One of the pleasures of post-lockdown life has been the chance to go back to familiar businesses and high street shops, putting some much-needed cash into tills. Though often hit by the long-term shift to online retail – which the pandemic, of course, accelerated – such places continue to knit the social fabric together in vital ways. But despite all the local goodwill and the revival of trade, for some much-loved ports of call it may be a case of too little, too late. According to a review published this month, Britain’s high streets are threatened by a “tsunami of closures”, thanks to the debt taken on by small business owners during the past year-and-a-half.
The report concludes that “urgent support is required” if a trail of destruction is not to unfold, when loans are called in and tax breaks end. Unfortunately, the government is about to make matters worse, not better. Next week, Whitehall plans to unleash a developers’ free-for-all that threatens to irrevocably change the character and texture of town centres and high streets across the country.
From 1 August, changed rules on commercial-to-residential conversions will allow landlords and developers to swiftly turn vacant shops and businesses into houses and flats. This deregulatory move will make it far more difficult for local authorities to plan for the precarious post-Covid future of town centres, and for communities to hold them to account. In an exasperated submission to the housing, communities and local government committee, London councils warned MPs of “a disruptive free-for-all, with short-term financial considerations deciding the future use of vacant high street buildings, damaging the fabric and coherence of our town centres”. As the value of property continues to boom, particularly in the south, there are insidious implications for those outlets managing to cling on. The Association of Town and City Management told the MPs that the new rules could, in effect, “create a licence for the eviction of businesses in favour of residential”.
The government claims that commercial-to-residential conversions can allow developers to respond to changing times. It is also suggested that an influx of new locals will boost footfall for those businesses able to withstand the triple whammy of online retail, Covid debt and Whitehall deregulation. The likelier dynamic, in too many places, is terminal decline as high streets and urban hubs are “pepper-potted” with residential property, losing their identity and ceasing to attract people in viable numbers.
Imaginative plans for our high streets and town centres are undoubtedly needed. Indeed, some of that thinking is taking place. Armed with cash from the government’s Future High Streets Fund, the local council in Stockton on Tees is planning a spectacular reconfiguration of the town centre, including a riverside park, leisure centre and library. High Wycombe council, the recipient of an £11.7m grant from the same source, plans to acquire vacant shops and make them available at affordable rents to independent businesses. But handing virtual carte blanche to developers to replace commercial premises with residential property undermines strategic thinking and empowers the market at the expense of local communities. In the words of the MP Clive Betts, chair of the housing committee, it will “fatally undermine the role of local authorities in shaping their … public spaces and buildings”.
Mr Betts has called on Robert Jenrick, the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, to think again. He should do so.