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Can Soft Play save our High Streets? Permitted development and the changing face of retail

It seems that you can barely go a week without reading a headline about the parlous state of our high streets. Stories like the recent collapse of Jamie Oliver's restaurant chain seem to dominate the news and changing shopping patterns mean that traditional retail destinations - such as high streets and shopping centres - now have to work much harder to keep our attention and our custom. 

The rapidly changing market is forcing many retail landlords, and indeed many planning authorities, to consider how to revitalise our town centres without relying on retail. 

As the Guardian reports below, the core challenge facing landlords is how to draw people into destinations, and persuade them to spend money, without the attraction of big name retail stores. 

Many of the more obvious solutions such as creating more homes in town centres, or allowing more pop-up shops and flexibility of uses, rather neatly map onto the latest revisions to the  General Permitted Development Order, which comes into force this Saturday (May 25th). You can read more about the upcoming changes here.

There is, however, another way. One that is frequently overlooked. I am, of course, talking about soft play. 

For the uninitiated, soft play areas are basically large indoor playgrounds, which look rather a lot like the set of Fun House*^. For a modest fee, parents can let their children go absolutely bananas in relative safety, whilst they have  coffee and catch up on the news, or the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Many of the more sophisticated venues also have restaurants and, occasionally, bars attached - so that you can get some food and the occasional drink - whilst the children  exhaust themselves.

Good soft play venues are always busy, attract people who are willing to spend money, and are a destination in their own right. There is also an option for the evening economy.  Inflatable obstacle courses and ball pits are brilliant fun. If you opened the bar and the restaurant in the evening, there are many 'Young at Heart' adults who would take the opportunity to relive their youth - particularly amongst those of us old enough to remember Fun House.

And the best thing about it? There is a PD Right that covers the change of use!

Class J of Part 3, Schedule 2 of the GDPO permits the change of use of up to 200 sqm of floor space from retail to assembly and leisure uses.  There is, of course, a prior approval process to go through, which addresses the impacts of noise and hours of opening,** however the Government does appear to be finally recognising the importance of leisure activities to the future of the retail sector. Not least, as it attracts people to the surrounding restaurants, cafes and shops. 

They may have been thinking more along the lines of museums, art galleries or music venues.... but I suspect that is because they have not spent a rainy weekend stuck inside with a bored child all that recently.

Saving our high streets and shopping areas will require creativity, innovation and perhaps, just perhaps, embracing the prospect of ball pits, climbing nets and giant inflatable slides.

*^ For those who were born in the 90s - here is the Fun House Wikipedia Page Children's TV was simply better in my day. Or at least involved more gunge. 

** Amongst other things.

Despite concerns about the high street, shopping centres were hardest hit last year, with a 2.2% fall in the number of outlets, compared with a 1.4% drop at traditional shopping streets.

LDC said landlords were already looking at strategies to make better use of space such as redeveloping it as homes or warehouses or bringing in leisure services such as gyms.


Stainton said: “The significant increase in structural redevelopment of retail space across 2018 indicates that landlords, place managers and councils are starting to take action to critically review how much retail stock is in the market and how much is actually required. Over the coming months, we expect this trend to increase, and with it will come a redefinition of not just our high streets, but shopping centres and retail parks too.””