The sunny side of the street

Coronavirus has caused havoc on the high street, but in truth it has only accelerated shifts that would have happened anyway. It’s time to accept retail will never be the same, and embrace the opportunity to create town centres that work.

There cannot be a management consultant alive who hasn’t once claimed that the Chinese word for “crisis” is a mixture of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity”. Sadly, it isn’t actually true, but the point still stands. For all the chaos that coronavirus has wrought on the high street, it also brings a gilt-edged opportunity to reshape retail for the better.

As hard as COVID-19 has been for retailers and landlords, its main impact has been to accelerate shifts and trends that were firmly entrenched anyway. Our reliance on internet shopping may be higher than it was pre-crisis, but these milestones would have been reached sooner or later.

What coronavirus has done, however, is increase the political will to address the problems being faced. We have seen with the business rates holiday and reform of planning rules that the Government can move quickly (when needed) to change policy, and what was once unthinkable can happen in short order. Similarly, there has never been a time when lenders, landlords and retailers have all been so open to new and different solutions to their mutual problems.

The most forward-thinking landlords and authorities are already embracing new approaches. Recent weeks have seen Ballymore buy the Broadwalk Shopping Centre in Edgware with a view towards redevelopment, no doubt drawing on its residential expertise, while innumerable edge-of-centre retail parks have recently been bought with an eye towards turning them into urban logistics hubs. Perhaps most interestingly, Stockton’s Castlegate is to be demolished and redeveloped after the council bought both of the town’s shopping centres and consolidated retail tenants into the Wellington Square scheme.

What all of these have in common is an acceptance that we simply don’t need as much retail space as we used to. Given the pressing need for residential space in many towns and cities, the loss of some shops as they are converted to homes seems a good trade.

This is not to say that all shops, high streets and malls are doomed – there remains a vital role for bricks-and-mortar retail in all locations – but that the commercial centres of the future will be smaller and more concentrated. We need to work out ways of consolidating retail and leisure occupiers in the true centre of towns, and converting the fringe areas into more in-demand uses. Some corporates and local authorities have started to ‘lean in’ and embrace both the changes and the opportunities they present; it is a lesson that many would do well to learn.

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