Developing The High Street


The Government’s recent initiative to streamline the planning process for change of use, from retail to residential, has been seen as a threat to the high street by some elements of the built environment community. But the reverse could be true. This may be a way of tackling the national problem of ailing high streets by following a path which sees our town centres evolve. This is in stark contrast to previous industry efforts of trying to revive the 20th century halcyon days of retail, where it often dominated to the detriment of virtually all other offerings; this was a winning formula then, but not now. Perhaps it’s time for a new strategy. One that places human beings at the heart of our town centres, which can grow to become true communities where people can live, work, raise families and grow old. It’s an appealing alternative and one that is being considered by councils in England. Intrinsic to this new equation is integrated residential living in town centres, which would ideally cater for a wide age demographic, reflecting the community it will serve.

As of 21 April 2021, the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick’s new permitted development rights will apply. Residential and commercial developers, owners of town shopping centres and high street retail owners will have a fighting chance to affect change relatively quickly, rather than having to witness the slow, painful, seemingly ever-decreasing plight of a limping high street. According to the Centre for Retail Research in 2020 there were around 50,000 fewer shops on our high streets than just over a decade ago, and this has only worsened in the wake of the pandemic. In addition, there is an argument that Jenrick’s initiative will help boost the numbers of much-needed new homes in England.

Interestingly, the element which could make this initiative truly impactful is the recent buying pattern of councils across the country over the past few years. It is reported that councils in England have spent approximately £775m on buying up shopping centres since 2016. Shopping Centre Investment Managers Ellandi found that the deals made since 2016 were for shopping centres in the councils’ own boroughs and that the majority of these purchases were made for regeneration purposes, with immediate investment returns “in many cases a secondary consideration”. Encouragingly, it is more likely that there will be a holistic approach to high street regeneration in areas where councils have bought a stake in their own town centres. It would be refreshing to see schools, medical centres and libraries sitting alongside residential and retail offerings. This would not just revitalise the high street but reinvent it.

Many councils are consulting with the local community in drawing up plans of what is needed for a 21st Century high street which will form the centre of the community. Traditionally, residential developers have sought out small bundles of land here and there, and through tenacity plus entrepreneurship thousands have successfully developed great schemes up and down the country. However, I would argue that there is now an opportunity for residential developers to reach out to local councils and offer to work in partnership with them. Establishing relationships which could lead to years of development potential, that not only financially benefit developers but increase housing stock within a wider vision of breathing life into the high street. Developers have the knowledge and experience to be a positive part of the solution by putting forward innovative residential design, which support the principles of wellbeing, energy efficiency and contribute to a lasting aesthetic legacy for future generations.

It’s important to remember one thing, before mourning the loss of the high street as we remember it at its zenith. It is us who have deserted the high street in its current form. The number of people visiting the high street has dropped by 20.5% over the past decade, according to figures from retail analyst company Springboard. I would suggest that the high street is no longer fit for purpose as a largely retail and eating destination. Brave, considered thought and courageous action is necessary to remould our high streets and town centres into vibrant communities, which provide a broad range of offerings including homes to buy and rent. We shouldn’t think it strange to live in high street communities which incorporate all that we need to thrive. In fact, it makes complete sense.