Property owners must act now to save UK’s failing high streets

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22 high street leaders including property developers, investors and national government bodies, join forces to launch a new town centre property innovation programme.
Private property developers, high street property owners, businesses, and real estate investment funds (REITs) must take an active role in working with local communities to find solutions for the UK’s high streets if these spaces are to survive, and for their interests to be protected, according to a new report commissioned by Power to Change from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

A High Street Revolution: How private developers can support the community takeover of our town centres shows that the private sector has an important role to play in responding to the new challenges and opportunities facing the UK’s beleaguered high streets, which were in decline before the Covid-19 pandemic but have now reached a perilous tipping point.

The UK currently has excess retail space of around 40% according to figures from Savills. With the recent collapse of retail giant Arcadia Group and the closure of all Debenhams high street stores, our town centres need a new vision. The report argues that community involvement, ownership and reuse of high street spaces is vital if we are to retain vibrant town centres.

Analysis by Estates Gazette shows that traditional property companies and REITs own the largest share of UK high streets (21.4%), while overseas investors own almost a fifth of shops. Private property developers, high street businesses and real estate investment funds need to better engage with communities to not only safeguard town centres but secure the future success of their own assets.

Vidhya Alakeson, CEO of Power to Change and board member of the High Street Task Force said: “There is a growing consensus that if our high streets and town centres are to not only survive but thrive, then greater community access, ownership and involvement is essential. If you are a private developer or owner of property on a high street, clearly you want that street to be thriving. It follows therefore, that communities, property owners and local government working together will form a powerful partnership in the bid to save our high streets.”

This research reveals that private landowners and developers can (and want to) develop more community-oriented models within their property portfolios. Private property investors such as Legal & General (LGIM), Ellandi and New River REIT are taking a more active role in how they create places that are relevant to communities, looking to use their retail and shopping centre spaces differently to support a more vibrant mix of uses and tenants.

The report identifies five ways in which private sector developers can successfully repurpose retail space and are creating opportunities to introduce new uses that better meet community needs. These include:

  • Community hubs in shopping centres – Repurposing space to provide facilities that meet community needs. Consciously involving community organisations and community businesses in reimagining shopping centre spaces helps ensure a more diverse mix of uses to meet community needs while attracting a wider range of visitors to both the shopping centre and community hub.
  • Meanwhile use of space – Can be an effective entry point for community businesses and groups, and a useful stepping-stone on the journey towards securing permanent premises. Successful businesses can then move on to trade independently from their own premises on the high street, which can contribute to the wider health and sustainability of the town centre.
  • Introducing more flexible, turnover-based leases – For community businesses, social and other start-up enterprises, the greater flexibility enables them to adapt, steadily grow their activities and ultimately achieve long-term sustainability.
  • Greater collaboration and partnership working – Only by working together and forming partnerships across public and private sectors, sharing expertise and resources, can the longer-term vision for a viable civic high street be achieved.

Kingland Crescent, Poole 

Legal & General Investment Management is repurposing parts of its shopping centres, high streets and retail parks. It has invested in the regeneration of Kingland Crescent into a new high street for the town of Poole, as part of its wider investment in the neighbouring Dolphin Shopping Centre which it owns. It has committed to providing 10 retail units to start-up and independent businesses with no rent or business rates to be paid for two years, to help develop space for a creative community to grow.

“Rather than having a department store anchor, you’ve got a school or a health hub where you’re providing additional services. There’s still a retail component which I think everyone will also want … but the anchors are going to change,” according to LGIM’s Research manager, Matthew Soffair.

Ridings Shopping Centre, Wakefield

NewRiver Retail Investment Trust has developed a strong relationship with The Art House in Wakefield, which currently occupies 17 vacant units in the town’s Ridings Shopping Centre through its Makey Wakey project. Started in 2019, Makey Wakey reinvigorates empty ‘white box’ units in the shopping centre with temporary exhibitions, installations, studio spaces and other not-for-profit activities, until a permanent tenant is found. The project supports a variety of independent artists, artist groups and community enterprises.

Platform: a new town centre property innovation programme

The need for greater collaboration across high street stakeholders is being recognised and tackled head on by the convening of Platform, a town centre property innovation programme, which aims to make town centre property more accessible to communities and businesses.

Community entrepreneur Rebecca Trevalyan is overseeing the programme, working with lead partners High Streets Task ForcePower to ChangeBritish Property FederationNew Local, Shoosmiths  and Radix. The group will work with a further 16 diverse leaders representing community businesses, local government, property owners and investors from across the UK, to identify and grow innovations that make town centre property and spaces more accessible to communities.

The aim is not simply to be a talking shop, but to present practical interventions that make town centre property more accessible to communities, whether that’s through promoting a better understanding of different types of community entrepreneurs and property owners and their needs and motivations to providing blueprints for ‘social value leases’ or establishing local asset-owning trusts.

You can download a copy of A High Street Revolution: How private developers can support the community takeover of our town centres from our website.