RICS highlights the ‘High Street’ dilemma: How to save the UK high street and repurpose in face of online retail

shopping areaThe RICS website has featured an article from its Modus publication on town centres, by built environment journalist Mark Smulian, that asks if there is ‘any purpose in ‘defending’ something once its economic purpose fades?’.

image: Joanna Theobald

Mark Smulian writes:

For planners and the property industry, the idea of a town centre no longer being the focus of retail and commercial activity demands some careful reassessment, as does the challenge of sustaining ‘retail-led’ regeneration – a staple of pre-crash urban renewal. It might, for example, involve planning for residential, leisure, education and healthcare where shops once stood, creating a town centre that people still visit but only incidentally for retail.

Famous UK retail names that have vanished in the past year include Toys R Us, Maplin and Poundworld. HMV is on the brink. The Centre for Retail Research reports that 43 retailers bit the dust in 2018, affecting 2,594 stores: more than the total for 2016 and 2017 combined. Furthermore, research by Paul Michael Greenhalgh, professor of real estate and regeneration at Northumbria University, found that between 2008 and 2015, total retail floorspace shrank in all but five local authorities in England and Wales, from 1.69bn ft2 (157m m2) to 1.23bn ft2 (114m m2).

The UK’s love of online still makes it an outlier compared with many other developed countries, but the direction of travel is only going one way. E-commerce sales represent 18% of the UK market – and 25% of all fashion sales – and are predicted to grow at a faster rate (15%) than other Western European countries between 2017 and 2021.

High streets have clung on against the internet onslaught through shops that provide personal services or items that are required immediately – hairdressers, coffee bars and convenience stores, for example – but those alone cannot sustain a town centre. Planners must seek solutions to keep these spaces vibrant and prevent them becoming decrepit once declining retail brings empty premises. In the battle for the soul of the high street, the best form of defence is to adapt.

Former Iceland chief executive Bill Grimsey, who has conducted two reviews for the government on the state of the UK high street, says: ‘Plans for town centres have to change. The key is community, not retail, and it’s a broader issue than shops. Forget retail dependency and instead encourage local authorities to plan unique places to live, work, play and shop, prioritising health, education, eating out, leisure and housing. It’s useless to resist [change], as by 2030 about 30% of all shopping will be online. The whole argument that town centres can be fixed with shops is flawed’ he says….

One place that applied similar thinking is Kingston upon Hull, says the city’s planning manager, Alex Codd. The council fought off an application for a large out-of-town retail project by showing that the city centre had sufficient sites for any additional retailing…

Hull is helped by having no competing urban centre nearby, but some former industrial areas in close proximity to each other face greater difficulty ‘One shouldn’t generalise, as some high streets are doing fine, but for others it’s an ugly tale of no longer being fit for purpose when the world has moved on around them,’ says Stephen Springham, partner and head of retail research at Knight Frank. ‘It’s a particular problem in older industrial towns where the population has declined over, say, 50 years and there is surplus floorspace’…

According to Centre for Cities, among the options that councils should consider are: intervening to supply small amounts of new office space for more export-based businesses; converting the excess supply of shops into residential and office uses or, where demand for this type of property is low, demolitions to return the land to the public realm; and reforming business rates …

If the future high street is a mix of residential, leisure, education, health and what remains of retail, then a move away from traditional thinking to a more flexible approach to planning use classes is required… The problem for planners is that they now have to think about the long-term for high streets as the economies that have sustained them for a century shift quickly…

This article originally appeared in The Cash Issue of RICS’ Modus (March 2019), titled ‘Everything Must Go’.

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