Empty High Street

Representatives of the independent retail industry have added their voice to trade bodies campaigning against proposals to allow shops to be changed into housing without approval from local authorities.

The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), Federation of Independent Retailers (NFRN) and British Independent Retailers Association (BIRA) have joined 24 other retail trade bodies in writing to Housing Minister Robert Jenrick opposing plans for empty shops to be converted into housing without planning permission.

This followed a consultation on the issue that closed at the end of January 2021.

The letter stated: “We welcome Government recognition that our town centres must change, but an all-embracing permitted development right that allows most commercial buildings to be converted to housing risks putting the long-term health of our town centres at risk for the sake of a short-term stimulus.”

It warned that an unplanned approach would do nothing for high streets.

“Putting ground floor housing in a random and uncontrolled manner within high streets does not draw footfall, does not support new businesses, reduces the potential for business growth and will undermine the viability of existing retail, cultural and commercial activities on the high street and remove convenience stores from local neighbourhoods. This will create a vicious circle whereby the reduced viability of the remaining commercial uses in turn threatens their existence and incentivises their conversion to residential.

“At the neighbourhood level, we consider that local centres would be particularly at risk. The loss of local shops and services could precipitate their decline at a time when we are putting greater emphasis on the need for walkable neighbourhoods which provide a range of day-to-day needs in local centres. A change of use to housing is a one-way trip.

ACS chief executive James Lowman said: “High streets and other retail locations need to change, including more conversion of retail units into housing, but this absolutely has to be done on a planned basis. A free for all in conversions to residential use would make high streets incoherent and less compelling places to shop, socialise, live and work.”

The letter added: “The policy puts the premises of small businesses at risk of redevelopment, will impact the real diversification of the high street and could threaten the existence of E Use classes uses such as financial and legal services, health centres, GP surgeries, Post Offices, community centres and hubs, gyms, leisure facilities, education, co-working spaces, and life sciences and deter other innovations coming into town centres.”