Elders’ Housing Solution to Town Centre Crisis

I must admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by the Portas recommendations. Most did not look very original and I rather suspected much had been tried by local councils and their partners already. However, the huge number of bids for the Portas funding showed that problems are widespread and councils are desperate for help. Retail closures are at record levels and gaps in shopping frontages create a downward spiral. Since the beginning of the recession a large number of redevelopment schemes have been put on hold, reduced in scale or abandoned.

Centres (and here I include city, town, and suburban cores) are suffering from three big changes:

1 – Out of town developments – these have been with us for 20 or 30 years or more and, whether we profess to loathe them or not, they still get our custom and their offer now extends far beyond groceries to comparison goods and even to financial services

2 – The state of the economy – this is not going to get better quickly and Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, told us last month that things will be bad for years to come

3 – The internet retail revolution – this has certainly not yet reached full market penetration

Each of these would be a problem. Together they set a totally new context.

The retail element in centres is going to struggle. My answer is to get more people in. By that I mean residential conversion and new development. This includes traditional “living over the shop” conversions (although the “shop” may be an office, deli, cafe, restaurant, bar, gallery, show-room, etc). It also gives the opportunity for new developments to have residential accommodation upstairs with different street level uses.

In big cities we have seen central residential developments in recent years aimed at “young professionals”. The market could be much larger, extending to all demographics except families with young children. In particular, it should cater for older people. This can be in the form of independent living, assisted living or extra care. In tenure terms it can range through social housing, affordable housing, market rents and owner-occupation – preferably in mixed tenure developments. 

This would have a double advantage:-

Firstly, it would bring people into the centres who might actually buy goods or services from the shops, etc and so reinforce the retail and service function.

Secondly, it would take away some of the pressure for housing land release elsewhere by freeing up existing family-sized homes

This is not a universal panacea. I do not think one solution can work everywhere. However, it is a solution which I think is capable of making a significant contribution in many places. Vacant floorspace is becoming a blight on town centres which inhibits the attractiveness of those facilities that remain. Many initiatives that get new uses into such floorspace are worthwhile but I suspect the problem is so big that many centres have no alternative but to reduce the size of their retail areas. At the same time, there is a huge shortage of appropriate, well-designed and conveniently located housing for our ageing population (of which I am part) and we should use the town centre “problem” as a way to address it.

Kim Penfold
July 2012