A year long study by the Distressed Town Centre Taskforce, comprising investors, landlords and financers has followed Mary Portas’s review of our towns and high streets, looking at areas like the West end of Cornwall Street and other secondary location shopping areas, such as Mutley Plain where empty shops and charity shops proliferate. Nationally, there are 45,000 empty shops however, this is in the context of a growth in retail space over the last 40 years of 43 million square metres, most of which is out of town superstores and shopping malls. The decline in the ‘high street’ is as much due to a change in our shopping habits, going on-line, visiting malls and out of town shopping retail parks instead of visiting the high street, as much as to the recent down turn in the economy and although there has been some encouraging news about the economy, it is because of the fundamental change in the way that many of us shop, that our towns and high streets are not likely to recover.
The Taskforce thinks that it has the answers proposing that these shopping areas become designated as national infrastructure to open up Government funding (rather as for the railways), that compulsory purchase orders are used to get around the problem that legal ownership of a typical high street is fragmented between many different owners, and once acquired they propose that the local authority would bundle up parcels of land attractive for developers for demolition and wholesale redevelopment, utilising a mix of homes, leisure and other commercial use with a simplified and streamlined planning system.
The effect of these proposals should not be underestimated, if implemented they would open the door to dramatic changes with mixed use developments replacing the familiar structure and shape of the old high street. Cities would face a reduction in business rates revenue if commercial space is lost, but if we have ‘too much’ retail space something has to be done to avoid further decline and to revitalise depressed areas. Strong leadership will be needed to see a ‘masterplan’ through to successful regeneration.
As a society we gravitate together at shopping malls, restaurants and events spaces, it would be a dull way of living to spend our shopping time in front of a laptop and tramping the never ending residential streets where once ground floor retail space gave a sense of life and vitality, so if the Taskforce proposals are adopted I hope that redevelopment would be of a good mix of leisure and retail uses to keep bringing us together to socialise, we need a vibrant retail sector, but less of it.
Head of Business Services