By Ritchie Clapson CEng MIStructE, co-founder of propertyCEO

With the increase in online shopping we find ourselves left with redundant retail hubs in our town centres. According to Savills, around 12.5% of retail premises in the UK are vacant, with 40% of empty stores lying vacant for three years or more. Savills predict that retail vacancy will rise to 25% by the end of the decade if no action is taken.

Yet, even though the majority of high street retail units are occupied, many now house charity shops, vape stores, and the like – a far cry from the diverse and bustling retail hubs that our high streets once were. And that’s the best-case scenario. Many town centres have simply become ghettos, with an increase in both crime and poverty.

The general consensus is that our town centres have reached a crisis point. Something has to be done to prevent further decline and, if possible, to turn high streets once again into the kind of places we want to visit, and indeed look forward to visiting.  This means that many town centre buildings need to be repurposed.

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.

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 questions arise: what do we want our future high streets to look like? And how will this transformation be achieved?

Well, if retail is still to play a role, then in the absence of any need to shop in the high street, we need to create a place that shoppers want to visit. To recapture the thriving hub of activity, town centres need to become leisure destinations. They need to house restaurants, pubs and cafes, boutiques and other specialist retailers, cinemas, theatres, and sports and music venues, as well as gift and craft stores.

Residential redevelopment is the key

While it may sound counter-intuitive, the secret to achieving this revitalisation of commerce, is to make town centres more residential. With more people living in town centres, there is automatically more demand not only for local services, cafés and eateries, but also for local convenience stores and entertainment.

People like living in towns that have a vibrant high street on the doorstep. 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 that leads 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.

Historically, this residential development has been difficult due to strict planning regulations. To turn a derelict department store into apartments, for example, would require planning permission from the local planning authority (LPA) department, which are usually notoriously underfunded, overloaded and often bureaucratic.

Making redevelopment faster and easier

To speed the redevelopment process up, the government has created Permitted Development Rights (PDRs) which allow the use classes of certain types of building to change without the need for a full planning application. This makes the process much quicker and easier for developers to redevelop buildings as it reduces and sometimes removes altogether the risk of planning being refused.

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

Using the ‘Class G’ PDR, it’s possible to convert the floors above a shop to residential. Furthermore, ‘Class M’ PDR allows developers to convert the ground floor of shops up to 150m2 that are not deemed ‘prime retail’ into residential property.

What else will help get these buildings turned into new homes? In December the government proposed that, from 1st August 2021, all buildings in Use Class E can be converted to residential using a new set of Permitted Development Rights. This is the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle which, if approved, will allow us to repurpose most of the buildings in our town centre without the need for planning permission.

The wider benefits of revitalising our high streets

This new vision of the high street will not only rejuvenate our town centres it will also deliver many other benefits. For example, there is an acute housing shortage. By turning existing unused buildings into homes we’ll also be recycling our building stock, and reducing the need to develop on green-belt land. This means contributing to the preservation of our invaluable natural environments.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ritchie Clapson CEng MIStructE is a veteran property developer of almost 40 years and co-founder of propertyCEO, a nationwide property development and training company that helps people create a successful property development business in their spare time. It makes use of students’ existing life skills while teaching them the property, business, and mindset knowledge they need to undertake small scale developments successfully, with the emphasis on utilising existing permitted development rights to minimize risk and maximize returns.

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