Repurposing the High Street, 3 December 2020

No high street is an island

At the end of an inauspicious week for the UK’s high streets when Arcadia, Debenhams and Bonmarché all went to the wall, speakers at this webinar argued that there is little point in repurposing shopping venues without restructuring the whole town centre in which they sit.

Matthew Hopkinson of research consultants Didobi stressed that high streets are just one element in a town’s economic, social and environmental ecosystem: making them successful once again will need the involvement of the whole community.  Ideally, town centres should mirror the Greek concept of agora, a place where people gather for social, political and trading purposes.  Hopkinson cited the example of the Worksop Town Commission he worked on, which brought stakeholders together to develop a long-term strategy for boosting the town’s retail, entertainment and experience offer.

For Martyn Saunders of Avison Young, the modern equivalent of the agora is the Parisian idea of the ’15-minute city’, a holistically sustainable urban environment. But he agreed with Hopkinson that it isn’t possible to impose such a template top-down – you have to understand the specific local circumstances, which inevitably vary from place to place.  

The Shaftesbury Group has overcome these obstacles in Covent Garden by building up an integrated estate over the long-term and developing a strong relationship with the local community. CEO Brian Bickell proposed that investors be prepared to risk experimenting with new sources of income if they want locations to remain viable – an ‘entrepreneurial’ rather than an ‘institutional’ approach to managing occupancy.

However, repurposing specific high street retail premises can take place quite rapidly if it fits a local need.   Justin Bass of Health Spaces by Inivos suggested that turning larger shops into medical centres can make for a friendlier user experience than traditional doctors’ surgeries and hospitals, while simultaneously helping redefine high streets as places that serve their communities beyond purely commercial functions.

Posing a question from the online audience, moderator Cleo Folkes of Property Overview asked the panel about the potential for repurposing high streets to residential use. Saunders thought that it could have a role as long as the project was of good quality and included the necessary amenities.  But often such redevelopments have proved to be piecemeal and contributed to social problems rather than solved them.

Tim Horsey