Can better targeted housing save our high streets?
As both John Lewis and Gap eye further store closures as a consequence of the pandemic and the shift in demand from offline to online, could the future of the British high street lie in the development of better targeted housing in lieu of empty shops to revitalise our town centres in the long run. Brendan Kilpatrick, Senior Partner at PRP, explains.
From Debenhams to Topshop and John Lewis, the loss of large-scale retail from our town centres might be seen as the final nail in the decline of the high-street but it can also be viewed as a catalyst for the regeneration of our town centres in the long-term. The reason for such optimism is that this apparent loss gives us a real opportunity to tackle two major issues affecting UK society, which successive Governments have failed to address.
The first, is the shortage of housing which has pushed house prices to amongst the highest in the western world and is fuelling an affordability crisis. The second is the UK’s ageing population. All our western economies share this problem but the UK has singularly failed to address this matter, creating a demographic timebomb which will have serious consequences for the economy and for those who cannot afford the appropriate type of accommodation to meet their needs in older age.
Town centres have traditionally thrived because of footfall - or the number of people using the high street. The introduction of large retail stores in town centres, where you have to drive to do your shopping, and beyond towns has had a detrimental effect on the number of people using the high street over the last four decades. Butchers and bakers have disappeared to be replaced by charity shops and bookie shops.
The re-introduction of housing within town centres will help stop this decline. The loss of rates to local councils can be off-set to a large degree by Council Tax generated from the development of new homes. These new homes should address a wide range of needs including young people wanting to rent in a residential complex, which might suit their lifestyle, large families looking to move together in multigenerational homes or flats, to bespoke accommodation for older people with associated support and care services.
This can be better for retired couples or for those in greater need, with innovative methods of cross-funding to help pay for these sorely needed homes. If constructed in sufficient volume, with less provision for cars, new footfall can be generated which in turn can help support the introduction of smaller scale retail – from shops specialising in healthy lifestyles, cycle stores and gyms to fashion stores and cafes. Butchers and bakers will then return.
The loss of big anchor stores such as Debenhams can be replaced – with something that brings added benefits in the creation of thriving, diverse, multigenerational communities at the heart of our high streets.