Up to 40% of shops will need to be reinvented into anything from go-kart tracks to food markets over the next five years or “wither on the vine” as demand for physical retail wanes, local leaders have claimed.
The need to repurpose retail space was named as the biggest concern for local authorities, landlords, developers and other town centre management professionals as part of a survey by their trade body Revo and the consultancy Lambert Smith Hampton (LSH).
The research showed 61% of those surveyed believed that between 20% and 40% of retail space needs to be reinvented in the next five years for leisure, hospitality, health or civic use, with 12% of those surveyed claiming even more space than that will need to be repurposed.
The issue stood above worries about inflation and a recession, the business rates burden and competition between physical stores and online shopping.
“There is a danger that if our towns don’t transform then some will wither on the vine before the decade is out,” said Vivienne King, the chief executive of Revo.
Steve Norris, head of regeneration and planning at LSH, said: “This shows the scale of the challenge town centres are facing and the radical surgery required.”
However, Norris said it was not “all doom and gloom for town centres” as “we are entering into one of the most exciting and creative periods in their long history as it is not just about retail any more. It could be a town centre renaissance”.
At a conference in London on Wednesday, attenders talked about bringing homes, offices, food and drink venues, entertainment and markets into space no longer required for shops.
Green space and more attractive spaces where local people can spend time – without feeling the need to spend money – were also seen as an important part of reviving places that have taken a battering from the rise of online shopping, the Covid pandemic and the cost of living crisis.
The disappearance of large store chains – including Debenhams, BHS, Topshop – and closure of important city centre sites by House of Fraser, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis have left many local authorities with space that is difficult to fill with more retail.
Department stores are being reinvented as student lecture halls, hotels, shared offices, go-kart tracks, indoor food markets and even a submarine engineers’ training facility in a bid to bring new life on to high streets and shopping malls.
However, half of local authorities who took part in the survey said they had scaled back or put on hold their plans until the economy improved and 2% said they had abandoned them completely. A fifth of private companies questioned said their development plans were on hold, just over a fifth said they had scaled back while 3% they had ditched a project.
According to analysts at the Local Data Company, redevelopment reached a new high, with 10,739 units repurposed in 2022, compared with 9,139 in 2021 and 7,307 in 2019 before the pandemic. About 15% of UK retail sites lay vacant last year.
LDC found that a fifth of Debenhams stores, which were closed in 2021 after the department store went into administration, have been repurposed while almost half – 48.5% – remain empty.