Pressure on the green belt, building on flood plains, investment in new road infrastructure, delivering affordable housing, and meeting carbon zero commitments. These are just some of the many reasons why housing demand is not being met. According to an ACE report in 2021, the gap - the difference between the number of households and the number of houses being built - is £185 billion; the equivalent to 886,000 new households. So, is the solution closer to home or closer to the heart of our towns and cities? The High Street.
The benefits of town centre living
Living close to the places where employment density is greatest, leisure and recreational activities are concentrated and where main transport hubs are located would seem sensible and an attractive proposition for many.
Indeed, town centre living can also bring benefits to the carbon zero agenda, despite the common misconception that the UK’s big towns could be doing more damage to global warming than living in villages and the countryside. In fact, the European Commission found that UK emissions stand at 5.7 tonnes per person and the vast majority of the country’s largest towns and cities emit well below that average. Though the differences are not hugely significant, on average, homes in large towns emit slightly less carbon dioxide per person than their rural neighbours, as they tend to be smaller, denser and easier to heat.
Carbon zero benefits aside, the truth is that decades of under investment in our town centres and the plentiful supply of out-of-town housing has meant that many town centres have become synonymous with decline, empty properties, and lack of investment.
This has been exacerbated in recent years by the decline of the High Street and the lack of control, ownership and funding to address these issues. The government has recognised the size of the challenge facing towns and cities in England, with over £8 billion committed through initiatives such as the Future High Streets Fund, Town Deal and Levelling Up Fund. Development of vacant and low value sites for residential purposes needs to be an important component of successful placemaking. New housing strengthens community ownership of town centres, creates vibrancy throughout the day and, importantly, generates footfall to sustain retail, leisure and other uses. Housing diversifies the High Street and helps rationalise the amount of retail to more sustainable levels. Upper floors can be converted to bring back into use difficult to let, poorly accessible retail spaces.
To be successful housing growth areas, town centres need to provide access to community services such as educational and health care facilities, libraries and recreational spaces. They need to be Liveable Places. This means
- putting community at their centre;
- delivering long-term social and economic value;
- creating well-designed, high quality public spaces;
- focusing on collaboration and engagement; and
- having sustainable solutions at their heart.
There is no reason why this type of provision cannot be proactively planned and enabled as town centres go through a period of transformational change. Planning places for the needs of communities will rely on both quantitative and qualitative data focusing on demographics, economy, local opinions and aspirations in order to be successful.
How do we support housing growth on the High Street?
There is no doubt that in many town centres market failure exists. Rents and historic lease agreements do not reflect the new market norm or incentivise landowners to instigate change. The public sector, and local authorities as the custodian of these areas, need to step in.
Town centre residential development may not ever deliver on one site the size and scale of residential growth that can be offered on large greenfield or brownfield sites on the periphery of towns and cities. However, it can provide an alternative, sustainable housing offer that addresses local needs and supports the transformation of the High Street. With government funds available and stakeholder support to see change on the High Street, now is the time to act.
Contact Nick Kealey at firstname.lastname@example.org