The High Street Of The Future

The online retail revolution is creating a challenging legacy. We have been left with town centres that are essentially redundant retail hubs. Savills has reported that around 12.5% of the UK’s retail premises are vacant, with 40% of such stores remaining vacant for three years or more. Their prediction is that, unless action is taken, retail vacancy will rise to 25% by the end of the decade.

Although, in many cases, the majority of high street retail units are currently occupied, many have become charity shops, vape stores, and pound shops. Some town centres have simply become ghettos, with an increase in both crime and poverty.

Our town centres have reached a crisis point. Something needs to be done to stop further decline. We must use our imagination and practical ability to turn high streets into places people want to visit frequently.

Redefining the high street

Essentially there are two reasons to go shopping: either you want to go, or you have to. Yet, with the rise of out-of-town retail and e-commerce, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever have to regularly shop in the high street again. It’s far more convenient to drive to a supermarket or order items online.

Of course, there are some specialist businesses like estate agents, loan shops, opticians and dentists that still reside alongside the charity shops and vape stores. But, while these businesses may be necessary, they aren’t going to draw large crowds of regular shoppers. People don’t usually want to visit these businesses; they just have to on occasion.

So, the question arises: what do we want our high streets to look like, now that retail has gone elsewhere?

If retail is to be relevant, then in the absence of any need to go shopping in the high street, we need to create a place that people want to visit. To return to being bustling hubs of activity, town centres must become leisure destinations. They need restaurants, cafes and pubs, independent fashion stores and other specialist retailers, theatres, cinemas, music and sports venues. It will be down to small independent retailers providing an extensive range of products to create a happy place for browsers. Somewhere that people want to visit for a day trip or for an evening’s entertainment.

This sounds terrific but can it become reality? Sadly, there is no magic wand solution. On the face of it, it may seem counter-intuitive, but the secret to achieving this revitalisation of commerce is to create more residential property in town centres. When more people are living in our town centres, there will automatically be greater demand not only for local services, shops, and eateries, but also for convenience stores and entertainment.

People like living in towns that have a vibrant high street close by. So, the more residential property there is, the more independent retail there is, encouraging more residential, and so on. This could create a virtuous cycle leading to the wider regeneration of the high street.

So, how do we achieve this transformation? We need to repurpose the existing buildings in our town centres to create the right balance of homes, workspaces, retail, leisure and services operating side-by-side. But the starting point has to be residential. Because by creating attractive homes in town centres, the demand for these other shops and services follows automatically.

In the past getting permission for residential development has been difficult because of the strict planning regulations. For example, to convert an old department store into flats, planning permission from the local planning authority (LPA) department would have been required.

To remove this kind of obstacle, the government introduced Permitted Development Rights ((PDRs) which allow the use classes of certain types of building to change without going through a full planning application process, making it much quicker and more straightforward for developers.

In most cases, however, developers still need make an application. However, LPAs have far fewer criteria on which they can object and, in some cases, they have only 56 days in which to raise any objection.

The ‘Class G’ PDR makes it possible, for example, to convert the floors above a shop into residential units.  ‘Class M’ PDR allows developers to convert the ground floor of shops up to 150m2 into residential, provided it is not deemed ‘prime retail’ space.

In addition, in 2020, the government simplified the classification of various types of non-residential buildings and lumped them into a new ‘super-category’ called Class E. This means that we can change a shop into a gym, cafe, or office, without gaining explicit permission from the LPA.

What else might help create new homes?

The government has proposed that, from 1st August 2021, all buildings in Use Class E can be converted to residential use with a new set of Permitted Development Rights. If approved this will allow the repurposing of most of the buildings in our town centre without planning permission.

Benefits of a rejuvenated high street

This vision of a dynamic, vibrant high street will deliver multiple benefits beyond rejuvenating our town centres. There is an acute housing shortage, and through redevelopment, we’ll not only create new homes, but we’ll also be recycling our building stock. This will reduce the need to develop on green-belt land, helping preserve natural environments.

The new-style high street will also encourage property investors to invest in town centre premises.

The perfect moment for redevelopment 

Interestingly, there’s arguably a perfect storm brewing at the moment supporting a rejuvenation of our town centres:

  1. The government has a target of creating 300,000 new homes per annum
  2. The long-term decline of our high streets needs to be reversed
  3. The number of vacant buildings of various kinds continues to increase
  4. The pandemic plus a recession is causing more retailers to close
  5. The remaining retailers, using ‘just-in-time’ delivery, need less storage space
  6. As more businesses move to a model where more staff are working from home full time or adopt a hybrid model they have less need for centralised office space. This is likely to lead to more demand for small, local office hubs
  7. Permitted Development Rights are making it far easier for existing town centre buildings to be repurposed
  8. The entire planning system is being reviewed and changed, making it easier to create the desperately needed new homes

When you look at the whole picture it is clear that there is a huge incentive for developers, including small indie developers, to redevelop the many empty or currently under-utilised retail properties and create new homes and, for example, boutique retail spaces.