Belfast Telegraph

Crucial choices for council planners

By John Simpson

Urban planning is now transferring to local government. This transfer is more important than a simple change of functional responsibility. Councils must drive a more coherent set of planning policies. This is more than simple land use allocations.

Each council area needs to develop a route map to a modern more prosperous place for residents to live and work. How can they facilitate greater freedom of movement, reconciling public transport and the continued use of the car? How can they ensure scope for new house building on a scale much larger than in recent years? How can they identify and influence urban regeneration areas?

This is a much broader canvas than a narrower policy of ‘town centres first’ which sounds deceptively attractive. Investors and businesses need to know how liberal or restrictive its interpretation will be.

Critically, town centre policies should not necessarily be designed to protect existing retailers and the inherited high street styles.

Retailing as we have known it will change and probably shrink.

Rather than planners articulating how they would like people (and customers) to behave, planners must ask what is the most convenient and sustainable form of behaviour and lifestyle that most customers prefer?

The balance of market demand for commercial and residential development in urban areas is changing.

First, much commercial activity that was town centre related is moving away from town centres.

Internet shopping is increasing and may grow to take 10%-15% of business that has been local and retail.

Second, retail trade will continue to rebalance with more moving to the large multiples and away from smaller local independent retailers.

Third, customer access to retail outlets has, in many centres, become less flexible as the use of the private car in urban centres is crowded out or officially discouraged.

Public transport has been improving and is now building up passenger numbers. But given a flexible choice probably over 60% of retail and leisure activities would be based on the use of a private car.

In terms of modern retail and leisure development, measures to increase convenient personal footfall are needed. In contrast to some of the official attitudes, encouraging footfall also means encouraging acceptable traffic management, both public and private.

The main traffic arteries in urban areas, if used to allow free-flowing services, have the capacity to allow plenty of vehicle movement provided that there is a clear shift of policy to keeping the main routes free from parking and encouraging either private or public provision of off-street parking at competitive prices.

Planning for more off-street parking, private or public, could be a self-financing process with a benefit outweighing any arguments for special retailers’ rates reductions.

The Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) has launched a detailed prospectus setting out the principles of these policy aspirations.

Customers, retailers and council area planners have a choice to make. Town centre stores will not develop unless their location and the related urban infrastructure is encouraging. Congested traffic and difficult parking have already changed the economics of some investment decisions. For many potential customers the price of parking is secondary to the availability of limited parking provision.

The NIIRTA proposals are ambitious (almost excessive) and ask councils to help retailing in many ways. Although NIIRTA would wish otherwise, the number of independent retail outlets in towns has been falling and can be expected to continue to fall.

Customers are finding the alternatives more attractive. It will not be a failure of retail revival if it co-exists with fewer small stores and a diminished role for extended shopping along suburban arterial routes.

The out-of-town shopping centre will continue as the attractive competitor for town centres unless the town centres regenerate with radical changes that challenge the current restrictive vision. Customers will expect better standards and greater convenience.

Council planning must anticipate and facilitate these changes.

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