Could the rejuvenation of the High Street also solve our housing crisis?

Pressure on the green belt, building on flood plains, investment in new road infrastructure, delivering affordable housing and meeting carbon zero commitments are some of the many well publicised reasons why housing demand is not being met. Of course, the global pandemic of COVID-19 has thrown a bigger curveball than anyone could have imagined into the mix as tenants across the country are urging government to freeze rent payments. The gap - the difference between the current housing stock and the number needed for everyone to have a decent home to live in - is more than one million according to recent research. 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 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.

Regeneration and diversification

With carbon zero benefits aside, the truth is that decades of under investment in our town centres and the availability of out-of-town housing has meant that many town centres have become synonymous with decline, empty properties, vertical drinking and anti-social behaviour. This has been exacerbated in recent years by the decline of the High Street and the lack of control, ownership and funding by local authorities to address these issues.

Indeed, COVID-19 is kicking an already declining High Street yet further into deterioration. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government recognised the size of the challenge facing towns and cities in England, with £3.6bn committed through initiatives such as the Future High Streets and Stronger Towns Funding.

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.

The recovery of the High Street

It is crucial that local authorities play a key role in the recovery of the High Street following the catastrophic events around COVID-19. While the challenge will certainly be significant, there could also be opportunity. With so much change in many places, it will be a chance to completely reinvent the High Street. Critical to this will be understanding local need.

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.

Below are six actions we believe local authorities can take to deliver successful housing schemes on the High Street:

1. Create a comprehensive masterplan and framework for change that clearly sets out the ambition of stakeholders; which champions and articulates the distinctiveness of place; and is underpinned by an investible plan and planning policy. During this period of lockdown meaningful progress can be made in developing an evidenced-backed baseline, through analysis of existing data and review of key information, something that is often overlooked in the eagerness to develop solutions.

A great example of this is Walsall Council’s Regeneration Masterplan, which covers approximately 116 hectares of the town centre and has the potential to provide more than 900 new homes. The masterplan will inform plan-making and decision-taking across Walsall, and clearly sets out the next steps for realising the potential of Walsall Town Centre.

2. Develop a robust business case and attract support from the likes of the Future High Streets Fund, Stronger Towns Fund, Homes England and the Regional Growth Fund to invest in the High Street and support housing growth. Housing has the potential to create a significant contribution to Land Value Uplift, which is currently a critical measure of economic benefit needed to attracted government funding.

3. Acquire key sites to enable and de-risk development. Local authorities generally have low levels of ownership within town centres and as a result are reliant upon attracting the private sector to initiate change. Where market failure exists, it may be necessary for the public sector to make the first move.

4. Create a development brief that aligns with the masterplan objectives and is attractive to the market in that it addresses key risks and issues and is supported by an appraisal that demonstrates viability.

5. Use council borrowing powers, taking advantage of historically low interest rates, to invest and take forward delivery of housing development within town centres.

6. Explore different housing models, including build-to-rent, to address local housing needs and create a revenue return for the local authority to sustain wider public services. Importantly, different housing models such as build-to-rent intended for students and retirement homes in town centres often allow for much quicker market absorption than the drip feed of homes into suburban sites to balance demand and supply. These build-to-rent properties are also very attractive to investors looking for stable long-term returns.

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.

David Jobling

UK Town Centre Lead Ask me a question
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