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The Silver Lining In The Demise Of Town-Centre Retail

Camp Hill, Birmingham

On the face of it, the rate of retail closures across the UK makes for pretty dismal reading. In the first half of 2019, 16 stores closed their doors every day, according to research by PwC and Local Data Company, the most for five years. The retail vacancy rate peak of 13% in H1 2019 is the highest since August 2015.

Not everyone sees this rate of retail closure as a bad thing, however.  

“We’re feeling positive about the impact of the demise of physical retail on town centres,” Darling Associates Managing Director Chris Darling said.

The architectural firm is active on several commercial and residential projects set to bring life back to the UK’s town centres.

“In recent years town centres became dominated by multiple chain retailers, creating the same experience all over the world,” Darling said. “Towns have been losing their individuality and when the shops shut at 5:30pm all life leaves, leaving a ghost town. The demise of retail offers the chance to create new, lively neighbourhoods.”

Replace Retail With Resi And Offices

Darling estimates that the retail component of town centres is likely to shrink by a third of its original size. The release of space would offer the chance to create vibrant mixed-use town centres with residential, offices and retail and leisure.

“Large footprint, low-level shopping centres are currently inefficient uses of land,” Darling said. “They also require dismal service yards and large amounts of car parking. This land could be released to create mixed-use schemes, with more verticality and active residential on the upper levels. The retail that is there to support these uses can be aimed at independent and local retailers.”

Though the supply of office space in town and city centres has reduced in recent years partly due to permitted development rights, there is an increasing desire from occupiers to be back in the thick of things. Darling is in favour of PDR, as he said that the office space that was converted was frequently unsuited to office use and has allowed for the creation of well-placed residential space.

Now, the time has come to reintroduce high-quality office space in place of retail, as people increasingly want to work in the centre rather than drive to an office on the outskirts. Younger people in particular are less interested in owning a car and increasingly keen on living close to retail and leisure.

Darling cited Northcote Road in Clapham, London, as a good example of what a high street can achieve. The road’s mix of bars, restaurants, supermarkets and commercial offices creates a lively neighbourhood from morning until night. For those who live in the area, everything they need is within half a mile.

Exeter View, Exeter

BTR Brings Life To City Centres

Introducing the right residential and commercial space is important as well, however. The main factor to consider is variety.

“Ideally, reconfigured town centres will offer a range of houses for people on all incomes,” Darling said. “We are working on a number of schemes that range from elderly care to starter homes. If town centres can be redeveloped with something for everyone, with the good quality commercial and retail space that supports it, they will be far more sustainable.”

Darling Associates is heavily involved in the UK’s growing build-to-rent sector. The company is witnessing the expansion of regional BTR, including three- to four-bed detached housing in low density estates. This trend is particularly true in university cities; the firm is working on some 3,000 BTR units in various stages of design in places such as Exeter, Birmingham and Salford.

The BTR sector could provide a cost-effective way to introduce residential into the space left by the reduction in retail. Darling is particularly excited by the opportunities for new construction and design methods posed by the sector.

“Modular, zero-carbon homes are entering the rental market for the first time,” he said. “We’re working on a pilot project with a client in Uckfield, which is currently at design stage. The concept is not without its challenges, particularly as established providers have only completed a handful of units so far which means costs are high. But this could soon be really exciting.”

The UK’s housing crisis points toward the replacement of surplus retail with residential as a solution. If jobs can be brought back to town centres through the creation of suitable office space, neighbourhoods shouldn’t necessarily lose the jobs that they require to be sustainable. Overall, high streets across the country could have the facelift they require to meet everyone’s needs in the modern world.

This feature was produced by Bisnow Branded Content in collaboration with Darling Associates. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.