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Occupying the centre ground


 

 

Remember the Kirkcaldy shopping centre that was being auctioned off for £1? While this might be most notable as an excellent piece of marketing by the auctioneers – the eventual sale price was £310,000 – those with keener memories will recall that many of those parties interested in bidding saw it as a residential development opportunity.

 

The Postings – struggling in a changing consumer environment and losing £200,000 a year – came to mind this week after a couple of corporate announcements were made to the press. On Monday, shopping centre owner intu revealed plans to replace car parks and a House of Fraser store with 1,000 homes at its Lakeside scheme in Thurrock, Essex; this was followed on Thursday by Patrizia marketing The Walnuts in Orpington as a residential redevelopment play.

 

While intu’s plans are larger-scale, what happens at The Walnuts could in time be more significant. Fronting onto Orpington High Street, and woven into the fabric of surrounding buildings, what happens here could become a model for town centres across the country. Orpington’s town centre vacancy rate is below the national average at around 6.5%, but residential conversion is still an attractive option; if it can work somewhere where town centre remains relatively strong, it can surely work in places that have seen shops decimated in recent times.

 

For intu, it’s a similar story but with some crucial differences. With voids rising and falling valuations putting pressure on loan covenants, intu has seen an opportunity to diversify its portfolio and create some assets that will either generate a better return, or create value and provide some useful capital to work with. Without knowing the full ins-and-outs of the decision, it seems likely that new homes will be more useful than surplus car parking.

 

At a time when many (most?) of the UK towns are over-shopped, and many local authorities are struggling to hit housebuilding targets, conversion of retail space into homes – returning to their historic use in older communities – makes a lot of sense. And as both current investors and private equity spy some opportunities, we can expect there to be more of this sort of thing.

 

This is not to say it will be easy. Retail locations will have to consolidate and coalesce around a new, smaller commercial centres, and there will surely be missteps on the way. The solution is unlikely to be widescale permitted development rights for shops-to-resi, following the problems that have been seen with similar policies for redundant office space. But the local authorities that manage this process best have a genuine opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

 

There remains a need for physical retail space – both in and out of town – but the requirements are less than they used to be. The internet and other changing dynamics have seen to that. But if high streets can be sensibly re-sized and helped through this shift, they may yet thrive once more.

 

Andrew Jefford, Account Director, Innesco 

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