The Future of the British High Street

18th February 2021

The Future of the British High Street

Although Nexus SHL concentrates on developments in London and the South East of England, I recently came across a development in the North West which got me thinking about the future of the British High Street.


This project would see a former local shopping mall converted into an ‘eat from around the world’ concept. The idea of a wealthy individual is to convert the existing shops into individual restaurants offering food from around the world. So an Italian, a Thai, a Chinese, a Mexican, you get the picture.


He’ll offer each unit to individuals who specialise in that style of cuisine, a street food hall I guess you’d call it. He’s going to save four units for himself which he’ll convert into themed bars – A Irish pub, A Prosecco bar, a Cocktail bar and another which escapes me for now.


This mall is located in a small town, not exactly flush with chimney pots, personally, I don’t know where he’s going to generate the footfall to sustain this idea, even in a non-Covid world.


Having looked at the building and a quick dip into Rightmove to check out the local housing market, it’s clear to me what I’d do with this building. And, no it wouldn’t be a street food hall!


It’s a two-storey structure with a central glass atrium, quite tight to get to but I’d go residential all day long and twice on Sunday’s. A residential scheme at this location would benefit from the addition of one or maybe two new floors above to take it to the height of surrounding buildings. Light gauge steel frame or MetSec, as we’ve used on the Riverside Place development, would be ideal here given the room you’d have to play with. Both these options would be viable but perhaps light gauge steel would be my preferred option as it eliminates the need for costly cranage.


With just one storey added I’d look to create somewhere in the region of 21 two-bedroom apartments. If we thought of some one-bed options also that would increase the number of units available. This town is crying out for apartments and starter homes from end users and BTL landlords alike, I’m baffled as to why someone would choose to do anything else.


So what has all this foody stuff got to do with the future of the British high street? Well, this is a subject which has been on the radar of successive governments. How to make the high street thrive again. What about this? How about if we let the prevailing wind of consumer shopping habits just continue and find new uses for the bricks and mortar high street resource?


Consumers have been all about online shopping for years and there is no sign of this attitude abating. A friend of mine who ran a local artisan store told me a couple of years ago “People say they want to buy local, but in reality they hardly ever do”. He went out of business after three years and believe me it wasn’t because of his pricing or marketing. People just found it easier to go to the supermarket.


So let’s look at what’s going on with the U.K. housing market. That’s right we have a huge shortage of homes – A housing crisis as the media like to portray. Build targets are consistently missed, in 2017, then Chancellor Phillip Hammond set a target of 300,000 new homes to be built each year. In 2020 the number of new homes registered was just 123,151, maybe we could blame Covid for this? No in 2019 the number was just over half of the target with registrations at 160,319.


Planning is often cited as the root cause of the problem and yes planning laws are now coming under scrutiny. But instead of worrying about that let’s consider the other crisis afflicting Britain right now. The crisis on the British high street. Empty boarded-up shops, former commercial buildings lying dormant, and as for the abundance of deserted office space!


The words, two birds, one stone come to mind. The future of the British high street should be bright. If we used this stock in a different way, re-purpose the asset class, from commercial/retail to residential. And moreover, make then affordable. Let’s consider studio’s and one bedroom starter homes in town centres incentivised by Help to Buy deliberately targeted at younger people. Slightly further out let’s look at two and maybe even some three-bedroom stock.


Having an abundance of young people in town centres will naturally invigorate the night-time economy (post-Covid of course) but, because of the way young people view work, combined with their entrepreneurial outlook, it will also see the establishment of facilities like localised co-working spaces, and yes bars and restaurants will benefit too, just not like those proposed above. The future of the British high street could be very bright indeed, it just needs an alternative way to view it.