Will high street homes help save retail?

News that The Social Market Foundation (SMF) has said 800,000 new homes could be created by turning the high street residential fills me with both hope and fear.

Hope, because I can at least imagine a high street with a genuine community comprising independent retailers and residents, more and more of whom are working from home. Fear that the relevant parties will not collaborate to make it work.

First the hope. Most of the space above most shops in most high streets is empty; it comes with the lease but is often simply not required. While access could be tricky, it is solvable. And of course, there are plenty of empty shops that can be converted lock, stock and barrel into apartments. I say apartments because the SMF has been careful to say homes not houses, reflecting the trend to more single-occupancy, smaller and more affordable accommodation.

No room for sentimentality here

The SMF is at least not sentimental; it recognises that there cannot be a return to the high street of the past and it even suggests that planning be taken away from local authorities and handed to central government. Government could assume local authorities current £80bn debt and leave local authorities to do other things.

I also like the fact that this proposal seems to have been well thought through, unlike many of the current save the high street schemes which are pure nostalgia; it is pretty clear that there will never be a return to the high street of the 1950s and 60s. As the report says, “Nothing can stop the demise of traditional high street shopping so it would be better for politicians to support the next chapter in the story of the high street, with hundreds of thousands of new homes that bring new life to our urban centres.”

That said, the fear is that no one will provide the complementary facilities to support a boost in residential space, namely minor injuries units, schools, sports grounds, car parks etc., although that is what the SMF envisages. Fear too that current facilities will simply continue to be under threat from traditional housing developers. Give with one hand, take away with the other.

Collaboration between agencies will be key

Oddly enough, the scheme may be blessed by the autocratic Boris Johnson who wants to overhaul ancient planning laws and entrenched attitudes and has been talking to various experts lately. Already, housing minister Robert Jenrick is demanding a zone rather than case-based planning system, which might force councils to agree a framework for new developments, rather than individual proposals considered one at a time.

These plans may give a boost to the growing number of tech companies that provide apps to connect customers with local retail and services, such as Localise. (localiseapp.com) launches soon and has built an ecosystem where independent retailers can connect with local shoppers and reward them for spending with credit that can be used to shop again.  NearSt uses Google so consumers can find what they want, but makes the results more local and relevant, a real boon to independents who cannot compete on ad words.

Retailers need to do their bit

However, these technologies depend on the retailers being much more digital. How much longer will consumers put up with retailers that only take cash, no matter how badly they need a haircut? Come on guys, sure, you don’t want to pay Visa and MasterCard 2-5% but the extra business easily offsets that and there is a ton of mobile and payments out there specifically for the independent.

Anyway, any scheme that thinks about both the retailer and the consumer gets our vote. Retail started 150 years ago with families selling from the ground floor of their houses and tenements. Might we see a return to that? Time was when it wasn’t cool to be a family retailer. Shareholders and VCs in particular don’t like it, but in an age of sustainability and personalisation, it is important for some retailers to be fronted by charismatic leaders that are more than simply salaried staff. Who better than the family that started the company? Particularly if they live close to the family that moved in next door into a newly-refurbished home enabled by the government, SMF and local authority working in partnership.

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