Rebecca McDonald reviews Labour's plans to grant local authorities control of properties empty for 12 months in a bid to revive the high street.
Last week both of the main parties set out plans to tackle the decline of the high street. While the Government’s high street fund was well covered over the bank holiday, Labour’s plans received less attention. So let’s take a look at them in more detail.
Jeremy Corbyn has promised to give local authorities control of properties which have been empty for 12 months or more in a bid to utilise some of the thousands of vacant units on British high streets.
It’s not clear exactly how the policy will work in practice. It seems the landlord will retain ownership of the property, but the council will be able to manage who uses it. Corbyn is proposing that space be offered to community groups, charities and start-ups that otherwise may not have been able to afford a town or city centre location. An empty property register would be needed to facilitate the policy – something the government is already working on.
This way of using empty property is not a new idea. In fact, the government is currently piloting a scheme called Open Doors where landlords struggling to fill properties partner with community groups and offer them cheap space. It’s very small, with just five properties being trialled across the UK, but it is exploring how feasible and successful the policy could be ahead of being rolled out more widely. Labour should take note and see what lessons can be learned.
While the policy may not be original, it is a good way to utilise vacant units. Not only would it breathe some life back into high streets in an aesthetic way, it would also bring more people into the centre of towns and cities and hopefully they will buy a coffee or a sandwich while they’re there. It is part of a wider programme of policies the Labour Party has announced to help high streets: annual business rate revaluations, free Wifi, free bus travel for under 25s, free ATMs, and keeping post offices open.
However none of these policies go very far to tackling the underlying economic causes of high street decline. First, many city centres have too few jobs in and around the high street, meaning a vital source of customers is missing. Second, low-paid work in many cities means people don’t have much money to spend in shops, cafes and restaurants.
Inviting small businesses and charities to use empty units should raise footfall, but the impact will only be marginal given their size. They will also be moving from elsewhere in the town or city, so the local economy is unlikely to gain overall. Free bus travel will attract more young people to the high street, but if they have little money to spend then, again, any benefits will be small.
To effectively tackle the decline of the high street, policy needs to do more to boost demand for local services. This means growing the number of jobs, especially higher-skilled, better-paid jobs, located in city and town centres. As we set out in City centres: past, present and future, many UK city centres struggle to do this because they cannot offer many benefits to business. The firms best suited to a central location are looking for a highly qualified workers, office space and a dense environment with like-minded businesses to work with, but weaker city centre economies do not provide this.
To overcome this, they need to focus on improving their fundamentals. The most important part will be raising the education and training of the workforce – the best way to attract businesses that can provide well-paid jobs. At the same time, cities with weak high streets should remodel their centres away from reliance on shopping and towards a more diverse mix of uses, including more workspace, and making use of government funding – such as the Future High Streets Fund – to do this. Redevelopment alone will not save the high street, but as other policies succeed in boosting spending power, it will put them in the best position possible to benefit.
Labour’s aim to find temporary uses for empty space and improve the supply of services on the high streets is necessary. But until they are combined with wider economic policies which make struggling city centres much more attractive places to do business, the high street will continue to struggle.
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