What next for the high street?
It is generally accepted that although shopping will always be an important aspect of Britain’s high streets, the change in consumer habits, coupled with recent recessionary pressures, has led to a reduction in the demand for retail space in our town centre, resulting in a surplus of vacant secondary shops. Deep changes are now needed to ensure that our town centres continue to flourish, by encouraging other social and recreational uses back in and modernising the shopping experience.
Over the last few years there have been numerous reports that identify the challenges and suggest potential solutions. Those by Portas and Grimsey being the most significant. And recent amendments to the planning system do now allow more flexibility in terms of changes of use – but so far these have not had a significant effect on re-inventing the high street.
We can all think of areas in local towns such as Ipswich, where change and investment are urgently needed. In certain locations it has been needed for some considerable time! However, making dramatic changes to the pattern of use is not something that can be done easily or quickly because a wide range of social, commercial, financial and legal issues influence the process.
Now, as recently reported in the Estates Gazette, ministers are considering plans being promoted by the British Property Federation (BPF) which tackle one of the main impediments restricting large scale change – fragmented ownership.
The controversial part is the purchase and ownership of the assets that make up the core area.
Liz Pearce, Chief Executive of BPF is reported as saying: “Ideally, fragmented ownership would be solved by the private sector, and we are exploring whether we can create some voluntary agreement among land owners to pool their ownerships into a special purpose vehicle (SPV) in return for which they get a share in the rise in rent that is generated. The SPV is run by an asset manager.”
Although this idea is commendable, it is debatable as to whether it will work in practice. Projects such as the Ipswich Waterfront regeneration took some considerable time to come together, partly due to the fact that the individual land owners had different aspirations and objectives. Pearce goes on to admit that some form of government intervention may be required saying “It may be necessary to set an example by using, or threatening to use, compulsory purchase powers. Councils may have to be prepared to buy, in the way that some have acquired shopping centres.”
Understandably, the suggestion of compulsory purchase is a concern to a number of parties but it appears to be accepted that this is not the whole answer.
The scheme is unlikely to apply to the whole of a town’s retail core, but could tackle certain specific areas. In Liz Pearce’s own words “You have to master plan peripheral areas. If you left it to the market, you would end up with places that are poorly designed and do not meet broad social needs.”
Whilst it may be risky to impose any specific regeneration scheme without having regard for the free market which will ultimately determine its success or otherwise, only time will tell as to whether these proposals will succeed. If this scheme isn’t approved by the government then there will be more proposals to follow because one way or the other – our town centres do need change.