Shut shops could be happy homes, says MP
Converting empty shops and offices in secondary trading areas to residential use, as strongly supported by Ipswich MP Ben Gummer, is a scheme broadly backed by some of Fenn Wright’s most experienced Commercial Surveyors. But Fenn Wright consultant Mark Sargeantson fears commercial premises may be lost for good if landlords find residential letting more profitable.
Earlier this month (August 2013) Government Planning Minister Nick Boles said shopping areas should be concentrated on one or two main streets within a town centre, and empty shops in outlying streets granted permission to convert from commercial to residential use.
His comments followed an extensive survey by shopping guru Mary Portas, who has been championing the cause of the small trader against mega groups creating out-of-town shopping centres as well as buying up town centre premises, forcing small shop owners out of business. However, her efforts have met with little success, and the plight of small shopkeepers is plain to see in the increasing number of empty premises particularly in secondary trading areas within towns and cities.
“The increasing numbers of empty shops in our town centres has been brought about by a combination of recessionary pressures and permanent changes in shopping habits, with competition from both out of town retail parks and internet shopping,” says Alistair Mitchell, Fenn Wright Partner and Head of the Commercial Department in Ipswich.
“These trends are unlikely to be reversed with consumers now accustomed to the convenience of being able to drive to a well located shopping centre offering free parking, and online retailers generally providing a reliable, efficient and cost effective service. The figures speak for themselves with UK customers spending almost £587m per week online in June,”
“The inevitable decline in the demand for central retail space and the associated reduction in property values for shops will lead to both commercial and social pressures to find alternative uses to fill the gap, “ he said. “ It is important to ensure that the heart of town centres is retained for retail and leisure uses. But the simple fact is that we now have too many shops in secondary locations. Anything that helps speed up the process of bringing in alternative viable uses and transforming these areas has got to be welcomed”.
Fenn Wright Consultant Mark Sargeantson adds a note of caution: “This will not be a simple problem to solve,” he said. “Many shops just do not lend themselves to conversion to residential use, and while upper floors of buildings could be converted into flats, ground floor retail space is frequently unsuitable for residential purposes. We need to see these proposals backed up by tangible measures.”
He adds: “It is important to remember that edge of town shops can provide much needed neighbourhood services such as hairdressers, pharmacists, banks, convenience food stores and others within walking distance of customers who do not want to travel into the centre of town or get the car out for a visit to a soulless retail park.
“Local planning authorities need to be very careful that allowing flexibility on change of use does not have the unintended consequence of enhancing the value of certain types of property for residential use and therefore reducing the number of premises available for independent retailers. A landlord of a parade of shops may well conclude that the value of his investment is enhanced if he obtains change of use to residential rather than letting them to local retailers.”
Ipswich MP Ben Gummer holds the view that town high streets should be regarded as community hubs rather than solely shopping destinations. In an article in the East Anglian Daily Times, he urged the Town Council to be proactive in encouraging the conversion of commercial property to residential use.
“The Council needs to listen to businesses who have been saying this for some time,” he is reported as saying. “Ipswich Central have been pressing for a smaller town centre which would make much more effective use of areas now struggling to find tenants.
“There is plenty of scope for housing,” he added. “The town centre works wonderfully for the elderly, and young people looking for their first home could also benefit.”