Our towns and city centre are facing the greatest changes in a generation and what we decide now will have major implications for the way our children and grandchildren live.

While the pandemic led to what may yet turn out to be a transitory shift from city centres to suburbs and beyond, it is changes to our shopping habits that threaten the greatest upheaval.

The switch to online shopping, exacerbated by the Covid lockdowns, has accelerated the demise of the high street.

And with more familiar retail brand names seemingly folding with every day that passes, we are being left with a legacy of bricks and mortar stores that appear to have no immediate viable function.

And it’s not just town and city centres that are turning into ghost towns. All those out-of- town shopping centres that have sprung up in the past 30 years, when we thought the future was drive-to retail, are now increasingly looking like a bad idea.      

Successive government reviews have focused on revitalising high streets with a new breed of shop that offers greater choice, diversity, and experiences, but there are only so many local stores selling organic olive oil and handmade soap that a community can sustain.

Increasingly, urban planners are considering turning town and city centres into residential hubs, creating thousands of new homes in the process.

A recent report by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think tank said it was time to grasp the nettle and accept that the decline of the traditional high street can no longer be halted.

The trend towards online shopping combined with homeworking has led to dramatic declines in footfall in town and city centres and the closure of more retail outlets.

It argued that, rather than flogging the dead retail horse, vacant units could be repurposed as homes or pulled down to make way for modern apartments to support new and more beneficial uses for town-centres.

Its report, A New Life for the High Street, estimated that, even if 5% of commercial land was released for development across the UK, up to 800,000 homes could be built.

It 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 suggested ministers should enable councils to close shops and turn them into homes using funds previously allocated to paying off local authority debts.

“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.”

There is a growing argument that politicians are promising the impossible and that, rather than insisting they can turn back the clock, they should focus instead on making inevitable change work better for town and city centres.

Continuing to prop-up high street retailers is merely postponing the inevitable and is wasting opportunities to develop new, forward-looking policies.


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