The government’s new planning proposals have had a rough ride over the past few months - and rightly so. Early drafts were vague and a little alarming, causing widespread concern that the indicated ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ was likely to give free license to build for just about anyone who could get their hands on a bulldozer and a spare patch of ground.
The truth is nowhere near as sensational, but is still far from crystal clear. The phrase ‘sustainable development’ seems to have caused confusion to many, including some of the politicians and planners themselves. If it means that we shall be building homes that people will be proud to live in a hundred years from now, then that sounds like good sustainability. We shall see.
The policy of ensuring that Brownfield development comes first is a sensible viewpoint. Making use of urban regeneration while protecting our countryside wherever and whenever possible, will still provide enormous opportunities for much needed house building in our towns.
The government wants to concentrate more on reviving our flagging town centres and concentrate less on out of town retail parks. Better late than never I suppose, but in my view the whole concept of town centre planning needs to start again with a clean sheet of paper.
Love it or hate it, the Merry Hill Centre has been massively successful, mainly because it offers a simple formula of being clean, warm, dry and safe, with free parking, no unruly gangs or drunks, and a wonderful range of shops and restaurants representing the most popular names in the retail world. In other words it offers a generally pleasant, enjoyable, satisfying and user-friendly experience.
Traditional town centres simply cannot compete on these terms, so the planners, the government and the high street retailers need to come up with an alternative plan that offers something different to the giant shopping parks, but which still offers a sufficiently enjoyable and rewarding experience that will attract people to town.
With the right investment encouraged by the right planning framework and an enlightened view taken concerning business rates, car parking charges and so on, there is plenty of reason to think that our traditional town centres could have new life breathed into them. It will however require a new vision, a change of attitude and a change of expectations to create town centres that are relevant in an age where most of us might actually prefer to shop with a mouse or in a mall.
An infrastructure that rewards entrepreneurs would almost certainly lead to a greater choice of interesting, decent quality specialist retailers and services, which in turn would give more people a reason to come into town. It’s a pretty simple catch 22 situation: the more people that shop in town, the more shops will want to be there. The more shops that are there, the more people will want to come into town.
And if we want to create an attractive and family-friendly night-time economy, shouldn’t we be thinking about attracting affluent families back into our towns? Instead of building yet more buy-to-let flats, why not encourage prestigious and up-market town centre living spaces to include large and desirable family houses. After all, didn’t all towns start off that way?