Since the start of “lock down” the majority of workplaces and shops have closed. Our town centres are empty, retailers and businesses are collapsing before our eyes, and many commercial leases are being terminated or broken. We are becoming accustomed to a new routine of working at home, shopping online and undertaking food shopping on a more limited basis than before.
Even when “lock down” comes to an end, we are likely to be subject to a significant period of restriction, potentially until a vaccine becomes available. So, what does this mean for the future of our high streets, town centres and commercial premises? And how can planning assist and help kick start the economy?
Also, will we work differently in the future? There is much speculation that we will. We are creatures who thrive on socialisation and collaboration, but businesses may well rationalise in terms of their requirements for commercial and office space, leaving many vacancies. A key characteristic of London is its collection of communities and villages grouped around a “centre” and it has always been the case that the British like to shop, but at least for the short-medium term, London's centres and high streets could be quieter and experience more vacancies than normal.
How can Planning assist? In my opinion, it will need to be flexible, including allowing meantime uses in order to generate economic activity and avoid vacant frontages, whilst confidence begins to grow again. This may well need to be a parallel process with rent and rate reductions. Office space that can be reused quickly may need to be adapted to suit new business requirements. If we are working at home more, then our local centres may become as important as larger town centres for our day to day needs, and they may well become more of a focus for our awakening sense of local community, one positive that has arisen from the Coronavirus pandemic.
If a greater reliance on- line shopping is here to stay then we need to be looking at how we can accommodate more storage hubs, and the challenges of servicing and sustainable transport to enable this.
Serious consideration will also need to be given to the potential re-use of vacant business and other commercial space for other uses, something that is a controversial topic in London. However, if planners do not grasp and act on this issue, we could be preventing economic stimulus at a time that we have never needed it more. As part of this, we need to be completely realistic as to how much business and commercial space can be viably re-provided on site, and indeed how much affordable housing can be funded as part of redevelopment proposals. The Coronavirus pandemic will have far reaching consequences, of that there is no doubt, and we cannot bury our heads and pretend that Planning can return to 'normal'. It needs to adapt and deal with the economic position, a new way of working and a new way of life.