and ambitious set of plans they will get what the poorest quality type of developer wants to give them, and will get uncoordinated development which cuts off the opportunity for a place working as an integrated whole. Or, they may get no development or positive change at all.
Local Authority Leaders and chief executives ought to understand that town planning and ‘plan making’ is one of the most important things which they need to give their close attention to, and be personally involved in.
But, in the current economic climate, it is not enough to just create a plan. Local Authorities must engage actively and creatively with the private sector (and, as I have said above, with all other ‘partners’) if actual delivery is to take place on the ground. This, once again, requires resources, with someone leading and having responsibility for getting things done – and more importantly the right things done to the right quality. Unfortunately, even if such a person is nominally in place, it is usually a town planner who has neither the experience, knowledge, background or time to do this adequately.
In some places developers are ready and willing to undertake large scale improvements to town centres but cannot go ahead because of the need for large infrastructure investments. In the current economic climate the public sector cannot provide this enabling infrastructure, but if the local authority works in partnership with the developers the latter are able to obtain the finance without the local authority having to take the development risk. But, it needs the local authority to be actively engaged with knowledgeable, proactive and creative staff.
And finally, the local plan will affect the business plans of all public services: another reason why Leaders and chief executives must take a close interest in plan making and ensuring that all of their partners are closely involved.