Homes on our High Streets

With an ambitious target of delivering 300,000 homes per year by the mid-2020s, how can we build enough homes that people can afford and want to live in? Are our ailing high streets the answer?

According to the National Housing Federation, an estimated 8.4m people in England are living in an unaffordable, insecure or unsuitable home. With statistics like these, it is no wonder that housing has been placed high on the government’s agenda.

But with the ambitious government target of delivering 300,000 homes per year by the mid-2020s, how can we build enough homes that people can afford and want to live in?

Perhaps the answer lies in our local high streets - COVID-19 has added to an already serious problem – the reality that there is far too much retail floorspace in the UK. Savills estimate that the UK may be ‘over spaced’ for retail by as much as 40%.

With the changing face of our high streets and the ongoing decline in retail, perhaps we should focus less on arresting the inevitable decline and more on supporting new and more beneficial uses for town centre sites.

Rather than letting our high streets fade away to a shadow of their former glory, surely it makes sense to repurpose our urban space and explore opportunities for creating sustainable residential and community spaces from redundant retail space?

Recent relaxation of the use classes order has been a positive move creating much greater flexibility in how retail and commercial premises may be used, without the need to secure planning permission for change of use.   This is coupled with the extension of permitted development (PD) allowing upward extension of commercial blocks, blocks of flats and residential properties.  Furthermore full planning applications will also no longer be needed in many instances to demolish vacant buildings and rebuild them as housing.

As well as providing much-needed housing, residential development could help to repurpose our town centres and bring footfall back onto the high street. If we can create town centres in which people want to live, work and play, this can only revitalise our town centres and give them a beating heart once again. 

The retailer, John Lewis announced plans to become a residential landlord, with a plan to build rental homes above or beside Waitrose supermarkets around the UK. The retailer is also working on plans for a massive reduction in the size of its flagship London store and has applied for planning permission to switch up to three floors of the shop into office space for rent.

In its report, ‘A New Life for the High Street’, the Social Market Foundation estimates that under a “conservative assumption” 5% of commercial land could be released for development, allowing at least 800,000 homes to be built.

Whilst the recent relaxation in planning controls is welcomed, I consider that the government have not as yet gone far enough.   In response to the pandemic the Government have seemingly chosen not to extend permitted development to allow the upper floors of retail premises to be converted for residential uses (residential conversion of retail units being capped at 150m2 - equivalent to 2 or 3 flats). It is however hoped that the ‘Planning for the Future’ White Paper consulted upon in October will seek to further relax controls, allowing even more flexibility in the re-use and repurposing of our high streets.   

That is not to say there are not challenges to be overcome – there are issues that need to be considered in terms of design and quality of housing, as well as parking and access – however it gives us the opportunity to use one crisis to solve another – and that can only be a good thing.

David Jones is Managing Director/Head of Planning at Evans Jones Ltd, Property and Planning Consultancy, based in Cheltenham, with offices in London and Reading.