Have we been holding onto retail space out of a misplaced sense of tradition and preservation, to the detriment of adapting to a changing environment?
The British high street has long since been a cornerstone in how we perceive, and ultimately structure, our villages, and towns. At the heart of every community there is a high street, full of shops you pop into once a year for a browse, and a chippie – oh, and of course, your Local. I grew up in a village in the depths of rural Kent, with maybe 200 occupants (well closer to 7,000 but it doesn’t feel like it) and two main streets.
Like most village high-streets, we had the essentials; a butcher, a baker, greengrocers, 2 pubs, 10+ needlessly expensive homeware stores run by bored middle-class mums, an off-license, and a Co-op. In 2016, we even managed to bag ourselves a Costa. But now it feels like every other shop front is empty. With rents rising and footfall decreasing, many independent stores can’t stay viable anymore.
This will be a familiar story to most people. It is no secret that the High Street and Town Centres have been struggling over the past 30 years. Why go down the road to the butcher and stop off at the baker when you go to Tesco’s and do your whole weekly shop in one go? If your local supermarket has a meat counter, a fish counter, a cheese counter, and a bakery, why bother trekking around three or four separate shops?
Combine that with the rise of e-commerce (Amazon is a glorious and terrible thing) and high-street shops suddenly look, well, a little superfluous. Covid-induced Lockdown is the final nail in the coffin, seeing off an already sinking ship. Not just independent store-owners, now even the behemoths are feeling the strain; John Lewis has recorded a 23% profit slump this year, and M&S have come in with a £52m drop as a result of Coronavirus.
There is a lot about this situation that is desperately sad – independent shops are struggling to make their livelihood, and the hit on larger brands is seeing chains shut and jobs lost. For years there have been increasing gaps in the high street and it is a problem that people have long tried to address.
But have these attempts been hampered by a very British desire to try and revive this dying breed without making any actual changes? We have been casting about for solutions, whilst being reluctant to repurpose this vacant space with something more viable, and in greater demand.
In the meantime, shop fronts have stood empty. There are reasons for this reticence – we think of high streets as being a retail hub, and want to preserve the space, even as shops fail and buildings become vacant. For years, retail was seen as being in high demand and we put aside more and more space for it, binding it up with protective policies to keep retailers in our high streets. But leaving the shops empty and hoping for the best hasn’t seemed to have got us very far.
We need to redefine exactly what it is we think high streets are. James Singer of Nexus Planning points out, that although we tend to think of high streets as being retail spaces, historically they were centres of commerce, with businesses alongside stores. As James succinctly puts it, ‘we need to let go of the idea that the high-street needs to be a retail nirvana’.
There’s just not enough footfall in our town centres and high streets to make the level of available retail space viable – our focus should be on identifying areas of interest in individual town centres and catering to that to drive up foot traffic. If a town is going to respond particularly well to a children’s indoor soft climbing space for instance, then the leeway should be there to allow for that to be a reality. If parents are going into the high street to drop their child off at an indoor climbing space, the likelihood is they will stay to run any other errands or kill time, increasing presence and demand.
This extends to increasing the amount of residential and office space in town centres and on high streets. In James’ view, people living and working in the immediate area is going to unavoidably drive up footfall. That will in turn lead to a demand for other services, helping to inject money into local businesses and rejuvenate the high street. If I’m trekking into the town centre for work every day, I’m going to want places to go for lunch – cafes, restaurants, and takeaways. When I’m finished for the day, I’m likely to whip around the local shops to pick up anything I need before heading home. Not to mention after-work pints – suddenly the Local is looking a lot fuller (post Lockdown of course).
There is an inevitable fear that allowing for conversions and repurposing of retail space will kill it off, and keeping any restrictive policies preventing development will protect our high streets. That cannot be the case; all that we have seen is further decline, and definitive action is needed to head off an irrevocable demise.
We need to give people the flexibility to transform empty stores into other, more desirable, ventures. What would be better, an empty disused storefront, or a new restaurant? Well, it looks like that definitive action is here – the planning amendments announced earlier this year have presented the opportunity for genuine change.
The current planning system divides land and buildings into different Use Classes based on their usage. This means that if you want to change the use of a building – say transforming an old barn into a house – you have to apply for planning permission.
As of a couple of months ago, the government has introduced a new Use Class (Class E), which groups together shops, restaurants and cafes, offices, and indoor leisure, amongst others. What does this mean? Well, any development that happens within the same Use Class doesn’t count as development at all, and doesn’t require planning permission – suddenly an old shop can easily become a new restaurant without having to go to the council first. This gives our town centres so much more flexibility to change and adapt to demand trends, hopefully giving our high streets and centres a much-needed boost.
Measures have also been put through slackening the restrictions around commercial to residential development – developers will be allowed to demolish and rebuild vacant residential and commercial properties into housing without planning permission. Whilst like most people I don’t want to see our high streets and town centres transformed into low standard housing, to see mixed-used developments of offices, homes, and shops would be exciting.
People do have concerns about the potential consequences of these Class changes. There are worries about town centres and high streets becoming merely further extensions of housing developments rather than a focal point for the community.
Making sure that towns, villages, and cities have a central point is crucial to fostering a sense of community, providing a space in which people can congregate and socialise. It’s important not to lose that. But if all a town centre has is empty shops that are even more detrimental to a sense of community.
We need to let go of our reluctance to change, evolve and adapt. The new planning changes are propelling our local councils into the present, allowing for our high streets to go through a much-needed transformation, and with this create a stronger and more robust environment for communities to thrive.