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Harris Lamb calls for realistic approach to retail to residential conversion as retail vacancy rates reach four-year high

Patrick Downes

With figures released by the British Retail Consortium having shown that town centre vacancy rates have hit a four-year high, Harris Lamb is calling for Local Planning Authorities to take a proactive approach to dealing with the problem.

While vacancy rates hit 10 per cent in April – the highest since April 2015, the number of retail properties approved for conversion to residential property has also plummeted, thereby failing to utilise an opportunity to bring long-term empty units into residential use.

A contributing factor to the fall in conversions is the restrictions being imposed by certain local authorities which prevent developers from using Permitted Development Rights (PDR); the process allowing developers to convert commercial property for residential use without a full planning application. Introduced in 2013 to incentivise developers to convert disused commercial property into housing, the system aimed to reduce the shortfall in new homes built.

However, now that certain local authorities have begun to restrict use of PDR for converting shops to housing in the hope that the market will rebound, the Government looks increasingly unlikely to meet its target of building 300,000 new homes a year in England.

Patrick Downes, Head of Planning at Harris Lamb believes that the latest figure regarding High Street vacancies, coupled with the need to provide more housing, demonstrates that Local Planning Authorities need to take a realistic view of the future of tertiary retail locations.

“There are real opportunities right now for specialist developers to revitalise such locations with appropriate commercial, residential and mixed-use schemes, and they are not being maximised,” he said.

“Whilst these may not be necessarily retail-led, they can still provide excellent opportunities for other commercial uses and residential accommodation.

“Allowing existing retail units to be converted into other appropriate town centre uses will not only help to revitalise existing floor space, but would be entirely consistent with the Government’s requirement in the Framework to make the best use of previously developed land and will also help to boost the development and construction activity,” added Patrick.