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Gloucestershire Business News

Filling the gap in the high street - David Jones, Evans Jones

By David Jones, managing director at Evans Jones 

It was devastating - although certainly not surprising - news to hear Debenhams, a mainstay of UK retail since 1778, will disappear from our high streets.

When I last wrote about the future of the high street in September, it was to reflect on the possible impact of the pandemic.

Four months on, the evidence is all around us.

A recent report by property agent Savills said the UK has 142 million square feet of vacant retail space, equivalent to 12.6 per cent of all retail units, and this is likely to be an underestimation as many retailers closed due to lockdown may sadly not reopen once restrictions are lifted.

The impact on the high street is nothing short of devastating.

Debenhams announced earlier this month that six of its sites would not reopen after lockdown.

The remaining 118 branches are set to reopen once lockdown eases to clear stock before closing permanently.

The closures will increase the pressure on landlords with vast empty retail spaces to fill, as well as councils who find themselves with large holes in their town centres where department stores such as Debenhams and House of Fraser were once the beating heart.

British Property Federation chief executive Melanie Leech said: "This leaves a huge gap in our town centres and significant investment from the commercial property sector will be required to fill it."

Gloucester is a prime example with Debenhams (and, for those old enough to remember, the Bon Marché before) occupying a key position on one whole side of King's Square where the store has occupied the four-storey building for nearly 50 years.

So what can be done to replace the loss of Debenhams and other major high street retailers to centres like Gloucester?

In my view, it requires all the key stakeholders to work together to develop a recovery strategy.

A multi-pronged approach has to include measures such as easing planning constraints, mortgage reform, business rate reform, taxation reform as well as landlord investment and grant funding to kickstart redevelopment schemes.

While some landlords in prime city centre locations may be able to line up new occupiers, once lockdown lifts, there will be others that find themselves with limited new occupier interest.

For large multi-storey retail premises it is inconceivable any single tenant would re-let a department store in its entirety - if landlords are lucky they may secure some ground floor interest, leaving upper floors dormant.

With retail uses above ground floor level generally no longer viable, we need to create new uses for the upper floors fulfilling a wide variety of different purposes, including a blend of uses such as residential, community uses, arts, office, leisure, entertainment, care, higher education or food and beverage.

This will facilitate places to work, live, learn and play in town centres, bringing increased footfall to revitalise our town centres, putting people at the heart of the solution and giving town centres a beating heart once again.

It is not all about buildings, but also the public realm - creating safe, well-designed, inviting places, attracting people and providing an environment which attracts people and encourages people to linger.

The ambitious plans for King's Square and the King's Quarter will help to provide a high-quality public realm which we can all hope acts as a catalyst for future investment in the city.

David Jones is managing director and head of planning at property and planning consultancy Evans Jones Ltd, based in Cheltenham with offices in London and Reading. Find out more at evansjones.co.uk or call 0800 001 4090.

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