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Shifting retail patterns – a planning perspective

UK retail is going through a number of changes which planners at District Councils are desperate to keep up with. Sites around the country are being transformed by reduced requirements for frontages and changing consumer demand. There are increasing ways in which to shop and many of them are internet related. This is placing previously unknown demands on retailers, developers and local authorities alike.

Retailers are feeling the pressure to adapt or die. Landlords see cash flows potentially shrinking and planners feel constantly on the back foot. Requirements for net volume of retail space have been shrinking and continue to shrink, due to economic pressures on retailers and the trend towards internet shopping. There is a squeezed middle section of the market tends to be shopping centres, high streets and retail parks that lie between regional or destination shopping centres serving a significant catchment area and district centres serving a localised area.

Many such ‘stalled’ town centres and retail parks are looking to provide a greater proportion of leisure, restaurants and cafes. Equally, revisions made to the permitted development rights last year were intended to make conversion of empty shops to residential much easier. However, Councils don’t like breaking up retail frontages with perceived ‘dead’ areas.

In addition to these changes, comparison goods expenditure appears to be returning to pre-recession levels, reviving demand for retail space. Many proposed retail units are seeking wide A1 to A5 consents that will give them flexibility to accommodate shops, banks or takeaways, and are incorporating floorplate flexibility, so they can be split according to demand.

Identifying shopping habits and patterns are notoriously difficult to predict and goes against the grain of most local authority planners. The manner in which we indulge our favourite pastime has multiplied, creating what is termed ‘omni’ shopping trend. 30 years ago shopping mainly related to a trip to the High Street. Now it can be done online, through catalogues, at retail parks or on shopping holidays.. Smartphones and tablets are just the latest form of shopping which draw potential shoppers from the High Street. The response has been to innovate with click and collect depots, some with hanger size units. An example of this format is the Next Home and Garden store to open soon on the edge of Norwich. Last year, John Lewis opened its first purpose built warehouse for distributing goods after online sale near Croydon. Whilst it had a standard warehouse consent it required significantly more car parking for delivery vans and staff. This particular facility created 500 jobs.

Other changes in the retail landscape is the rise of discount supermarkets such as Lidl, Aldi and Netto. Having grown exponentially due to the economic downturn, they tend to have specific requirements on size and car parking. Tesco’s decision to close 43 stores and cancel 49 proposed units will hit intended regeneration sites everywhere. However, alongside these changes, convenience retailing is also growing. Cash rich time poor consumers are shopping more often and buying less per trip. There is a growing aversion to the weekly shop. This has encouraged a resurgence in food markets, and ‘artisan’ retailers such as butchers, bakers and tea/coffee merchants.

What is the planning solution to all these pressures and trends? Councils tend to be over prescriptive in trying to control how retailing occurs and seek to ‘protect’ the High Street as the very core of our historic .towns and cities. The reality is that dynamics of retailing has, and is, significantly changing and the solution may be not to be so restrictive over uses. It may be that we need to re-evaluate the High Street to attract shoppers to a different experience that emphasises leisure and other activities. In that way we can ensure the survival of our existing shopping areas.