Assembly warns town centres

hounslow town centreLondon’s town centres must radically reinvent themselves to remain relevant to their communities and tackle shop vacancy rates of up to 20%, the London Assembly has reported.

In a report responding to the Mayor’s draft Supplementary Planning Guidance – which influences how local authorities manage town centres – the Assembly’s Planning Committee calls for more visionary encouragement for innovative, integrated approaches and stronger links with other Mayoral strategies.

The report says that town centres must change from being primarily shopping destinations to dynamic and mixed centres for communities offering a range of retail, leisure, public services and housing.

Nicky Gavron AM, Chair of the Planning Committee said: “London’s high streets and town centres are the heart of our communities. In an age of out-of-town and online shopping, the Mayor must do more to help town centres make the fundamental shift they need to be distinctive and thrive.”

“The Mayor’s town centre SPG needs to offer more support to boroughs than just a couple of examples of pop-up shops and novelty markets. It’s time to stop rearranging the deckchairs and start looking at a radical reinvention of the traditional town centre.

“I hope the Mayor takes our recommendations on board and works with us to ensure that his planning guidance gives local authorities the tools they need to get London’s struggling town centres back on their feet”

The report calls for public services to remain and return to the town centre. Libraries, educational facilities, post offices, GP surgeries, and other public and community services are all important anchors bringing people to the town centre.

The Committee calls for more experimentation with new forms and functions. Town centres must remain flexible, and provide adaptable spaces that are programmable and responsive to changing needs.

It goes on to suggest that local authorities could consider a managed contraction in favour of a smaller but more vibrant retail core including leisure, health, education and public services. This would also provide more opportunities for well-located and designed high density housing, especially around stations and transport interchanges.

The Committee also calls for annual ‘health checks’ to monitor changes in occupation and footfall. This will help local authorities understand the changing commercial environment and the impact of recent Government policy reforms.

Commenting on the detail of the draft SPG, the report describes the lack of solid examples as a missed opportunity and calls on the Mayor to produce a best practice ‘toolkit’ to accompany the guidance, outlining examples of innovative approaches to town centre management.

The Committee suggests encouraging ‘knowledge exchange’ through London-wide working groups would help local authorities develop successful strategies and share innovative approaches across borough boundaries.

The report also urges the Mayor to monitor the impact of Government moves to allow developers to convert offices into homes without planning permission, and updates his town centre planning guidance next year to take account of the changes.

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