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Special report:The high street dilemma for Brighton and Hove
2:00pm Saturday 10th August 2013 in News
A cabinet minister believes thousands of shops should be turned into houses and flats after the Government decided some traditional high streets are no longer viable.
The proposal, put forward by the planning minister Nick Boles, claims local authorities such as Brighton and Hove City Council should give up trying to revive businesses outside of the city centre and turn failing shops into affordable housing.
In a policy that could transform the city, central government wants councils to focus on just one or two prime streets, effectively spelling the end of shop parades such as on Elm Grove.
If successful, it would mean a relaxation in the planning application process would make converting shops into terraced housing easier and quicker.
But some local shop owners have hit back by rubbishing the policy.
Michael Caston, 63, owner and hairdresser at Headlines, said: “I think it’s a bad idea.
“I have been here for 28 years and I think Lewes Road and London Road are dying, there is a future for parades like this.
“Supermarkets are taking over, but lots of people don’t want that.
“When people go shopping they want a conversation and that’s an art that is dying within supermarkets.
“I feel sorry for the local people.
“The Greens make it almost impossible for people to park in town, whereas here parking is free.
“Over the years we have lost too many shops and I think about seven here have already turned into houses.
“I don’t want Hanover to become a ghetto town, it’s a community around here, and that includes the shops.”
Ministers, already facing a backlash from opposition, believe the policy would also free up areas of the city that would otherwise be developed for housing.
Nick Boles said: “People’s shopping habits are changing very fast as a result of the rise in internet shopping and changes in lifestyles and working patterns.
“We need to think creatively about how to help town centres thrive in this new era.
‘Relaxed approach’ “We want to encourage local councils to concentrate retail activity into the prime shopping streets in the heart of their own town centres and adopt a more relaxed approach to underused retail frontages.”
By taking away small convenience stores, the city’s population would be bottlenecked into specific areas to do their shopping, something Mr Caston feels is wrong.
He said: “You’re taking away the community feel and local people support smaller businesses.
“Lots of people don’t want to go into town to do their shopping, especially those with walking difficulties.
“They will have to get in a car and drive to the shops and people just don’t want that, they want convenience and a good service.”
But ministers argue it’s unrealistic to revive areas such as Elm Grove, which currently is home to two unused commercial properties.
They believe fewer people will use the traditional high street to buy basics, something local newsagent owner Ali Soyl, 46, thinks would kill his industry.
Zewa Hamy, 28, who works at Mr Soyl’s Elm Grove Off Licence and Newsagent said: “There are not many properties in Brighton and that makes it so hard for you as a guarantor and as a business.
“Turning a shop that’s shut downinto a house is better than a property boarded up.
“The shops around here used to do really well, but not anymore, there’s only one or two that are.
“I think if a big supermarket like a Tesco, Asda or Sainsbury’s were to open in this area, all the shops would be closed down and turned into houses.”
The problem isn’t isolated to Brighton and Hove, as other towns and villages around Sussex are feeling the sting of boarded-up shops.
Worthing is just one of many areas to have high streets polluted with empty shops, and Sharon Clarke, manager of Worthing’s Town Centre Initiative, thinks it might be time for some fresh ideas, but believes in a future for the high street.
She said: “There needs to be a scope to change and the use of the empty shops must be managed properly – the high street must flow.
“In Worthing 9.6 per cent of buildings are empty.
“Business rates are high, new businesses struggle and this sparks a fear of setting up new businesses.
“At the moment there is little support for new businesses.
“Internet shopping has an effect but there is still a need for high street stores – it’s a poor time for the high street, but we need to look at convenience or possibly later opening times for shops.”
Last week English retail expert Mary Portas conceded that high streets would have fewer traditional shops in the future but warned against simply letting all disused stores become homes.
She said: “People still do want their high street as a community place, a meeting place.
“If we lose that, it is going to be one of the greatest social crimes in our country.
“I believe we need to look at alternative ways of using them and part of this will have to be other things apart from retail – schools, health, well-being centre, meeting places to give the social infrastructure of communities.”
“My concern is that the local councils will just go for the easy option of ‘let’s turn it back to housing’ and that mustn’t happen.”
Worthing Chamber of Commerce has echoed her beliefs, suggesting housing shouldn’t be the only alternative to flopped shops.
A spokeswoman said: “Small premises that have survived through the recession should be supported.
“Each case should be looked at in its own value and community use should be looked at and taken into consideration.
“Residential homes set up within a town centre would be a good idea if it was appropriate and needed, but not in a centre of a parade of shops.”
It is widely accepted that something needs to be done in order to combat the problem of empty shops, but the way in which to do so is dividing the population.
Worthing’s Dan Thompson, a self-styled expert on the reuse of empty shops and author of Pop up Business for Dummies, said: “88 million square feet is taken up by new shops throughout towns.
“But what we need to do is find alternative uses for the empty shops.
“Town centre shops have spilled and you can walk from Brighton to Hove without any interruptions – there’s a constant stream of shops.
“Added to that, housing within town centres is too expensive.”
‘Internet has cost us half our business’
Robert Warr, 58, is the owner of Elm Grove Vacuum Centre He said: “I think it’s a good idea.
“The business has been here for 25 years. There has been a decrease in customers within the past nine months due to parking issues.
“There are too many shops – some have been empty for several years.
“As far as business goes, we’re probably 50 per cent down because of the Internet.
“It’s quite rude really. People come in and have a look at products and ask me about them and how much they are, but then go on their smartphones and tell me they are cheaper online.
“So I just turn around and tell them to go and buy them online.
“I think local shops, like convenience stores, are going to die out in the next ten years.
“I’d imagine small parades like these will get hit the hardest.
“If the shops are failing, then I’d like them to go back into housing because we need the houses in the city – I think it’s a really good idea.”
‘Asking price for letting is just too much’
Andy Baggs, 46, is the owner of organic and natural market Hilly Lane.
He said: “I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea.
“I’ve been trading in the area for four years from my stall and it took me a while to find somewhere more permanent.
“What I found was that when properties became available the asking price for letting as a shop was just too much.
“Nobody takes the properties on and then they can say after a period of time that it’s just not working as a commercial property – let’s turn it into a house.
“The problem is it’s getting more and more expensive to set up shops. At the moment I am not paying rates, but if that was to change I would be paying about £1,000 a year.
“We’re a nation obsessed by our cars, but fuel isn’t going to be around forever and we can’t all have electric cars, so eventually I think it will come full circle.
“That might be in 50 years, so whether there are any properties left by that stage, who knows.
“I don’t like to see shops boarded up, but once they are turned into houses it’s very hard for them to go back into shops.”
Current planning regulations make it difficult to convert shops into homes.
Under the new system, which is subject to consultation, local authorities will be asked to decide which streets, or stretches of street, should be considered ‘prime retail frontage’.
Properties in these areas must all be shops but the presumption will be that shops outside the zone can become housing.
The properties outside the ‘prime retail frontage’ zone will not be subject to the rigorous planning process currently in place, meaning a quicker and easier route to convert a shop into a home.
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