Reimagining empty retail space

The built environment consists of more than just bricks and mortar. The spaces and places that form the world around us have a profound impact on the communities and individuals who interact with them. Buildings come to represent far more than the sum of their parts when we take into account the effect their use – or lack of use – has on community cohesion, the generation of social value, employment, social mobility and wellbeing.

Space that is no longer fit for purpose has a materially adverse effect on society. Empty or abandoned buildings are a hyper-local indicator of economic distress.

This is an acute problem for many communities today; JLL research estimates that there is a 25% oversupply of retail space in the UK. This oversupply means that there is a growing amount of space that is no longer required by retailers and is increasingly becoming empty for long periods of time. The Guardian recently reported that about 16 stores closed their doors every day in the first half of 2019 while only nine opened, resulting in a net decline of 1,234 chain stores on Britain’s top 500 high streets.

Much has been written about the future of the retail sector – from the taxation of online transactions to the adoption of technology in stores – but there has been less discussion to date around the real estate which now lies empty as the shifts in the sector become more tangible.

This report aims to highlight the benefits of repurposing this space, using best-in-class examples from around the world to showcase the art of the possible. It seeks to demonstrate that if all stakeholders – from developers, to planners, to communities – approach the repurposing of space with a truly aspirational mindset, then places which are currently redundant can be transformed to empower communities, turbo-charge local economies and generate meaningful social value.

This vision for the future of retail space can be applied to the UK. The Government has developed policies to drive the growth of town centres and has pledged to consult on planning reform to make it easier to create more homes, jobs and choice in town centres. The liberalisation of planning policy to enable greater flexibility in the change of use from retail to other purposes provides planners with the opportunity to reimagine their local communities in ways that have previously been challenging.

Our aim is to inspire planning officers and local decision makers to collaborate with developers to create dynamic new places, inspired by international models, to unlock social and economic capital. We hope that this report can also serve as a launchpad for educating a range of policymakers in how better to create change within the scope of existing legislation. The current oversupply of space provides an opportunity to create a future that places connected communities at the heart of the built environment for decades to come.