Planning regulations look set to be relaxed to help tackle the blight of empty shops and get more people living and spending in Bradford city centre.
Premises, mainly on streets close to the under-construction Westfield shopping centre, could be turned into shops, offices, restaurants or bars, without the need for a planning application – making it quicker and easier for people to set-up.
Empty floors above shops could also be converted into up to nine flats without owners having to apply for planning permission.
The city has a relatively high shop vacancy rate at 17.15 per cent – compared to the national average of 12.2 per cent – with 139 out of 765 units empty.
Although the rate is better than it was in 2003 to 2005, Bradford Council, which has devised the scheme, says vacancy rates have risen since the recession in 2008/9.
Council leader David Green said the Council was trying to make processes as “quick and seamless” as possible.
“It also allows owners and users to be able to come up with uses that maybe they’re concerned about putting in for because of the planning restraints that people perceive and sometimes do exist,” Coun Green said.
“If it works in Bradford city centre, then it’s something that we perhaps need to look at introducing in other centres throughout the district.”
The chief executive of lobbying group Bradford Breakthrough, Colin Philpott, said the proposals supported the organisation’s work.
“I’m absolutely delighted that it’s being properly considered,” he said.
“It absolutely fits in with something Bradford Breakthrough is doing which is trying to encourage more restaurants into the city centre to help drive the leisure economy, particularly the night-time economy.”
The early-stage plans will be discussed by councillors next week and if approval is given, will go out to public consultation.
John Eyles, major development manager at the Council, said the local authority would still need to be notified of any changes and building regulations would still need to be met for residential developments.
“But if you get more people living in the city centre, then they’ll shop in the city,” he said.
The flexibility is allowed under Local Development Orders (LDOs), which are promoted by the Government to promote growth by giving greater freedom from planning control locally.
Some uses would be exempt, such as hot food takeaways, arcades, betting shops and payday lenders.
Councillor Jeanette Sunderland, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, said: “It seems like good news, but wherever you have a relaxation of the planning rules, we need to have something in place to maintain quality.”
She particularly welcomed plans to encourage more people to live in the city.
The Council’s Tory group leader, Glen Miller, had mixed thoughts on the plan which he thinks has not been thought through.
“Part of me thinks it’s a good idea, but part of me thinks why just Bradford city centre? We’ve a diverse district with places like Baildon, Bingley and Ilkley,” he said.
“It shouldn’t just be Bradford city centre the whole time.”
A report about the LDOs, which will be discussed by the Regulatory and Appeals Committee next Wednesday, says the proportion of empty shops in the Market Street area has been consistently low for many years, compared to the northern end of the city.
“The LDO aims to improve occupancy levels by easing planning restrictions for new and existing businesses. It will support the vitality and viability of the city centre by allowing flexible uses of existing and vacant premises in parts of the city centre,” it said.
The LDOs would be in place for three years.