Homes, not shops, are key to High St. renewal – report

Promises by government ministers to revitalise high streets with a new breed of shops should be abandoned in favour of turning town centres into residential hubs, creating at least 800,000 homes, according to a report that aims to influence a Downing Street review of planning laws.

With all this uncertainty about what the “new normal” might mean surely now is not the time to press ahead blindly with the GESP (Greater Exeter Strategic Plan) but pause, reflect, and go back to the drawing-board? -Owl

Phillip Inman www.theguardian.com 

The Social Market Foundation (SMF) said the decline of the traditional high street could not be reversed by policies that “turn the clock back” to a time before online shopping, especially after the trend accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic.

Homeworking was also likely to become a permanent feature of many jobs, leading to further declines in footfall in town and city centres and the closure of more retail outlets.

Empty shops should be given a new lease of life as homes or be torn down in favour of modern apartments to support “new and more beneficial uses for town-centre sites”.

The thinktank, run by former Daily Telegraph executive James Kirkup, said in its report, A New Life for the High Street, that under a “conservative assumption” 5% of commercial land could be released for development, allowing at least 800,000 homes to be built.

Boris Johnson is keen to overhaul the UK’s planning laws and has brought several former thinktank specialists into No 10 to draft a new scheme by the end of the year.

Housing minister Robert Jenrick said last month he wanted to move to a zonal planning system that forced councils and other interested bodies to agree a framework for new developments, sweeping aside the current case-by-case assessment of individual proposals.

The report’s author and SMF research director, Scott Corfe, said he doubted a zonal system that pushed aside council oversight in favour of a framework approved by ministers would allow community assets such as parks, sports centres and open spaces to be protected.

It would also likely deny councils the funds to promote social housing, he said, which was crucial to maintaining a mix of households in town centres.

The SMF said it favoured France’s Zones Franches Urbaines, which offer tax incentives for firms that move to the zones and generate employment. It said a UK version could offer “tax incentives contingent on the hiring of local workers – particularly those that have lost work as a result of economic change accelerated by the coronavirus crisis”.

The thinktank said: “There is a role for government to take the initiative in plans to repurpose urban centres, with a significant role for local authority housebuilding to provide affordable homes for those on lower incomes.”

The SMF said ministers should give councils the green light to close shops and turn them into homes using funds previously allocated to paying local authority debts.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak could transfer the £80bn owed by councils to the central government balance sheet, freeing councils to make improvements in their local area and generate jobs.

“This would essentially transfer local government debt into the hands of central government, which is better-placed to service the debt,” the report said. “A debt write-off would liberate local authorities to invest in urban renewal projects – including the creation of new schools, parks, and sports facilities.”

Corfe said: “Politicians pledging to save the high street are promising voters the impossible. 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.”

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