The future of the high street, we are told, is to build more homes on it. You can see the argument. Even before coronavirus, many big retailers were struggling to make rent as people increasingly turned to online shopping. Shop vacancies were rising and commercial landlords, many of them overloaded with debt and watching their share prices tumble, were wondering what to do next. The pandemic has merely hastened the demise of a failing model.
Meanwhile, there is the housing crisis. Put two and two together and you get the government’s move to relax planning regulations so that shops can easily be turned into homes. John Lewis is the first mover, announcing last week that it is planning to turn some of its excess shop space into “affordable housing”. It won’t be the last. At first glance, this all seems fine. Clearly we need fewer shops and more homes. So what’s the problem?
It starts with what we think the high street actually is. Many use the term as shorthand for retail, given that sector’s dominance over our town centres in the past century or so. But a high street is not a sector, it’s a place – and not just any old place. Saturated in history, it is the guardian of a town or city’s identity. It gives us a space to connect with each other, and to nourish our idea of home. In short, a high street is deeply meaningful. If it becomes just another place to live, then our towns and cities will be drained of that meaning.
There is clearly a place for more homes on the high street, if that is what people want and if the type of housing meets their actual needs. No doubt some commercial landlords (and perhaps John Lewis will be one of them) will be highly sensitive to these requirements and build just the right type of housing. Other developers, such as Grosvenor and U+I, are making serious efforts to build relationships with the communities where they work. It is wrong to dismiss any owner or developer of land as problematic by default.
The problem is that a massive relaxation of planning regulations puts the fate of our towns and cities entirely in the hands of these landlords. For every sensitive developer engaging with communities in good faith, there will be plenty who simply want to maximise profit. That could mean many of our high streets become meaningless places crammed with substandard homes. Certainly all the evidence shows that giving landlords permitted development rights leads directly to poor-quality housing.
The planning system is many things, but above all it is a democratic promise. It is a guarantee that places will not simply develop according to the interests of whoever owns the land, but will also be shaped by public interest. To build, you need public consent.
The government hasn’t just made it easier to turn shops into homes: it has effectively greenlit any demolition of vacant property as long as homes are built in its place. It has also allowed homeowners to build two extra storeys without seeking permission. In other words, it has kneecapped the planning system, and broken the democratic promise it offers. It did all this the day before parliament broke up for the summer, introducing secondary legislation which is difficult to overturn. And these are just the first steps: later in the year it will be announcing a full reform of the planning system with the intention of making it easier to build. Few are hopeful that this will protect the public’s ability to influence what gets built.
As EP Thompson wrote: “Liberty of conscience was the one great value which the common people had preserved from the Commonwealth. The countryside was ruled by the gentry, the towns by corrupt corporations, the nation by the corruptest corporation of all: but the chapel, the tavern and the home were their own.”
The chapel, the tavern and the home: these represent three potential uses of the future high street. As retail recedes, there could be space for more entertainment and experience in the form of pubs, cafes and community centres – whether places of religious or civic congregation – and yes, more homes. These are things which people believe, in some instinctive sense, they jointly own. Now we are in danger of losing what control we still have in fostering these elements of our common life.
A great deal of democratic energy is channelled by the planning system. If that system is undermined, the energy will not disappear. It will simply be redirected, either through the ballot box or through local flare-ups that blow back on the government. This is a political operation convinced of its ability to hear the voice of the people. Perhaps it needs to listen a little more closely.