There was a time when residential was residential and retail was retail – but only for short time, in the latter part of the 20th and early 21st century. We could see a return to the days when our high streets were a dynamic mix of shops and homes and businesses. The boardroom dramas being played out on our high streets can create a fertile environment for positive change. There are too many shops and not enough homes and empty retail outlets could provide a solution.
Cumulatively, the number of CVAs and closing restaurants creates a depressing picture. At one end of the scale the percentage of empty shops in the high street stands at 24%**. Digital shopping hasn't helped but these high levels are more frequently found in communities challenged by a toxic cocktail of problems. The gloom isn't universal. Businesses with a good proposition, outstanding service and a considered digital strategy are expanding and thriving. At the other end of the scale the percentage of empty shops is 8%, perhaps more widely representative of a society adjusting to the reality of technology's impact on the way we shop, and indeed the way we live.
The route back to urban living is well documented and especially marked amongst young adults. Home ownership isn't an option for many; renting gives a useful flexibility at this stage in life. City centres mean a range of amenities, without the need for a car. Richard Pickering, Cushman & Wakefield's Head of Futures Strategy, describes one sort of future home that is essentially just a bedroom and bathroom, with communal spaces for eating, relaxing and shared storage. Co-living is as much an emerging theme as co- working.
General Permitted Development (GPD) allows the conversion of empty offices into apartments and we are now going to see more conversion of shops into residential. Currently, though, it only allows a small scale response to a bigger problem. Planning permission is restricted to 150sqm cumulatively in any building – approximately equivalent to five studio apartments. In some city centres some of these shops will also fall within designated retail areas. There is some support for flexibility from the new NPPF: "Planning policies should recognise that residential development often plays an important role in ensuring the vitality of centres and encourage residential development on appropriate sites."
Survival demands we adapt and work together. GPD is best applied in the context of a local plan, formulated by those with the right local knowledge and revisited regularly. And value from investment in real estate is more and more about nimble and collaborative management.
**Centre for Cities
There was a time when residential was residential and retail was retail – but it was only a short time, in the latter part of the twentieth and early twenty first century. Before then our high streets were a dynamic mix of shops and homes and businesses and it seems we are returning to that state. The boardroom dramas being played out on our high streets can create a fertile environment for positive change. There are too many shops and not enough homes and the British Property Federation (BPF) sees "a huge opportunity from the empty retail outlets".