Homes on the high street are only part of the answer to the retail crisis

Nature abhors a vacuum and no bigger vacuum than the UK high street where one in seven shops are now vacant, not shut until all legal restrictions on human movement and the owners can open again, but vacant. They may not reopen as shops even again as the law changes on August 1 allowing empty shops to become homes without complex change of use permission required.

The Government neatly legislates its way out of the spotlight on the need to fix a rent and rates system that no longer reflects the reality of UK retail, and leaves landlords, local authorities and tenants to sort out the mess. It was a neat PR trick to spin this on the basis of more homes needed and high streets kept busy, and I have always suggested that empty retail can become residential, but this has not been thought through.

The consumer won’t wait

My real point is, in the meantime, the consumer has taken control and this is the trend that all retails should be taking a close look at over the next few years. One example is Climate Emergency Centres (CECs), whose cry is for “the establishment of empty buildings as inspirational community hubs for the benefit of people and planet.”

CECs are where local people come together to talk about climate change, drink coffee, hang out, look at art, and get their bikes repaired. After a year of Covid, this seems preferable to many to queueing outside Primark.

Old retail? No thanks

Long term, money will rear its ugly head – who pays for what, but for now it is clear that whatever people want out of retail, it may not be what retailers are planning. We can already see that many retailers that have just opened again have simply carried on where they left off, and generally with a lot less stock. This may be sustainable for a proportion of their customers but after 10 years of retailers being told they need to be more engaged and engaging with their customers, is the old model really sustainable?

Worries remain over whether London will ever return to its premier capital status and I suspect it will, but I pray that retailers do not simply exploit the bounce that is apparently coming and carry on as they used to. UK retail can survive without my patronage but I want to say here that I will simply transfer my spending to hospitality where much of what CEC is trying to provide can be found.

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