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The recovery of town centre shopping

The UK’s high streets have suffered in recent years, with falling demand and switches to digital shopping and banking, for example, forcing plentiful closures. However, Chris Dixon, youngsRPS business development consultant (pictured, on opposite page), says hope is not lost, with a blueprint from ex-Chancellor Rishi Sunak providing a potential route to fresh prosperity.


In his leadership campaign to become Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak promised to take action to “slash” the number of empty shops in our towns and cities by 2025.

He also revealed plans to reverse the closure of 500 bank branches.  

At present, it is estimated there are 58,000 empty retail properties in the UK. The vacancy rate represents 14 per cent of the total stock. 

The actions proposed by the ex-Chancellor to reduce the vacancy rate include increasing police powers to tackle anti-social behaviour, allowing local authorities to double fines for littering and graffiti, and relaxing rules to encourage more farmers’ markets in town centres. 

His aim, he said, would be to create “thriving local assets” that support business services and employment. 

Other ideas involve locating police stations, job centres and NHS diagnostic hubs into town centres, to increase employment and provide services. 

In order to formulate a constructive policy, it is necessary to understand why there are 58,000 empty shops in the UK. 

And while there are many reasons, there have been two principal factors. 

In recent years, shopping habits have changed, with consumers buying more online rather than visiting physical shops. 

This trend was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with shops forced to close for long-periods and potential customers restricted from visiting town centres. 

These restrictions led to a fall in demand for goods and services in physical shops, which in turn led to closures. 

The main thrust of Mr Sunak’s proposals centre around creating a more pleasant environment in which to shop with less litter, graffiti and social problems to deter shoppers. 

This, coupled with locating NHS hubs and other services in town centres, would increase potential customers and stimulate demand. 

That, in turn, should lead to shops opening in these areas to meet the demand. 

An example of a better environment helping to let a vacant shop is one youngsRPS recently handled; The Market Place, in Morpeth. 

The new shop has added to the local retail offer and led to capital investment in the property. 

The question that should be asked is whether these proposals will halt and reverse the decline of retail that has been experienced in our towns and cities?

In my view, these proposals are limited and need to go further to lead to a broad recovery throughout our towns. 

Other proposals include the Retail Jobs Alliance, which seeks a cut in business rates to reduce retailers’ costs. 

However, it should be kept in mind that a lot of small retailers are already exempt from paying business rates. 

A relaxation in parking charges, coupled with measures to make parking easier, would encourage people to visit towns and shop.  

An improved environment, as proposed by Mr Sunak, may also encourage more people to live in towns, taking advantage of easy access to local services and shopping. 

This initiative could be strengthened by building more houses/apartments in the centres of towns, or achieved by allowing existing buildings to be converted to residential use. 

Retail property and other unused buildings, that are unlikely to be used again, could be demolished and replaced with new housing or turned into green spaces. 

The result would be a higher local population using local services and shops. 

Another area worth consideration is a relaxation, or even abolition of, the Use Classes Order, which would allow property to be used for any purpose. 

An empty shop could continue being used as any type of shop, or it may revert to residential, office or workshop use. 

This may lead to a change in the businesses on the high street, but should increase demand, therefore reducing empty properties. 

The UK experienced shop closures following the financial crisis in 2008, but not to the extent we have now. 

Interestingly, demand for small shops back then rose, as people sought other employment opportunities. 

This trend has started to occur again, particularly in affluent suburban areas. 

The proposals by the former Chancellor would help our towns to recover but, as always, more must be done.       

As a society, we must use our shops, or we will lose them. 

And our towns, and way of life, will be poorer if we do.