The nation’s high streets have been struggling for years.
Rising vacancy rates and declining footfall over the past decade have seen town centres begin to undergo a fundamental transformation — but in many ways not for the better. Empty, boarded up shops have become a depressingly familiar sight in towns and cities across the UK.
Solutions do exist. Earlier this year, for example, London First published a plan to save our high streets and town centres. This included the creation of registers for startups and SMEs to find premises for short-term let, and enabling space to be used more flexibly, through changes to the Use Classes Order. A vacant hair salon could be turned into a café, for example, without the cost and time delay of applying for planning permission.
We need that kind of creative, flexible thinking now like never before. But we also need more immediate changes. The existing challenges facing our high streets have been dramatically exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. And as the country begins to exit lockdown, planning and licencing rules desperately need to adapt.
Everyone I talk to says the one thing they miss most of all about lockdown is meeting a friend for a drink or some dinner, some human interaction outside of the house, a shared experience. Unless things change — and interventions are made to save our high streets — these social experiences could be lost.
The government has made huge efforts to keep Britain’s businesses going, from the furlough scheme to business rates relief. However, if social distancing remains (even at one metre as opposed to two) as businesses begin to open their doors, more creative solutions will be required. Some businesses, no matter how hard they try, will not be able to trade profitably if they operate in a confined space.
All scientific research so far demonstrates that Covid-19 is less easily transmitted out of doors. So if social distancing remains in place, businesses must be able to set up on our pavements, streets, and garden spaces where possible.
Parts of the world have started to do this. In Lithuania, the mayor of Vilnius announced plans back in April to give over much of its public space to hard-hit bars and restaurants so that they can put their tables outside, while Sweden has kept its bars open with outdoor table service.
There are a range of creative ways that the UK could relax regulations and allow businesses here to follow suit — for a start, granting licences to serve food for outside consumption and temporarily suspending alcohol-free pavements (at very specific set times).
Local councils could create car-free zones or pedestrianise high streets to outdoor trading. Temporary events notices could be used to allow premises to put tables outside their doors, which would be perfect for summer.
However, given we need to move quickly to maximise benefit from the summer months, perhaps the simplest approach would be a Ministerial Statement from Government to local authorities to turn a blind eye to businesses that — within reason — operate beyond their current planning and licensing limits in order to adhere to social distancing rules.
Planning rules are notoriously complex. In London, for example, there will be three sets of regulations, from local boroughs, the Greater London Authority, and central government. But we cannot afford to let these hurdles prevent our businesses from making the changes they need to survive.
Without renewed flexibility to change how and where businesses can operate, our high streets will cease to function as we know them. For many restaurateurs and cafe owners, this is crunch time. They cannot afford to wait.
Let’s give them what they need to keep our high streets the fun, vibrant places we have all been missing during this pandemic.
Main image credit: Getty