“Live above shops, not in them!”

by Prof Cathy Parker

Over the course of the last twenty years or so, footfall in our town centres has been falling. The decline started with the growth of out-of-town shopping and has been accelerated by the Internet. Not only does the Internet give us on-line shopping, it also offers a huge array of other services, like banking, holidays, and insurance – and, be default, many more reasons not to go to town. Finally, our politicians gave us austerity, which closed down libraries, youth centres and left even more empty buildings.

…a residential conversion is doing about as much in terms of the vitality and viability of the high street as it was as an empty commercial unit.

Around 10% of town centre commercial properties are now vacant. But, only 376 retail properties were converted to residential in 2018/19. This figure seems startling low, against the backdrop of a housing crisis, and even more surprising when you realise it is 17% down on the retail-to-resi numbers in 2017/18. But, there is reason why councils are not keen to support this type of change of use. Putting it bluntly, a residential conversion is doing about as much in terms of the vitality and viability of the high street as it was as an empty commercial unit.

…accurately designating space for residential needs careful planning.

Shops, pubs, libraries, banks, offices activate a town centre. Houses don’t. Whilst the new residents are certainly likely to use town centre services, they are, in effect, occupying valuable space that will no longer provide employment, generate income and attract footfall. Of course with changes in the way we shop and live it is only to be expected our town centres will adapt. Not all the vacant commercial space will be re-let. But, some vacancy is a result of landlords finding it hard to adjust to the shorter lease lengths and lower rents new tenants (especially independents) demand. Other empty units are currently too big to be let, but will attract retailers and other commercial uses (such as co-working space) if they are repurposed and sub-divided. It’s important we don’t lose commercial space in places where it is needed.

Government policy is now focused on transforming town centres into ‘multifunctional hubs’, with housing, health, employment and other uses replacing retail.

Of course, not all vacant commercial space will be re-let but if we are going to attract more people to live in town centres then it makes sense to have them living above the shops, not in them. This way ground-floor frontages can be kept for commercial and public service use. If commercial property is going to be repurposed for housing, or retirement homes etc. then this conversion should only be sanctioned in secondary areas, where retail and other commercial uses are never going to return. But accurately designating space for residential needs careful planning. Government policy is now focused on transforming town centres into ‘multifunctional hubs’, with housing, health, employment and other uses replacing retail. There is significant funding available that, spent wisely, can reinvent our towns. This coupled with other trends such as young people driving less means that we could see more people attracted to live in and around our towns, and walk and cycle into them. These people will expect a town centre with a healthy core, full of the shops and other services.  They will not be attracted to live in or around where this core has been ‘hollowed out’ by residential conversions.