A forlorn hope

The residential conversion of a vacant shop on the high street of a Gloucestershire market town has been allowed, an inspector judging that a return to retail use was a forlorn hope (DCS Number 400-026-563).

The inspector considered that conflict with development plan policy weighed heavily against granting planning permission. Nevertheless, he recorded that the National Planning Policy Framework sets out that  town centres should be allowed to grow and diversify in a way that can respond to rapid changes in the retail industry and allow a suitable mix of uses, including housing.

The inspector noted that the premises were last used for retail purposes in 2017. A lengthy period of time had therefore elapsed since they had made any meaningful contribution to the local economy and the vitality of the town centre. In addition, the appellant stated that the premises were no longer suitable for retail purposes due to the prohibitive cost of retrofitting the listed building for modern retail use and for obtaining the minimum energy performance certificate. The inspector recognised that the internal arrangement of the premises, its heritage interest, the limited floorspace and the steps leading up from the footway to the entrance were all constraints that were likely to deter any potential retailers from occupying the building.

Whilst the planning authority was critical that no marketing details had been submitted, the inspector noted that there was no suggestion that the premises had been deliberately left vacant for the purposes of securing residential use, and there was no evidence to demonstrate that the cessation of retail use from the site had had any significant adverse impact upon the vitality of the town centre or the local economy. Moreover, he continued, since the application was made there had been a material change in circumstances following the COVID-19 pandemic. This has had a major impact upon the economy and retail activity, including a significant increase in on-line shopping.

The inspector reasoned that whilst there will almost certainly be an economic recovery, the future for town centre retailing is very far from clear. Given the above-noted constraints and the length of time that had elapsed since the premises were last used for retail purposes, he considered that a re-use of the building for retail purposes appeared to be a rather forlorn hope. He held that the proposal would avoid the premises remaining empty for a further indefinite period of time, and the occupiers of the dwelling would almost certainly support retail businesses within the town centre and help support the local economy. He found that there was greater force in the appellant’s argument that the proposal would not harm the vitality of the town centre.

The inspector concluded overall that the proposal would be unlikely to harm the vitality of the town centre or the local economy.

Section 10.3312 of DCP Online covers the subject of the loss of shops to residential use.