Reshaping spaces

Think tank: Centre for Policy Studies

Author(s): Jethro Elsden; Alex Morton

July 20, 2021

This report from UK think tank the Centre for Policy Studies looks at the impact of the pandemic on high streets and commercial centres.

The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on high streets and commercial centres across the UK. Reshaping spaces could provide space for 500,000 new homes and unleash tens of billions in private finance to ‘build back better’. New CPS report argues that we can turn the challenges of the pandemic into an opportunity to revive Britain’s high streets, communities and commercial centres Even before Covid, 25-40% of retail space was no longer viable or needed. Yet councils are doing little to ensure these vacant properties are being converted or redesignated. Pre-pandemic, the amount of empty commercial property in the North East and North West was nearly double the amount of London and the South East. This picture will only have worsened after 18 months of closures and reduced footfall.

This report shows that if this retail space could be repurposed, it could create around 500,000 homes, or more if the space were converted into flats. ‘Reshaping Spaces’ also shows how allowing for mixed use regeneration could unleash tens of billions in private finance to “build back better” and level up left-behind high streets and commercial spaces across the UK. As the new report highlights, the areas with the highest commercial vacancy rates are the same areas where the Conservatives picked up most seats in the 2019 General Election, demonstrating the urgent need to drive investment in those areas if the Government wants to demonstrate levelling up in a practical way. However, in some cases local authorities have been resistant to redesignating empty commercial property, which is limiting opportunities for investment and the renewal of Britain’s high streets.

The think tank is proposing that the first part of each council’s new local plan should be a commercial assessment of their area’s needs, to be completed by the end of 2022. In addition, it is urging the government to reform business rates. These were too high even before the pandemic, but now risk damaging employers at a time when many are already under strain. The current rates see commercial spaces charged seven times as much as residential property. In the retail sector, business rates represent 42% of all taxes paid. The Government’s business rates retention scheme also creates an ill-advised incentive for councils to keep properties vacant. Because it includes commercial properties even if they are empty, a council which lets a property convert to a new home loses out compared to one that keeps a derelict eyesore on the high street.