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UK high streets could become residential hubs as e-commerce grows

Published
Jul 22, 2020
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High street shopping units left empty by struggling retailers should be converted into hundreds of thousands of new homes, a UK think tank has suggested.



Social Market Foundation said the decline of traditional high street shopping is “inevitable” and that the public sector should focus on finding new and more beneficial uses for town centres.

“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,” Scott Corfe, SMF research director, said on Wednesday.

“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.”

The think tank’s report argues that the lockdown will accelerate trends that were already under way, including a shift away from in-store shopping and a decline in footfall as working from home fuels permanent changes to office life.

Rather than focusing on “saving the high street”, ministers should be working on “saving urban centres”, Social Market Foundation said. The proposal includes introducing a nationwide programme of repurposing city and town centres into residential property, funded by local councils.

To support that initiative, central government could write off tens of billions of pounds of local councils’ debt and Economic Growth Areas could be designated, with tax incentives offered to firms looking to move to the zones and generate employment.

The think tank’s comments come at a time when it is widely expected conditions in the UK retail market will remain challenging. Total retail sales are expected to fall by 4.6% this year according to the Centre for Retail Research, led by a decline in store sales.

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