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 587.

    Besides extortionate business rates & parking charges, the developers tactic of offering cheap rent to the major retailers in new shopping centre developments to create a "Honey Pot" doesnt help. This in turn encourages other retailers to pay a higher rent to be near the "Honey Pot", leaving the high street and older developments with less to attract the public.

  • rate this

    Comment number 586.

    10 Minutes ago ".. Your post is too full of ridiculous assumptions to be answerable in 400 characters. My point which you ignored is that our elected representatives are too keen on imposing their social engineering agendas rather than responding to our demands. They are NOT our masters, they are supposed to work for us, not "encourage" us to comply with their views.

  • rate this

    Comment number 585.

    Detroit cities/towns in the UK

  • rate this

    Comment number 584.

    The local councils have driven shoppers away by imposing harsh restrictions and penalties against motorists, so they have to live with the consequences of their bad decisions like everyone else. They can't "have their cake and eat it" as they say. In addition, shoppers to not like to shop in drab properties. So many shops look dilapidated. Shopping malls are bright and attractive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 583.

    The radical action suggested, might be to have vibrant town center's, rather than huge impersonal industrial sites in which to shop.
    Every town center in Britain, looks exactly the same, what's needed is a boycott of the chain stores and multi-nationals and a return to family businesses catering for individuals on a personal basis, rather than the faceless corporates that employ goons...

  • rate this

    Comment number 582.

    We are always being told there is 'urgent need' for new housing. Howabout turning unused shops into house and flats? People could walk to work. This is how towns used to be in the old days

  • rate this

    Comment number 581.

    578. Lightmare. you seem to be totally obssessed by attacking socialism. Don't you ever consider anything else. I have to say as somebody who likes capitalism, that at this moment in this country Capitalism looks to have failed? or is that just a corrupt government? Still all those petty bourgoise shop keepers can count all the money they made shafting workers rights can't they!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 580.

    We are shopping more and more on the web and that certainly is not going to change. However retail space has increased by 43million sqm since the seventies, mostly, but not all in out of town centres. This clearly is not sustainable, as the report argues, and other uses will have to be found for this space.
    Building anymore centres would be sheer madness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 579.

    The biggest problem is people, We want councils to mend our roads and put up signs, we want them to ensure our schools are tip-top and play areas are made safe and available. Just these few things cost money, but we don't want to pay, neither do we put our hands to work to help repair and rebuild. Cake and eat it - fine? There is a cost!

  • Comment number 578.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 577.

    @Michael Lloyd Nobody is dictating anything. If you want to travel 2 miles in your car to the shops and back, and fork out for the parking, you can do so. If you'd rather sit at home and buy online, you can do so. Nobody is stopping you doing either of those things. If people would rather let the high street die than forsake the car for short trips where it's unnecessary, that's up to them.

  • Comment number 576.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 575.

    Unfortunenaty town centres are a thing of the past, retail parks, Malls and supermarkets with free parking are always going to win.
    Time to use the old town centres for housing instead of building on greenbelt

  • rate this

    Comment number 574.

    It's impossible to turn back the clock,and anyway how far back do we want to go?Medieval markets on the village green? Changes are still happening- even large retail parks with ample car parking/supermarkets/
    retail giants are now feeling the pinch from online purchasing.We are lazy shoppers,unfortunately,and high street shopping is too much like hard work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 573.

    567.David "this government can't see the reasons - WHAT A SHOWER!"

    They see it all-right they just find the what they see does not fit the (rotten to the core) preconceptions of how the economy works (and they are wrong about that too!)

    So what to do in their situation? - have yet another investigation in the hope that the answer is different.(It won't be!)

    That is how the bankocracy works(!).

  • rate this

    Comment number 572.

    Entertainment Centres... thats what the High Street should be...

    close all the shops... buy out all the residentials...


  • rate this

    Comment number 571.

    ref: 569
    Sorry Kain, you are wrong. I love small independant stores.
    What I dislike the is the TWO FACED attitudes of local Councils who encourage the big store to the edge of town ...whilst grinding small High St shops into the ground with ridiculous car parking policies. Try living in Brighton.
    Here the local GREEN party decided it was reasonable to have pay £20 to park for the day.

  • Comment number 570.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 569.

    I used to enjoy busking on our High Street, my patch has now been taken over by beggars, pickpockets and pimps.

  • rate this

    Comment number 568.

    Knock it down, rebuild it for what? More charity shops? Where do these people live. Trading is changing, just like markets became stores, became hypermarkets, now online. The future isn't going back, maybe a few cafes, specialist shops will exist, but retail will be online. Get used to it. We still like to check out our food but that's about it.


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