Another set of solutions for how to save the high street was added to the mix last Thursday, with the publication of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s report. Having consulted with the retail and property industries and local government, the committee suggests a wide range of ideas, among which tax reform is given most attention.
But there is little acknowledgement in the report that the performance of high streets varies significantly across the UK. This means that the committee’s diagnosis of the “four systemic issues” causing high street decline is missing some crucial underlying factors. The fact that some high streets thrive, despite the rise in online shopping and the business rates system, reveals that something else is to blame.
Centre for Cities’ work shows that it’s the weak economic situation in many city centres that leads to low footfall and spending power, and ultimately empty shops. By omitting this, the report fails to provide adequate recommendations to revive high streets.
What we agree on: Cities have a role to play in the development of less retail-focused high streets
The report is right to identify oversupply of retail as one of their “systemic issues”. Many city centres across the UK have too many shops and need a rebalance away from this reliance on retail towards a more balanced mix of offices, homes, food, drink and leisure.
High streets with lower vacancy rates have already made this shift, with shops being replaced by restaurants, offices and gyms. Take Leeds and Doncaster as contrasting examples. In Leeds city centre only 21 per cent of commercial floor space is retail, compared with 43 per cent in Doncaster. But despite being dominated by shops, nearly one in five are empty.
In city centres with strong customer demand, this shift is taking place organically, led by the private sector, but elsewhere it needs help to get going. As the committee suggests, the public sector has a role to play in this. Local authorities will need to step in to redevelop vacant and poor quality space where private sector interest is low or act as a coordinator between partners to ensure the redesign suits local needs and shifting customer preferences.
Another area covered by the report is planning. On the one hand, they propose creating a more flexible system, for example by updating use classes to better help the high street adapt. But they also recommend an end to permitted development rights (PDR) and return of power to local planners. While we agree for city centres, and suggest all are offered PDR exemptions to protect their commercial space, the policy can helpfully prompt change in other parts of the country. So we recommend PDR remains in place outside city centres where competition for space is less intense.