High street units left unoccupied in the wake of the pandemic should be converted into “hundreds of thousands” of new homes, a think-tank has argued.
According to the Social Market Foundation, the collapse of traditional high street shopping is “inevitable”, and the government must now “focus less on slowing that decline than on supporting new and more beneficial uses for town-centre sites”.
A report published by the think-tank calculated that a major conversion of retail units across the UK could create 800,000 new homes.
It argues that many of these conversions should be built by local councils and public bodies in a “major expansion of social housing”, and suggests that the government could write off “tens of billions of pounds” of local councils’ debt to support the programme.
It argues that a write off of £80bn in local government debt would in turn “liberate” local authorities to invest in urban renewal projects, including the creation of new schools, parks, and sports facilities.
The new report, entitled A New Life for the High Street, argues that the crisis will “accelerate pre-existing trends”, which will see footfall in town centres decline and more retailers collapse.
SMF research director, Scott Corfe, is now calling on national and local politicians to “deploy radical new measures to stimulate new life in urban centres and support unemployed retail staff”.
Corfe said: “Politicians pledging to save the high street are promising voters the impossible. Instead of claiming they can turn back the clock, leaders should aim to make inevitable change work better for urban centres and populations.
“Trying to prop up high street retailers facing long-term decline is not an act of kindness to workers or towns. It just postpones the inevitable and wastes opportunities to develop new policies to help workers and towns embrace the future.”
He added: “Nothing can stop the demise of traditional high street shopping so it would be better for politicians to support the next chapter in the story of the high street, with hundreds of thousands of new homes that bring new life to our urban centres.”