Written evidence submitted by Tim Frost [PDR 097]

 

I have been asked to write to your PDR Inquiry, having first written on 19th May 2021 to

Rt Hon R Jenrick expressing my concern at the provisions of these new PDRights.

I listened to your Select Committee online on 16th June.

 

The Government’s positive approach to promote new housing and to tackle the vacancy rate of shops is of course welcomed, but as drafted please note that there is a complete lack of understanding as to how badly some town centres will be damaged by adopting a one size fits all policy nationwide.

 

In Sept 2020 I completed 50 years working as a Surveyor solely in commercial property and have specialised in the retail sector since 1984. I have worked in England, Scotland and Wales, and occasionally in Northern Ireland.

 

Although no longer with a larger firm, I have let or acquired c.25 units since the first lockdown, and can report that the widening of planning uses into E Class from 1st Sept 2020 has already seen lettings of previous Class A1 shops into the wider uses.This has successfully stimulated investment; and it is far too early to go beyond this and confirm that this new PDR Statutory Instrument should remain unamended.

 

Please note that when I refer to shops, I am also including the flexibility of uses provided for within E Class.

 

Planning legislation dates back to 1906, and since 1947 the role and strength of our town centres has been paramount in our communities.

 

Covid has meant that many regular things have not been joined up, and may well have slipped under the radar, and this Statutory Instrument is a case in point as it has got to this stage without widespread awareness or contribution from many experienced surveyors who have worked in this market throughout their careers.

 

The National Policy Planning Framework sets out to promote the importance of primary shopping areas and the vitality of town centres, but please note that these PDRights as drafted will result in the opposite.

 

The NPPF is "a material consideration in planning decisions", so may I please confirm from the NPPF :

 

7. Ensuring the vitality of town centres.

 

85..Planning policies and decisions should support the role that town centres play at the heart of local communities ...and should

a) define a network and hierarchy of town centres and promote their long term vitality and viability ..

b) define the extent of ..primary shopping areas, and make clear the range of uses permitted..

c) retain and enhance existing markets ..

d) Meeting anticipated needs for retail uses..

 

 

11. Making effective use of land

 

121.. support proposals to:

a) use retail and employment land for homes in areas of high housing demand, provided this would not undermine key economic sectors or sites or the vitality and viability of town centres

 

For many years sustainable planning has had regard to the above matters, however with the undisputed need to have regard to Class E needs, this cannot now be completely ignored by putting as overriding all housing needs first at the expense of permanently killing off our core shopping locations.

 

It is a challenge with responsibility to achieve a balance when every town is in a different state, from those struggling with almost whole streets vacant, to those which remain vibrant and are readily attracting new tenants.

 

The topic in this Statutory Instrument on PDR is High Streets.

I suggest it best be called Sustainable Town Centres, as this would acknowledge the opportunity to maximise housing whilst still retaining and promoting the central hub.

Thriving town centres work thanks to having a variety of uses in a convenient and attractive cluster, and Retail/E Class activity is a key component at the heart of this.

You cannot at random take out shops within an important long established retail frontage and replace them with residential without destroying the very essence of the role that shops play in promoting vitality and securing the long term viability of towns everywhere.

 

I can ask experienced Surveyors who have worked in the retail market to join me in appearing before your Committee, so that you may fully appreciate this issue as to what is at stake nationwide.

One who I spoke to last week:  Mark Poyner said "It is bonkers, all you have to do is define the prime frontage and reserve it" .

 

Mark agrees with me:  All that is needed is a carefully worded amendment so that this Statutory Instrument does not apply to a defined Prime Frontage in every community.

There are towns in desperate need of regenerating which will never need so much retail floorspace as before and outside their (probably now reduced) core, of course new housing is a welcome solution.

 

So what is needed is to define the Prime Frontages within a Sustainable Town Centre.

This is no different to the provisions seen in most town plans of defining how much Class A frontage must be maintained, with the deemed less attractive uses therefore controlled.

 

So as we have seen that the needs of E Class have often been reduced, outside the Prime Frontage this will give an adjacent “inner ring “ or secondary streets which under this new PDR can be used for housing. Such redevelopment will provide much needed new homes, and as Mr Pincher said in so doing increase spending into the Prime Frontages.

 

Prime Frontages are where people meet when using “E Class facilities”with community activities feeding off around them. You cannot build a shop in a residential street, as retailers are seeking complementary users to collectively attract, so they are completely sensitive to location.

 

It is not just the frontage, but  the particular size and range of units which combine in offering both variety and choice for shopkeepers and shoppers alike. Proximity to public transport and car parks is also a major consideration.

 

I was alerted to these PDR proposals, as we are currently faced with a Planning Application in Sycamore Road, Amersham to redevelop in favour of residential; which would lose Superdrug and Waterstones when there are no suitable replacement large units for them.

 

Present Local and National Policy can successfully oppose this, yet any considered and sensible planning consideration would be swept away by this Statutory Instrument putting flats first in the heart of the Prime Frontage.

A PDR redevelopment to Residential use interrupting an undisputed Prime Frontage would then directly lead to the reduced viability of other shops; as we would see with these 2 key names no longer attracting shoppers to choose to shop in Amersham.

 

Having recently let 3 neighbouring shops, where the presence of Superdrug and Waterstones was a reassuring factor for the new tenants deciding to sign new leases, please understand that an unlimited Resi Use under these PDR’s could replace the whole of this Prime Frontage into housing without any say of the local community, or control of the Council.

 

When larger “anchor “units are lost, this influences smaller businesses who would otherwise seek to locate close to them, and so in turn they decide not to invest or look to another town where they feel more comfortable to proceed.

 

Sycamore Road is not in a Conservation Area, and for Mr Pincher to say that noise or flood control issues allow a Council control is extraordinary; when they are not permitted to consider the damage to the viability or vitality of this Prime Frontage.

 

The above is only an example and should confirm the extent that amendments must be made to this Statutory Instrument, to properly safeguard the future of our communities.

 

There will be many other towns nationwide who need essential protection by defining the Prime Frontage. Every community whether large or small will always need a heart of activity.

 

A one size fits all PDR nationwide is completely impractical and unacceptable, as the worst of all consequences are too great to risk.

A one size fits all policy has never worked before, and it will never succeed in future; which is why I first wrote to the Secretary of State confirming the responsibility for the terminal decline of many if not all town centres which we can see from the Statutory Instrument as drafted.

 

Why should those towns which are fortunate enough to have their Prime Frontage within a Conservation Area be safe from the otherwise disastrous consequences of this Statutory Instrument destroying the heart of other town centres?

 

Which Civil Servant has randomly decided that Conservation Areas should be exempt?  Conservation Areas have usually been designated due to the qualities of the buildings, often with Listed Buildings contributing to the townscape; and NOT from assessing the use of the floorspace. I can think of examples where the Conservation Area is close to but not part of the Prime Frontage within the shopping and community core, so this claimed control offers no guaranteed protection for a community to retain their basic requirement of offering core activity.

 

Older buildings in Conservation Areas may well have irregular layouts, low ceiling heights, structure interrupting clear floorplates,and steps which do not comply with Disabled Access needs; so this is another example to confirm that before such progressive PDRights are introduced each town has to be considered on the merits of the community needs and its own features.

 

The suggestion of a 3 month vacancy test is totally inadequate and not based on any reality. That is why there is a need to engage the assistance and knowledge of Surveyors who are in the market every day.

Experienced Surveyors have clearly not been involved in any consultation, or otherwise the innocence of suggesting a 3 month vacancy test would never have been put forward .

 

When a lease finishes, there are often outstanding repairs, decoration or strip outs to be arranged.

Even with known tenants or applicants for the town being notified, marketing will usually allow a minimum of 7-8 weeks.

Shopfitters have to inspect and liaise with their clients to see if alternative layouts work, and as of this morning as I write this, ask to postpone arranging access to another day as one key director wants to inspect.

After checking shopfitting detail and following negotiations to agree Heads of Terms, Solicitors are then instructed.

Have you ever heard of a fast Solicitor?

2-3 months with Solicitors is considered usual and it is rare to find any quicker timetable on legals.

 

With so much to cover, any reletting within 3 months is considered rare to the point of being fast-track. Rob Fraser at the leading firm of Avison Young who I spoke to yesterday, who was not aware of these new PDRights immediately referred to a minimum vacancy period of 1 year.

 

A landlord becomes responsible for paying empty rates after 3 months, so is it just a  coincidence that 3 months has been proposed?

I can confirm that clients become far more flexible as soon as they are paying empty rates and this helps to promote agreeing terms on new lettings.

 

There should not be an irreversible decision to allow unlimited housing into the middle of a Prime Frontage, given the permanent damage and dire consequences to all of the neighbouring businesses; so if this is going to be pushed through solely for political reasons, I would suggest a vacancy period of up to 2 years.

 

Instead, by first defining the Prime Frontage within each Sustainable Town Centre, this will have protection from PDR for the essential community uses including shopping which have for generations sustained the core of our town centres.

 

This safety provision will not prevent redevelopment for housing in the very heart of the centre where there is a Prime Frontage, providing the ground floor retains E Class use, and in so doing giving ample scope for flats above.

Such redevelopment applications would not be within PDR, but subject to the current consideration which in particular allow proper consideration as to vitality and viability for the interests of the whole community.

118e of the NPPF supports new Flats in the airspace above existing buildings, and this should become even more typical with Flats above ground floor shops in Prime Frontages.

 

The fringe locations outside the Prime Frontage will be in another category, and therefore would automatically be subject to any change of use under PDR after a much shorter vacancy period.

 

The other supposed control against redeveloping under PDR is the restriction of not being more than 1500 sq m of floorspace.

 

1500 sq m is far too large an amount to automatically allow an unlimited change to Residential use,.

 

Please note that under this Statutory Instrument as drafted, PDR could take out every shop in many towns across the country, including Sycamore Road, Amersham.

This would leave no Prime Frontage as the town centre would be destroyed, so please record that the Government’s understandable wish to promote extensive new housing would be at the complete expense of losing the heart and social value of many of our town centres nationwide.

 

There is only one chance for the country here, as the entire function and community heritage of our town centres is at risk. I'm not a gambler, but a deck of cards comes to mind if without any control Prime Frontages are lost to flats.

 

Please therefore be aware that viability and vitality have been a cornerstone of planning policy for many years, and this consideration cannot be removed without triggering such severe repercussions as I have set out.

 

£830m of taxpayers money is being proclaimed for a “Future High Street Fund”.

However, if a sustainable structure is put in place, so that an E Class user can be attracted to open in the Prime Frontage thanks to being able to take a longer term confidence; then you will also see private sector investment playing and funding an important role.

 

I know what clients considering opening in new towns look for. They want to see active neighbours and worthwhile “known” names who open the doors to trade and therefore generate footfall. When my clients have invested and opened, they generate further business and that is how markets and high streets/Prime Frontages have always worked.

 

When the Prime Frontage is defined in each community, this will give confidence to more businesses to open in the knowledge that there is a future without being broken up by housing. Those business trading in more secondary locations can of course resite to the Prime Frontage and if suitably established, be in a possible category for the “Future High Street Fund ?

This will further consolidate vitality and viability.

 

It is most likely that this area or Prime Frontage will be smaller than the previous central shopping area, so such a measured and defined approach can maximise the housing potential, whilst also promote a balanced and sustainable range of uses for all of the community.

 

I am  willing to help you if you want a group of experienced Surveyors to consider with each community the merits of identifying the Prime Location in every town against the reality on the ground, the alternative opportunities for additional housing within the next “ring” moving outward in a Sustainable Town Centre; and the prevailing adopted Town Plan.

 

There will be whole streets and indeed more than several shopping centres that could readily be redeveloped almost entirely for residential use without damaging the remaining yet vital shopping and community function of the Prime Frontage; and in so doing revitalise and create a Sustainable Town Centre for the future.

 

In the Formal PDR Committee Inquiry on 16th June, Mr Pincher referred to Residents on a High Street or near to it - yet there is such a huge difference.

Consider shops on a High Street or near to it?

The heart of any town where the shops are found is completely location sensitive, but this is not the case with Housing.

That is why we have to be so careful now, because once lost our Prime Frontage cluster of activity will never be reinstated. 

 

It is essential to get this wide sweeping change correct, yet the one single policy as drafted that is proposed to apply nationwide for every town when their circumstances are all so different will never achieve this.

 

Action is clearly welcome to bring forward investment into areas and street frontages which will clearly not come back for E Class uses, but this must not be at the expense of destroying the Prime Frontage at the heart of every town.

 

A finer tuning is needed with experienced Surveyors willing to pass on their greater experience and understanding of an issue, that will otherwise have dire consequences unless straightforward adjustments are made.

 

With many years experience the identification of the Prime Frontage can generally be made quickly, although this will not always be so straightforward in some larger cities.

 

 

Finally, this should not be regarded as any point scoring between parties, as this is of  national importance for everyone to contribute to.

 

All MP's, community groups and Chambers of Commerce etc should be informed so with a debate and proper knowledge we can get a balanced result to define the core of each town’s Prime Frontage and promote housing under PDR outside this for the benefit of all communities.

 

I will be pleased to respond to any matters arising.

 

 

June 2021