A lesser spotted announcement in last week’s Budget was a commitment to ensure that empty lots on high streets — flats above shops and disused malls — could be transferred quickly to housing.
It’s a war I’ve been waging for a decade. It’s something I’ve raised with nearly every councillor, MP or housing executive that I’ve met. For most of that time it has been a message that has fallen on deaf ears.
I remember the first time I said it, to a councillor in Wrexham, when Woolworths went under. I said it again when it was the turn of TJ Hughes to fall into bankruptcy in 2011. Yet again when the BHS next door went under, and finally when the independent clothing store opposite my house disappeared. Each one was a blow to the high street of my hometown. Fewer and fewer were enticed into the town centre, so it became harder and harder for other shops to stay profitable.
I won’t name and shame, but he told me that people wouldn’t want to live in the town centre, that it didn’t fit their plan for the town. And that they should just become new shops anyway.
Let’s leave aside the fact that we *cannot* and *must not* plan an economy—he was, to be blunt, wrong.
The sites of BHS and TJ Hughes still lie empty in my hometown. A gutted high street devoid of the life that makes a town somewhere you’d want to be. It’s a tale that will be familiar to anyone that knows Britain’s forgotten towns and cities.
The likelihood is you know one. The ones that people moved out of and into suburbs over the past century as town planners emptied them, the ones those people then avoided in favour of out-of-town shopping centres they could drive to and park in easily, the ones that they shunned in favour of getting their shopping delivered directly to their homes on the outskirts.
When we think of the vibrant towns and cities on the continent, we’re naturally drawn to the tourist traps of Barcelona and Paris, or Dubrovnik and Valletta. There’s a reason they’re alive: they’re lived in.
You can stay in the city centre, in a flat above a set of shops, next to locals that have lived there for donkey’s years. The old lady getting her morning baguette at the boulangerie under her apartment is totally normal, and it’s normal because that’s where she lives. It’s effortless. But it’s something we’ve actively shut down here, and is a way of life that was scoffed at by the great central planners as being all a bit passé.
The thing is, that’s how it used to be in Britain. If you walk around old market towns and inner cities that weren’t bombed out and replaced by concrete monstrosities under the crude creed of brutalism, you find shop fronts with what are clearly living quarters above them. A lot of these lie empty, or are simply storerooms, but they were once lived in and the demand they created kept the other businesses around them alive too.
But there is hope for Britain’s high streets. Just five days ago approval was given for the premises in Wrexham that housed TJ Hughes and BHS to be turned into a set of 50 apartments. Those two long-gone high street shops will now be 50 homes full of people that will be living in the town, that will want to have somewhere to get their groceries, to meet up and have a drink after work, or a coffee on a Saturday morning.
They will keep the opticians alive, and the dentist. The sports centre and pool will have new clients that don’t have to drive in, and clog the roads. They may want the choice to walk to work, or cycle to the town’s university.
It’s down, in part, to the Government finally realising that their policies haven’t been keeping up with the way we want to live.
Now they have acted, by changing the structure of permitted development rights to allow plans to permit rooftop additions, free from the usual rigmarole of planning permissions, above commercial shops and residential properties. And they will allow commercial buildings to be demolished and replaced with homes on our high streets.
In other words central government will allow forward-thinking councils to move people back to the places they want to live. And young people especially want to live at the centre of things.
The number of 20 to 29-year-olds in the centre of large cities (those with 550,000 people or more) tripled in the first decade of the 21st Century, to a point where they made up half of the population.
Manchester saw an 84 per cent increase in city centre jobs between 1998 and 2015, while Bristol’s city centre jobs were up by 42 per cent and Leeds 34 per cent. Even in London the centre is getting denser with 22 per cent more jobs in the very middle of town. It’s true that this has been heavily driven by large cities but smaller cities and towns would do well to catch up.
It’ll be good for us too. a third of those who live in the centre of towns and cities walk to work – they also exercise more, and have much lower rates of obesity than their peers in suburban and rural areas. All without the government having to subsidise, ban or tax anything.
For once, the Government is doing something unambiguously good. Over the past couple of years I’d come to wonder when I’d see the day again!
Which makes it all the more depressing that the Labour party weren’t so keen. Rebecca Long-Bailey, a scion of the Corbynistas quickly elevated to the shadow cabinet, tweeted that the Government’s plans would “destroy the high street”.
Her solution? More council houses. She didn’t say where of course, nor why those currently annoyed at the inability to one day own their own home would become placated by having to rent from the state all their lives. Nor how this will make high streets competitive with online retailers offering deliveries to people’s doorsteps.
Instead her suggestion is for free Wifi in city centres, to stop banks or the post office closing their branches and free bus travel for the under 25s. You might not get to live in the city centre, but at least you’ll be able to spend an hour on the bus commuting.
All that, and a register of empty properties. Why? Why does Whitehall need to know which shops are empty? It’s locals that need to know, and they do know. All too well.
She was right in saying it should be “as easy as possible to get them back into use” but that’s precisely what the government is proposing. Yes, it might not be to her plan for the economy. But, as I told that councillor a decade ago, you cannot plan an economy.
But this all paled in comparison to the other suggestion from Labour this weekend. Labour MP and full-blown Corbynista Lloyd Russell-Moyle was reported by the Sun saying that he wanted to nationalise homes. He was blatant about it so I think it’s best put in his own words:
“We need to develop a system that slowly over time takes property out of private hands and puts it into public hands. For example, why not give every council the first right of refusal with any houses put up for sale? And I don’t mean a former council house — I mean your private house.”
I think it’s fair to say that clear dividing lines now exist between our two major parties.
On the right is a commitment to redeveloping our towns and centres into places that people want to work, socialise and live. They want people to have more choice in what they rent or own. And they want government out of the way to allow the market to respond to demand and supply much more efficiently than the present planned permissions system.
And on the Left. A desire to tinker, to intervene and control. A commitment to managed decline and centralised failure.
I know which I prefer, and I have a feeling I know which the young will prefer at an election too.