A line of continuous shops, what planners tend to call ‘primary frontage’ was not the historical norm in most town centres till late Victorian times. If you go to market towns that have no had massive growth, to places such as Hungerford or Olney (pictured) you find shops scattered amongst houses. But because the plot widths are small it doesn’t matter, you don’t have to walk too far between shops. As the demand for shops grew in Victorian times, and Centre became accessible by train and tram, the pressure for more shops grew. Front gardens were taken up by shops. Medieval buildings were refronted and ground floors converted to shops. Cast iron building techniques allowed much larger units.
In the 20th Century the demand for shopping squeezed out most other land uses. Large areas of mixed use and housing were redeveloped for large footprint shopping centres. Equally many areas saw inner ring roads developed wasteful of land and blighting all plots along them. The threat of out of down centres in the 1980s drove large numbers of schemes. Many of these are no in trouble, though incomes have shrunk fixed costs have not and many secondary shopping centres are unviable and are ripe for redevelopment.
Now we have a surplus of shopping floorspace. Estimated at over 20% possibly 30% or higher in poorer towns.
This presents an enormous opportunity for restructuring our town centres, putting back in the housing, workshops, hotels, leisure an community facilities, improving the public realm and greenspaces. We see many examples of local planning authorities rationalising two shopping centres to one or redeveloping with a more sustainable amount of retail, like Nantwich, or Stockton with its plan to redevelop a Paulson era shopping centre on its medieval high street (the widest in England) as a Park. I would have preferred though if they restored its frontage and built a riverside park behind.
This requires careful design though. It would be a disaster to do it by PD. The new proposed changes would allow change of use, but not removing or redesigning the shop frontage. So we will see flats blacked out by screens behind, meeting the prior approval test of having windows but those windows being unusable. Personally unless it is fine shopfront I would rather the Victorian frontage was taken out and fenestration matching the upper floors and suitable for domstic use was used.