Can Phillip Hammond’s Treasury really revive Britain’s high streets?

Dartford. Image: Getty.

The Chancellor spotted a great deal for Britain’s economy by making city centres a key focus of his recent budget. In among the tax and spending tweaks was the launch of a plan to save the high street. Philip Hammond offered high streets a 3-for-1 deal, announcing a trio of policies to help city and town centres adapt to changing consumer preferences, including a business rates holiday, a new Future High Streets Fund, and consultation on an extension to Permitted Development Rights (PDR).

The government’s acknowledgement that high streets must “adapt and diversify” is welcome. Past policy has focused too much on retail-led solutions which do not address wider economic issues – but as our recent research has shown, many city centres have far too many shops and need to remodel away from this dependence on retail. The government also recognises this, shown for instance in the announcement of a new pilot to facilitate meanwhile use for empty high street properties. In particular, having more office-based businesses in city centres will bring both more footfall into shops and boost customers’ spending power by providing them with better wages.

Here are three thoughts on the government’s high street policies.

1) The Future High Street Fund should focus on remodelling struggling city centres

The city centres most in need of reshaping will find it hard to attract private sector investors and developers given their low property prices and unproven markets, so remodelling may not happen without public sector involvement (and funds). In recent years the European Regional Development Funds (ERDF) have been a vital source of funds, allowing cities like Bradford and Huddersfield to develop new quality workspace in their city centres.

As ERDF support ends with Brexit, the announcement of a £650m Future High Streets Fund is a helpful first step toward its replacement. The new Fund should be directed at the city centres with the highest vacancy rates and aim to support them to diversify. This means repurposing empty retail stock to other commercial uses and housing and developing additional high-quality office space too.

The Chancellor should go further than this, though, by making the £38bn National Productivity Infrastructure Fund available to make struggling city centres more attractive to investment from high-productivity businesses.


2) A more flexible planning system could help high streets adapt, but PDR may not always be the right tool

In some cities, greater flexibility over a property’s use could encourage both a reduction in excess retail and address housing shortages. In Basildon, for example, average house prices are 10 times average household income, signalling an urgent need for more homes. And the city centre has far too many shops (62 per cent of commercial floor space is retail and 20 per cent lies empty). So it makes sense to convert some of these empty shops into homes, which also benefit from being within walking or cycling distance of workspaces, amenities and transport hubs.

But most cities are not like Basildon, and a combination of high housing demand and high vacancy rates is unusual. Introducing the proposed extension of PDR to retail – allowing change of use to office or residential without planning permission  – risks losing quality commercial space in city centres with healthy high streets, and is likely to be ineffective in city centres most in need of help. (We explored these issues ahead of the Budget, in an earlier blog.)

Take Brighton, for instance. The city also has high housing demand but a low high street vacancy rate of 8 per cent. If PDR made conversions easy in the city centre, successful shops which residents rely on could be discarded for new housing.

At the other end of the scale, weak city centres with struggling high streets have low demand for both housing and retail, so take-up of PDR would be rare even though repurposing the buildings would help the high street.

So while the policy could benefit a select few cities, for the majority it would need to be handled cautiously to make sure it works with, not against, the city centre’s economy. Given the lack of control, local authorities have over PDR conversions, this could be very difficult.

3) Business rates are a red herring – other factors are causing the high street’s struggles

The Chancellor yielded to pressure from retailers and offered smaller shops business rates relief. But placing the blame for the struggles of retail on a property tax (despite its flaws) is misleading and distracts from the underlying factors leading to the decline of high-street retailers. While the discounts provide some welcome short-term help, it is not an effective long-term fix.

Business rates are higher in city centres because they are attractive commercial locations, offering firms the benefits of density and access to many customers and workers. Rather than indicating that the tax burden is too high, the difficulties shops are having in paying the rates instead highlight the lack of footfall past their doors.

The most effective way for the government to support high streets is to help cities overcome their weak economic performance. An empty high street is a sign of a lack of economic activity, without the spending power and footfall to keep amenities open. So to help the high street, policy must focus on improving the performance of the broader city centre economy both directly through improving commercial space and public realm; and indirectly, by raising the skills of the cities’ workforces.

The authors are analysts at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

 
 
 
 

How US planners experimented with “the iron hand of power” over colonial Manila

Manila in ruins, 1945. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, Manila must have appeared to its new overlords a despairing prospect. Racked with poverty and disease, it was still recovering from years of war, epidemic and a fire that had left 8,000 homeless.

For architect Daniel Burnham, it was an opportunity to put to work the radical ideas he had dreamed of in America.

He was among those asking how America’s unprecedented wealth at the turn of the century could be reconciled with the lives of the country’s poorest. Like many, he admired the ideas of harmonised city-planning articulated in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling science-fiction Looking Backward (1888).

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham constructed the “White City”. Built across 686 acres of parkland, boulevards, gardens and neoclassical structures rendered a spray-painted plaster vision of the future – all laid out to one comprehensive plan.

It was impressive – but implementing grand designs where people actually lived meant laborious negotiations with citizens, businessmen and politicians.

Instead, opportunity lay in America’s new overseas territories. As Daniel Immerwahr describes in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States, “They functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”

An architect’s dream

The US had gone to war with Spain in 1898, taking advantage of an empire-wide insurrection. It ended up controlling the entire Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico.

As a “territory”, the Philippines existed outside the protections of the constitution. Congress could impose any law, proclaimed the attorney general in 1901, “without asking the consent of the inhabitants, even against their consent and against their protest, as it has frequently done.”

Which is how Burnham, upon invitation by the Philippine’s new rulers, came to wield what the Architectural Record called “the iron hand of power” over Manila.

 Burnham’s plan for Manila. Click to expand.

Where Burnham’s Chicago plan was complex, took years and entailed collaboration with hundreds of citizens, Burnham spent six months on the Manila plan, and just six weeks in the Philippines. And with no voters to persuade, there seemed little reason to register Filipino input in his designs.

In 1905 Burnham submitted his Report on Improvement of Manila. It described filling the toxic moat of the Spanish fortress Intramuros and developing a rectangular street system modelled on Washington D.C., with diagonal arteries which even Chicago lacked.


Central to his plan was the city’s beautification through monumental buildings, waterfront improvements, and parks – “wholesome resorts” to “give proper means of recreation to every quarter of the city”

Burnham charged William E. Parsons as the omnipotent “Consultant Architect” to interpret his plan, who relished its authority over all public building as an “architect’s dream”. When concerned with the extent of his purview, he also chose to standardise a number of public buildings.

“I doubt if this method would bear fruit in our own city improvement plans, in which everything depends on slow moving legislative bodies,” reported the Architectural Record’s correspondent.

Despite Burnham’s colonial sentiments his biographer concluded his plan was “remarkable in its simplicity and its cognizance of Philippine conditions and traditions.”

His plans did not shy from asserting the colonial government’s authority, however. The Luneta, a favourite park, was to become the nuclei of government. The city’s avenues would converge there, for “every section of the Capitol City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power.”

Unusual monumental possibilities

Burnham also worked on a summer palace for US administrators at Baguio, 150 miles north in the mountains. On land inhabited by Igorot people, Burnham saw an opening “to formulate my plans untrammelled by any but natural conditions”.

Baguio’s “unusual monumental possibilities” were facilitated by a road whose construction employed thousands, risking death from disease and falling off cliffs. Civic buildings would “dominate everything in sight” and a golf course would rival those of Scotland.

“Stingy towards the people and lavish towards itself,” griped La Vanguardia, the government “has no scruples nor remorse about wasting money which is not its own.”

As enthusiasm for US empire soured in the States, local power was relinquished to Filipinos. Parsons resigned in protest in 1914. He was replaced by Manila-born Juan Arellano, whose rebuke to imperialists was the mighty, neoclassical Legislative Building which hosted the elected Philippine Legislature. Arellano upheld Burnham’s plan, producing a beautified city bearing resemblance to Burnham’s White City.

But the Legislative Building, along with Burnham’s great edifices and almost everything else in Manila, was levelled as US troops recaptured it in 1945, this time ousting the Japanese in a brutal battle. “Block after bloody block was slowly mashed into an unrecognizable pulp”, recorded the 37th Infantry Division as they exercised their own “iron hand” over Manila.

American artillery had transformed Manila into ruins. “It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on US soil,” writes Immerwahr, even if few soldiers realised they were liberating US nationals at the time. Burnham’s expansive vision was lost in the debris, and though some buildings were rebuilt a majority were replaced. Today, Manila’s pre-war architecture is remembered with fondness and nostalgia.