High Street Take Over: Labour calls for power to transform empty shops

March 13, 2021

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2 min read

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What's going on here?

The Labour Party has made proposals to allow councils to take over empty shops from landlords in an attempt to revive the high street.

What does this mean?

High streets have had it hard following restrictions on businesses due to COVID-19 combined with a shift in consumer preferences towards online retail. Up to 180,000 retail jobs have been lost since the start of the pandemic and the collapse of high street staples such as Topshop and Debenhams have meant the number of empty shops in the UK is at its highest level in 6 years. Nearly 11% of all retail units were unoccupied in September 2020.

 As a result, Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds has set out Labour’s new proposal to allow councils to take over these empty shops. The “empty shops order” would give councils power to step in when shops have been unoccupied for 12 months. Councils would first work with the owner of the property and help them source tenants for their unused retail space. If this is unsuccessful, councils would then be able to “secure management rights” to rent out the property without the consent of the owner. Councils could complete improvements on properties and source businesses to occupy the spaces. Rent from tenants would then be given back to the landowner.

What's the big picture effect?

In her speech at the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity, Dodds emphasised the necessity of reinvesting in the high street.  She explained that “Britain’s high streets are at the heart of local communities”, saying the proposal will allow “a diverse range of new services on the high street”. By transforming empty retail units, councils could offer hope not only to local businesses but also landlords, many of whom have been without rental income since the start of the pandemic. 

However, the second phase of the plan, allowing councils to rent out without consent has been met with some concerns. Under these arrangements, councils may accept lower rent from tenants, with losses ultimately felt by landlords.

 This proposal adds to the current debate over how to boost local economies, best use empty retail spaces and revive Britain’s dwindling high streets. The current Conservative government has taken a different approach to these problems. In July 2020, it passed laws allowing empty retail spaces to be turned into housing without planning permission (pubs, libraries and essential spaces were exempt). In her recent speech, Dodds criticised these laws and called for them to be overturned. She believes “a mass sell-off of our high streets” is a “catastrophic” idea. There is a fine balance between prioritising the economic desires of landlords and nurturing local high streets. Whilst there is an undeniable need for affordable housing, there is concern that allowing retail spaces to be converted without permission will only cement the demise of high street retail.

Report written by Amber Allen

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