Are our town centres destined to become predominantly residential zones? James Parker investigates this growing trend

Last week we experienced, depending on your point of view, what was either an exciting Christmas present-buying opportunity, or the blatant retailer-driven frenzy that is Black Friday. 

However ‘frenzy’ might be overstating it. The hopes of high street retailers that it would help to provide some kind of salvation have again reportedly been dashed by the Internet as shoppers tried to find bargains online rather than head out in the cold weather.

This is yet another depressing sign that high streets in particular are doomed – even massive savings can’t persuade people to go into shops.

Will this ‘out of the box’ thinking help meet housebuilding targets?

James Parker James Parker Editor of Housebuilder & Developer

They have a cunning plan

However, the Government has recognised what is both a social as well as economic catastrophe on the horizon for many towns.

Despite Brexit taking up 99 per cent of its time, it’s also mindful of the equally daunting need to build 300,000 homes a year, and so has hatched a cunning plan.

The Future Streets Fund, announced in the recent Budget, was actually the result of a report by Sir John Timpson, he of the key cutting and dry cleaning outlets, who knows a thing or two about high streets.  

Another report, Homes on our High Streets, done by the hard-lobbying Federation of Master Builders in 2017, must take some credit too.

Terminal decline

James Brokenshire, Housing Minister, has managed to find £675m to support the project, recognising that “high streets lie at the heart of our communities and local economies, creating jobs, nurturing small businesses and injecting billions of pounds into our economy”.

The bottom line is, facing terminal decline, many high streets need propping up to stop them terminally becoming empty, unloved places. At the same time, millions need somewhere to live.

The not-inconsiderable fund will be used to “support the renewal and reshaping of high streets and town centres,” to become desirable places to live again.

It will co-fund infrastructure building, but also “investment in land assembly, including to support the densification of residential and work space around high streets in place of under-used retail units.”

Are there enough left?

So, those sad, empty stores could soon become housing, surrounded by amenities and public transport, meaning that a lot of the difficult settlement-building work is already done.

Although creating a decent community is far from simply refurbishing a building in an already established urban area, this concerted central effort is a major momentum-starter.

While many office and light industrial to resi conversions have happened in towns over the past few years, following the change in Permitted Development rights freeing up planning, retail to resi is the missing link, and a ‘win win’.

Arguably, office to resi conversions may have peaked, falling to 6,196 from 17,751 in 2016-17. There simply may not be enough appropriate locations left to convert.

Financial security blanket

The government “wants to encourage vibrant town centres where people live, shop, use services, and spend their leisure time”.

With developers notoriously wary to tackle what may be seen as ‘risky’ investment (i.e. of the non-three bedroom house on a greenfield site variety) hopefully the Future High Streets Fund will be part of the financial security blanket that carries us forward.

With 14 shops reportedly closing every day currently, it’s probably the only deal worth pursuing for many town centres.

It may also be the vital bit of ‘out of the box’ thinking that is needed to get close to the seemingly impossible housebuilding target the industry faces.

James Parker is editor of Housebuilder & Developer magazine.