Death of the high street – How technology can help its revival

By Tomas Jansons, Development Manager, Jansons.
 
For several years, there has been a very evident and well-publicised demise of local high streets as they struggle to compete with the ease and efficiency of online shopping.


This has led to what is commonly termed the ‘death of the high street’. According to research from the Local Data Company and PWC, 11,120 chain store outlets shut between January and August this year. This is primarily an outcome of the great advancements in online and delivery technology over the last 10 years. Great if you like the convenience of shopping from your sofa, not so great if you enjoy the tradition of visiting your local shops, which are reducing in numbers daily.  
 
Despite this alarming statistic, I would argue that rather than dying, high streets are transitioning and technology has an integral role in bringing them back to life. To demonstrate how this is happening let’s look at three key ways the property sector is adapting in order to take advantage of the rise of technology and repurpose the high street.

1. New planning system – more offices on the high street

The government enforced a new planning Use Class system from the 1st September which allows greater flexibility for changes of use of retail units. Retail falls under Class E in the new system. This basically means that retail is now in the same Use Class as offices amongst many others. Changes within a Use Class are not considered development so therefore no planning permission is required. So now it is possible to convert a retail unit into an office without having to go through a lengthily planning application. This will mean that dormant retail units on high streets will be utilised by property developers who will see an opportunity to convert these to better demanded uses, such as offices, which in turn will bring some life and foot flow to the high street.
 
What part did technology play in this?
The recent lockdown has meant that working from home became mandatory for a period and this really advanced everyone’s ability to utilise technology such as video conferencing and webinars to work remotely. This in a way has proven concept and has highlighted that large out-of-town HQ offices will become less of a necessity. This will see the rise of more localised smaller offices becoming popular for staff and more accessible. This will mean that the demand for high street retail to be converted to office use will increase and we will see more workers on the high street. This in turn will lead to improved levels of footfall returning to the high street and the offspring should be a revived requirement for retail close by.      

2. Click and collect – last mile industrial units

The click and collect format of shopping is pushing the consumer towards leaving their home and returning to the high street, albeit with the goal of collecting their ordered products. This presents a key opportunity for the high street to capture the customer on their journey and offer them an experience which may tempt further spending. This involves inside the store as consumers are collecting their order with products on display that may tempt them to purchase. Also, the surrounding streetscape has a chance to attract these customers collecting their products. 
 
What part did technology play in this?
For click and collect to be efficient, industrial units are required to be in close vicinity to collection points to ensure products are available swiftly. Historically industrial units have been out-of-town situated by major roads and junctions. This has changed and industrial units are now needing to be closer to residential areas and the high street. These locations are often far more space restricted and present challenges for the configuration of industrial units. Improvements in technology have meant that we are now seeing industrial units over multiple stories, with improved loading bays and with better distribution capabilities. This is in order to adapt to the requirements of the space restricted and time efficient requirement of the modern era. 

3. Permitted development rights – retail to residential

Permitted Development Rights (PDR) have been in place for a while for office buildings and this has seen an abundance of new residential come to the market. PDR is a form of implied consent allowing conversion without planning permission being necessary. These rights are soon to be extended to retail units meaning that they can be converted to residential without the need for a planning approval process. We will see the return of residential on the high street as property developers look to utilise this relaxing of the planning laws.
 
What part did technology play in this?
The improvement in infrastructure and travel has meant that travel times are reducing. This has meant that we are seeing a surge of people moving out of the larger cities to more suburban locations which have good access into the cities. This will mean demand for residential on more local high streets will increase and the new PDR will give developers the perfect opportunity to meet this demand. This is exemplified by the new Elizabeth Line which is utilising the latest technology of train travel. This has seen people move out of London to areas on the route such as Reading and Slough as they look to take advantage of cheaper residential and improving travel times. 
 
The above have already seen a very positive shift in the real estate landscape towards repositioning the high street and utilising the built form that is currently there. These measures, among others, should see some life brought back to the high street and ,whilst the high street might look very different, the streets should be busy once again.

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