Future Retail development - shops half empty or half full?

The current prospects for future retail developments in our historic towns depend very much on whether you are of the cup half empty or half full persuasion!

The doom and gloom merchants are having a field day. The draft PPS6 proposes to take away the need test thereby undoing all the good work that has been in place since the introduction of PPG6. Will we once more be subject to the march of out of town retail development which many of us fought in vain to resist during those planning wilderness years of the 1980s?

The global recession is hitting the retail sector particularly hard. Retail returns are showing an approximate drop of 15% in the year to end June 2008 and a possible further drop of 10% in the following year. We have seen the loss of much loved faces in the High street - notably Woolworths. Benchmark big players such as John Lewis and Marks & Spencer are all reporting falls in trade, while total UK retail footfall is also significantly down. Allied to all this is the difficulty of securing finance for major schemes, and it is hard to see there is much immediate future for retail schemes of any significance.

The converse view is that although, without doubt, we are in a deep recession, it is time for us as planners to step up to the mark and prepare for the upturn when it undoubtedly will happen.

On the policy front, the focus will still be very much on town and city centres. The draft of PPS6 makes that very clear. '...refining the framework so that it helps us achieve the aims of promoting vibrant, viable town centres more successfully'. The sequential test stays firmly in place and the impact test is widened to cover a range of indicators. This should make it difficult to obtain planning permission if there is insufficient expenditure in the town centre to absorb it. Wider social and environmental issues are also included in the impact test so, importantly for our historic towns, key criteria will be the appropriateness of scale and quality of design.

On the practical front, although a number of retail schemes have ground to a halt, some developers are still active in looking to put schemes in place ready for the upturn. Perspectives have changed however and one of the key messages coming through for local authorities seems to be that we need to have realistic and deliverable objectives. It is no good having a shopping list of desirable 'goodies' if the project is simply unable to sustain that.

In Canterbury it is a sense of déjà vu. In the early 1990s we were all set to proceed with our city centre development known as the Whitefriars, when the recession hit. The scheme was put on hold, but we used the years to put more flesh on the bones of ideas through a detailed Development Brief so that we were ready to go when the time was right. Crucially, this involved a sense of realism with our development partners, but it was true for both sides. We stuck to what we thought were important development principles such as the fact that the scheme had to integrate with the town and have streets and public spaces rather than be enclosed in a shopping mall. However, we also had to realise that some of the aspirational objectives just couldn't be delivered if the scheme was to proceed. As the recession eased during the mid 1990s, we, and importantly, the developers, were ready to proceed with the scheme.

In the current recession, we are re-running that scenario with Wincheap, an edge of centre area which we were hoping would come forward as a mixed retail/housing development. Sadly the deepening recession caused our development partners to withdraw last autumn. We have engaged consultants to test out whether a scheme is still viable and have been assured that it is. However, we have been told in no uncertain terms that we will have to be very clear about what we regard as important to deliver - the non-negotiables - so that developers are clear about what is expected and they can work their sums accordingly. This is an important point, because while local authorities have to be realistic, we also need to stick to important principles and not lose out on these to relatively short term economic situations. Any new developments in our town centres will outlast the current recession and if that means that projects are delayed for longer term benefits then within reason, so be it. What it does mean is that we have some time to firm up on putting the building bricks in place for development to start - development briefs, consultation, planning permissions, type of delivery vehicle - that kind of thing.

So, I would argue it is not all doom and gloom. On the contrary it is a challenging time to prepare for the retail upturn in a realistic but sustainable way.

Gentlemen (and women of course) start your engines'.

Kim Bennett
Head of Development Services
Canterbury City Council
HTF Executive Committee