The covid-19 pandemic, the rise of online shopping and changing consumer habits have forced many retailers to reorganise their portfolio, with several opting to reduce their physical footprint on the high street. As they do so, landlords are left not only with empty units, they are also facing irrecoverable business rates and service charges. As well as the problems being faced by landlords, empty units on the high street have an adverse effect on communities generally and are regarded by Landsec as a “hyper-local indicator of economic distress”.
Simply put, we have too much retail space and we need to start considering alternative uses and how space can be repurposed. As a result, local authorities, landlords and developers are being forced to be creative to come up with viable long term solutions. One trend which has emerged in recent years is the repurposing of retail spaces across the UK’s high streets, from small scale repurposing of existing buildings to demolition in order to consolidate space and free up areas for redevelopment.
The effect of this trend has the potential to revolutionise UK high streets. Should it continue, it is likely that town centres will be less dominated by retail, which will pave the way for a more varied combination of housing, leisure, work and retail arrangements within shared spaces. Already, we are seeing new developments crop up within cities across the country which facilitate new hotels and residential spaces alongside consolidated retail offerings. John Lewis intends to repurpose some of its store space into apartments to generate cash, while Asda has reallocated some of its store space for ‘community rooms’ where locals have access to free space whey they can host meetings, events and training sessions. Looking further afield, many Japanese shopping centres are now incorporating cultural activities and health and wellness options, as shopper habits demand more than just goods.
Developers must also recognise the demands of local communities in terms of sustainable and ethical development. Town centres of the future will offer greater access to nature, with a focus on having more green spaces on the high street. The use of street furniture and reduction of vehicles will also encourage people to spend more time outdoors, which has a positive impact on mental health. Some bus stops in Sweden and Hong Kong also now contain air purifiers, in an effort to lessen the effects of air pollution and make town centres a more appealing place to spend time.
While the oversupply of retail space in the UK is clear to see, the repurposing of outdated buildings and developments offers real hope for the future of the UK’s high streets. Such repurposing presents a long-term and sustainable solution, one which promotes community engagement and champions all things local. There is a long road ahead, but the trends which are developing may well usher in a high street revolution which ultimately will benefit more than just landlords.
A version of this article was published by The Scotsman.
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