Reports in daily newspapers (Daily Telegraph 05-08-13) that the planning minister Nick Boles is to grant local authorities greater freedom to convert stores into private housing may be exaggerated but they have resulted in some commentators expressing concerns that High Streets are to be sacrificed. I share concerns that High Streets, especially historic ones, should be treated sympathetically, but I don’t think we should preserve them in aspic. Neither should we jump to the conclusion that traditional town centres will be the only ones to come under pressure to adapt. Let’s look out of town too!
In a previous post – Better Shops not More Shops – I made the case for a more strategic approach to planning our retail landscape. I also cited some examples of shopping areas in Oxford which would benefit from conversion to housing rather than expansion for retail. And I still maintain, as many others do, that we have too many shops that were built in the last decade or so to satisfy an overheated property market or the expansionist ambitions of the retail titans. The internet, the economy, and increased focus on localism means that we no longer need out of town ‘super stores’ – the very term sounds old fashioned – and far too much speculatively built space is struggling to find tenants and pay its way.
An admission that the days of the retail behemoth are numbered comes from Tesco in an interview last month with The Grocer magazine in which the company sets out its plans to re-invigorate the tired ‘hypermarket’ formula. Its first attempt comes in the form of its refurbished Tesco Extra store in Watford which wants to re-create a ‘community’ feel. But, notwithstanding Tesco’s efforts, if the old model is failing, doesn’t it make more sense for society to put this land to better use? Why not convert these sites – already tainted by development – to housing rather than let speculative developers rip up more countryside to build the houses we are said to need. And while we’re at it let’s turn our attention to unwanted offices too!