The package of measures announced by the chancellor to invest in Britain’s high streets is a positive development, but whether the collective effect is sufficient to deliver the step change needed remains to be seen, says Ramboll’s Martin Feakes.
Chancellor Phillip Hammond recently announced a £675m future high streets fund, with the aim of supporting the Great British high street in its ongoing struggle against the impact of digital retail. Not only is this set to support business owners feeling the pinch, but it is a hugely positive step forward in revitalising the high street space and keeping our towns and cities alive.
Whilst the face of retailing is changing, the need for our high streets to provide a sense of place is more important than ever. The most ‘liveable’ locations are those where people can work, live and play, and so vibrant town centres are key to making our urban environments locations where people want to be, and where they feel secure and happy.
The fund will help local authorities in drawing up master plans for their high streets, as well as for investing in any improvements needed, supporting the redevelopment of underused retail and office space into residential, and developing strategies to deliver much needed footfall.
The easing of planning regulations to allow the building of residential accommodation in and above retail and commercial will be key in transforming high street spaces. In our towns and cities, the default approach is often to knock down existing building stock and start again. However, there is significant space in and above unused retail and commercial buildings which, estimates suggest, could provide 300,000-400,000 new homes. At a basic level, the presumption to re-use rather than demolish would be a great step forward towards a more sustainable society.
However, there are still many challenges to developing in this way. It takes too long to change occupancy classes through the planning system and most planning authorities are starved of the resource needed to speed this up. Additional government investment in planning departments is surely needed to address this.
"The easing of planning regulations to allow the building of residential accommodation in and above retail and commercial will be key in transforming high street spaces."
From a technical perspective, whilst structural capacity can often be justified, the work required to make the building fabric meet regulations, ensure energy efficiency and provide good daylighting is less straightforward. Whilst repurposing commercial and retail space will help provide a diversity of housing stock, low cost conversions could result in poor quality and unimaginative designs that are far from great places to live and do little to enhance the town centre. There is a responsibility on the industry not to let this happen. Good design, coupled with new technologies are key to making the most of this.
The softening of planning regulations should help underpin the strategic land values of town and city centre sites, but it remains to be seen if these measures will tempt developers and funders into this space in the numbers needed to make a real difference. Variable costs such as the Community Infrastructure Levy can still have a significant effect on viability of schemes and make re-development less attractive than it could be.
However, to think that town centres can become all about residential is to miss the point. Balanced high streets where people live, work and play are the key to vibrant communities. Town centres need to be adaptable with the right mix of uses, as well as good transport links, infrastructure and public spaces. Whilst the chancellor’s budget announcement of a cut in business rates will not help larger retailers and high street chains, smaller independent retailers will benefit. If they can be enticed back and bring with them extra employment, it is these businesses that will arguably bring a greater richness, diversity and sense of local community back to our town centres.
Put together and in overall terms, the package of measures announced by the chancellor is surely positive for our town centres but whether the collective effect is sufficient to deliver the step change needed remains to be seen.
Martin Feakes is UK buildings market director at Ramboll.