Not yet, but further change is needed.
The harbingers of doom have been ringing the death knoll on the UK high street for some time now. The Great Financial Crisis, the tightening stranglehold of online retailing, surging operational costs, the normalising of Company Voluntary Agreements, political uncertainty around Brexit and the ifs and buts of IndyRef2, the Covid-19 pandemic and gain in momentum of collapsing national retailers…. The doom-laden predictions are understandable in the face of unprecedented structural change and disruption, but rather short-sighted. The high street has and will continue to adapt.
Retail markets are dynamic. They always have been. Occupiers come, occupiers go. Research, undertaken over the past three years by the REPAIR Team to examine changes in property use, ownership and market practices, shows that the current issue is more one of timing and scale of change than the market being unresponsive. Urban retail markets are changing but, in simple terms, the property market has just not kept up.
Looking back over the past 20 years, our research shows that retailing centres in the five case study cities examined have become increasingly less retail dominant. Food and drink operators have stepped in to fill the void left by the contraction of comparison retailing, a relatively easy adaptation for landlords to make where permitted by planning policy. Policy restrictions originally designed to protect primary retail frontages have now eased, making changes that add to the destination appeal of retailing centres easier to make. This has occurred even in Scottish cities, where revisions to the Use Class Order have not (yet) been introduced.
The data also shows poor quality office space, former banks and building societies and redundant upper-floor retail storage have been converted into student accommodation, hotels and housing. The barrier to change here has been financial viability, but this hurdle has now been lowered by the rebasing of retail rents and market values. Nonetheless, our research highlights that the public and social value services necessary to support city-centre living have not kept up with these changes, so this is something policy-makers definitely need to address, particularly if they want to deliver on the 20-minute city concept.