Give high streets the flexibility to innovate

After ten weeks of shuttered shops – and another couple to go – an invisible revolution is about to make itself seen. What proportion of the new lockdown-driven online sales will return to bricks and mortar outlets is the $64,000 question, and the signs, it has to be said, aren’t good.

The shift to online was, of course, the biggest trend in retail long before coronavirus made its unwelcome arrival, but the lockdown has accelerated the changes to a remarkable degree. Internet retailing milestones that were expected to be hit in five or even ten years’ time are now par for the course across much of the sector.

If a smaller high street with fewer shops was inevitable over the long term, that horizon has been brought forward to now. It makes sense to get to work – and quickly – on figuring how best to embrace this new future.

There are a host of challenges created by the resizing of the high street. Many of these – current leases, the structure of future ones, the debt held against the properties in question – can only be resolved by the application of time and some frank conversations between retailers, landlords and their bankers. But as the latest thinking from property consultancy Gerald Eve has shown, there is plenty the Government and local authorities can do to make the transition as straightforward as possible; best of all, it won’t cost the public purse a penny.

Use classes have for many years been an arcane and, let’s be honest, slightly boring part of the planning process, limiting what properties can be used for what business activity. Main thoroughfares were for shops (“Class A1”), and the use restrictions reflected this.

Online retail was already turning this received wisdom on its head, but as high streets reinvent themselves, the use class system should be urgently reformed to oil the route from shopfloor to an alternative use.

And this isn’t just about shops and restaurants. Anecdotally, there is plenty of evidence that innovators in the space are focusing on malls rather than high streets, as it means dealing with just one interested party rather than the web of planning authorities, landlords, business improvement districts and community groups that oversee town centres. Innovation in malls should not be stymied, but it should not be prioritised over the high street, as the current situation does.

The high street is undergoing a painful transition, and despite the acceleration caused by the lockdown it will be many years before a new, viable model fully emerges. But the current use class system is an additional and unnecessary hurdle that the formats of the future have to vault; some more flexibility in what is allowed where would help keep this painful period as short as possible.

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