City centres need to be scaled back to save the high street

Property Reporter
31st March 2021
High Street 445

Freezes on VAT and an extension to business rates relief have all helped during the pandemic. However, to assist high streets to transition into the era after Covid, the government needs to go further.

According to land agents, Aston Mead, more needs to be done to ensure that high streets can recover from the hits they have taken during the pandemic and find a sustainable future.

The firm's Director, Adam Hesse, explains: “The high street was already struggling before Coronavirus. But in the past year, the impact from e-commerce has been immense. Only last week it was announced that online sales in February made up the highest proportion of UK sales on record. Coupled with business rates which are still too high - and a review now pushed back until later in the year – if we don’t act soon, there will be a bloodbath of businesses out there.”

However, Adam says that all is not lost, and some simple measures could ensure that high streets could be transformed in a way that would continue to make them places people will want to visit, in order to eat, drink, socialise and shop.

Adam says: “The UK high street is a key part of what gives our towns and cities character. But they are not going to be saved if we standstill. Part of the problem is that currently if a retail building is vacant, the landlord still has to pay rates. This is not helpful in the post-Covid era. So new rules could state that if shops were made available free of rent to short-term pop-up tenants, no empty rates would be payable – a massive bugbear for landlords! Plus smaller retailers would get a cheap taste of the high street – a win-win situation. This would also help prevent having rows of run-down premises and create a sense of vibrancy, which in turn would attract more people into the centre.

“Another problem is that our town and city centres have grown too large. In some cases, it can seem like high streets run on and on, with secondary retail at either end not bringing the vibrancy required to attract enough customers. At a time when we are already seeing an exodus to the countryside and traditional commercial stock evaporating to make way for new homes, this situation is unsustainable. Therefore, I propose that planners agree a ‘Shopping Zone Redline’ around a retail area, to ensure that it is never lost.

“Then there could be an immediate ‘Outer Zone’ which is looked upon favourably for the private rental sector so that more people live, work and play in the centres 24/7. And we mustn’t forget that by 2030, one in five people in the UK will be aged 65 or over – so retirement homes and care homes should be part of that mix. That way, those residents would be within walking distance of all the local attractions, facilities and healthcare services. In fact, the demand for over-60’s apartments in town centres is only going to escalate - and this would be a great way of repurposing the secondary retail in each town that is no longer viable.

Adam concludes: “So whilst we’ve all endured recessions before, Covid has forced us to think very differently. In the future we will need smaller, buzzier centres with enough housing to make sure they don’t become ghettos at night, and a better variety of shops, restaurants and experiences.

“Building back better means finding space for much-needed housing. But it also means finding a new role for the UK high street, so that it manages to thrive in the years ahead.”

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