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Latest Issue: Nov/Dec 2018

Bill Grimsey report on retail

With the publication of Bill Grimsey’s report on saving UK high streets and town centres, possibly now there will some moves to repurpose many of the vacant premises, including the upper floors which could and should be brought back into residential use. When the UK was a nation of shopkeepers, independent family run retail business owners lived over their shops. Town centres and high streets had resident populations and these populations shopped locally. Now, most town centres are deserted once shops close and are magnets for vandalism and other criminal activity. It is a sad fact that many have  also become boarded up no go zones by day, as well as in the evenings, and this has led to the closure of significant numbers of pubs and restaurants as well along with retail stores.

Yet to have such an over- supply of commercial buildings when the affordable housing stock is in such short supply seems ridiculous. Surely every high street and town centre would be greatly improved if more of the redundant buildings were converted into living accommodation. This, in turn, would bring remaining retailers additional local trade. Many existing high streets are simply too long, are peppered with empty boarded up shops, and are distinctly unattractive.

Ed Cooke, Chief Executive of Revo, said: “We agree with many, if not all, of Bill’s recommendations but in truth it is time for less talk and more action. In 2013 we led a Government supported Taskforce on the future of high streets, aptly named Beyond Retail, and the challenges were the same then as they are now. The only difference is, as a result of successive Governments kicking the can down the road the problems facing many town centres and high streets have become more acute. The Government must act now to reform the punitive business rates system, which is squeezing the life out of many town centres and high streets.”

But it isn’t just business rates which are killing the high streets. It is the drop in customer footfall. Many towns are blighted with the empty premises of failed retailers which no business is interested in taking on. It is only the university towns where significant re-development of redundant retail and office space into student accommodation has improved the general appearance and introduced “life” into urban areas.

Many suggest that local councils should have the power to insist that redundant commercial premises are converted into housing and let en-bloc to the local authority or housing associations as this would then provide the owners of these buildings with a rental income and remaining retailers with a resident customer base.