Homes? Shops? Knock it down? What should be done with the high street

What can we do to save our high street? 

What can we do to save our high street? - Credit: Archant

East Anglia’s high streets are in dire need of a shake-up, writes Eleanor Pringle, but first the public needs to decide what it wants to see in the long-term.

Miles upon miles of British high streets are empty – and further casualties will come because of the pandemic. 

Currently in excess of 13pc of retail space across the country is vacant as data showed that for the 10th month in a row occupation rates have fallen. 

But the public and the economy have a date in their diary for when they can dust off their wallets and return to the shops. 

The question is whether they will find anything once they get there. 

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Across East Anglia some of the pillars of the high street have crumbled into dust: Debenhams, Topshop and the other brands in the Arcadia group such as Dorothy Perkins and Burtons to name a few. 

Could these once magnetic flagship units offer shelter to businesses who need all the support they can get? Retail bosses now want landlords to slash rents and use the sites as incubators for smaller businesses.

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Jonty Young is the spokesman for the Norwich Lanes. He would wholeheartedly welcome the chance to get more independent businesses into prominent main-drag locations. 

He said: “A few years ago there was a building which the Norwich Lanes committee proposed should be used for an indoor market and hot-desk site with some holiday lets above it.

“At the time the landlord chose to go with something else which is fair enough - but I think we do have an opportunity here for policymakers to do something a bit different. 

“I would absolutely love to see some the space in Norwich used for independent businesses and there’s definitely an appetite out there from indies to move into premises. 

“We’ve already seen how successful the likes of Junkyard was and it would be wonderful to have something like that in the heart of the city. 

“There’s a reason that the Norwich Lanes has won awards like Great British High Street of the year and that’s because of our independents – I’d like to see some other streets in Norwich become more like that. 

“We know that should businesses move in to these units they’ll be supported by the public. Even when we put up photos of the streets looking a bit empty and peaceful we have so many followers saying they can’t wait to come back – we know these companies will be supported by shoppers.” 

However incubating businesses in large vacant premises on the high street may work well in theory but not always work in practice, according to one business leader. 

Mark Cordell, chief executive of the business improvement district, Our Bury St Edmunds, used the example of the town’s former Debenhams store to illustrate his point. 

He said: “It’s more complicated here because the store sits within a privately owned shopping centre, so it is a matter for them. 

“When the Arc shopping centre was built 10 years ago, Debenhams were the key tenant. They were the one that attracted other people to the town.  

“A single business being run from that premises is going to be challenging in the current climate. 

“I’m sure that landlords are looking at alternative usages. Whether it’s split between businesses, community focused, or a mixture of them all — that’s the challenge.” 

Other locations, that do not have these pressures, can also run into problems. 

According to Mr Cordell, one unit vacated by a national brand in the town several years ago has been vacant ever since due to the rent asked for by the landlord.

“Last year they wanted a rate of £120,000 and had no interest. Now they want a rent of £60,000 and they’ve got three people interested.” 

Even so, smaller traders may not able to afford this lowered rent leading to discussions of renting to collectives but these too have run into difficulties. 

“We’ve spoken to landlords about renting units to multiple smaller tenants on and off for the best part of eight years,” he added. 

“The difficulty is that they just don’t want the hassle of having to negotiate with three or four people. 

“They are always going to prefer the one tenant option and things won’t change until they can’t get just one tenant into those larger units. 

“It’s going to take a bit of time, because it’s around forcing the landlord’s hand and the best way to do that is when they get hit in the pocket.” 

Despite this Mr Cordell said he can see that change starting to occur. 

“I think landlords are realising the landscape is changing and they’ve got to be a bit more flexible and a bit more receptive to innovative and creative ideas,” he said. 

The second, and perhaps more valuable option in the longer term, would be converting some of these sites for partial residential use, said Adrian Fennell of Norwich’s Roche Chartered Surveyors. 

The partner at the East Anglian lettings agent said: “There’s a couple of issues with converting these types of buildings into sites for multiple businesses. 

“The first is of course rates – we simply don’t know how long they will be cut for and may see them empty again when rates go back up.

“The second is the time and money to open up a site like Debenhams department store under new leases. It’s not like these tenants would be taking over from outgoing management, it’s the administrator. 

“It’s basic things like health and safety regulation of escalators and lifts, who knows how to turn on the air conditioning, who knows the alarm systems. These things take time and money which a lot of businesses simply don’t have.”

He added that by converting some space for residential use cities would become more balanced: “We know having more people living in cities and towns makes them cleaner and safer, because they become self-policing by people who spend all their time there. 

“We also know it’s good for the local economy because these people go out and spend, they visit the theatres and the leisure sector, visit the gyms and service businesses.

“What we need now is for councils to somewhat pave the way with this when it comes to planning so we can start rebalancing our high street in this new, evolved era.”

Serving the people living in city centres also needs to be improved in the long term, said Don Williams, KPMG’s partner for the retail sector. 

He said: “When looking at the high street I use the analogy of a car. I can go to a garage and it all gets diagnosed and serviced in one place. For our bodies we have to go everywhere – dentists, GPs, chiropractors – I can see high streets becoming more of a hub for primary care services as opposed to relying as much on hospitals. 

“I also think we’ll see a lot more of the education sector coming to the high street. This pandemic has sped up the change towards more digital skills and a lot of people currently in education may be left behind or need to re-skill.”

He added that where high streets have been over sold to retail by between 30pc and 50pc, one option could simply be knocking buildings down. 

Talking about the proposed demolition of shopping centres in Nottingham and Stockton-on-Tees, Mr Williams said: “I can absolutely see some buildings being knocked down and used more for public space – especially if we have more people living in the centre. 

“The first hurdle is getting different landlords on the same high street to agree to it. When you look at high streets such as Marylebone or Bond Street who all have the same landlord, that’s when you can start having a more interesting conversation about how you want your space to feel. 

“Currently we are not set up very well for eating outdoors and that more European way of life.”

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