Now that the dust has settled on the government’s response to the Portas report, Sarah Easton casts her legal eye over how the high street revival plans might actually be actioned.
In December last year Mary Portas published her recommendations for the revival of the high street. Her suggestion that new out of town developments should be subject to ministerial approval and for a new national planning framework favouring developments in town centres attracted much publicity. However, Ms Portas did not blame out of town shopping for the decline in the high street.
Perhaps this is why when the government announced it implementation of many of Ms Portas’ recommendations last week, no measures to increase control over out of town developments were included.
This will be met with disappointment by some, but recent reviews of our planning system have each concluded that ministers should use their powers of call-in sparingly and intervene less in local planning matters. The government’s localism agenda has stopped a number of call-ins and has enabled schemes to proceed more quickly rather than becoming stuck in the planning system.
Out of town developments usually offer free parking whereas town centres charge. In many town centres parking charges have increased. It is hard to say whether this does influence shoppers’ choices but if parking is free in local shopping centres like Bluewater and out of town retail areas like Longfield Road in Tunbridge Wells it may well have a negative impact on shopping numbers in town. The government will be asking local councils to look closely at parking charges, however local councils are not being asked to abolish them and the government has not said it will abolish minimum parking charges which had been recommended.
The revenue from parking charges generally goes to the local council so they are unlikely to want to/be able to lose this income without substantial support from the Government. Perhaps local authorities could be encouraged to make use of some of the £10,000,000 to be made available for high streets by the government to fund free parking at certain times (Saturdays for example) to encourage shoppers back into the high street.
Mary Portas suggested joined up thinking in high streets akin to shopping centre management to help the high street should be encouraged. New Town Teams are a good idea and have been endorsed by the government. However whether in practice they can work with many landlords not living locally and/or owning a large number of properties across the country is questionable. To some extent local authorities already undertake this role with the appointment of a town centre manager or economic development officer.
Ms Portas’ recommendations did not consider the part played by a reduction in disposable income, high rents set in a boom time with no scope to be reduced and the popularity of internet shopping in the demise of the high street.
The new Town Teams will have to attempt to come up with strategies to address these issues. Late night opening is encouraged to stop shoppers having to rely on the internet to make purchases after working hours. They will need to come up with ways to encourage shoppers away from the deals that can be found on the internet by making shopping on the high street more beneficial.
Town loyalty cards with points adding up to free meals or activities in the town could work. This would need the buy in of all the retailers though and would need the support of the big retailers as well. Whether this could be managed on a town by town basis would have to be tested.
It will certainly require a concerted effort on the part of local authorities to ensure the changes have a positive impact on high streets. Decisions about parking, planning permission, market trading etc. are not made centrally. Local authorities will have their work cut out to implement and make a success of the recommendations.
Local councils will need to think very carefully about how best to use what funds become available. Market days and events put on by local retailers should be encouraged, but how will a local council decide which areas of a town to promote?.
Not much consideration has been given to the difficulties faced by landlords over recent years with failing tenants unable to pay rent and meet repairing obligations. Landlords have been criticised for allowing shops to remain empty, but with a lack of tenants available and restrictions imposed by bank’s lending requirements it has not been easy for them either.
One of the recommendations the government is backing is to encourage a contract of care between landlords and their commercial tenants by promoting the leasing code, and supporting the use of lease structures other than upward only rent reviews, especially for small businesses. Landlords may well be prepared to accept leases with rents that could go down if this meant an occupied property. However the industry will need to work hard to persuade banks that leases should not have to secure a fixed level of rent.
All we can hope is that with so much attention being focussed on our high streets and town centres things will improve over time.
Sarah Easton is Senior Associate at legal firm Thomson Snell & Passmore