Anthony Hilton: Bite the bullet and turn high streets into homes

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The Independent Online

Deloitte produced a report this week which said that depressed consumer spending and the rise of the internet spelled doom for huge swaths of Britain's high streets. Its verdict was that even the much-vaunted marketing skills of Mary Portas would fail to stem the tide. We have too many shops – more than most other countries in western Europe – and the brutal fact is that for a lot of items the internet is cheaper, more convenient and inevitably offers a much wider choice.

But it is also true there are few things more depressing than a half-boarded-up high street. It is an obvious case of market failure. Even if landlords are willing to slash the rent to get a tenant, authorities will not waive the often penal business rates. Charity shops, which don't pay business rates, are the only option.

However, there might be the seeds of some good news in the Government's drive to reform the planning regime, because one thing it consulted on was to allow automatic change of use. If a building no longer worked as a shop, the owner should be free to convert it into a house without the need for planning approval.

a lot of local authorities would rather have boarded-up shops than admit that the business has gone to an out-of-town Tesco. They don't want to face up to the reality of what is happening on their high streets. So generally speaking they refuse to sanction change of use.

Britain builds fewer than 100,000 new homes a year. Roger Bootle, of the City consultancy Capital Economics, estimated a few months back that converting shops to houses could create as many as 400,000 homes over the next five years. Others say this is an exaggeration but even if it is, surely a shop as a home is a better bet than a shop as a boarded-up wasteland.