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The future of our high streets

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The future of our high streets

Vision – City of culture

Addressing the future of our high streets links to the outcome in the 2040 vision of Exeter being a city of culture. Ensuring the continued vitality of the city centre and other high streets will require a wider variety of uses in these locations with cultural activities being increasingly important.

Vision – Liveable and connected

Addressing the future of our high streets links to the outcome in the 2040 vision of Exeter being a liveable and connected city. Ensuring the continued vitality of the city centre and other high streets will mean that communities can thrive and build identity around their local centres.

Objective: Enhance the vitality of the city centre and our other high streets so they continue to provide a key role in our day-to-day lives supporting communities, prosperity and cultural identity. Helping to deliver the strategic priorities of promoting active and healthy lifestyles and building great neighbourhoods.

Introduction 

Our high streets are changing. Traditionally centres for retail and work, in recent years the growth of internet shopping has dramatically changed how we use the city centre and our smaller high streets in local communities. This change has accelerated since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic meaning that we need a greater focus on the vitality of our high streets so that they continue to play an important role in how we live our lives in future during the day and into the evening. Shopping is likely to be just one part of this future – a greater variety of uses need to be included in the future city centre to widen its attractiveness as a destination. 

Chapter Summary

The policy in this section seeks to secure a successful future for the city centre, and for local and district centres located throughout the city and providing a wide variety of facilities and services to communities.

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Policy HS1 seeks to enhance the vitality of the city centre and other local centres so they continue to provide a key role in our day-to-day lives supporting communities, prosperity and cultural identity. This could include providing a greater variety of uses, extending hours of activity and delivering attractive spaces. Policy HS1 will also place strict control on the development of retail outside of the city, district and local centres.

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The vitality of our high streets and centres

The city centre


One of the key reasons for the success of Exeter is its city centre. The city centre streets and public spaces contain a rich mix of historic buildings, thriving businesses, homes, shops and offices, making it a vibrant and bustling place to visit and work.  Despite the impact of Covid-19 which has had a very real impact on a lot of cities, footfall in Exeter city centre has recovered well and vacancy rates are relatively low. This reflects Exeter’s status as regional centre for a large surrounding area. 


There are, however, opportunities to improve the city centre by providing a greater variety of uses, developing cultural activity, show-casing the historic environment further, bringing nature into the heart of the city, providing more public space, supporting markets and improving sustainable travel links. In taking these ideas forward, we need to ensure that the success of the city centre does not stagnate, that it is resilient to withstand future changes without losing its vitality and interest, that it is visited for longer periods of time throughout the day and night and that it is home to a wider variety of retail including independent shops. Because we recognise the importance of this issue, one of the key strands of the spatial strategy is to focus development in areas close to the city centre. 


The City Council is currently working on a new city centre strategy which will set the direction for the city centre over the coming years, as a place to live, work, visit, shop, study and socialise. This work is reflected in the Exeter Plan. 


Looking forward it will be vital to widen the way the city centre is used. It will need to provide liveable spaces which are attractive and people-friendly so that the whole community wants to spend time there. It will need to be effectively connected to the rest of the city and its neighbourhoods so that people can travel there easily. It will need to be the cultural heart of the city, building on local identity and providing appropriate venues and public spaces to enable culture to flourish. It will need to celebrate the historic environment and local character through the provision of high quality buildings and public spaces, ensuring that heritage assets, their settings and historic streetscapes are conserved and enhanced. It will need to diversify to cater for the needs of everyone so that the whole community want to spend time there and so that it can respond to future change. And finally, it will need to provide more homes and jobs, reducing the need to travel and making use of the facilities there to provide a genuinely liveable neighbourhood. Policy HS1 sets out the key requirements in order to achieve this successful future for the city centre.


Our district and local centres


While the city centre plays a crucial, strategic role for Exeter and the wider area, our district and local centres provide the shops, facilities and services which are used by our communities on a daily basis. The district centres sit between the local centres and the city centre and provide a wide variety of facilities and services. The local centres are located across the city, are smaller and provide a more limited, yet vital, range of facilities and services. 


A high-level review of the city’s centres has been undertaken. This has resulted in a small number of additional local centres being identified. Some of the exiting local centres have also been renamed to clarify their location. The revised list of district and local centres is set out below:

District centres


  • Topsham 
  • Heavitree 
  • St. Thomas 

Local centres

  • Northern end of Sidwell Street / Blackboy Road 
  • Mount Pleasant 
  • Magdalen Road 
  • Topsham Road - Countess Wear  
  • Beacon Lane 
  • Polsloe Bridge 
  • Pinhoe 
  • Whipton 
  • Exwick 
  • Isleworth Road

Additional local centres identified:

  • Alphington
  • The Quay and Canal Basin
  • Burnthouse Lane
  • Topsham Road - St Leonard’s
  • Countess Wear

The strategic brownfield development sites such as Water Lane will need to provide for a mix of local facilities alongside housing. As a result, the list of district and local centres may be reviewed in future as these strategic developments build-out. 


Ensuring that these centres continue to thrive will reduce the need to travel and increase the potential for access on foot and cycle. This will mean that the centres will continue to support people in living active lives. They will also need to continue offering local employment and foster strong local identities and community spirit. Finally, the centres will provide easily accessible local facilities to the whole community helping to reduce inequalities.


The changing way people live their lives and use local facilities will have an impact on how our district and local centres need to evolve over time. Similar to the city centre, these centres will need to provide for a greater variety of uses so they are resilient and can respond to change. On this basis, they will need to provide for more than just shopping. Policy HS1 will enable this greater flexibility over time. Revisions to the planning Use Class Order made in 2020 grouped a much larger variety of commercial uses in Class E. Retail, food and drink, financial and professional services and various other commercial uses are now grouped together. Planning permission is not required for changes of use within the same use class. This means that many types of business user will be able to change the uses of properties without seeking planning permission.

Out of centre retail

During the 1980s and 1990s many towns and cities experienced significant growth in out-of-town shopping centres. This trend allowed customers to travel by car to large stores with lots of parking. This pattern of shopping played a role in reducing the success of city and town centres in a similar way to the growth of online shopping more recently. Out of centre shopping discourages active travel and limits the associated health benefits, it relies on car use which will make achieving our net zero ambitions very challenging, it is very land-hungry and often leads to the creation of low quality places. Finally, out of centre shopping can lead to challenging inequalities because of the potential to exclude those groups who cannot afford the costs of car travel. 


Policy HS1 recognises these issues and places strict control on the development of retail proposals outside of the city, district and local centres. As set out earlier, the strategic brownfield development sites identified in the plan are likely to require some retail as part of a wider mix of uses. 

HS1: The vitality of our high streets and centres (Strategic policy)

The vitality, viability and resilience of the city centre, district centres and local centres will be protected, maintained and enhanced to contribute to growing prosperity, to provide services which communities need and to minimise the need to travel. 

A mixture of uses will diversify the offer of the city centre, extend its hours of activity, enhance the night-time and visitor economy, improve its cultural offer and ensure its future resilience as the major centre for the sub-region. Attractive public spaces and high quality provision for active travel and public transport will provide vibrant places for people and increase footfall.

Development proposals for retail provision will be encouraged in the primary shopping area and supported elsewhere in the city centre and the district and local centres. Development proposals for commercial, residential, entertainment, leisure, cultural, tourism, hospitality, experiential, educational, health and employment uses, including temporary installations for stalls, markets and outdoor dining, will be supported in the city, district and local centres where there is robust evidence that they would:

  1. Provide a complementary mix of uses to support the retail function of those centres; 
  2. Enhance the viability, vitality and resilience of those centres; and
  3. Protect and enhance the cultural, historic and natural environment of the centres. 

Small scale comparison and convenience retail provision of up to 500 square metres sales floor area will be supported as part of a wider mix of uses at the strategic brownfield allocations. Small scale convenience retail provision of up to 500 square metres sales area will be supported at the other predominantly residential allocations.   

Outside of the city centre, district centres, local centres and strategic brownfield development allocations proposals for town centre uses of more than 500 square metres will not be permitted unless the proposals meet the sequential test and, for retail and leisure developments, it can be clearly demonstrated in a robust impact assessment that the proposals will not have a negative impact on investment in, or the vitality and viability of, the city, district and local centres.

Development proposals in the city, district and local centres for retail, commercial, entertainment, leisure, cultural, hospitality, educational, health, employment and residential uses will be supported where they provide for a complementary mix of uses and enhance the viability, vitality and resilience of those centres.  

Large scale retail proposals outside of the city centre, district centres and local centres will not be permitted.

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