I have lost count of the number of articles I have read in recent years giving expert commentary on the downfall of the British high street, as a consequence of our move en masse to on-line shopping. Indeed, on a recent holiday to Devon the main shopping areas in both Exeter and Plymouth were adequate testimony to the demise of the department store in particular, and the challenge facing small and medium retailers more generally.
It may well be a little too early to judge the possible direction of travel for UK retailing and commercial office space with over 2 million workers still on furlough, but one thing is for sure – our high streets and town centres will need to adapt to the challenge that they are now facing.
So will our town centres become ghost towns? In the short term maybe, as the pandemic will certainly change the way we work going forward. But this surely represents an opportunity for residential property funds, architects, developers, local authority town planners, and even estate agents, to think differently about the redesign of our town centres.
Surely now, empty offices should to become much needed low cost residential homes, with the retailer John Lewis leading the way by seeking to become a significant private landlord, after unveiling plans to build 10,000 new homes on land that it already owns across the UK. Interestingly, the company has already found space for 7,000 new rental homes by building on land currently used as car parks, and above Waitrose supermarkets.
This is clearly only one example, but with a government pledging to “building back better”, the political will is surely there for other major land owners, property funds and commercial landlords to follow suit and play a significant contribution to finally addressing our nationwide “housing crisis”, after many years of political lip service to the problem.
So I suspect looking forward, our shopping areas will need to be more condensed with a traditional mix of retail and commercial office space being supplemented with residential and leisure development. More open space, less motor traffic, more natural greenery, and less congestion can only help make our urban centres destinations of choice. This way, there will be no need for a green revolution – just a plain old fashioned green evolution that ushers in an era of sustainable development and cleaner air.
A place for people to meet, walk pets, play sports, cycle, jog or simply drink coffee, it really doesn’t matter. As what matters is that we create affordable homes and breathe life into tired temporarily redundant retail and commercial architecture with open leisure space for all to use and enjoy. This in turn will attract vibrant new businesses that will require office space, albeit on a significantly reduced scale.
So a seismic change is on its way….and it’s an opportunity that the UK property sector must grab with both hands and help make a difference for the better, whilst making fees along the way – so it really is win/win all the way.
The author of this article is Peter Nicholls, MD of Ideology Consulting. For more information about Ideology Consulting, go to www.ideologyconsulting.co.uk