High Street needs post-war scale rebuilding says report


Alternative use must be made of empty commercial properties

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Rejuvenating town centres requires radical action on a scale not seen since the building programmes of post-war Britain, according to a new report.

The Distressed Town Centre Property Taskforce says structural changes needed in retail are so fundamental, many towns and cities need reshaping.

The taskforce was set up following Mary Portas's review of the High Street.

The report calls on the government to designate town and city centres as key national infrastructure.

Start Quote

There's still a need for vibrant retail, just less of it”

End Quote Mark Williams Taskforce chairman

In its scale and range, it is an unprecedented group. For the past 13 months, senior retailers, property investors, landlords and bankers have been investigating the impact of the changes that have affected retail and property in England's towns and city centres.

In other words, the folk who own and finance so much of our town centres have come up with their own solutions on what to do.

Too many shops?

One of the main recommendations is that the government should designate town and city centres as key national infrastructure in order to open up new funding opportunities.

The retail landscape has changed completely in the last five years, thanks to the recession and the shift to online shopping.

It has left most towns with too many shops.

The report found that in the past four decades, retail floor space in England increased by around 43 million square metres.

That is the equivalent of building nearly 300 Bluewater Shopping centres across England, or seven of the new Westfield centres near the London Olympic site every year since the early 1970s.

The chairman of the taskforce, Mark Williams, said: "There's still a need for vibrant retail, just less of it."

Mr Williams, who is also a partner at the retail property firm, Hark Group, added: "Over the past 12 months, it has become increasingly clear that waiting for so called 'normal' economic growth to return is unviable: Many more town centres will have embarked on a course of terminal decline."


Solutions, he says, will vary from place to place but for the overwhelming majority, a smaller retail core is necessary and alternative uses like housing and leisure need to be found.

Taskforce chair Mark Williams: "People do not shop in the same way"

But for local authorities, it hasn't been easy tackling the surplus of space and with it the scourge of empty properties.

There are often a myriad of different landlords and competing interests to deal with, as well as getting funding.

Friday's report spells out the problems along with recommendations for change.

They include:

  • Government should designate town and city centres as infrastructure in order to open significant funding opportunities currently not accessible. A High Street Infrastructure platform should be set up to help to deliver this idea
  • Bold and strategic land assembly is required. Government should pilot a joint venture vehicle and an associated High Street property fund to pool land assets and address fragmented ownership
  • Make it easier for councils to use compulsory purchase powers in order to bring about the scale required for major urban regeneration
  • Local authorities should take more risk in investing capital reserves now, which can be replenished as the economy recovers
  • Significantly greater flexibility in the planning system is needed to enable quick and easy change of use from redundant retail premises to more economically productive uses

Edward Cooke, the director of policy for the British Council of Shopping Centres, said: "All stakeholders have a role to play: Individuals, local councils, local and national businesses and central government.

"We believe these recommendations will deliver the direction and the funding necessary to make this happen."


The question is, who will be paying for all this potential change?

The group says it is not asking the taxpayer to foot the entire bill. Often the problem is down to a gap in funding, which, if plugged, would make a development viable.

The Taskforce believes post-financial crisis, the traditional funding models for town centre redevelopment are no longer fit for purpose.

New ways of funding have to be found and that key bodies in the retail and property sectors are keen to play their part.

The message from the retail property industry to the government is clear: they are prepared to demolish land and write off distressed buildings to regenerate town centres, if the public sector and government can make it easier rebuild.

Mr Williams said: "There is a huge amount of private sector funds available to regenerate town centres. But it requires scale and planning. What it's not there is for piecemeal change, an ad hoc approach to fix the odd shop.

Start Quote

All stakeholders have a role to play: Individuals, local councils, local and national businesses and central government”

End Quote Edward Cooke British Council of Shopping Centres

"So we're looking about scale and critical mass. And in that sense the private sector will respond to local authorities and government initiatives."


The Taskforce says it is up to individual communities and local authorities to decide what is right for their area. But "future proofing" towns will require strong local leadership.

The big commercial stakeholders in our towns and cities are not often comfortable bedfellows, but they have all signed up to this report.

"What is extremely pleasing is that a wide coalition of influential stakeholders has united behind agreed parking issues and develop local plans and good local vision," said Tom Ironside, British Retail Consortium Director of Business and Regulation.

The government, which encouraged the Taskforce to be set up, is now digesting the findings.

The Housing Minister, Brandon Lewis, said: "It's a really interesting report with some really interesting things here which we need to look at. We are doing an awful lot for the High Street, we're empowering local communities to shape their town centres for what's right for their communities in the future."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 467.

    A friend of mine signed a mobile contract on the high street intending it as a gift for her sister. It then transpired that she didn't need it, but to her surprise, found that she couldn't return it, even though she had never used the phone.

    You can if you purchase online. Yet another reason why high streets fail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 466.

    I feel that it is unfair to blame the greedy councils entirely for this mess.
    The last government forced car parking charges on some councils by insisting that they exploited all their assets and specifically assumed that they would be receiving income from car parks in their funding, even when they weren't.
    Councils also passed business rates directly to central govt and had no flexibilty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 465.

    Many of us don't live near big cities, our shopping choices are severely limited. Most of the things I want can only be found on line. The problem is of course that you don't always get what you expect. Shops could become online stores with advisers and samples. We'd still get out but shop with more confidence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 464.

    Lack of choice is a major issue. I sometimes ask other people to pick up new shirts for me, if they are going to the high street. After all, men's clothes all look the same, only differing in colour, so why browse? Hobby shops are scarce - nobody has the time anymore. There are items I have been meaning to buy online for months, but I have been too busy to remember to sit down and order them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 463.

    Online shopping is so big, they sold Royal Mail for a penny to make some money back, or are you lot still asleep?

  • rate this

    Comment number 462.

    445. Ben
    "Why would any private landlord be happy to leave their property empty? "

    If that landlord is actually a supermarket, through a company they own, putting obstacles in the way of competitors, it makes perfect sense, to them at least.

  • rate this

    Comment number 461.


    As you suggest, it a all began in the late fifties with the advent of the then very tiny self-service grocers and with housewives going out to work in order to earn money to buy all those labour-saving appliances which would give her more time to go out to work in order to buy more labour-saving appliances which would give her more time to go out to work in order to....

  • rate this

    Comment number 460.

    really you walk more than me?????????????
    I sold my car in favor of public transport and walking more i live a 10 min bus ride from town or a 30 min walk i walk into the city daily and back after work i only us the bus if i am late for work which is rarely

  • rate this

    Comment number 459.

    Free business rates and reasonable rent for 5 years, followed by reasonable and relative to turnover business rates.
    That would re-ignite the high st allowing traders to compete with the big boys.

  • rate this

    Comment number 458.

    Easier and cheaper to buy online. High St is dead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 457.

    "If it was due to the high cost of parking, high rent, rates etc there would be no vibrant town/city centres."

    Well, there are very few that are flourishing. You only have to read the comments here to realise that high parking charges are a factor. it has stopped me going into my town on occasions.
    As for the rates, that has been proved to be a factor in shop closures.

  • rate this

    Comment number 456.

    Much due to the small state ethic of the CON party. here in Blackpool the situation is incredible. I looked at it and thought it could be greatly eased by big government buying up a row of old shops in an area no longer used, turning them back into the houses they were once, and then selling them at a profit because they cleared up the area and it is now neat a nice place to live.

  • rate this

    Comment number 455.

    I do prefer browsing shops rather than shopping online. I also prefer to pay cash in hand rather than fill out forms to use my Visa online.However, there are two reasons I infrequently use high streets. 1) Many of the shops are carbon-copies of one-another and sell bog-standard uninteresting items. 2) I simply have not got time. I hardly have time to shop online, never mind in high streets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 454.

    Greedy councils have basically pushed things over the edge. I don't think it would be easily recoverable now - people have become too used to the convenience of online or out-of-town shopping.

    If it was deemed vital to have town centre shopping (I'm not convinced it is), there would have to be ample free car parking and cheaper prices to try to draw people back - I can't see that happening.

  • rate this

    Comment number 453.

    Expensive and insufficient parking; unreliable public transport; decaying infrastructure; plethora of empty, charity and pound shops; tattooed and pierced staff with no product knowledge or people skills who are surly and treat you as an unwelcome interruption to their conversations & think nothing of eating and drinking whilst serving you. It's a case of "I'm a shopper, get me out of here!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 452.

    If it were down to me I would.
    Stop charging business rates on high street shops that have residential homes above them.
    compulsory purchase any property that was being neglected.
    Low to medium rents.
    Free parking from 9 to 5.
    The high streets would be buzzing in no time.
    NO charity shops or Estate agents.

  • rate this

    Comment number 451.

    Once you have seen one town centre you have seen them all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 450.

    Our retail experience has been totally based on the US model. Large out of town stores, chain stores etc.
    In Europe there are many more independent shops and restaurant chains are almost unheard of. This brings much more interest and vitality to town centres.

  • rate this

    Comment number 449.

    FYI to all my people out there in BBC land, this will make you laugh:-

    Mary Portas the so called queen of the High street, hired by the government to help advise on the regeneration of the UK's high streets, owns significant shares in "WESTFEILD" the Australian company responsible for building huge shopping centres and out of town centres, world wide our high streets are victims of this greed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 448.

    Of course, you could say people no longer feel safe or welcome on the streets-but that would be paranoia right? I mean, certain people shop in group's of 20 plus can deter you from that croissant, coffee ect. The fact that the country has more people trying to scrape a penny and having to steal to survive is just 1 of many reasons to give town a miss. Goodbye


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