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21 Feb
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The Evening Economy: Critical to Town Centre Vitality and Viability?

The contribution that the evening economy makes to the vitality and viability of town centres has traditionally been undervalued in planning, but is this changing?

The evening economy is a significant contributor to economic performance and is a growing sector at a time when much of the economy, including the retail sector, is struggling. The evening economy has become a main attractor for many centres and makes a significant and valuable contribution to the economy in its own right. In fact, it contributes £66bn to the national economy, which represents a third of town and city centre turnover.

The Historic Position

However, the focus for Class A1 retail development in town centres has been long established through the town centres first ethos, which is ingrained in both national and local policy. This was often supported by more detailed local planning policies which ensured the dominance of Class A1 retail uses within primary and secondary retail frontages. This context ensured that Class A1 retail was given precedent in town centres, over and above uses that make up the evening economy such as Class A3 (Food and drink), Class A4 (Drinking establishments) and Class D2 (Assembly and leisure) uses, despite them being classified as main town centre uses in the National Planning Policy Framework. This was reflected in planning decisions on the basis that shops contribute to a greater extent to the vitality and viability of town centres than the evening economy, often leading to examples of prominent units remaining vacant because planning policies indicate that the unit must be a shop and cannot be used as a restaurant etc. In the current economic climate, which has seen the decline of the retail sector, and the continued success of other main town centre uses, in particular restaurants, this is clearly an outdated approach.

Is This Changing?

Evidence suggests that the Government may be beginning to understand the importance of the evening economy to the health of town centres and have made a number of changes recently in support of this:

  1. As of May 2013 the change of use of shops to restaurants is permitted for a period of up to two years. The intention is that this will support new start-up businesses but it will also provide some businesses with the opportunity to demonstrate a contribution to vitality and viability before a planning application must be submitted;
  2. Consultation has been undertaken on further changes to permitted development rights to allow shops to change to a bank, building society or dwelling without the need for planning permission. This demonstrates a reduced level of protection for town centre shopping; and,
  3. The Autumn Statement 2013 and Supporting High Street and Town Centres Background Note (6 December 2013) supports the diversification of town centres, including encouraging more restaurants, late night cafes and leisure uses and non-traditional evening uses such as late night retail. It also confirms that there will be a further consultation on the potential to make change of use from Class A1 retail to Class A3 and leisure uses (Class D2) permitted development.

These changes are seen alongside the gradual reduction in the importance of the sequential approach to site selection that has been evolving over the past 6 months through the appeals process. This is clearly demonstrated through The British Land Company Plc v Sheffield City Council (Appeal reference: APP/J4423/A/13/2189893), which highlights the reduction in weight that is attributed to the protection of town centre retail.

The Government, therefore, appears to have taken on board the importance of the evening economy to the success of town centres and it is promoting it through gradual changes to regulations. If the permitted development rights are changed, as suggested in the Autumn Statement 2013, Council's will have little control over the growth of restaurants and cafes in the town centres (unless they apply for an Article 4 Direction). However, Council's will still have an important role in promoting other uses associated with the evening economy such as leisure uses and bars/public houses though planning policy and planning decisions and in facilitating the evening economy by being flexible about issues such as later opening hours for shops, restaurants, leisure uses etc.

Potential Conflicts

There does, however, appear to be a potential conflict in the Government's strategy for town centres. The August 2013 consultation into potential changes to permitted development rights indicates that soon shops may be able to convert to dwellings without planning permission. This would exacerbate potential conflicts by creating residential properties in traditionally commercial areas. Although dwellings can make a valuable contribution to the evening economy in their own right, the proximity of residential properties to units that operate into the evening can cause conflicts e.g. noise, and may lead to Council's restricting commercial operations in order to protect residential amenity.

Summary

The Government appears to have grasped the importance of the evening economy to the success of town centres and is taking a strong lead in assisting its growth. It will, however, be important for Councils to take this on board and to reflect this ethos in decision making and emerging planning policies by ensuring flexibility and pragmatism when dealing with issues associated with the evening economy, in order to ensure that the evening economy contributes to the greatest possible extent to the vitality and viability of town centres.

If you have any queries about how the recent changes to legislation will affect you or would like find out how you could make the most of these amendments please do not hesitate to contact us.

Image used courtesy of Tom Godber on Flickr

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