The Government has recently completed consultation to change the use of a shop and a bank/building society or other financial or professional service into a residential use without the need for planning permission.

So you probably think ‘ok and what of it’, as you have seen plenty of local shops remain empty for an eternity or shops in smaller local shopping ranks already converted into homes. But this is a really important issue for our neighbourhoods.

It means that the Government, in pursuit of their drive to increase the number of houses and allow property owners to “make the best possible use of their property assets”, is willing to sacrifice the vitality and viability of local shopping centres and consequently our neighbourhoods by reducing the number of shops available to buy, rent and use and the services that they can and could provide. It seems bonkers that as we are being encouraged to live more sustainably, by using our cars less and relying on easily accessible local services, the Government could be actively encouraging local shops and services to disappear.

Ok so all is not great in the retail sector and there are empty shops in our neighbourhoods. This isn’t the fault of the Government, there are many reasons why landlords sit on empty properties and yep the current economic climate hasn’t helped. But should this change be formalised it will fundamentally undermine the Council’s ability to protect local shops, it will weaken the ability to strengthen our local shopping areas and enable people to fulfil dreams of running their own retail business and providing local services – whatever they may be.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. The Government has yet to confirm this. However, it is likely that it will and if it happens there may well be a requirement for a ’prior approval’ process, which will allow the Council to assess the economic impact of the loss of the shop, the impact on the character of the area, the acceptability of the change in its appearance and whether or not essential services are maintained.

So this is a bit of a rallying cry (as we are supposed to be a nation of shopkeepers!), once shops become homes and shopping ranks fragment or disappear it will be virtually impossible to return them to their retail use. So what should we do? Well for starters:

  • Support and use our local shops to demonstrate that they are economically viable, important and have a future;
  • Strong traders associations are vital. These can assess the level of provision in an area, confirm why local shops are important in terms of securing the viability of an area and its shopping facilities and protecting amenities. They can lead on consultation responses, object to applications or prior approval applications that will jeapordise ranks of shops and galvanise local support for our shop;
  • Shops need to provide a customer orientated, flexible shopping experience that encourages use;
  • Find out who owns vacant shops and lobby them to understand why they’re vacant and work with them to encourage the re-use of empty shops; and
  • Provide the Council with support to ensure they understand the importance of local shops and work with them to ensure strong local planning policies to support local shopping centres.

Not an exhaustive list but a start. Let me know your thoughts…