The best way to save Britain’s historic high streets is not to rescue failing retailers, but to relax planning permission to allow upscale residential redevelopment to flourish.
This will not be a popular conclusion for many shopkeepers, who might prefer the government to hammer bankers with new taxes that can be spent on tax breaks for them.
But that, or any other measure designed merely to maintain the status quo, is doomed to throw good money after bad trying to save unviable businesses.
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What is needed instead is to begin building confidence in Britain, and that will require wealth to be created in town centres, and for that wealth to be concentrated in a smaller number of viable businesses.
In my view, that means encouraging the development of desirable housing right in the heart of towns; renovating and augmenting the dingy low grade bedsits above shops that are typically rented to an area’s poorest residents.
This is not an easy turnaround to engineer, particularly in centres that are perceived to have declined beyond the point of no return. These are the ghettos where pound shops, charity stores and building societies give no reason for shoppers to venture into town, and flats above these shops smell of the fish and chip grease from the only successful restaurant in town.
In my home town, a half hour commute from London, a pretty tudor building is occupied by an Indian takeaway. A derelict block of retail and light industrial space – just three minutes from the railway station – lies empty because developers that would give their eye teeth to knock it down and build stylish townhouses are prevented from doing so. A couple of gorgeous historic buildings are failing as pubs, but regulations prevent them from being converted into gorgeous homes.
Developing upmarket homes in the centre of town might not encourage Harvey Nichols to move in, but it is not too much of a stretch to believe that a cafe culture might develop, particularly if traffic taming measures allow cars and pedestrians to coexist safely.
Cafes are relatively cheap to establish, and competition has made them increasingly pleasant places to be. Tony Blair might not have managed to stop the British binge drinking in town centres, but he did preside over a dramatic upturn in kerbside coffee drinking.
This upturn in pleasant activity should create a virtuous circle – more people will enjoy spending time in town; that will encourage spending along the whole high street; that should make the area more wealthy, helping property prices to rise and attract new real estate and business investment.
The only act required from government, particularly local government, is to get out of the way – an attractive proposition in an age of squeezed tax takings. It should even generate more revenue, because a rich home owner in town will pay a great deal more in council tax than the landlord of an empty retail unit will pay in rates.
Moreover, it is good for the environment to redevelop derelict buildings than it is to dig up green field sites as a way of tackling the nation’s housing shortage.
I appreciate that this train of thought will not be popular with everybody, and I look forward to opening a debate with people that have arguments for alternative plans.