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Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets and the co-author of its report Permitting Beauty, published with the High Street Task Force

If you have breathed or blinked recently, you’ll know that the high street is in trouble, vanquished by the click of a mouse and a delivery man on a scooter. Change is never easy and rarely victimless. Ask any former Debenhams employee. But there is an opportunity within this calamity to create more homes, green our towns, and enhance local prosperity. We need to rediscover town centres and high streets as they were and should be; not just as chain store strips but as proper entrepots of living and working. However, to do so, we’ll need to abandon planning as we know it. Here’s why…

First of all, never forget that due to a very odd planning system we don’t have enough homes in the right places. The ratio of homes to households is tighter in the UK than almost anywhere, 0.99 versus a European average of 1.12. The UK’s housing affordability crisis is therefore worse than in most countries. The average UK house price rose by 378 per cent from 1970 to 2015 versus a 94 per cent international average. This is ravaging generational fairness. A smaller proportion of people born between 1981 and 2000 are homeowners, at this stage in their lives, than for any previous generation since 1926. The crisis is particularly acute in successful city and town centres where physical constraints limit the number of new homes.

But we also have too many shops in some places. Savills’ analysis for our new report, Permitting Beauty, found that 12 per cent of British shops are vacant – 158 million sqft. This is mainly due to the internet gods whose share of retail sales has risen from three per cent in 2006 to nearly 19 per cent in 2019 and, briefly, 33 per cent in 2020. Too many shops. Insufficient homes. It is hard for any well-intentioned person to argue against some sort of systemic rebalancing.

Since 2014, the Government has therefore taken steps to ease the process whereby shops can change use to homes, via what is known as ‘permitted development’. In a series of orders, shops and restaurants have been given the right to convert to homes without planning permission. This has been viscerally unpopular with many planners and architects. Amidst all the pantomime bile, however, there are some reasonable concerns. Poor conversions can undermine the attractiveness and ‘clustering effect’ of existing high streets – you tend to go to ‘the shops’ not one shop. Others are worried about poky flats squeezed into dark ground floors. Nearly 40 per cent of the conversions under permitted development change of use, from retail to residential, did not meet advisory national space standards.

In fact, the policy so far has had limited effect. Only 1,325 net new homes were converted from shops via permitted development between 2017 and 2020 and probably around 2,000 in total (figures aren’t available for every year). This is for several reasons. Local authorities can prevent permitted development by issuing specific orders. And even when they don’t, conversion still requires ‘prior approval’ which, many say, is nearly as risky as planning permission. It raises practical problems as well: where do those ugly big wheelie bins go?

However, we should be converting more shops. And it is not just a question of creating homes. Retail to residential conversions could help revive our town centres, many of which desperately need an economic vaccine. A town centre should be a place where people wish to come to meet, to converse, to buy, to sell, and to be amused in the process. High streets need homes and offices, not just shops. Historically this was how they worked but too many of England’s town centres and high streets during the twentieth century came to rely on the single bet of ‘retail’. Homes and officers were decanted out to suburbs and business parks. It has not proved to be a resilient or prosperous strategy.

In parallel, we culturally gave up on caring about the beauty and liveability of our high streets. Too many town centres, even in rich neighbourhoods, declined into no places, with fast cars, semi-derelict areas, unsightly gaps, and disused or abandoned public buildings. However, multiple studies suggest that more activity in town centres supports local prosperity and economic growth. Strong towns are good for us and for our standard of living. Helping recreate active town centres with a hearty mix of homes, shops, schools, and offices, all within easy walking distance would, statistically, therefore, tend to support residents’ wealth and health.

It would also be greener and a much cheaper way of creating new homes. The built environment sector creates nearly 40 per cent of Britain’s greenhouse gasses. Repurposing old buildings instead of throwing up new ones would fraction this. Creating a new-build two-bedroom house uses 80 tonnes of CO2. Refurbishment uses eight tonnes. Similarly, converting an existing building is on average £670 cheaper (35 per cent) per square metre than building afresh. Public money supporting new homes via Homes England could go much further.

Is there, therefore, a way to create more homes in high streets whilst actually improving them? There is. The British development and housebuilding industry is very concentrated due to abnormal levels of planning risk. The Government’s White Paper, Planning for the Future, has therefore set out a vision for a planning system which makes it easier for small builders and local firms to play a bigger role by setting clearer and more predictable quality standards. Unpredictable regulation, as we have at present, favours the big boys and hugely pushes up the costs of raising capital to ‘win’ planning permission.

This is how we should convert shops to homes. Local and neighbourhood plans should set out locally popular and visually clear design standards (known in the lingo as ‘design codes’) for their conversion. You can see some on pp. 34-51 here. These wouldn’t work in all circumstances. But they would work surprisingly often. (Don’t tell anyone but most Victorian high streets are remarkably similar up and down the country though with different brick types). This would reduce the planning burden for local authorities. It would be much easier for the multitude of smaller owners to understand. And it would encourage ‘bottom-up’ investment whilst ensuring, through clearer visual standards, that new homes were both big enough and that their facades did not destroy the appeal of town centres.

Encouraging town centre living and the systemic repurposing of many shops is the right thing to do. It is cheaper, greener and good for our health and wealth. The alternative is leaving shops to lie empty. This helps no one. Achieving this will mean abandoning case by case governance from the town hall but setting clearer, more popular, and more visual local ‘codes’ to cover the majority of cases in the majority of places. Permitting beauty is surely preferable to tolerating ongoing collapse.