Sustainable Development and Transport Scrutiny Commission High Street Inquiry Report and Recommendations

From the Bristol City Council website:

The Commission identified local high streets as a priority issue this year. We wanted to examine issues relating to local retailing, planning policy and access to food and how these are affecting high streets in the city.

The Council is already leading on the development of the Food Policy Council and there is a great deal of public interest in local versus multiple chain stores in certain areas and the planning issues that have arisen from these. In addition, the current economic climate is proving difficult for small independent retailers to survive and thrive within. Local retailing is of vital importance to all of the communities in Bristol with implications for a wide range of public policy issues beyond planning.

The Commission therefore hosted an Inquiry in November 2011 at which over 30 participants (see list in Appendix 1) from community organisations, local businesses, council officers and councillors came together to discuss these issues and develop some practical solutions that the Commission could consider and take forward.

2. Policy and Research Context
The national and local policy landscape around high streets and related issues is complex and is changing rapidly with a National Planning Policy Framework and possible changes to use class orders being consulted on by the Government in Autumn 2011. A summary of the current context was produced for the Inquiry (see Appendix 2, Do Bristol’s retail centres have a FUTURE?, J. Thorne, November 2011), as well as a briefing note at Appendix 3 from the Executive Member for Housing and Regeneration. This outlines what the Council has done in response to widespread concerns about the growth of multiple retail chains in Bristol (see also Managing and Regulating Multiple Food Chains in Bristol, S Hewitt 2011).

Legally, the Council is restricted in what it can do in these situations as
planning laws and regulations cannot control the occupier, only the use.

If the shop is an A1 retail unit before and subsequently, it is deemed lawful use; no planning permission is therefore required for conversion from any A Use Class to A1. However, a grey area arises over A1 and A3 uses where a view needs to be taken on the level of consumption off the premises. There is also the issue of cumulative impact which is not addressed in planning law; this was identified as a key issue during our discussions. The Council has raised this loophole in response to the recent government consultation and is taking up current cases as far as it is legally able to do so.

The Localism Act (enacted in November 2011) with its general power of competence for local government offers potential for the Council to implement a more considered approach to future retailing and the implications are being explored by officers.

In addition, Mary Portas’ review of high streets commissioned by the Government was published in December 2011 after the Inquiry was held.

This lays out her vision of how town centres and high streets can be revitalised (see the full review at review). The Government has committed to responding to its recommendations in Spring 2012. This report’s themes and recommendations mirrors many of those in the Portas review as outlined in Appendix 4.

Regarding relevant scrutiny work, the Post Offices Select Committee 2004 and the Post Offices Working Group 2009 considered the demise of post offices as part of the overall high street mix and they made recommendations on support for retail centres via a place management approach, focusing investment in community facilities and ensuring better parking enforcement. A recent announcement of the downgrading of 1 in 5 of the 11,500 post offices across the country into new “PO Locals”, which offer a downgraded service within other commercial premises, may affect some high streets in the city and needs to be taken into account.

In relation to food retail in particular, the Quality of Life Survey (Consultation, Research and Intelligence Unit 2011) found that access to shops selling fresh fruit and vegetables is not as good in deprived areas of the city and for disabled people, whilst Who Feeds Bristol? (J Carey 2011), the influential report commissioned by NHS Bristol and the City Council, underlined that around 1 in 10 jobs in the West of England are related to food and drink, and of businesses registered on the ‘public food register’ in Bristol 21% are in retail, 74% in catering. The report pointed out the interlinkage of food production, processing, distribution, catering and retail and how independent traders need to be supported within the overall system, although the overall trend is away from diversity and balanced competition to one of consolidation and monopoly. Specialist food shops are disappearing and the report has flagged up concern about the impact on the St Philips wholesale fruit and vegetable market which becomes less viable with these closures.

You can download the full report here

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