Thursday, 8 September 2011

Too Many High Streets?

My home town is a small dormitory town in Essex. It has a thriving High Street and always has, yet there are still empty units and more than its fair share of charity shops. If I look at the units in use, there’s two supermarkets plus an Iceland, several bakers, estate agents, coffee shops, a record store, clothing shops, newsagents, a library – pretty much everything you need. It thrives despite very poor public transport and pretty poor parking facilities.

So, all types of shop are covered, there’s plenty of shoppers but there’s under-used or empty units about. Is this an indication of tough times in the economy? No, but to the casual observer empty units and charity shops hardly contribute to making us feel good about our local shopping areas. The same could be said of my local community shopping centre where I live now just outside of Leeds – a 1960’s mall full inside of great shops and lots of shoppers but lots of empty units on the outside. Drive past and you’d think the place was condemned and deserted – inside, you’ll be knocked over by the swarms of pensioners on their mobility scooters!

Britain over the last 20 years has gone retail space crazy. Every small scale development seems to create more and more units with no prospective tenants. These assume that new entrepreneurs will pop up from nowhere and existing ones will upsticks for the usually more expensive shiny new premises. Both assumptions have little basis in reality and actually can damage existing businesses by making their end of town look less attractive. In some extremes, the units lay dormant – near the very run-down district of Burmantofts in Leeds, an overly ambitious developer has built a block of apartments with 12 units on the ground floor - less than a two minute walk from a scruffy but well established shopping area called Lincoln Green. Only one unit is let, to an estate agent trying to sell the apartments. All other units now have overstickers on their To Let signs promising “ALL OFFERS CONSIDERED”.

This is being repeated across the country, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, we apparently have a housing shortage (Call for action on housing 'crisis' 30th August http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-14708841) as the big builders want to get back to ripping up greenbelt in the name of helping society. Surely the answer lies on our High Streets? The clear excess of retail stock would often make ideal space for regeneration and conversion to housing, often reverting back to older buildings’ original purpose. Not only would this provide an improvement in the aesthetics of an area, but also support the remaining retailers by providing them with a larger local population. True, some of the units may not be suitable for our househunters – parking , for example, could be an issue – but none of the problems would be any worse than those faced by new residents of the shiny new blocks springing up across our cities.

Perhaps what we need is a social housing style deal for developers. I'm not against regeneration as despite protestors against larger schemes, it's only carrying on something that has been going on for centuries - many High Streets were formed after markets were "developed" into permanent shops. However, councils need to be able to tie in developments better as part of a grander plan for their towns and cities. Limits should be placed on the net increase in retail units in towns where occupancy rates are below, say, 80% while a certain ercentage of any new development should be small units at rents no more than 10% above the town average for existing similar space. There was a trend for something like this at the end of the 1980's - even Basildon's Eastgate Centre, a testament to Thatcher era excess, had its "Galleries" floor which created space for small businesses. Locking it in by law would perhaps give us all a sense of pride in our towns and cities again and avoid the way we create retail wastelands outside the walls of our shiny new developments.

Mary Portas's review is due out soon and the lobby groups are either asking for more freedom in development or more support for businesses. As with many issues in the UK, we have a very polarised set of viewpoints and some frankly poor quality stats that create a scarry vision of the world. The Local Data Company's report on vacancy rates reports as a percentage, which continues to increase. However, when you consider the non-big 6 retailers who have their outlet data shown on Retail Week's Knowledge Bank, they've increased their units by over 57%, many of which will be new builds.

Do I have the solution? Of course not, I'm just a lowly retail professional. But I do realise that a different kind of solution is needed to first of all solve the existing problem and then ensure we break out of the cycle of building new space and discarding the old space without any thoughts for what will become of it.

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