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Shops on internet-blighted high streets could be converted to housing: minister

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Planning minister Nick Boles may permit shops on high streets hit by the rise of internet shopping to be used for housing, it has been reported.

A consultation paper out this week is expected to suggest that councils should focus on revitalising shopping in just one or two streets, and potentially shortening existing high streets.

Boles told the Sunday Times: “People’s shopping habits are changing very fast as a result of the rise in internet shopping and changes in lifestyle and working patterns.

“We need to think creatively about how to help town centres thrive in this new era. We want to encourage local councils to concentrate retail activity into the prime shopping streets in the heart of their town centres and adopt a more relaxed approach to underused retail frontages.”

But Boles’ comments have been criticised by those who say it is too soon to write off the high street. Indeed, they say, the high street remains vital to multichannel shopping.

Eric Abensur, chief executive of ecommerce solutions provider Venda, said: “The coalition can’t seem to decide whether shop window signs should read ‘Open’ or ‘Closed’ for business. We have had a weekend of confusion which has highlighted that ministers lack a full grasp of the role that the high street still plays in driving purchases in a multi-channel world.

“The fate of retailers who have recently fallen victim to administration was not a result of the high-street losing relevance to consumers, but rather a failure on the part of retailers to adapt and integrate its high-street shopping experience with other digital platforms and failing to realise how each purchasing channel interplays with the next.

“Saving the high street from excessive rents and parking charges requires more than an exercise in nostalgia. There is a hard business case to be made and policy makers need to consult more widely in order to fully understand the rapidly evolving consumer shopping behaviour. Further encouraging high-street decline will not result in a quick fix in the housing market, nor will it spur the economic growth this country needs – which instead could be reignited by the retail sector.”

Louis Agabani, co-founder of MyHigh.St, which is enabling high street retailers to sell online, said: “We are seeing a much needed transition in the nature of high streets and the retailer and leisure service providers that occupy them. Let’s be clear however, high streets are the social heart of the community and also an economic and enterprise driver.

“This is particularly true when one looks at the new breed of dynamic and exciting young retailers coming through the system. The value they add, and the opportunities they create should not be underestimated and cannot be replaced by out-of-town shopping malls or supermarkets.

“So getting the balance right is always going to be difficult. Helping create clearly defined and manageable geographic areas that offer shoppers an exciting destination is a step in the right direction.”

He added: “The biggest single challenge will be to protect opportunity, to ensure that there is space for new retail and leisure facilities, for new business and for dynamic growth and to ensure that the space remains affordable for new market entrants.

“A one-size-fits-all solution won’t work; intelligent strategies led by informed councils and Local authorities with a real understanding of consumer demand and perceptions of towns and regions is crucial.”

Tom Ironside, British Retail Consortium director of business and regulation, saw potential for converting shops on the periphery of towns to housing uses.

He said: “As the retail industry changes and develops, towns and cities will need to look at what their centres offer and how to meet the demands of shoppers and other people who use them. Vibrant shopping is an essential component, but some towns will also need to find ways to change uses of property, to cultural, leisure, or different commercial uses, or on the periphery, residential.

“The legislative framework needs to support this change, including a clear local plan.”

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