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A UK think tank proposes to "let high street shops die"

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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“Let high street shops die” is not a phrase many retailers will be happy to entertain, but that is precisely what think tank Social Market Foundation (SMF) is suggesting. In its place new homes should be built.

The foundation argues the high street shopping units left empty by the collapse of retail businesses should be converted into hundreds of thousands of new homes built by the public sector. The think tank did not publish suggestions how struggling retailers could save their businesses or how small store owners could better navigate the current retail climate.

A paper published by SMF says the decline of traditional high street shopping is inevitable, meaning ministers should focus less on slowing that decline than on supporting new and more beneficial uses for town-centre sites.

2019 was the worst year for many retailers

High street gloom and declining retail sales have been well-documented with figures from the Office for National Statistics showing sales have continually suffered since the announcement of Brexit. 2019 was the worst year for sales in a quarter of a century for many retailers and 2020 is already annus horribilis, despite the year being only half way over and the full impact of Covid-19 not yet known.

According to the Centre for Retail Research there are around 50,000 fewer shops on the UK High Streets than just over a decade ago, and some analysts predict it will only get worse, says the BBC.

The SMF states a major programme of converting retail units for residential use could allow the creation of 800,000 new homes. Many of those homes should be built by local councils and other public bodies in a major expansion of social housing, the paper says. Central government should write off tens of billions of pounds of local councils’ debt to support that programme.

The SMF report, entitled A New Life for the High Street, argues that the coronavirus crisis will accelerate pre-existing trends including a shift away from shopping in urban centres. As more and more workers spend at least some of their working week working at home, footfall in town centres will decline and more retailers will collapse.

Instead of trying to arrest the inevitable decline of high-street retailers with promises to “save the high street”, the SMF Research Director Scott Corfe said that national and local politicians should deploy radical new measures to stimulate new life in urban centres and support unemployed retail staff.

To save urban centres, Corfe suggests: A nationwide program of repurposing city and town centres should be introduced. This would see vacant retail space converted into residential property. Replacing commercial space with residential property could, under cautious assumptions, create 800,000 additional homes under our calculations.

“Politicians pledging to save the high street are promising voters the impossible,” Corfe says. “Instead of claiming they can turn back the clock, leaders should aim to make inevitable change work better for urban centres and populations.”

“Trying to prop up high street retailers facing long-term decline is not an act of kindness to workers or towns. It just postpones the inevitable and wastes opportunities to develop new policies to help workers and towns embrace the future.

“Nothing can stop the demise of traditional high street shopping so it would be better for politicians to support the next chapter in the story of the high street, with hundreds of thousands of new homes that bring new life to our urban centres.”

Photo credit: FashionUnited

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