Planning for town centres in the digital age

Despite recent changes to the Use Classes Order, the Planning Officers Society suggests a review of its operation would help town centres better meet the challenges of an uncertain future


  • Mike Kiely

23 October 2020

Empty high street retail unit, formerly building society

Former building society, Chichester. Photographer: JLRphotography, Shutterstock

In a fully connected world of big data and artificial intelligence, does the way the planning system operates in legislative terms need to change? The Planning Officers Society (POS) has looked at the challenges of changing the use of building or land in the light of these digital developments and set out recommendations for improvement.

The government has been amending the way the Town and Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987 (UCO) operates over the years, classifying many changes of use between classes as permitted development. In July, ministers laid their latest and most radical changes before Parliament, in the form of the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020, which came into force on 1 September.

The main feature of the UCO 2020 is the creation of a new class E for commercial, business and service use, which combines most of the old classes A1, A2, A3, B1 and elements of D1 and D2. The reasons for this seem to be twofold:
  • a political propensity to reduce regulation
  • a concern over the state of the high street, coupled with the belief that less regulation will help.
But is this approach the best way to help our town centres survive, and even thrive? Or in getting rid of regulation, is the government doing away with the power to manage town centres?

Changing town centres

The retail sector was already changing fundamentally mainly as a result of the growth in online shopping, and the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have accelerated those changes.

Town centres existed long before the current retail model became a feature and then dominated. But while town centres are likely to continue to perform a role in our communities, they will no longer be dominated by shops as we now know them, and other activities such as food and drink, leisure and entertainment will take precedence. The role of planning in this uncertain future needs to be examined.

The traditional use classes model may no longer be required, so we need a debate about whether it is the best way of controlling the impacts of different groups of use. A nimbler system is probably required, one that can take account of the operator as well as the operation. It will also have to respond quickly to changing demand.

Today’s successful town centres are generally those that are well managed, whether by the local authority, the main landowner, a business improvement district (BID) or other such associations. It should be axiomatic that successful town centres are only likely to emerge from the current pressures and uncertainties where they have been managed to respond to local requirements.

“Successful town centres are only likely to emerge from the current pressures and uncertainties where they have been managed to respond to local requirements”

As the volume of data collected increases and our ability to understand it grow, we need a system of control that can match the challenge of responding to big data, that is, near real-time data about what people are doing and what they may want. The role of town centre management will need to expand alongside a suite of tools to enable it to manage activity more efficiently than the 1987 UCO and current licensing regimes.

This uncertain future makes it even more important that all town centres are carefully managed. Planning is concerned with placemaking; but we need to think about who will be concerned with place managing, a quite different process.

Orderly principles

The UCO has been remarkably resilient, and although it has altered over time there was no fundamental change until recently. 

The original principle behind the classes is to identify and group together the most common land uses so that a legislative decision is made as to what activities are so similar that there is no need for planning permission to change between them. The differences between the use classes are generally defined by some external impact that one group of uses has that is different to another group’s; this could be the creation of more noise or fumes, significant public activity, increased traffic levels or heavy vehicles. By grouping these activities into common classes, the UCO has enabled the planning system to control those externalities. So is the 2020 UCO with fewer classes the right approach to the changing town centre?

An increasingly digital and connected world is fundamentally changing the way we work, shop and play. It is increasingly difficult to assign use classes to what we do, as places are used for a multitude of different purposes.

For example, what relevance does the UCO have when a person designs and tests a product on a laptop in a café or local community space, then markets that product through sites such as eBay or Amazon, which the customer subsequently purchases and collects from their local 3D printer facility? More importantly, is there a land-use planning problem in all that? Probably not – but the UCO needs to keep pace with a changing world if it is to remain a helpful land-use planning tool.

Similarly, the traditional concept of the difference between industry and warehousing was that the former employs relatively high numbers of people and its transport impacts are usually not too severe, while the latter employs relatively few people and is usually dominated by large vehicle movements. Do those models still apply to a so-called dark factory mainly operated by robots, or to an Amazon warehouse from which deliveries are mainly made by vans rather than lorries?

Planning and licensing control

It is generally accepted that there is considerable overlap and duplication between planning and licensing controls. A planning permission, given when the building or use first comes into being and expected to last its whole life, is probably not the best way to control the externalities of land-use activity over time. It is often the case that some situations, such as allowing a pub to stay open late, are as much to do with how good the operator is as the characteristics of the building and the area. 

Another example is the current trend to control takeaways through new planning policy initiatives in the context of childhood obesity which is, while valiant, far from ideal. The policy can do nothing to deal with existing establishments, and just as importantly what would a local planning authority with such a policy do if a universally praised chain of health-food takeaways marketed at children were promoted? The policy suggests that these establishment should be refused, but an approval would imply that planning is controlling the menus in takeaways. Is that what the planning system is for? Licensing all such outlets from a food quality point of view is a more targeted and potentially more effective approach.

What is and what is not acceptable in these contexts changes over time with differences in public attitudes, changes to areas, and advances in technology. These externalities need to be controlled by a system that is designed to be flexible, and planning permissions are probably not the right approach. The current licensing system falls short; however, a new comprehensive regime based on the approach of granting a permit for specified activities or impacts could be the answer.

"A new comprehensive regime based on the approach of granting a permit for specified activities or impacts could be the answer"

The essential tenet behind these recommendations is, if you look at all the externalities that planners seek to control when giving permission for uses under the original UCO, and you look at how the differences between classes could be controlled in a revamped licensing and permitting regime, you could radically reduce the number of different uses that need to be defined in an order potentially even more than the new UCO does.

This has the potential to make the planning system simpler and the control of externalities more responsive. The new licensing and permitting regime would need to be guided by policy, but that policy could change either as areas change, society’s attitudes change, or technology changes. It can also take the operator into account, as licensing currently does but planning cannot.

Such a regime should result in no greater a level of control than there is now. In fact, there should be a reduction, as planning and licensing would be combined into a single efficient system with none of the overlaps that currently exist. The controls identified as necessary can be operated more effectively as they can be fine-tuned to target an area’s needs and take empirical evidence into account.

With the growth of smart cities and big data, local authorities will have a new set of tools to guide the way they can manage town centres. This new approach would benefit from these tools in a way that the current planning system cannot. A new licensing and permitting system can be adjusted in response to real-time data and enable the management of spaces to be informed by what people actually want, based on their activities, rather than what planners think they want, based on past trends.

Finally, this new regime should increase the capacity of planning departments and scarce, qualified planning officers to tackle the more important strategic and placemaking demands they face by freeing them from managing the externalities of different land uses.

A responsive regime

The obvious question is, are these wide-ranging changes worth all the potential effort and upheaval? The outcome of this approach should be that all the existing safeguards remain in place but are achieved through the most appropriate regulatory regime. Planning would set the broad land-use and placemaking framework, and the new licensing and permitting regime control the detailed activity and its potential externalities.

Targeted licensing and permitting has the potential to respond in a better and more responsive way to our changing world. The planning system would be simpler, and the licensing and permitting regime would develop a new, more comprehensive role in managing town centres and other important non-town centre activities such as employment, residential and institutions for instance, that have the potential to cause nuisance or harm. Importantly, all the controls would be exercised democratically through the local authority. The POS thinks that it would be worth the effort.

The future will bring significant changes in land use as the world becomes totally connected and we rely increasingly on technology to sort, understand and consume the unlimited data available. We will all have to change – and planning needs to prepare for this new landscape.

About the POS

The POS aims to ensure that planning makes a major contribution to sustainable development in ways that are fair and equitable, and helps communities achieve their social, economic and environmental aspirations.

The society operates in 3 main ways:
  • as a support network for planners in the public sector
  • as a promoter of best practice in planning
  • as a think tank and lobbying organisation for excellence in planning practice.
Where it can, the society also works across the sector to craft proposals that have widespread support from:
  • landowners
  • developers
  • consultants
  • legal professionals
  • local authorities
  • politicians.
The organisation seeks to be both radical and practical while looking to solve a range of issues detailed in its manifesto (

Related competencies include: Big data, Planning and development management

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