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.

 
 
 
 

In a world of autonomous vehicles, we’ll still need walking and cycling routes

A Surrey cycle path, 1936 style. Image: Getty.

The CEO of Sustrans on the limits of technology.

We are on the cusp of dramatic changes in the way we own, use and power our means of transportation. The mobility revolution is shifting from an “if” to a “where” and when”.

There are two different futures currently being imagined. First up, a heaven, of easy mobility as portrayed by autonomous vehicle (AV) manufacturers, with shared-use AV freeing up road space for public spaces and accidents reduced to near zero. Or alternatively, a hellish, dystopian pod-world, with single-occupancy pod-armadas leading to an irresistible demand for more roads, and with people cloistered away in walkways and tunnels; Bladerunner but with added trees.

Most likely, the reality will turn out to be somewhere in between, as cities and regions across the globe shape and accommodate innovation and experimentation.

But in the understandable rush for the benefits of automation we need to start with the end in mind. What type of places do we want to live in? How do we want to relate to each other? How do we want to be?

At Sustrans we want to see a society where the way we travel creates healthier places and happier lives for everyone – because without concerted effort we are going to end up with an unequal and inequitable distribution of the benefits and disbenefits from the mobility revolution. Fundamentally this is about space and power. The age-old question of who has access to space and how. And power tends to win.  

The wealthy will use AV’s and EV’s first – they already are – and the young and upwardly mobile will embrace micro mobility. But low-income, older and disabled residents could be left in the margins with old tech, no tech and no space.

We were founded in 1977, when off the back of the oil crises a group of engineers and radical thinkers pioneered the transformation of old railway lines into paths that everyone could walk and cycle on: old tech put to the service of even older tech. Back then the petrol-powered car was the future. Over 40 years on, the 16,575-mile National Cycle Network spans the length and breadth of the UK, crossing and connecting towns, cities and countryside, with over half of the population living within two miles of its routes.


Last year, more than 800 million trips were made on the Network. That’s almost half as many journeys made on the rail network, or 12 journeys for every person in the UK. These trips benefited the UK economy by £88m through reduced road congestion and contributed £2.5bn to local economies through leisure and tourism. Walking and cycling on the Network also prevented 630 early deaths and averted nearly 8,000 serious long-term health conditions.

These benefits would be much higher if the paths on the entire Network were separated from motor traffic; currently only one third of them are. Completing an entirely traffic-free walking and cycling network won’t be simple. So why do it?

In a world of micro-mobility, AVs and other disruptive technology, is the National Cycle Network still relevant?

Yes, absolutely. This is about more than just connecting places and enabling people to travel without a car. These paths connect people to one other. In times when almost a fifth of the UK population say they are always or often lonely, these paths are a vital asset. They provide free space for everyone to move around, to be, and spend time together. It’s the kind of space that keeps our country more human and humane.

No matter how clever the technological interface between autonomous vehicles and people, we will need dedicated space for the public to move under their own power, to walk and cycle, away from vehicles. As a civil society we will need to fight for this.

And for this reason, the creation of vehicle-free space – a network of walking and cycling paths for everyone is as important, and as radical, as it was 40-years ago.

Xavier Brice is CEO of the walking and cycling charity Sustrans. He spoke at the MOVE 2019 conference last week.