Anthony Hilton: Why it's high time for us to breathe new life back into boarded-up high streets

Converting unwanted shops into homes could create 200,000 new properties

This week's collapse of Comet, the electrical goods retailer, coming on top of the woes at Clinton Cards, JJB Sports, Peacocks, and Black's Leisure, shows what happens when spending gets squeezed. Incomes for most people, after tax, inflation and low returns on savings, are back where they were 10 years ago, and there is little appetite to buy on credit.

Big chains have been closing outlets at the rate of between 20 and 30 a day all year, but the carnage is much worse than that when you factor in the failures among small independent shops.

It does not help the high street either that when you do want something, you can normally find it cheaper online. The message has even got through to Argos where the management said last month that if it is to have any future, it will have to embrace the web and close or relocate at least 10 per cent of its stores.

A report published this week by the insurance group RSA makes stark reading. It is primarily concerned with new build and the bleak prospect s for the construction industry which is down 30 per cent from its 2007 peak and is unlikely to return to its pre-crisis high before 2023. But on the way, it also contains stark figures for the occupancy and rental values of the current retail estate.

The figures from big provincial cities are grim. There are small market towns where half the high street is empty – or would be if you took out the charity shops . In big conurbations like Cardiff, Manchester and Liverpool rents have dropped by 17 per cent since 2007 – which in real terms adjusting for inflation probably means they are down by about a third. In Birmingham the drop is 15 per cent, in Bristol and Leeds 13 per cent. Glasgow, with a 6 per cent decline, is the least affected along with London. But it is dangerous to generalise – you don't see much vitality close to the Westfield shopping centre in the Olympic park which has sucked the life out of the local shopping streets

You can argue, of course, that Britain had too many shops to start with in comparison to equivalent countries in mainland Europe and that this is an overdue correction. But that does not alter the fact that councils need to decide and decide quickly what they are going to do. The issue is whether they embrace the change and try to shape it or whether they fight to preserve what seems no longer to work.

A key issue is how keen councils are to encourage people to move back into town centres and whether it should be possible to convert premises from retail to residential without having to get planning permissions for change of use. Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, seemed to be in favour of abolishing this requirement and had a consultation to that effect last year. That prompted the economist Roger Bootle to estimate converting unwanted shops to homes would be a relatively cheap and easy way to create upwards of 200,000 new homes over the next few years – which given we are only building 100,000 a year is a significant number. But not a lot seems to be happening on the ground in spite of the fact that there are few more depressing and demoralising sights in a small town than an empty, boarded up and decaying high street.

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