The summer of 2021 may be remembered for Covid and the withdrawal from Afghanistan. But another lasting and insidious change took place: the death of the high street. By approving the building of residential homes on ailing shopping streets, planning minister Robert Jenrick effectively allowed any shop, restaurant, cafe or business premise in England to become a house. Since almost everywhere houses make more money, this puts every high street under threat.
Although done in the name of creating “thriving town centres”, Jenrick’s policy will strip away the cohesion that still binds many communities together, urban as well as rural. The diversity of English towns and cities has long been protected by planners enforcing classes of use. Restaurants and shops could not simply become houses without planning permission. But as of last month, if any landlord thinks to profit by turning the use of one building into another, it will require no permission to do so. A building need only to have been vacant for three months (after Covid-19, this already applies to one in seven shops, and could easily be achieved by eviction). Hit by lockdown, online shopping and the end of rental holidays, high street shops are struggling to survive. They need time to recover, not Jenrick kicking them in the teeth and sending their landlords cheering to the bank.
Listed for Jenrick’s chop are high street shops, restaurants, cafes, pharmacies, clinics, creches and gyms. Protests against the change to planning rules have been universal. The Royal Town Planning Institute dismisses the reform as “a golden gift for unscrupulous landlords and developers”. The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) calls it “no way to revitalise our high streets or level up”. Even the official developer lobby, the British Property Federation, deplores “the damaging impact uncontrolled conversions to residential could have on the future of our high streets”. The National Trust protests at conservation areas not being given protection, “leaving councils powerless to prevent businesses turning into poor-quality housing”. There is nothing to protect York’s Petergate or London’s Beauchamp Place from becoming flats, top to bottom.
Already, research is showing the likely consequences of this madcap policy. A report from University College London for the TCPA studied Huntingdonshire, Leicester, Barnet and Sussex. The expected loss of high street businesses to housing varies from 89% in Barnet to 75% in Huntingdonshire. Overall, four out of five shops are likely to disappear, mostly small, locally owned businesses.
Perhaps Jenrick’s family lives online, their idea of a high street being a van at the door and a delivery driver. Others romanticise community institutions such as the nursery, the newsagent and the village shop. We tease the French for saving every tobacco and bakery. England’s high streets may be changing in the direction of the internet cafe, the hairdresser and the delicatessen, but all risk falling to a tidal wave of free-market entrepreneurship and Airbnbs. We should remember that such a market is not fluid. A housing estate that replaces a meadow never reverts to a meadow, nor will it revert to a high street.
We need time to assess the communal impact of the pandemic. I know of villages that have found a new sense of neighbourliness in lockdown. But shops, offices and other businesses have suffered a huge, many hope temporary, economic distortion. To exploit such distortion by freeing the use of buildings from planning control risks tearing the heart out of one community after another.
The point of town planning is to regulate the use of a scarce resource – land – for the public good. People want to see the places where they live sensitively regulated, not left to a free-for-all and to be insulted as nimbys if they complain. Boris Johnson should realise what cost him the Chesham byelection.
Planning has to change with the times and the 1987 use-classes orders were certainly archaic and rigid. But just because a law is out of date does not mean it must be abolished. A sense of community is a delicate thing. Its infrastructure will depend on market forces that are in turn disciplined by local debate and consent. Stripping out that consent – the essence of Jenrick’s planning reforms – and handing the high streets over to a blundering herd of developers is not democracy. The concept of English community is to be a snaking procession of delivery vans, one of Johnson’s most miserable legacies.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist