Running On Empty - Shops Into Homes?

A week in the north of England has convinced me of one thing - there may be no way back for the Great British High Street. But might our empty shops help our housing crisis?

We are all familiar with claims that 21st century local shopping areas appear to consist mainly of estate agents’ offices, charity shops and mobile telephone sellers. But even these users are not plentiful enough to fill the gaps that exist in local retail these days.

- A report by the Local Data Company claims 30 per cent of Stockport’s shops are empty, with nearly as many voids in Nottingham, Grimsby, Wolverhampton and Blackburn;

- The LDC’s survey, of 700 British town centres, shows an average 14.3 per cent vacancy rate, suggesting even ‘affluent’ southern locations are being affected;

- Government data shows the proportion of UK retail spending in ‘local’ stores outside of dedicated retail centres was 50 per cent in 2000 but is 42.5 per cent now. The prediction is that the figure will drop below 40% by 2014;

- The British Council of Shopping Centres claims 20 per cent of UK shopping malls have a vacancy rate greater than the ‘worst case’ level set out in their business plans;

- The FT claims that 50 per cent of UK small shop leases will come up for renewal in the next seven years so business-people will have difficult decisions to make, possibly leading to an acceleration in the number of local shops closing.

More, better and cheaper car parking would help, of course. Mary Portas’s suggestions for cosmetic improvements and integrating entertainment with shopping would assist, too.

But isn’t this tinkering around the edges? In your heart of hearts, would you stop ordering books on Amazon or downloading music from iTunes if the car parking fees fell from £1.50 an hour to £1 at your local town? Would you really shun those out of town Tesco and Waitrose stores if there was a rota of busking singers outside the greengrocers?

These days even local food producers are recognising that the way to sell their wares is via the farm shop equivalent of out-of-town stores (like this one and this one). The trend away from the local high street looks inevitable to me, whether we like it or not.

So why not encourage at least some of the long-term empty shops to be converted to homes? The idea would not work everywhere and will incur the wrath of local councils which these days put more stock by promoting private businesses than by providing homes for their citizens, but why not have a flexible approach to change of use?

It might just make a dent in our housing shortage, and make our local high streets a little less ugly into the bargain.

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