Land use control and the horizon of town centres
By Lorenzo Pandolfi, BA (Hons) MSc (Hons)
When I was studying town planning in Venice, I had a favourite spot where I could relax. Usually in the late evening I left the library, extricated myself from the maze of small alleys, emerged in the south-facing Fondamenta delle Zattere and walked counter-clockwise to reach the tip of the island, Punta della Dogana (Custom House Point).
It is one of those places where you can stretch your arms and unashamedly tell yourself that you are the king or queen of the world in a Di Caprio-style rash of self-confidence. This place, in particular, is at the edge of two different worlds, and you can see the tension between them.
You are surrounded by water, but you have your feet firmly grounded on granite slabs. Your sight can stretch towards the sea and get lost in the horizon, but you also have an imposing view of the city’s landmarks right in front of you. You can focus on beauty, art and architecture, but you also are reminded of more mundane issues such as noise, air pollution, rising sea levels and the risk of being pushed in the lagoon by an incautious selfie-taker.
Sometimes when I returned to the Punta della Dogana I mused about the evolution of Venice and how it became one of the world’s tourism hotspots, with all the problems created by the intense traffic of gigantic cruise ships, and the environmental issues created by visitors in their “fast-food” consumption of the city’s heritage.
If you were to walk there now, you would be amazed by an eerie silence, even more impressive than the standard silence of Venice. No cruise ships in sight, very few tourists, and not many water-taxis or food suppliers serving hundreds of restaurants and hotels.
A few weeks ago, I was standing outside The World’s End pub in Camden Town. I was surrounded by tarmac instead of water and double-deckers instead of gondolas. Conscious of passing cyclists and electric scooters, I did not stretch my arms and declare myself a monarch, but I did feel that we are probably witnessing a watershed moment in the evolution of cities.
Many shops and restaurants were closed or empty, the groups of young tourists that flock to the market stalls were sparse, the usual buzz of the neighbourhood was more of a shy humming. Beyond the main streets, “silence” was the protagonist of a surreal movie set.
In Camden Town, and many other commercial hubs across England, the Covid-induced lockdowns have accelerated a crisis that has been brewing for years. A mix of falling footfall in the High Street, lower returns for large retailers, outdated department stores with little space for innovation and the e-commerce revolution have pushed the traditional retail sector into the spotlight.
Landowners and tenants have long thought about alternative uses and how to increase flexibility at different times of the day. In the worst cases, they were forced to close or reduce the retail floorspace. In some instances, local planning authorities reacted to the systemic changes in the retail sectors and steered the transition of High Streets towards new scenarios in collaboration with stakeholders and the local community. In many cases, unfortunately, the slow dripping of closures continued uninterrupted with inadequate support from above, until the empty shops almost outnumbered the thriving ones in some town centres.
Restaurants and cafes have fared better than shops in the last few years, but their business model is based on the assumption that both locals and tourists will continue to eat out more often, in larger numbers, indefinitely. These assumptions are still there, but how they will hold up in the medium-term remains to be seen.
Then Covid came and, as in many other aspects of urban life, it levelled up the playing field for all, abruptly, and at the same moment. This is not something that happens very often in a complex environment such as cities, and when it does it leaves long-lasting signs.
The lockdowns boosted online retail well above the already significant growth ratios of the last decade and forced many customers that never shopped online before to push the “check-out” button for the first time. Restaurants, pubs, sandwich shops and cafes had a boost with Government backed schemes in summer, but they now are facing a long winter with lower levels of footfall from office workers and tourists.
On top of the significant Covid-induced acceleration of pre-existing trends, this summer the Government overhauled the town planning legislation by merging several “High Street” use classes into a single, all-encompassing “Commercial, Business and Service” use class named Class E.
Gone is the separation between Class A1 shops, Class A3 restaurants and Class B1(a) offices. Since the 1st of September 2020, under the amended Use Classes Order all these “old” use classes do not exist anymore and premises that used to be labelled under Classes A, B1 and some uses within Classes D1 and D2 are now Class E premises.
As is often the case with planning legislation conundrums, a picture is worth a thousand words.
The change in the legislation is not therefore In Name Only. From 1 September all properties that until then fell into one of the classes in the left-hand column above are automatically Class E properties.
A change of use within the same use class (in this case Class E) is not “development” in planning terms, and it does not require planning permission. In theory, a building formerly labelled as a Class B1(a) office can now be used for any of the subclasses of Class E, at any time, with any mix, in any amount, without need to request permission from the local planning authority.
There are potential pitfalls that could limit or remove this significant flexibility, such as historic planning conditions limiting or prohibiting any change of use without permission, legal agreements to the same effect, or contractual limitations. These are just some of the obstacles to look out for when evaluating options for existing commercial premises.
However, the amalgamation of several “High Street” land uses into one has the potential to revolutionise town and city centres and unleash development potential in areas that have struggled to react to the economic and social changes of the last decade, giving landowners, tenants and operators a range of options and tools to maximise vitality and viability in the long term.
It was about time to get rid of rigid ways of controlling land uses. Leaving pandemics aside, buildings and land uses evolve faster than the labels you put on them. Were it not for the benefits of this evolution, the custom house giving the name to Punta della Dogana would be an empty shell with puzzled functionaries waiting for incoming ships from Venetian outposts in the Mediterranean that will never drop anchor again, and not one of Venice’s most visited art galleries.
What will happen near the World’s End, in Camden? Hopefully, restaurateurs will have the freedom to switch their unit to a deli when trading is low, or rent out a large but useless dining room to a company as an office instead of leaving it empty. Market halls might morph into truly vibrant hubs where commercial units, food and beverage areas, offices, light industrial workshops, gyms and nurseries can coexist. Single shops, the foundation stone of cherished British town centres, will perhaps become boxes where different uses can be “plugged-in” to help shopkeepers and local communities to keep thriving under different circumstances.
The horizon of the High Street is wide, and many new scenarios have emerged during this unusual year, accelerated by the challenges created by Covid. Hopefully, after the storm, we will be able to sail more easily through these changes, as a gondola on a calm lagoon.
If you have any questions about Class E or if you want help to maximise the potential of your commercial property assets, contact me on Lorenzo@hcukgroup.co.uk