‘Turn empty shops back into houses’

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The traditional english high street may be long dead but some experts think it’s not all doom and gloom. Neil Hudson discovered why the high street could live again.

It’s no secret the traditional high street is suffering. In some places, it’s outright dying. The reason? Well, can you guess: of course, it’s the internet.

Or is it?

While the world wide web may get the blame for many things, that’s rather like trying to blame people for wanting to move from horses and carts to motorcars. They are (it is) just a hell of a lot more convenient.

In Leeds centre, the average percentage of empty shops is 10-12 per cent, although in the pedestrianised ‘core’ the figure is minimal, with only about six units standing unused.

Now one industry expert says it’s time to turn vacant shops back into houses.

Ian Summersgill is managing director at chartered surveyors Linchpin plc. He said: “Few people would argue we need to do something to stimulate the economy, particularly in the construction industry.

“There are a few battles currently being fought to stimulate activity, such as reducing the VAT on building projects down to five per cent VAT (the argument being five per cent of something is better than 20 per cent of nothing), or removing business rates on empty properties but by far the most active is the battle to stimulate house building.

“House building has often been one of the first activities to pull the UK out of recession and statistics show there is a housing shortage.

“So in some respects we should be encouraged the politicians recognize this and are actively looking for ways and more importantly sites, to build new housing stock.

“Unfortunately it would appear our career politicians have little clue as to what’s happening in the real world and typically seem to want to pick the easiest solution to the problem.

“Recent headlines suggest the government wants to take two to three per cent of our green fields to build houses or expand villages by a third, which I suggest amounts to the same thing. This is ludicrous and simply reflects the easy way out.

“There is no shortage of derelict or empty buildings in the UK and a lot of allocated planning consents for residential development on brown field sites which have been mothballed due to the economic climate.

“However, I believe the real opportunity for future house building lies in the declining retail sector, particularly the high street and its associated bricks and mortar.

“The high street that I, and many others knew long ago, is simply past its sell buy date. The recent demise of several big name chains are I’m afraid the first of many more to follow.

“Take out the coffee shops, mobile phone shops and charity shops from your typical high street and I think you’d agree that there wouldn’t be much left.

“There is nobody to blame, its just changing times. We love convenience. We like to shop in supermarkets where we can get everything or - and this is the biggy - we shop on-line.

“We’ve become a nation of browsers, we go to see what we want then buy it on-line.

“So what has the demise of the traditional high street to do with the housing market? Well, in planning terms its referred to as ‘a change of use’. We’ve all driven through town centres which seem to go on for miles with intermittent or run down shops in amongst boarded-up ones.

“By concentrating all the shops into a central core, the peripheral of the typical high street could be converted to housing.”

He added: “This offers many benefits in that many of the shops are, or were, built in residential areas anyway. The buildings were previously houses or could easily be converted to same. The buildings would attract more people into the town centres and stimulate further activity. As evidenced in many of our cities it brings life back into areas that previously died at nights. Green land and our villages would be preserved.

“They say change is good, so lets embrace it. Whilst maybe a little sad the death of one provides an opportunity for another.”

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Cathy Barnes, professor of retail innovation at Leeds Metropolitan University and director of the Faraday Centre for Retail Excellence, a body which advises retailers and manufacturers, agrees.

She said: “It’s not just down to the internet, there are a lot more places for us to shop at these days, I think the traditional town centre, by which I mean this view some people have of every high street having a butcher, a greengrocer, a baker, was dying long ago. Our habits have changed, people are not going to go somewhere that does not sell what they want for the right price.

“Leeds is a good example because we have the new Trinity shopping centre, the White Rose centre, Wakefield has a new shopping centre.

“I also do not think this idea of a homogonous high street works - what works in Barnsley might not work in Bradford.

“There’s a big growth in ‘click and collect’ sites now so rather than shunning the internet, maybe town centres should embrace it. As a rule, retail will always follow people. It could be that the old high street dies but a new one is born, a case of: the high street is dead, long live the high street.”

Councillor Neil Dawson (Lab, Morley) agreed the traditional high street was changing. He said: “In Morley, there is a deliberate plan to contract the town centre, so roads like Commercial Street and High Street will largely drop out of the town centre and the primary shopping fronts will not extend to Morley Bottoms and Fountain Street, which already has people living on it in flats.”

He added the council’s Local Development Framework, a blueprint for how the town will develop in the long term, was clear about the direction of the town centre, which in future will be much more compact.

He said: “Town centres need to offer things shopping centres do not, like specialist shops, restaurants, pubs and so on, to encourage people to come in, I think the idea of people living in former shops on the periphery is a good idea.”

Tell us what you think about the ideas being put forward, contact: neil.hudson@ypn.co.uk

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