The power of the millennial to disrupt the market is extraordinary and town planning policy is powerless to prevent this, writes Joanna Bassett
The millennial: aged somewhere between 22 and 35, we are old enough to have spent most of our school years without too many gadgets, but young enough to easily absorb all that technology has to offer. Coming of age in the nineties and noughties, we received Christmas presents from Toys R Us and Woolworths, bought our school clothes from BHS, our first CD from HMV and spent our weekends hanging out in town with our friends, browsing a Debenhams or House of Fraser. However, somewhere between the age of 15 and 20, as with everyone, our lives started to change and we made new friends: Steve, Mark and Jeff.
With these guys, we no longer needed to go to town to do those things. Steve gave us smartphones and music, Jeff gave us a shop, accessible through our phones where we can buy anything from A-Z, and Mark gave us a platform to hang out with our friends. So we’ve watched the traditional high street crumble, and felt a twinge of guilt, but not enough to put down the smartphone or empty the online shopping basket.
While we were hitting up ASOS, the long-established ‘town centre first’ approach whispered gently in the traditional retailer’s ear that all would be well because the high street will always be there for them. In the wake of the financial crisis, this was enshrined in the first National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) as part of the policy “to ensure the vitality of town centres”. The policy effectively creates a presumption against out of town retail development, the idea being that interest can be retained within the traditional high street if other options are not available.
Yet statistics show that the traditional high street is facing extinction. PWC reports that in the first half of 2018, British high streets experienced a net loss of 1,123 stores compared to 222 across the same period in 2017. In the context of the high street, the ‘town centre first’ approach is failing because the choice it offers is artificial. Today, the choice isn’t limited to the high street or a retail park, but also the internet. And the internet is far more seductive to a tech-savvy millennial than a trek to a dying high street.
The initiatives in the draft London Plan and recent budget should therefore be welcomed. The Mayor of London wants town centres to be “inclusive and viable hubs for a diverse range of uses including employment, business space, shopping, culture, leisure, night-time economy, tourism, civic, community, social infrastructure and residential development”.
The Chancellor has announced plans to facilitate such a transformation across the UK by extending permitted development rights. Economists everywhere rejoice as the planning system is finally forced to embrace the basic tenants of portfolio management. Done well, the high street will no longer experience the seasonal trade of a seaside resort, but transform to benefit from a diversity of uses, drawing millennials out from the comfort of their screens to meet for brunch in an insta-worthy pop-up, before getting a few hours work done in a co-working space above their favourite yoga studio.
The radical change in our approach to shopping has also transformed the logistics sector and the new powers may assist in easing the burden on this sector by allowing conveniently located final mile logistics facilities. This may be too radical a change for local authorities to embrace, however, Lichfields has identified local plan policies as one of the most critical success factors in support of the growth of final mile logistics.
The burden on the logistics sector of course extends beyond the high street. Pressure for final mile solutions has inspired hundreds of start-ups offering innovative means of getting products to our front doors, including an array of drones and droids but at present few places have the infrastructure to make these viable. The pace at which technology evolves and the power of the millennial as the largest consumer group to drive this change requires flexible policy which complements new technology rather than frustrates it.
Many lessons should be learned from earlier attempts to maintain the status quo. The power of the millennial to disrupt the market is extraordinary and town planning policy is powerless to prevent this.